Colorado choreographer finds her bliss in 'La La Land'

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Mandy Moore knew she wanted to choreograph the new movie musical La La Land when she read the first page of the script, which calls for dozens of commuters on a jammed California freeway to abandon their cars and break into an improbably joyful dance sequence that turns a miserable Los Angeles rush hour into a total rush of adrenaline.

“I saw it play out completely in my mind as I read it, and I just knew this was the best number to open a movie musical … ever,” Moore said this morning on her way to Denver for tonight’s red-carpet screening that will open the 39th Denver International Film Festival.

The unapologetically sweet song-and-dance romance written and directed by Oscar nominee Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) opens in a far away La La land where Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are not (yet) two of the biggest stars on the planet. They play artists struggling to both break through and find love in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. It is an ebullient, modern-day fantasy that nationally renowned film critic Lisa Kennedy describes as “a brazenly tender homage to Hollywood and its musicals.” It opens in general release on Dec. 9.

Moore, who graduated from Summit High School and has four Emmy Award nominations for her work on Fox TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, previously choreographed the dance sequences in the Jennifer Lawrence-Bradley Cooper romance Silver Linings Playbook. But La La Land is a full-fledged, original movie musical that is at once contemporary and a throwback to the golden era of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Moore was asked to stage dance sequences around a swimming pool (in the snow), in a crowded bedroom, on a pier and even in mid-air. But the scene that could take its place in cinematic history is the one that opens the story on the log-jammed 110. The camera starts on a carefree young woman leaving her traffic-trapped car behind to sing a “It’s Another Day of Sun.” The 6-minute number involved 30 principal dancers and at least 60 cars. And it sets an intentional tone: No matter how dark and difficult L.A. can be, Moore and composer Justin Horwitz make it plain that Hollywood is still the most magical place on earth. And an adorable middle finger from Stone at the end of the song only manages to somehow make it even sweeter.

Ryan Gosling stars as 'Sebastian' in La La Land. Photo Credit: Dale RobinetteWhile the filmmakers will have audiences convinced this spectacular scene was captured all in one long camera shot, the process actually took a week of rehearsal on a nearby parking lot, followed by a full weekend of filming on California’s actual 110 Highway.

“We created a model of the entire scene in our office,” Moore said. “We have this big, long table, and we used Post-It notes to show which cars we were going to dance on, and which ones we weren’t. It showed who was going to get up on each car, and when. But from that model, all the different departments could get a bird’s-eye view and really understand what was happening – and where and when. About a week before we shot the scene, we were able to close down the actual freeway from midnight to noon for a proper rehearsal with all of the cars and dancers. Then we added the camera in, and that was a whole other science project unto itself. But then, the next weekend, we shot everything. Those dancers were out on that freeway for two full days.”

(Pictured above right: Ryan Gosling in the opening number of ‘La La Land.’  Photo by Dale Robinette.)

Spotlight on Colorado at the Denver International Film Festival

The resulting film is for dreamers, Moore said. “It’s about two people who are pursuing both their dreams and this relationship they have found themselves in. Aesthetically, the film lives in a world between reality and fantasy. It’s a nod to the beautiful old musicals of yesteryear, but it is very modern as well.”

Moore is part of the mighty Moore family that collectively won a True West Award last year for their ongoing contributions to Colorado theatre. Her parents Wendy and Bob have been involved in more than 160 local productions over the past 40 years. Wendy is an acclaimed director. Bob is an actor who was nominated for a 2015 Henry Award for his work in Lake Dillon Theatre Company’s Freud’s Last Session. Mandy’s sister, Missy, won the 2016 Outstanding Actress Henry Award for her work in The Edge Theatre’s prison drama Getting Out. Mandy last worked in Denver in 2011 when she directed The Wedding Singer for the Aurora Fox, with her sister as assistant director.

All four Moores are expected to be in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House audience tonight to watch Mandy’s film open the Denver International Film Festival.

“I think my entire family is going to freak,” Mandy said. “My mom cries just by talking about it. But this night is for all of us. My family have been the biggest supporters of my work and my career since Day 1. I really, truly believe I would not be anywhere without them. I’m a Colorado kid, so to able to experience this with them tonight will be magic.”

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND. Photo credit: Dale RobinetteSebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in ‘La La Land.’ Photo credit: Dale Robinette.

Here is more of Mandy Moore’s conversation with DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore (no relation):

John Moore: Surely your work on Silver Linings Playbook helped, but how did this particular job come about?

Mandy Moore: When I met with Damien Chazelle and the producers Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, we just hit it off. They asked what my approach might be. But mostly we just kind of geeked out about our love of musicals and dance. It was awesome. But then after the meeting, they asked me for some references. So I called David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and I said, “Hey, David, would you give me a recommendation, by chance?” And he was sweet enough to do that. So Fred and Jordan called back and said, “Well, if David O. Russell says you can do it – then you can do it.”  

John Moore: And so, what did you tell them your approach would be?

Mandy Moore: When I create, I tend to visualize something in my head immediately. And I knew this was going to be a good fit. For example, they had asked me to come in with some thoughts on the song where the girls are all getting ready to go to a party, but Emma’s character doesn’t want to go. I had three roommates when I moved to L.A., and we would get ready for parties. So I could just see in my head exactly how that scene would go. I told them that I would use very gestural types of movements developing into the dance. I know Damien was very excited about that idea because he felt it should never feel like the movie is stopping for a dance to take place. Instead, everything folds into the dance very organically and beautifully. That’s is something we connected on very early.  

2015 True West Awards: The Mighty Moore family

John Moore: Watching these dances definitely brought me back to the era of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and yet feels it feels distinctly contemporary.

Mandy Moore. DIFF39. LalaLandMandy Moore: That was very deliberate. The one thing that allowed it to seem contemporary and modern is that I am a contemporary, modern choreographer.  I wanted to make sure it didn’t feel like a cardboard cutout of Fred and Ginger, but I was able to find within the movement what I perceived it to feel like now. I also wanted it to feel timeless. I want to watch this film in 20 years and feel like it’s still valid and that it still works. I think ultimately – that is great choreography. Something that can stand the test of time.  

(Pictured above right: Mandy Moore walks the Denver International Film Festival red carpet on Wednesday night. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

John Moore: What was it like working with two of the biggest stars on the planet – on a film, ironically, in which they can’t seem to catch a break?

Mandy Moore: Luckily, both Emma and Ryan are lovely people to the core. They both dove into this film 100 percent. It’s not easy for people of that caliber and star stature to put themselves out there in dance. It’s a really vulnerable thing, and I commend both of them. They put in a lot of hours, we trained together, I coached them, and we created together. I think if it had been a different two people, it may have gone a different way.

Official film trailer:

John Moore: Did you pull back for them at all?

Mandy Moore: Not at all. They always wanted to do more.

John Moore: Can you give me an example of their own creative input?

Mandy Moore: They have a duet scene on a hill that was all about pushing their relationship forward. For the whole first part of the dance, she is looking in her bag and he’s teasing her. He licks his finger and wants to put it on her nose, and she shies away. That’s all them. Then one day, Ryan came into rehearsal and he said, “I feel like he wants to break out in this moment.” So we worked on this moment where he jumps up onto a bench and does this tap phrase. I had him doing something different, but it worked. A lot of those moments we created totally together.  

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John Moore: Were you at all intimidated by the unusual settings your dances were going to have to play out? This is a musical that spends very little time on a stage.

Mandy Moore: I loved that we got to create dances that were unique to each given space. It was so much fun to create. I love having parameters when I create, and I don’t see that as a difficulty.  I like it when people give me pieces, and I have to figure it all out.

John Moore: What do you think a sweet movie musical that stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in is going to do for live musical theatre?  

DIFF Quote Mandy MooreMandy Moore: I hope it inspires people who don’t even like musicals to like musicals. So many people have said to me, “I don’t even like musicals, but I love this movie.” Maybe it will open people’s eyes to the possibility of musicals and of theatre in general, as well as motion, dance and song. I think people sometimes shut off because they just thought they would never like it.

John Moore: You worked with Mia Michaels on So You Think You Can Dance, and she has since choreographed the Broadway musical Finding Neverland. Do you think this all signals a shift into a new era of dance in all pop culture forms?

I agree and I have to thank So You Think You Can Dance, and Dancing with the Stars. It has put we choreographers in a space where mainstream culture recognizes what we do, and knows who we are. Without that kind of exposure, who knows is some of those meetings on these movies ever would have happened?  I don’t know if I would have been asked to come in for this film because I don’t know if they would would have known my work. So I thank those shows for that.

John Moore:  Is it too soon to speculate on how this film is going to change your own career trajectory?

Mandy Moore: I don’t know.  When we were making this thing, I knew that it was special and I knew it was beautiful. But the way people have reacted to it has blown me away.  I thought we were just making this cool little film, and that some people might like it. How it will affect my career? Who knows.  But if people want me to create more dance, I am so down with that.  I am so honored to be a part of this amazing project.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

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