In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on Feb. 26, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. The nominated writers will break down select pages that were essential to the stories they were telling.
In La La Land, the Technicolor world of the romance between actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) sputters to a stop during what was supposed to be a romantic dinner for two. The moment is a beautifully acted, heartbreaking bit of reality in a movie that celebrates the fantasy of film.
When rewriting the scene, director Damien Chazelle turned to his lead actors for insight into how their characters would approach slow-burning conflict. The thoughts would be incorporated into the script, reworked during extension rehearsal, and then distilled once again onto the page.
Here, Chazelle walks us through how the final product, one of the more realistic romantic arguments in recent memory, came together.
This was one of the scenes that I think I wrote and rewrote and rewrote more than any other in the script. The scene was always there structurally. In earlier drafts, I think it used to get even more explosive toward the end. Then we kind of paired it down into something simplified and made it slightly more under-the-surface in the final version.
Once Ryan and Emma came on board, it went through a whole new set of rewrites because it was one of the scene that we spent the most time rehearsing. Sometimes they would just improvise whole versions of it, and I would transcribe the improvisations, then kind of curate and see what I liked from that and put those into script form. Other times, I would also have separate conversations with each of them about their particular side of the scene and where their character was coming from.
So we had all of that preparation by the time we got on set. Then we got on set, and it’s the only scene in the movie that I shot with two cameras, kind of cross coverage to allow the actors to have a little more flexibility with it and go off-script if they wanted and allow moments to take their course. We would shoot full seven- or 10-minute takes from beginning to end of the scene, from happy romantic banter to the smoke alarm and everything that follows.
The access point of Emma’s character trying to pry Sebastian a little bit about exactly how long he’s going to be in this band. That idea was always there. She wants to know is it a means to an end or the end, but the way that’s done changed through rehearsals. Suddenly it seems to be taking longer than Emma Stone’s character thought, and it seems to be protracting and delaying the opening of the club and she immediately starts to see that, “Oh, I see. This is going to be his way of never starting the club. This one thing will lead to another, will lead to another.” That had to take the burden of the drama.
This is a guy who has been so close-minded about anything that is outside this tiny, narrow window of jazz that he’s obsessed about. That’s a type of behavior that you can criticize, and Mia has criticized it before, but in this moment, she’s actually realizing, “Maybe by critiquing that behavior, I’ve pushed him to become someone he didn’t want to become.” That’s one of the complicated things of the scene, it’s actually a little bit of a recognition of responsibility on Mia’s part, this realization that I might be the reason that you’re not following your dream.
The point of the scene was to strip away everything else that the movie has usually used up until that point to augment things. Here, they’re seated at the table. I wanted to limit the kinds of actions that they even could do. They stay seated. They stay talking to each other. I wanted to make sure the audience felt that, and that means there’s no real action to describe on the page. It’s all in the dialogue and what the actors bring to it.
There’s a certain symmetry to the whole thing starting with him having cooked and prepared this meal and done all this work to create this romantic environment with a record playing and the table decked out with food.
Adding the fire alarm was an attempt to take the scene as far wrong as it could go. He’s prepared a multi-course meal, so he might have a dessert cooking in the kitchen. Bit-by-bit, everyone of those things goes off the rails. The rapport between him and Mia goes off the rails. The record stops playing. Finally, the forgotten dessert in the kitchen just starts to catch fire. You’re physicalizing just how rancid the love between them has become.
There used to be an issue with Sebastian’s door. The door was jamming, just the way everything in his apartment is falling apart. The door was one of those thing. At the height of the argument with the fire alarm blaring and smoke filling the room, he had to help jimmy the door to let her get out of the apartment. You used to kind of wallow in the frenzy and the awkwardness a little more.
It’s a giant apple pie at the end. There’s this one place in L.A. that makes 25-pound apple pies. It was a place that Ryan told me about, and we agreed that it seemed like that would be just the sort of weird touch that Sebastian would insist on adding to this dinner he created for Mia. It couldn’t be too normal of a dinner. He’s not just burning a few apples. He’s burning probably five orchards.