Behind This Exuberant Dance Number? Planning, Precision And Practice Choreographer Mandy Moore was lying underneath a car on the LA freeway, counting and calling out steps, throughout the 47 takes it took to shoot La La Land's fun-filled opening scene.
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Behind This Exuberant Dance Number? Planning, Precision And Practice

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Behind This Exuberant Dance Number? Planning, Precision And Practice

Behind This Exuberant Dance Number? Planning, Precision And Practice

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The news here in California happens to be the Oscars, Rachel. They are Sunday. The film to beat is Hollywood's love letter to itself, "La La Land," which has 14 nominations.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah, it is a musical for the 21st century. There's tapping, waltzing, fox-trotting. And it's a salute to some 20th-century classics, really. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg asked the choreographer about setting the contemporary feet dancing.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: No Oscars for choreography, but the woman who did "La La Land's" opening number deserves one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Another hot, sunny day today here in Southern California...

STAMBERG: Los Angeles, blue skies, bright sunshine, freeway country. So on the ramp where the 105 meets the 110, a traffic jam. Frustrated drivers sitting, sitting - all of a sudden, they leave their cars and start to sing...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As character, singing) Behind these hills, I'm reaching for the heights...

STAMBERG: ...And dance...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) ...And chasing all the lights that shine.

STAMBERG: ...On top of cars, onto trucks - hopping, jumping, somersaulting, skateboarding, biking even - waving their arms. And under one of the cars - you can't see her, but she was there for all three minutes and 48 seconds of the number - choreographer Mandy Moore. Not the singer-actress - this is another Mandy Moore.

MANDY MOORE: Underneath the car, screaming out counts - it was really fun.

STAMBERG: Thirty professional dancers, 100-plus extras, 100-plus cars total, 104-degree temperature and Mandy Moore's under a car yelling...

MOORE: B34, make sure that you go over the right side of your car, not the left side of your car. Turn on count four, not do your kick ball change or whatever it is.

STAMBERG: They rehearsed forever. First, in a parking lot, later at 3 a.m. on the actual freeway. Before that, on paper, Mandy and director Damien Chazelle drew X's and squares with arrows for where the cameras would go. Then came a model ramp studded with little Hot Wheels car. Showtime - shut down the freeway ramp for two days of shooting.

And how many takes did you say?

MOORE: I think traffic we did 47 takes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) It's another day of sun.

STAMBERG: Opening number ends, movie title appears.

MOORE: I've seen it in the theater many times now, and it still gets me that, you know, as soon as it says "La La Land" and it, like, stops on that beat, people just clap. I've just never been in a movie where they do that.

STAMBERG: This is Mandy's fourth movie. She's been choreographing for 12 years, mostly TV - "Dancing With The Stars," "So You Think You Can Dance." Growing up in Breckenridge, Colo., she fell in love with the great old movie musicals.

MOORE: "Singin' In The Rain," "An American In Paris," "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers," anything that had dance.

STAMBERG: She started out as a dancer.

MOORE: My mom said that I was always dancing around when I was a little kid. You know, I'd put on performances for my family. I'd make them all sit down and watch. And she put me in dance at 8. And from that point on, I just - I'd never wanted to be anywhere else.

STAMBERG: Mandy Moore met us in LA's Griffith Park, where several scenes were shot. She's 40, with long blond hair, green eyes and hands that dance when she talks. Also, the generous patience of a good teacher. Her students were two non-dancers, the stars. In two months, they studied singing, piano - Gosling plays a jazz musician - and dancing. Ryan Gosling had never studied dance.

MOORE: He said, yes, I have rhythm. I know how to perform, but, no, I'm not, like, good. So he basically was like, let's start tomorrow.

STAMBERG: But he looks comfortable in his body. Emma Stone does not always.

MOORE: They're different bodies. They also approach dance very differently. She likes to get the movement immediately. She's like a little machine. She gets it exactly right, where Ryan was very, very different. He would take a long time to get the step. I had to go over and over it with him.

STAMBERG: Sometimes he looks as if he's counting, but he dances gracefully in character. Gosling and Stone have a they-don't-like-each-other-then-they-fall-in-love duet on a hill in Griffith Park. It's sunset. They're on a bench overlooking LA's evening lights. She swaps her heels for flats. Next thing you know, he's tapping, then walks away. She gets up, follows him, and they're dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP HAT")

FRED ASTAIRE: (As Jerry Travers, singing) Isn't this a lovely day to be caught in the rain?

STAMBERG: Mandy Moore borrows some steps from this classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routine from the 1935 film "Top Hat" - dispute, distain, a song, the dance. In those days of Hollywood censorship, dances were the love scenes. In "La La Land," land some still are. The six-and-a-half minute Griffith Park duet was filmed under what you might call pressure.

MOORE: Damien, the director, wanted this all to be in a single take.

STAMBERG: One camera, no edits. And because there was no money to fix colors by computer in post-production and the director wanted the sunset colors to be just right, they had only what they call the magic hour in which to shoot.

MOORE: The magic hour allowed us to have about five takes. And usually take number one was too light, take number five was too dark. So they basically had three chances to hit this thing. And we shot it for two nights. So they had six chances to make this happen on an incline, on asphalt, not being dancers. I mean, it's incredible to think what they did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: Watching her stars' natural movements, basing her dances on those movements and shaping them toward grace and fluidity, choreographer Mandy Moore helped fashion a Technicolor musical for today. In La La Land, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

Mandy Moore, this is - may be the greatest challenge of your life. I'd like you to teach me a step.

MOORE: Oh, yes, I would love that.

STAMBERG: Now, you have to know I'm a hundred years old, and I have two bad hips, and my feet ain't great, either. Let's go.

MOORE: So let's bring our feet together. And then you're going to start with your heels to the right. Then you're going to go toes to the right. You're going to go heels to the right. Look at you, you're doing the Mia and Sebastian.

STAMBERG: I'm dancing.

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