Damien Chazelle’s nostalgic musical La La Land puts its behind-the-scenes artists to full use, creating poetic and fanciful imagery and prompting the question of who the author of a film really is. It’s a topic that’s raged in film since the fifties, with French Nouvelle Vague director François Truffaut writing an article in Cahiers du Cinema, describing the now familiar theory of the auteur. He discusses how ‘poetic realism’ (a film movement that explored realism through lyrical, constructed filmmaking fronted by the likes of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné) had been taken over by ‘psychological realism’ (which emphasises the interior importance of a character rather than the exterior).
Truffaut dismisses the tradition of cinema adapting novels into screenplays in favour of the auteur, a filmmaker who “often writes their own dialogue and in some cases thinks up the stories they direct.” When viewers think of an auteur, they think of Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and other (unfortunately mostly male) directors, who can be recognised from their surname alone. However, most viewers do not think of other creatives: for example cinematographers such as Robert Burks for Hitchcock and Robert D. Yeoman for Anderson, nor the editors, such as Thelma Schoonmaker for Scorsese.
These micro-elements, that consist of editing, lighting and the mise-en-scène, often go unnoticed by most viewers despite their importance in how a film is made and interpreted. And since the word “auteur” is simply French for “author”, the theory places the importance on the pen, or “caméra-stylo” to use Alexandre Astruc’s phrase, of the director. While auteur theory states that the director is the author of a film, for viewers, critics, and filmmakers alike, the theory also proves a valid starting point to allow us to ask: who does a film belong to?
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film about love, dreams and success, has raked in the awards so far. It’s won Best Motion Picture and Best Director at the Golden Globes, Best Film and the David Lean Award for Directing at the BAFTAs, and is the favourite to win for most of its fourteen nominations at the Academy Awards. It’s clear from its nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Original Music Score and Best Costume Design that the other artistic contributions to the film are being recognised. What also remains clear is that the two people most seen – Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling – and the one most written about – Damien Chazelle – receive the highest accolades and attention.
Critics have focused on La La Land’s leading actors, how easy it is to dislike it, and how it is Chazelle’s first film since the tense Oscar-winning Whiplash. Yet two out of three of Whiplash’s Oscar wins were for the creativity of post-production jobs rather than the director, winning for Best Achievement in Editing and Best Achievement in Sound Mixing. And again this year, despite La La Land’s awards and nominations for its technical achievements, the conversation remains structured around Chazelle, Gosling and Stone. In reality, to analyse a film is to analyse all of the work that appears on screen.
The opening scene of La La Land sees the creative achievement of the less known artists fully realised. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography of the first musical number of the film, ‘Another Day of Sun’, transforms an arbitrary Los Angeles highway into a place of possibility. Sandgren’s ability to have the camera act as an omniscient narrator moving between each new rapidly introduced character, yet still keep a sense of familiarity between what’s shown onscreen and the viewer, proves his craft.
This carefully-chosen perspective and the voice of the camera also works dynamically with Tom Cross’ editing, with both elements combining to make the opening song seem like one whole take rather than the three separate ones that they actually are.
What’s more, the cinematography, editing, Mandy Moore’s choreography, and the score and songs by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, coalesce once again in order to foreshadow later scenes of the film as well as set its tone for the viewer. The choreography by Moore dictates how the entire scene, and indeed every dance scene in La La Land, is structured and composed.
It’s then clear why Moore decides to build up ‘Another Day of Sun’ from one person dancing to the entire ensemble, stopping the audience from being overwhelmed by the already indulgent bright colours and costumes.
The lyrics of ‘Another Day of Sun’ foreshadow what is to come in the film, and thus what is written in the script. For example, ‘the dusty mic and neon glow’ physically references the later neon lighting that lights up Stone and Gosling, while ‘the lights are down / He’ll see my face and think of how he / Used to know me’ imagines the last scene of the film between the two actors.
In fact, whole scenes from the film are inspired and taken from the behind-the-scenes work of people like Moore. One example is from the ‘Someone in the Crowd’ scene. Moore describes how in the initial meetings for her role on La La Land she told the producers that the scene felt like ‘I Feel Pretty’ from West Side Story, continuing with her own personal story and vision:
‘We [Moore and her friends] were all dancers, and we would get ready for a night out just like this. I said, “It’d be really cool if — I remember running into my friend’s room, and we’d fall on the bed and laugh, and maybe she’d grab a dress out of the closet and put it on, as if she was trying to fit into it, […] all those ideas are actually in the film.’
It’s clear then that La La Land is a film of collaboration, each department relying on the other in order to tell the story visually rather than through words alone. Wasco, who worked with set dresser Sandy Reynolds-Wasco to create the world of La La Land, confirms this sense of collaboration, describing that to get everything to work together, every department would have to collaborate much more than usual for a film.
One example Reynolds-Wasco gives is between set dresser and costume design, stating that “once we knew the roommates would be wearing costumes in these jewel-tone colors, we decided to make each room correspond with the roommate.” The cinematography and choreography prove another collaboration, this time with Sandgren’s dancing cameras, the choreography dictating how the camera hits its ‘beats’ and the cinematography dictating how the choreography would be told on location.
It’s clear from interviews that Chazelle is aware that the creation of La La Land is not simply down to him as the director and screenwriter, but is instead a collaboration. Chazelle says that “a change in any department, whether it was costumes or the script, or an idea that had just come up in the choreography, would […] ripple down to every other department. […] We had to be constantly realigning while trying to not to lose grip on the overall vision.”
This recognition of the collaborative nature of film is reminiscent of Robin Buss’ introduction to Jean Cocteau’s The Art of Cinema:
“As well as being ahead of his time in realizing the role of the audience in ‘making’ a work of art, he readily acknowledged that cinema is a cooperative venture in which the author-director can only succeed thanks to the efforts of others. Few directors have been as generous in their praise for their assistants, yet there can be few filmographies that so clearly represent the work of an auteur as Cocteau’s.”
Chazelle has worked with composer Justin Hurwitz on each of his films so far, and editor Tom Cross on both Whiplash and La La Land. Since the director is still early in his career, it’s difficult to liken his collaborators to the recurring crew seen in Wes Anderson’s creations. However it will be interesting to see if Chazelle follows in Anderson’s footsteps, as the very thing that makes Anderson an auteur, working with the same people and thus creating a distinctive voice, proves filmmaking is an exercise in trust between artists. La La Land defies Truffaut’s argument of comparing poetic realism with psychological realism.
As with Chazelle’s debut film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and Whiplash, Chazelle and La La Land’s less recognised artists combine the two: the director’s personal, psychological concerns with jazz, and the poetry created onscreen through visual conceits. What makes La La Land successful is what makes filmmaking its own unique art form, separate from those that came before it: the fact that it is a collaboration.