When the most hummable song in your Los Angeles-set movie musical is “City of Stars,” there’s no way you can avoid making a pilgrimage to the world-famous Griffith Observatory. Perched on Mount Hollywood, overlooking the sprawling metropolis below, the Griffith serves as a stage for one of La La Land’s most memorable song-and-dance moments: the first date between jazz aficionado Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone). “It’s a wonderful location,” raves the film’s production designer, David Wasco, whose wife and frequent collaborator, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, worked alongside him as the film’s set decorator. “Our condo looks right out at the Griffith; for many years, the observatory rooftop has been one of our favorite places in the city. And now we get to use it in a movie!” (The two are nominated for Best Production Design and are among the film’s 14 Oscar nominations. We’ll find out if they win on Sunday when the awards are handed out.)
And La La Land’s use of the Griffith complements the mandate that director Damien Chazelle handed down to the Wascos: Take existing L.A. locations and imbue them with a touch of timeless magic. “Damien wanted it to be a mish-mosh [of eras], because that’s how L.A. is,” Wasco tells Yahoo Movies. “You can have a Frank Gehry building right next to a 1920s Spanish bungalow.”
The Griffith sequence is a direct reference to the 1955 James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause, where a key sequence plays out in the shadow of the observatory. In fact, Sebastian and Mia head to the observatory after attending a screening of Rebel that’s cut short by a technical malfunction. (Fun fact for eagle-eyed film buffs: Wasco says that their drive up to the Griffith’s front door deliberately mimics the same shot from Rebel, right down to the camera angle.) It’s early dusk, and the place is uncharacteristically deserted save for the two almost-lovers, who tour the hallways before dancing a waltz that literally lifts them into the stars.
This relatively brief sequence required plenty of intensive preparation. First, the production team had to secure permission to film at the Griffith, a process that entails submitting detailed information about the size and scope of the sequence to observatory officials. “In general, we don’t read scripts,” explains Griffith director E.C. Krupp. “Our primary job is protecting the building. I only recall being aware of the title and the particular date they’d be shooting. So parts of the film were an utter surprise [when I saw it].”
Keeping the Griffith damage-free does, of course, limit the amount of work a production designer and set decorator can do. “We had to work within parameters that were very limiting,” says Wasco. “We brought in some lighting, but for the most part, all the [lights] in the exhibits were existing. And the art department also brought in some things like layouts that looked like they’d be part of the observatory. We were very careful and worked within any limitations.”
Those limitations included using a working Tesla coil that runs for only 30 seconds at a time and requires an hour to recharge, as well as taking advantage of a small window of time during which they had the place to themselves. (Although the sequence appears to take place after hours, it was filmed during the daytime.) “We had to do the Tesla scene really quickly and precisely,” says Reynolds-Wasco. “It was a bit like the freeway dance sequence.” Krupp remembers observing a portion of the one-day shoot. “I marveled at the attention to detail and unexpected turns of the camera. I immediately spoke to the deputy director and said, ‘This film is going to have the same impact for the Griffith as Rebel Without a Cause.’ Of course, nobody thought I knew what the hell I was talking about!”
One steadfast rule at the Griffith is that no productions are allowed inside the actual Samuel Oschin Planetarium, even one as well-behaved as La La Land. And that restriction wound up working out in the film’s favor. “What we noticed about the Griffith planetarium is that it’s been modernized,” says Wasco. “You go through these beautiful bronze doors that are right out of The Wizard of Oz, and then you’re in a modern theater.”
So, inspired by Rebel Without a Cause-era art deco designs, the Wascos built their own planetarium on the same soundstages that housed the sets for the climactic dream ballet. “It was a pretty cool set— it melded right into the architecture of the actual Griffith foyer. We definitely heightened the deco design. We made a starburst floor that was like a terrazzo floor and incorporated a series of lights that wrapped around the area where the walls met the floor,” said Wasco. The couple’s proudest find was the projector that Mia switches on to fill the room with stars. “We found a vintage Minolta projector from the 1950s on eBay, and we put it in the center of the room on a turntable and built the set around it,” he said.
It’s worth noting that the Minolta’s starry projections are all movie magic — the projector didn’t actually work. But then again, Gosling and Stone aren’t really dancing in the night sky either. Instead, the actors were hoisted up on wires to a green screen positioned above the ceilingless set. That’s a moment La La Land fans won’t be able to re-create at the Griffith, but Krupp says he’s already heard that the observatory has been attracting visitors eager to pay tribute to the movie. “There have been a few instances reported where people informally decided to dress up like [Sebastian and Mia] in Griffith Park,” he says. “A film like La La Land makes a huge impact. No matter what happens at the Academy Awards, it’s become an icon of its own.”
Watch Stone and Gosling talk about their musical boot camp: