Undoubtedly, award-winning Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren has worked with the best. With a resume comprised of collaborations with David O. Russell (American Hustle, Joy) Lasse Hallström (The Hundred-Foot Journey) and other auteurs, Sandgren found an exciting energy in wunderkind writer/director Damien Chazelle that inspired him to shoot a musical. The recipient of a record-breaking seven Golden Globes, Chazelle’s La La Land also recently received 11 BAFTA nominations and a nomination for the PGA’s Darryl F. Zanuck Award, all but ensuring the film will make a huge imprint at this year’s Oscars.
Make no mistake: The task in mounting La La Land was as grand as the city of Los Angeles itself—as captured by Sandgren, in all its twilight wonder. The visual approach was thoroughly plotted out, resulting in an end product of stunning, lengthy takes, taking the viewer, variously, up and above the freeway, and through the elegantly designed interiors of Mia (Emma Stone)’s apartment. Speaking with Deadline, Sandgren breaks down the challenges of shooting in long, fluid takes, Boogie Night inspirations, and the work that went into creating a world of vivid color.
What was discussed in your first conversations with Damien Chazelle about La La Land?
I met Damien and a read the script in the meeting. The music, which I really fell in love with, was really emotional, and I could really see images in front of me just listening to the music from the script I read. When Damien explained the vision of the film he had, the homage to old Hollywood, and also how he wanted the camera to be involved like a character in the film, I saw great, huge possibilities.
When we started to talk about it, there was a lot of technical challenges with the film where he wanted to achieve things in long, single takes and stuff, but I have experience, from especially commercials, where you do long, technical things for shorter things. I saw both really great challenges and also opportunities with the story and the music. That was very inspiring—I felt like he had a very poetic approach to the project.
Logistically speaking, what does shooting in these long, choreographed takes entail, particularly when it came to the opening freeway scene?
For all the scenes, it was a lot of planning, but also we wanted to leave room for improvising on the day for actors. We always had the spirit of trying to capture things, as much as possible, in single takes or in long takes. Just because that would give the sense throughout the film that the style of the film was reality, whether it was a dream, or a magical situation like a dance number, so that it wouldn’t feel too unfamiliar, what was going on. It would be better to already have established with the audience that this was going to become something that could be magical all over, whether it’s real or not, so that the magic could happen any time.
Me and Damien sat every morning and went through the whole film, from scene one to the last scene, and thought about how we could block them and involve the cameras, the character, and also, where would be the best position for the camera to be involved in the scene. We thought about other scenes and how to box them with single takes. Then some scenes, he wanted coverage, like in the argument scene when they’re sitting, having dinner. That dinner scene, we deliberately had coverage, to be able to cut that scene dramatically between them. Otherwise there was a lot of scenes that Damien wanted to be efficient, have as much as possible in a short amount of time, to be able to move on into a new scene.
In those musical numbers, it was the same thing. Damien had kind of a clear vision about what the choreography of the dancers should be like. He and Mandy [Moore] had worked out how the dancers should express these scenes, and as well, where he felt that the camera should be to see this. When I came along and we started to rehearse this with Mandy and the dancers, like the traffic number, we had cars in a parking lot where we built the freeway scene with the dancers, and then we figured out with iPhones where the camera wanted to be, and we thought it was going to be a steadicam, without having the location yet for a lot of it. The steadicam, jumping up on a crane, which we did a lot in the film…
When we found this location, there was this median in the middle of the lanes and it was a freeway ramp, not just a freeway, or like a street. There was no other access than from one end or the other end. The camera could only be on the freeway, it couldn’t be off to the side of the freeway.
There were limitations out of what we had imagined, where the camera couldn’t just move freely through those things, so we had to start to rearrange our idea, and we started to think about using a crane instead. And then when we used a crane, we couldn’t reach, so we had to put it on a vehicle, blocking it on a parking lot. Damien was the camera and I was the crane position. We could see where the crane had to be, and how we could puzzle around with the cars, the precision drivers, but because there was a crane, for the moves we wanted to do, we actually could do them, but we started to see that we were going to shadow the dancers with the crane. Because we move 360, and back and forth, and in and out, at some point we always were going to shadow the characters, the dancers, if we did it in one long take.
That was our primary reason why we had to divide the scene—break it up—and also, the last part of it had to be steadicam, working up on the crane, because we wanted to move so much zigzagging between cars, where the BMX flies through, and the hula hoop, and the parkour guy, that’s all steadicam.
Damien really wanted to do as much as possible in camera, and I love that, too, always. I feel like that’s much more interesting to watch films where you do everything in camera. To be as honest as possible about it, we thought that the best ways to hide those cuts would be in a whip pan—that is like a classic cut, so it’s actually kind of visible. There was a lot of those kind of technical, logistical obstacles we found.
Also for the Mulholland Drive sort of scene, the duet, that was actually even more technically problematic, because for one, it was completely black road up in Griffith Park that didn’t have any lights or anything, and it’s an S curve right by a dramatic drop-off over Burbank. It’s actually, you know, a slope.
For the dance, it was actually much more tricky to start to rehearse on that surface instead of in a dance studio, and for us to be able to shoot it without seeing ourselves and to light it without seeing the cranes. At first it was impossible, but you learn, and then you have to sort of rewind yourself, because you have to get comfortable with how things are done.
That scene had to be done in one long take, and shot in a five- or six-minute take, but had to be shot in magic hour, so we had to shoot it at a certain time.
That crane-to-steadicam move was a stylistic signature of Boogie Nights, which I believe Chazelle has stated as a not-so-obvious influence.
Absolutely. In one way, things like Boogie Nights have that playful lift of the camera—just the opening number, when you go through the bar and introduce people, and it never cuts, and you get a sense you’re really there.
Damien really loves P.T. Anderson, as much as he loves those old musicals that he’s inspired by, but I think it’s a combination of everything. I think it really was just, the camera should be free to express, be emotional, whatever it wants in the moment.
Sometimes it was more serious, sometimes it was much more loose and playful—hopefully not contrived, but sensible to what was going on.
Normally, you have to keep yourself a little bit to rules, but in this film, it was actually OK to not follow conventional rules. With lighting, how we played with the lighting to become more intimate with the characters, in the situations when they express their dreams more, we wanted to isolate them and become intimate with them through this spotlight thing, which is completely impossible in a normal movie. But here, that was allowed, and I think that was add to the sense the audience had that we should believe in our dreams, and just do what we believe in.
One of the more fascinating tricks is the way in which you track behind walls and through rooms—for instance, following Emma through her apartment and into the street. How was that achieved?
That’s all one take, actually. You think it’s whip pan cuts, but it’s one take. The whole girls’ apartment was on location. We built it a little bit, like the shower was built, and the bathroom. It wasn’t a bathroom—it was another room. It was like a divider when they walked through the kitchen, in the dance number. There’s one girl with a fan, and we follow her down into a yellow room. We walk down and she goes in here, camera follows, and we walk with the music down the hallway. And then after the kitchen, in the living room, there was an open space, and we felt that musically, it would be nice that when camera takes them into the corridor again, you get a musical beat that matches, visually. She gets a dress over her neck on a hanger, and she goes around the corner—it’s on a beat in the music, so we put this wall in there to create a visual, musical effect.
That was a location, and actually my steadicam operator, who just fit through those doorways, it was incredible, actually, that he could do it. We almost thought we had to shoot it handheld to fit in there, but he could do it with a steadicam.
What went into determining the film’s unique color palette?
It was a large discussion with Damien’s love for certain colors. He had this inspiration also from Jacques Demy, and those films are very expressive, colorful films where they could take a street in France, and they just painted it blue, the entire street. He had a huge admiration for giving LA color, which it also has to a great extent. But also the romance of those colors, the combinations. That’s just taste, I think, where Damien has a love for blue. He loves blue skies, and in the discussion, we came up with at nights, instead of black nights, it would be more romantic if the night sky was blue. Obviously, that only happens in twilight, but you can give the sense it’s always a blue night if we shoot at twilight the whole time. That, in combination with greens and pinks at night, we felt was something that would be more romantic. It was a lot about adding colors to the reality in order to make it feel more magic. And then we always synchronized with, is this a scene where we change the colors with lighting of the sets, or do we paint the walls here?
What we also found interesting, me and Damien discussed this in the first meeting even, that both of us moved into LA and can see a little bit from outside. The most ugly street in LA, people would say is Lincoln Boulevard, right? From the airport to Santa Monica through Venice, and all those streetlights and light posts. But in magic hour, for us, it’s the most beautiful location. It’s like nature is just all over us with this magic light from the skies, and in a very urban and gritty city. That combination was something we loved.