Interview: Choreographer Mandy Moore Talks Oscar Nominated ‘La La Land’
On January 23, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, made history – tying Titanic (2007) and All About Eve (1950) for the most Academy Award nominations. The film became an instant hit after its limited release last December, and continues to capture the hearts of audiences across the world. As of early February, the film has skyrocketed to over $270 million worldwide at the box office – on a $30 million dollar budget.
Set in present day, La La Land feels like the classic musicals from the ’40s and ’50s. Chazelle’s love for the genre is undeniable, as he pays tribute to films like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Singin’ in the Rain, Guys and Dolls, Bandwagon – among many others. The beautiful music, composed by Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash), is matched only by the brilliant choreography of Mandy Moore (So You Think You Can Dance, Silver Linings Playbook). We had the pleasure of speaking with Moore about the film, as well as her history of dance in film and television.
Born in St. Louis, Samantha “Mandy” Moore moved to a small town in Colorado at a young age.
“My mom and dad worked on the Golden Rod Showboat in St. Louis. I was actually born at Barnes Hospital; we lived in Webster Groves. They moved when I was really young, so the majority of my growing up was in Colorado.” Mandy says her mother tells stories of her love for dance at a very young age. “I was always dancing around the house like a lot of little kids. I just loved music and I was always performing, and creating performances for my family and making them sit down to watch them.”
Because of her passion and natural talent, her parents signed her up for her first dance class at around eight years of age. “And from that point on I was just sold. I just could not stop. It was like everything for me. Funny enough I started in ballet and break dancing, and then started tap dancing not long after that. And then started jazz, and modern.”
Mandy moved to Los Angeles at 18, to pursue her dream of dance. “When I moved out to LA it was just dance. That’s all I wanted to do for sure,” says Moore. “I was dancing professionally and I was assisting Carrie Ann Inaba, who’s actually a judge on Dancing With The Stars now. And she was hired to do a really wacky show called All American Girl that Nigel Lythgoe was one of the EPs on. So when he was starting to think about So You Think You Can Dance, he had brought us in. And that’s how I got to know Nigel. I did Season One, and then from that I met Jeff Thacker. He’s really the one who hires all of the choreographers. And from that point on, I think it was Season Three, I was there a lot more.”
The latest season of SYTYCD was called The Next Generation, pairing talented young dancers between 8 and 13 with all-stars. When asked if it was harder teaching kids her choreography, Mandy said, “I’ve taught for a long, long time, professionally all around the world, teaching kids. So for me to have that element of the kids, it was not as big of a deal… But, you know it’s always a challenge, on that show because of time. You don’t have the luxury of hours and hours, and days and days of rehearsal. And especially with kids because of child labor laws. So that was the biggest challenge, just that our rehearsal time got cut down. More than we would have had with the adults. But as far as working with them, I love working with kids and dancing with kids. It was a welcomed change on my end. I loved it.”
Welcome to Hollywood
Moore brought her choreography to the big screen for Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper’s big dance number at the end of David O. Russel’s Silver Linings Playbook.
“I was working on the So You Think You Can Dance tour as the supervising choreographer. I got a call from my agent at the time and he had said that David O. Russell wanted to speak with me. It was funny, at that time I had just seen The Fighter. It was one of my favorite movies; I thought it was so, so good. And I didn’t know who David O. Russell was. Which is probably good, because I would have been really nervous on the call if I had known. I didn’t connect that was who that was. He was very specific about what he wanted, and wanted to meet me. And they flew me out to Philadelphia. They were already in their pre-production stage. He talked me through the script, talked me through everything. I had a meeting with them, and that’s kind of how that started. I was only supposed to stay for about a week to train Jennifer and Bradley, and create the theme. But then I ended up staying the entire time.”
Mandy would go on to work with David O. Russell on American Hustle, as well as Joy. And he even played a role in getting her the job for La La Land. “I’m a huge fan of David, and he has been so supportive of me. He’s part of the reason I got La La Land for sure. Because when I had my initial meeting, the producer said we’d like some references. And David was kind enough to give me a glowing reference. So I was really lucky. He’s a good one to have in your corner for sure.” When asked about the director’s interest in dance, she said, “That’s what’s funny, that you wouldn’t know that about him. He loves music and he loves dance. His films are very poetic too, if you really look at them. There’s a great sense of music, and timing. I think he has a love of movement and dance. And he’s always said he wants to do a musical. So maybe David will be doing a musical soon – that would be cool.”
La La Land
“Funny enough it was like a lot of other jobs. Just kind of a meeting that I was lucky enough to get. And come to find out, they had seen I think 40 other choreographers,” Moore said of what producer Fred Berger told her later “And I was the last person that they saw. They had just been going to all these choreographers, and it felt like one person would be really good for this; And another person would be good for that.”
“And they just hadn’t found the right kind of mix of everything. They had given me the script and a couple of the demos, and had asked me to think about the roommate scene – and how I might approach it. And what kind of references I might bring to it, and what would give me inspiration.”
Mandy made sure to do her homework, and came back to the next meeting ready to impress. “I had a bunch of ideas for things. And we hit it off. Damien was there, and Fred, and then Jordan. I ended up being in there for almost two hours, and we were just talking about dance on film, and about the script. How to create dance, and how I would approach things. It ended up being a really great meeting. And we just hit it off I guess you could say.”
City of Stars
“It’s been overwhelming for sure. You know, most work as a choreographer, you’re so behind the scenes. Like behind, behind, behind, behind the scenes. And shows like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think have definitely elevated choreographers. And people now talk about them in a way they haven’t in a long time.” About the newfound interest in choreographers, and her amazing work with the film, Moore said, “This is huge. I’ve done so many great interviews with people that want to discuss the dance, and the choreography. Which is amazing for our community out here, and it’s just so cool to talk about because most people don’t ask. So when people ask, it’s really neat to discuss it. And then obviously the Golden Globes were amazing, and crazy. And it was so cool to see everybody winning there. I was lucky enough to do the opening number for the Globes with Jimmy Fallon.”
The opening number of the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards was a star-studded reimagining of Mandy’s work on the first scene of La La Land – the brilliant number “Another Day of Sun.”
“It was amazing. [Jimmy’s] team is so much fun. Hands down, probably outside of La La Land, that was my most favorite job. We got to recreate it in a hysterical way – but a really great way too. They were really dancing, and really doing all this stuff. And Jimmy is a huge fan of the film, so it was really fun.”
Shutting Down a Freeway
Not only is the opening number in La La Land extremely catchy, but the choreography is on a scale that is not commonly attempted on screen.
“Well, the most hysterical part is that it all started on a piece of paper. Literally a white piece of paper. Damien and I met, and in the script it was basically just like, ‘OK, these people get out of the car and they dance, and it’s the best number ever.’ So there was really a lot of collaboration, and a lot of communication that had to happen between Damien and I,” said Moore. “I remember one of our very first meetings, we had this piece of paper and just started drawing boxes for cars, and started talking about where he wanted the camera. He was like, ‘well, I think it should push into the first car. It should come across all of the cars, and then go over the last car. And then push into a girl singing. And then she should get out, and then maybe one person gets out.’ Then I was like, ‘OK, well then can two get out of the next one?’ And then from that – from this piece of paper that’s been tumbled in a ball – is what you saw on screen.”
Not only was it a large undertaking to choreograph, “Another Day of Sun” involved numerous departments working together to pull it off.
“There was a whole science to how those cars were on the freeway, and how far apart they were, and how far they were from the median. And what car was in what position, and then that had to collaborate with what the dancer was wearing. Did it compliment what the dancer was wearing? Or was it the same? And then far along in the process I actually got to make up some dance moves,” said Moore. “The amount of models and overhead plots, and diagrams. I worked really closely with Geno Hart, our transportation coordinator, and Mark Kubr, our stunt coordinator. Obviously there were stunts in there, with the skateboard kid and the tree runner who was flipping, and the BMX kid. You have to work so closely with all these different departments. And of course Damien, our director, and Linus the cinematographer. All of that, if one person isn’t on the same page it could go very wrong.”
So Much to Do, So Little Time
When asked how long she had to rehearse the famous opening number, Moore quipped, “I wish I could say one month. But there was so much pre-planning that happened before I ever got dancers. And then I was able to get a skeleton crew of about 10 dancers for two days in our pre-production period and we parked all of our cars out in the parking lot, and that’s the time that I started to kind of create what I would call “phrases of movement.”
“So I would create something for the dancer that’s getting out of the car, and then walking forward. Then there’d be a different phrase of movement for a dancer who was already out of the car, and had to get to the other side. And I would just create all these different kinds of phrases. And then, when we were finished casting the dancers, which was a whole process as well, I had them for three eight hour days. In the parking lot of our dance studio, with about fifteen cars.”
“The Saturday before we shot, we were able to shut down the freeway for twelve hours. And that’s when we got all the cars up there, and the dancers and the camera. And that was kind of like our dress rehearsal. And then we shot for two days. I mean, if you think about it, we could have used two weeks of rehearsal for that. But because of budget, and time, you get what you get. And we basically had three days and then a half day on the freeway before we shot.”
The Director’s Vision
Director Damien Chazelle knew exactly where he wanted Mandy to draw inspiration from in her choreography. When asked where specific references came from, she said, “It definitely came from him, from the beginning. He would say, ‘this scene, I want you to watch Young Girls of Rochefort.’ So then I’d go home and I’d watch it, and then he’d be like, ‘So, I just love how they look like they’re stretching when they get out of the car.’ So then I would think, ‘OK, this is his world. This is what he’s seeing in his head, and ultimately the vibe that he’s going for. Which is so helpful for someone like me. Then I’m not trying to create something that he was never seeing in the first place.”
When asked what films were their biggest inspirations, Moore said, “Singin’ in the Rain, and Umbrellas of Cherbourg was a big one for us. Guys and Dolls, Bandwagon. And then of course going back into the ’40s with Top Hat and Swing Time. And all the Fred and Ginger movies. On Wednesday, during pre-production, we would watch different films – all the cast and crew – and everybody would come together. I think our first film was Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Because Damien wanted everyone to see, when I’m referencing things like this, this is what I’m talking about. And we had these conversations afterwords like, ‘I love these colors,’ or ‘I love how in the frame everything looks perfectly placed and there’s a foreground element.’ Or, ‘look at that pink wall, there’s a beautiful girl walking across with a red dress.’ It was so nice that we were all speaking the same language when we were making the film. We understood, by being able to see things and reference these things.”
Although Chazelle pointed her in the right direction, Moore was no stranger to the musicals. “When Damien would reference these films or ask me to watch them, these were all things I had already seen. I grew up watching these films on the weekends. My mom would get us to the video store, and we would get tons of musicals. And I’d sit and watch them over and over again. So I’ve always been inspired by that style of dance, and movement.
When asked what her biggest inspiration was, Mandy says, “I think there were times where I would just think to myself, ‘what would Jerome Robbins do? What would he do in this moment? What would he think; what’s the story telling?’ To me, Jerome Robbins was one of the most incredible storytellers with dance. I’m a huge fan of Michael Kidd as well. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, I think is really beautifully crafted work. I always loved how Michael Kidd always had a really incredible sense of athleticism in his movement, but it didn’t seem gratuitous. He always had this nice balance between storytelling and athleticism.”
“I would also say that the music really inspired me in this film, because it’s beautiful first of all. And it’s also very colorful. When I create things, I see colors or shapes. Music really inspires me to move. So I was lucky in this film to have really well orchestrated demos to work with. I wasn’t just working with a piano track that was kind of funked out. Justin and Damien had arranged a lot of these songs prior to filming, so we had really beautiful demos that we were working with. So I kind of already knew what the vibe was when I was creating.”
New York, New York
Mandy choreographed a musical Off-Broadway in 2013 called Nobody Loves You. She expressed a big interest in returning to live theatre some day.
“I’ve also always loved Broadway and the live stage. I think there’s nothing like a live performance. Night after night; crafting something that has the ability to be seen in a live element over and over again. It’s very different than something that you put on film, or something that you do on live television. My dream would be if La La Land gets to go to Broadway. That would be really cool.”
Most of the musical scenes in La La Land go on for several minutes without any cuts.
“That was a huge part of what was so inspiring for me, as the choreographer to work on the film. Because a lot of time choreography and dance can be so cut up in the edit. I create an entire thing, and no one really ever gets to see it in its entirety and original form. I so respect Damien and Linus for taking that chance, and creating these shots. If you think about ‘Duet,’ that was almost a six and a half minute shot with no edit. And we shot no coverage, there was one camera working. So the amount of pressure on everyone, to make that happen, was just so rewarding. Every day was like that on set. We never had a day with eight cameras shooting it, and we’ll figure it out in the edit. Everything was crafted for the camera movement, and what was happening.”
“Damien wanted everything very head to toe for the dance, so that you see everything that’s going on. I’m in a dream. When he first said that to me I was like, ‘this can’t be true. We are actually going to do this, it’s amazing.'”
The Future of Musicals
“I think my number one vote for La La Land, really is that it inspires more original work,” said Moore. “I think if there are more Damiens out there, and more Justins out there, that have ideas and have the ability to tell them in an original way. I think then, our work is done here. I hope that’s what’s going to happen. I think it would be a shame to have this kind of inspiration out there, and then just go back to making something that everybody already knows works. I think it should inspire people to take a chance on original work.”
89th Annual Academy Awards
Come February 26, Mandy Moore will be ready to attend her first ever Academy Awards. “We’re doing a performance for LA LA Land, so I’m working. Hopefully I’ll get to put my dress on too.”
Here is the full list of Oscar nominations for the film: