In La La Land, an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist fall in love while they attempt to reconcile their dreams for the future. The film remains fairly true to the screenplay, with only about three major changes which ultimately serve to make a better product. Director Damian Chazelle wrote the screenplay which guides readers along both the musical numbers which will be crafted as well as the romance between the two leads. As a film nominated for, and briefly winning, Best Picture at the Oscars, La La Land was a raging critical success. The film did, however, win Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Production Design alongside a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. With a $30 million budget, the film went on to gross $446 million worldwide.
While we’ve looked at very few musicals here at Scriptonomics, the breakdown between action and dialogue in favor of action is what I’d expect to be about average with the genre. While the finished films contain lengthy musical numbers which would add to dialogue, the lyrics are not in the screenplay themselves. Instead, La La Land tells the reader when a musical number would be occurring and gives us hints as to what it would sound like. As a result, the action writing is greatly increased giving us the 65.9% to 34.1% breakdown we see in the screenplay.
While a musical like La La Land contains relatively no CGI, costs of production design, choreography, and music are heavily increased. For a set piece like the film’s opening number, numerous actors must be hired and choreographed. As a result, La La Land looks to keep costs down when it comes to shooting locations. 68.7% of all scenes are shot indoors, with only 31.3% outdoors. Shooting indoors allows the production crew to decrease the number of variables in a given scene and ensure the shooting schedule is kept on track. However, the aforementioned opening sequence was an outdoor shoot which is far more costly on screen than it would appear to be on the page. Yet, a location like that is only used for the one scene. While we may return to the highway, we’re only revisiting the same scene through another character’s perspective. This decreases the amount of work the art department needs to do on changing the setting, as the crew only needs to shift the camera as they would for any shot-reverse-shot. For the $30 million budget, La La Land did a good job of minimizing both the number of locations as well as the number of one-off locations. With a total of 67 locations, 59% were used only once. And while this may seem high, for a production of this size it is actually a conservative number.
Another area La La Land chose to spend a large portion of its budget on was the number of characters. Despite only about three important characters, our two leads Mia and Sebastian, plus Sebastian’s friend Keith, the film has a total of 49 characters. The numerous other roles, whether speaking, singing, or simply dancing, rack up a lot of costs. Through the number of appearances by top characters and dialogue breakdown by character plots, we can truly see just how much the film is the Mia and Sebastian show. While one can argue the film features dual protagonists, since we see both of their perspectives, ultimately I think the film is Mia’s, and this is supported by the data plots. Mia has both the most appearances and spoken lines with 33.1% and 40.4% respectively. Sebastian comes in at number two for dialogue with 26.8%, but is actually in third in terms of number of appearances with 23.9% behind “extras.” With 29.2% of appearances and also the third most amount of dialogue with 15.1%, you can truly see just how costly the extra characters were to the production. While extras may often make up a large number of appearances, for them to be so high in terms of dialogue is rare. Keith then comes in fourth in both plots with only 3.17% of appearances but 6.07% of all dialogue. This cements him as a driving character to the story.
In terms of significant scenes, scenes 45-54 come up as most significant. These scenes express the beginning and honeymoon period of Sebastian and Mia’s relationship. Since their relationship serves as the crux of the entire film, it makes sense that this scene comes up as most significant. Scenes 125-130 come in second. These scenes serve as the dream “what if?” sequence that resolves the film, showing the audience what could have been if Sebastian and Mia’s relationship went well— the old Hollywood ending. Scenes 60-64 come up as third most important, and shows the initial shift in the relationship, the false high. While it seems things are up for our two main characters, this is the beginning of the end for the relationship and largely brought on by Keith. And then scenes 20-24 come up as fourth most important, and it is here we see Sebastian and Mia’s first interaction with each other. This scene is later echoed in the dream at the film’s conclusion, only with Sebastian making a move on Mia immediately. Overall, I completely agree with these scenes as the four most significant which speaks to the merit of the screenplay as it is able to so clearly denote the defining moments in the character’s journeys.
Because La La Land is so reliant on the actor’s performances and the hints provided by Chazelle’s writing, it is one of the rare cases in which it looks like very little is happening in the action/dialogue breakdown by scene plot. What we can see, however, is that scenes are very short. We often move quickly from one scene to another, only focusing on the important details. The film has an extended first act, which doesn’t end until around scene 45. This can be seen in the plot, with a peak in action from scenes 20-30 and then the resolve around 45. The middle of the second act is also clear with peaks at scenes 66, 70, and 77. Yet despite peaking early, the second act takes a while before it fully transitions into the third act. The third act really only extends from scenes 124-131, giving us quick yet impactful full resolution.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the blog, there are only three major changes between the script and the finished film. The first change is in Mia’s introduction; instead of sleeping with the guy she meets at the party, she simply ditches him and is instead forced to walk home due to her car being towed. The second change removes some of Sebastian’s sister’s presence from the film, making her even more of a supporting character than she already was. And lastly, Chazelle grants Sebastian a more concrete dream of his own—something I feel drastically helps his character’s motivation. While Mia always has something she’s chasing, in the script Sebastian largely feels aimless. Overall, I think all of these changes help focus the story and make it a film which was able to take home six Oscars. La La Land is masterfully written and knows how to use both its words and production budget to great effect.