Why 'La La Land's' Opening Number Went From Cutting-Room Floor to Curtain-Raiser

"Damien [Chazelle] realized that for people to accept that it's a musical, you have to announce it confidently at the beginning," says editor Tom Cross, who explored different drafts of the film with the director before deciding on that exuberant song-and-dance routine.
Courtesy of Dale Robinette/Lionsgate
It took mulitple edits to determine where the opening musical number, shot on the connector between the 110 and 105 freeways, belonged.

The crowd-pleasing opening of Damien Chazelle's La La Land — all that freeway traffic giving way to a musical number before frustrated drivers Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are even introduced — wasn’t inevitable. The originally scripted opening was very different, and at one point in postproduction, the number was cut out of the movie, reveals the film’s editor, Tom Cross, who won an Oscar for Chazelle’s 2014 feature Whiplash.

“Originally, Damien wanted to open with vintage-looking studio logos and a CinemaScope logo and then an elaborate main title sequence, which served as the overture,” says Cross. “And after the lengthy overture, it would open to the freeway and our characters stuck in traffic, and then we would pan past the cars, and then the number starts. But in early cuts, we found that we were taking a lot of time getting into our story.”

So the filmmakers tried several variations. In one, says Cross, “we opened with the overture, then the characters on the freeway, and then we moved on very quickly to Mia’s story. But we had this problem of: When do you tell the audience it's going to be a musical? And in this version the first time you really heard someone sing was a number with Mia and her roommates, and that was 15 minutes into the film. That was too late.”

Editing often is referred to as the “final rewrite,” and together Cross and Chazelle explored several drafts of the $30 million film. Explains Cross: “We tried different combinations, including one where we took away the main title sequence and put back the traffic. We rejiggered it so the movie begins big, with all the people stuck in traffic, and then the number, then we focus on the main characters. Once we did that, we realized the traffic number itself was serving as our overture, setting the stage. And Damien also realized that for people to accept that it’s a musical, you have to announce it confidently at the beginning. That was the big revelation.”

He adds, “The final touch was when we put the title of the film on the last downbeat of the musical number, so it kind of separated that number from the rest of the movie in a way that felt like an overture.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.