From Script to Screen: La La Land

The success of 2016’s La La Land is the result of writer-director Damien Chazelle’s ability to blend together familiar elements in unique and unexpected ways. Take 2014’s Whiplash, for example, which turned the story of a talented young drummer into one of the most intense, suspenseful films of recent years.

Likewise, for a film that, on the surface, resembles classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, La La Land also manages to tell a surprisingly grounded story about dedication and sacrifice. And like Los Angeles itself, it’s a film that blends fantasy with reality in a way that’s both inspiring and sobering.

It’s also meticulously well crafted, which is why we’re taking an in-depth look at one of the film’s more emotional moments. Check out our latest script-to-screen breakdown below:

Caution, some spoilers ahead.

Plants and Payoffs.

There’s nothing quite like an expertly executed plant and payoff. What are they, exactly? As the phrase suggests, a plant/payoff refers to the planting of a particular detail – usually a line, a prop, or a dramatic beat – that will be paid off in some meaningful way later in the script.

Plants and payoffs are an essential element of storytelling, and an absolute must-have when it comes to crafting a marketable script. They tie the whole thing together, so to speak. Whether that’s by re-contextualizing prior moments, rewarding us for our patience, or conveying theme – the more payoff the better

This particular scene from La La Land features at least three payoffs, all of which serve a different purpose. The first occurs when Seb announces his presence through the honk of his horn. While the script could’ve gotten away with a simple knock on the door, this more character-appropriate approach punctuates a sullen sequence of events with a bit of tension-relieving humor while also playing off an earlier gag.

Likewise, Chazelle cleverly uses a payoff to cover up a potential plot hole. While we’re no doubt glad to see Seb, there’s still the question of how he found Mia in the first place. That is, until the film reminds us of a seemingly throwaway line from earlier in the film that identified the Boulder City Library across from Mia’s family home.

Finally, we’re given a more character-driven payoff as Mia explains her reasons for leaving in the first place. Instead of just generally lamenting the difficulty of her chosen career path, she focuses instead on all the terrible auditions she has had – something we’ve witnessed several times throughout the film. By calling back to those moments, we’re able to empathize with Mia in a more specific way. Because in a way, we were right there with her.

Writing what you know.

It’s no coincidence that writer-director Damien Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash, also told the story of a talented artist and the sacrifices required along the road to success. Nor is it an accident that both films feel so authentic to anyone that’s ever considered making their passion their career.

There’s little doubt that the screenplays for Whiplash and La La Land are both informed by the 33-year old filmmaker/musician’s own trials and tribulations on his journey from amateur to professional.

Of course, that’s not to say either film is directly based on events from Chazelle’s life. Rather, it’s that both films explore similar territory in a way that is reflective of the individual that wrote them. And as a result, both films feel like they have something to say.

Experience is an indispensable tool in any writer’s arsenal. It’s what will allow you to foster a personal connection with your material. Even when the subject matter itself is unfamiliar to you. By drawing on what you know – be it for specific characters, individual beats, or entire scenes – you add texture and authenticity to the story you are trying to tell.

That’s why a determined writer should embrace a full plate of responsibilities – even when it holds back their page count. Unless you’ve decided to put your own spin on Barton Fink or The Shining, There simply aren’t many stories that staring down a blank page can prepare you to tell. 

Speaking the subtext.

As a general rule, speaking the subtext is a big no-no. It should be your last resort – only to be relied upon in a pinch, and only when the moment is right.

But how exactly does one “speak the subtext”, you ask? Consider the ending of La La Land in which Mia and Sebastian decide to part ways. The subtext of the scene should be obvious to anybody that’s been paying attention: dreams require sacrifice.

While a lesser filmmaker might have had one of his character’s voice this sentiment directly (hence “speaking the subtext”), Chazelle instead treats us to a bittersweet musical interlude that shows us how their lives might’ve turned out had they chosen to stay together. It’s “show-don’t-tell” at its finest – a sequence that effectively communicates the subtext beneath La La Land’s dramatic through-line.

The scene from our video offers up a slightly different example of not speaking the subtext. Here, we see Mia at her lowest point. She’s given up, packed her bags and gone home. When Sebastian visits her with a promising audition, she refuses, seemingly determined to walk away for good.

Again, the subtext beneath Mia’s decision is clear: she no longer believes she has what it takes. But people rarely communicate their true reasons for doing the things that they do – particularly when those decisions are made out of fear or insecurity. And so Sebastian spends just over a minute pushing Mia to justify her decision to give up until she finally owns up.

In this case, the subtext actually is spoken, and that’s the point – because in this particular moment, giving voice to her insecurity is the most difficult thing for Mia to do. Again, it’s a moment that’s likely to resonate with anyone that’s ever pursued a career in the arts – whether we’re willing to admit it, or not.


Download the script for La La Land for free here.


Frustrated by the dark, frozen winters of Canada, Jeff Legge spent his earliest years indoors nurturing a life-long obsession with the movies. Later, he moved to Los Angeles where he cut his teeth as a script reader while completing an MFA at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He does not recommend playing Scene-It with him, though he does appreciate a good ego boost.

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