Posted in Film, Writing

How to Use Setting Effectively in Your Fiction

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

La La Land Review

My favorite film of 2014 was Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s absorbing and ridiculously entertaining debut feature. I loved it so much and couldn’t wait to see what he’d do next. When I heard his follow-up was going to be a musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, not to mention a film that he had been trying to get off the ground before he even made Whiplash, told me this was going to be a passion project that he’d put every last bit of his great talent into. Although I didn’t love La La Land as much as I adore Whiplash — the film has a few pacing problems, with a short lull in the middle — it’s for the most part a winning and grand time at the movies.

You know you’re in good hand with a filmmaker who makes the bold choice to open his musical with people dancing on the hoods of their cars in busy L.A. traffic. The opening number of La La Land marks one of the best scenes of the movie, perfectly setting up the tone and the surrealistic nature of the film that is to come. Although much of La La Land is set in reality, Chazelle gleefully goes into the occasional flights of fancy and extended dance numbers that give the film a fabulous dream-like quality that always keeps you guessing as to what’s going to happen next. One of the best of the musical numbers is actually the most simple, just Ryan Gosling’s character of Sebastian and Emma Stone’s character of Mia having a long walk up an L.A. canyon that results in the two breaking out into a delightful little dance number, all done in one single shot (the way dance numbers used to be captured in the musicals of old — think Singin’ in the Rain).

La La Land is a lot more than a bubbly musical, however. Telling the story of two aspiring artists — Mia, a wannabe actress; and Sebastian, a budding musician — the film goes into both the light and the dark of trying to make a career in the toughest of businesses. Chazelle always treats the ups and downs of these lofty pursuits with the utmost sense of reality, never making their lucky breaks feel too easy and unearned. Mia goes through endless rejection to get where she is at the end of the movie, always one step away from something great until she’s told the inevitable no and better luck next time.

At one point she chooses to finally give up and move back home with her parents, maybe go back to school and look for something else, and this part of the movie hit me so hard I struggled to separate Mia from myself. Chazelle taps into the sad epidemic that happens to so many — those who choose to go after a big dream and then, after many years and no luck or opportunities, finally say good-bye to that dream and pursue something else — and he captures it better here than I’ve ever seen in any other movie on a similar subject.

The film ultimately balances the seriousness of its characters’ dreams and failures and successes with the giddiness of the movie musical near perfectly. He never lets the fantastic musical numbers detract from the main compelling story of following these two people on their journeys. Chazelle obviously has a passion for jazz, since it’s featured in both this film and in Whiplash, and he does a great job showing how far Sebastian will go to find his own happiness.

Even better is Mia’s storyline as she goes on audition after audition to find that big break. A lot of the comedy in the film comes from these pathetic auditions, where Mia practices her lines for hours only to be told to stop after five seconds in the audition room (I worked in casting for two years in L.A., and let me tell you, we always let each actor do the entire scene, we were professionals!). She hits one roadblock after another, even putting her own money into and performing her one-woman show, only to have about a dozen people show up and give her a big thumbs-down. All these scenes of their struggles, both in their careers and in their romantic relationship, smack of realism even when the musical numbers provide a relief from reality.

Chazelle cast the two perfect actors for his leads, particularly Stone. Gosling is great in everything he does, able to exude menace in something like Drive and also able to be charming and lovable in something like this. He’s not only one of the most handsome actors in Hollywood; he’s able to adapt to nearly any genre imaginable, and he’s terrific in this.

Stone is the real breakthrough here though. In what is easily my favorite performance of hers to date, she gives Mia the right amount of aw-shucks cuteness and unflinching passion to succeed. She’s beautiful and funny, all that we’ve come to expect from Stone, but she presses deeper here that she has before, as her character tries to come to terms with failure both in her career and in her once-promising relationship with Sebastian. Her last-ditch effort to make a name for herself, an audition where the casting director asks her to tell her a story, is my favorite scene of the movie, one in which Stone breaks into song in such a glorious, truthful way that I was eventually brought to tears. This scene offers the film’s greatest magic.

And then there’s that perfect ending, one that took me by surprise. I kept hearing that La La Land’s opening and closing sequences are its best, and while I wouldn’t agree with that completely, I agree that the ending sequence is about as perfect as it can be, those subtle looks Mia and Sebastian give each other at the jazz club, that wonderful final musical number that showcases all that could have been. I do feel that La La Land, at more than two hours, is maybe twenty minutes too long. Whiplash just flies by, never a wasted scene or moment, but I did notice the occasional lull in La La Land, a scene here or there that would slow the proceedings down. I think there’s a perfect 105-minute version of this movie somewhere.

But for the most part, I fell in love with this movie. It’s funny and true, sad at times but also optimistic, in a time when we need the most optimism we can get. With La La Land, Damien Chazelle proves he’s a real-deal filmmaker, and although I still prefer his powerhouse Whiplash, La La Land is a worthy, dazzling follow-up.

Watching Like a Writer

La La Land made me think about how well the city of Los Angeles is captured on-screen. Having lived there for eight years, I remember its lows but also its many highs, the places I loved to visit and that I still miss to this day. So often the city looks awful in movies and ridiculed in many ways by filmmakers. This love letter to the city by Chazelle made me think about how I could showcase Los Angeles in a future story or novel and not turn it into the nasty caricature it so often is in the movies.

Exercise!

Think of a story idea that would take place in Los Angeles. Who would the protagonist be? And how would you capture the city in your narrative?

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