Babylon – A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess

For writer/director Damien Chazelle, Babylon is the result of 15 years of research and world-building that started in his head long before he typed the first draft of the script and stepped behind the camera to bring his long-gestating epic to life.

The idea that would eventually become Babylon percolated inside Chazelle’s imagination in 2009 when he made his first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which intrigued a young executive at Focus Features named Matthew Plouffe so much that he cold-called Chazelle to meet up with him. One of the first ideas that Chazelle pitched to Plouffe at that meeting was a multi-character tragicomic epic set at the twilight of the silent era.

“At the time, the goal of making a movie like that, just the sheer size and cost of it, felt a whole career away,” says Plouffe, a producer on Babylon, “but we were young, and we dreamed big, and we never stopped talking about it as our friendship and careers developed in the years that followed.”

These included D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, William Wellman’s Wings, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Robert Altman’s Nashville, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

Closer to production these screenings would include fellow producer Olivia Hamilton, production designer Florencia Martin, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and costume designer Mary Zophres, as the list of prints grew to include Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.

Diego Calva plays Manny Torres and Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

“It was really important to us that we had the big-screen experience of rewatching those movies together, to remind ourselves what it feels like to see a work of that ambition up there on the big screen as it was originally intended — the kind of ambition that lives beyond the conventions of the time, that becomes timeless.” says Plouffe. “The goal we all had was to make the great American epic about early Hollywood.”

As Chazelle dug deeper into the history of the silent film era, he came away with an impression of the people who lived through the Roaring Twenties that was radically different from the ways it had been portrayed in the past.

“We often look at the time period as though maybe the most ‘extreme’ thing that happened was having a few too many martinis,” says Chazelle. “The reality is that these people were operating in a no-holds-barred kind of world where an entire industry and city were being built from the ground up, and that takes a certain kind of madness.”

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad and Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

“A lot of the research really shocked me,” Producer Olivia Hamilton says. “It just cut against so many of my assumptions about the people of the time. Hollywood in particular was a wilder, rowdier, more diverse, more free-form place than people realize.”

Co-Producer Padraic Murphy helped Chazelle with research, tracking down hard-to-find interviews, off-the-beaten-path oral histories, film clips and photographs. The Getty Museum also opened up its photographic archives to Chazelle, and historians like William Deverell at USC and music collectors like Sherwin Dunner provided Chazelle and Murphy with primary documents and recordings to help augment their research. What emerged was a fuller portrait of the Los Angeles of the time — a desert community growing into a world-class city, an evolution that in some ways was a microcosm of the American experiment.

“It’s a very American story in that way,” Chazelle says. “A group of outsiders and hucksters and brigands and misfits and dreamers, fleeing the patent trusts, fleeing their hometowns, pitching a tent and building an industry from scratch in the desert, and that industry becoming a global behemoth. And the glory and the tragedy that came from that.”

Lukas Haas plays George Munn, Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad and Spike Jonze plays Otto Von Strassberger in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

By the time Chazelle finished his first round of research, he had a 100-page single-spaced Word document that Plouffe jokingly called “The Dissertation.” All the seeds for the movie — the sources for the characters, the inspirations for scenes and moments, the broader history against which the story would be told — was there. From that document, Chazelle wrote the first draft of the Babylon script in December 2018 and January 2019. He then spent the next several months revising it, with a completed version ready in May 2019.

 “When I read the script, I was taken on a journey that no one else besides Damien Chazelle could have taken me on,” says Marc Platt, who joined Plouffe and Hamilton as a producer that May. “Through Los Angeles in the 20s and 30s, Hollywood’s silent era, talkies, and a view of that world that I’d never experienced before… It felt at once true to its period and yet completely relevant and resonant for today.”

Plouffe adds, “We didn’t know that Covid was coming, and we didn’t know who was going to be in the film. We only knew that we had the wildest, most impossible-to-make script in Hollywood, and that as a team we would all do whatever it took to get it made.”

P.J. Byrne plays Max (Ruth’s AD) and Olivia Hamilton plays Ruth Adler in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Principal photography ran from July 12th to October 20th, 2021, and despite the film being the biggest in scale that many had ever been a part of, the cast and crew knew they were all in great hands with Chazelle.

“Damien always has the movie in his head, literally frame by frame,” says Platt. “He has a unique and exquisite talent of marrying camera to his story, marrying design to his story, integrating all those disparate pieces into the way he tells a story in every frame. From the camera, the acting, the music, the visual sense of it is integrated in a way that few filmmakers can do. He is a real auteur, and you feel that in every frame of Babylon.”  

Babylon is an original epic set in 1920s Los Angeles led by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, with an ensemble cast including Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li. A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, it traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.

Exploring The Early Days Of An Art Form And An Industry

“I wanted to look under the microscope at the early days of an art form and an industry, when both were still finding their footing,” says Chazelle, “and, on a deeper level, I liked the idea of looking at a society in change. Hollywood underwent a series of rapid and at times seemingly-cataclysmic changes in the 20’s, and some people survived, but many didn’t. In today’s terms, we’d call it disruption. You look at what these people went through, and it gives you a sense of the human cost that accompanied the kind of ambition that attracted so many people to Los Angeles at that time.”

Director Damien Chazelle on the set of Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

For Chazelle, who wrote and directed the modern musical La La Land, which earned 14 Oscar nominations, winning six awards, including Best Director for Chazelle, who is the youngest director to receive the award, there a darker side to the story of that transition than I’d seen before.

Chazelle’s 2014 film, Whiplash, received five Academy Award nominations and three wins, including Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons. His 2013 short, based on the Whiplash screenplay, won the Short Film Jury Prize at Sundance, and the following year the feature film took home both the Jury and Audience Awards from the festival. Chazelle made his first feature, Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench, as an undergraduate student and the film premiered at. Tribeca Film Festival. He most recently directed First Man. The riveting story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon

“It went beyond the arrival of sync sound to include a host of new moral codes — finally culminating in the Production Code of the 30s — and the reorganization of a more free-form, unregulated community into the global corporate industry that we know today. Coinciding with all of this is Los Angeles morphing from a mostly-rural desert town at the start of the 20s to one of the world’s major megalopolises by the decade’s end. A lot of gleaming new buildings and soundstages rose from the ashes, but the human wreckage was considerable.”

The Journey From Page To Screen

From the first moment Chazelle started visualizing Babylon, he knew it needed to be in Cinemascope — the widescreen aesthetic that would convey the epic vastness of the L.A. panorama of the movie’s setting.

He chose to shoot on 35mm film in the anamorphic format, which allows filmmakers to capture a wider field of view than another format would provide. “To me, L.A. is an anamorphic city. A widescreen city,” says Chazelle. “The horizon feels like it’s receding before your eyes, and I wanted to capture the epic nature of that vision that was sort of the promise of America at that time.”

“The whole film was push-processed, because we wanted more color and more contrast,” says Linus Sandgren, the cinematographer on Babylon who also worked with Chazelle on First Man and La La Land, for which he won an Oscar. “I think there was no other way in my mind to get where we are with Babylon without shooting on anamorphic 35 push-processed film.”

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

After his early discussions with Chazelle about the story, Sandgren understood that the camera needed to be able to reflect the widespread chaos surrounding the filmmaking process in those early days while also capturing intimate moments between the characters. For Sandgren, those wild swings in tone mimicked the Wild West nature of the early days of filmmaking.

“If it’s bright outside it should be really bright outside, and you should overexpose it more than you’re supposed to,” said Sandgren, who was also the Director of Photography on American Hustle and No Time to Die. “In other instances, for example some of the interiors, we would underexpose dramatically, so you get these rich inky shadows and there’s a weight to the colors. It was all about contrast between the outside and the inside, between reality and the fantasy that these early moviemakers were creating, and it became an impressionistic approach. It’s like if you read the American Cinematographer’s Handbook, we did everything wrong. Everything they tell you not to do. We didn’t really follow any rules.”

“We talked a lot about the fundamental weirdness of the early movie industry in relation to where it was set up, and to Los Angeles as a place,” says Chazelle. “So you’re outside on the movie lot in what is essentially a sunbaked desert location with a panoramic expanse, but then you set foot on one of the silent movie sets, and the colors are rich and lush, and these two things exist at the same time, and it suddenly feels like you’re in this world of make-believe. It’s the magic of the place, but it can also add to this overall feeling of madness, of delirium.”

Years before any cameras rolled on Babylon, Chazelle turned to his longtime collaborator, Justin Hurwitz, to write the score for Babylon. Chazelle first met Hurwitz when they were both students at Harvard University, where Chazelle directed his first feature film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which also marked Hurwitz’s first effort as a film composer. Since then, Hurwitz has composed the scores for all of Chazelle’s films, including Whiplash, La La Land and First Man.

“We wanted to give Babylon a musical universe of its own, a sound that wouldn’t be so anachronistic as to take anybody out of the 1920s, but also a far cry from the usual depiction of quaint 20s jazz,” says Hurwitz. “It’s a lot wilder and more aggressive. Something to keep in mind is that the music which was recorded and survived from the 20s is just a tiny sliver of the music that was actually being played in Los Angeles at the time. There was underground music that was never recorded. We wanted to imagine the depth and variety and wild range of sounds that could have been, though we’ll never know. Music that we felt hadn’t been depicted on film before.”

Just as Chazelle insisted on using a practical approach to many of the film’s effects, he wanted the sets and locations to feel as real and authentic as possible. He trusted Production Designer Florencia Martin to carry out that mission.

Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

“Florencia had this sort of insane challenge with this movie of not just recreating Los Angeles of that time but also recreating each studio experience,” says Chazelle. “And within that, we were recreating each of the fictional movie’s sets, so you’re talking about sets within sets within sets.”

In an era where entire action sequences can be digitally created in a designer’s computer, the dictum for Babylon was that the onscreen action, wherever possible, had to happen in front of the camera for real — the way it would in the silent era. That meant replicating the stunts and old-school practical effects that early performers and crews filmed on a daily basis in those days. The battlefield sequence alone included more than 30 stunt performers, 10 horseback riders, a full 30-piece orchestra, extensive fight choreography, and numerous explosions designed and executed by Special Effects Coordinator Elia Popov.

“It feels very contemporary in the way the story is told and yet you’re living in the period of the 20s and 30s. You feel the dust of LA in the 20s. You feel the heat of the sun or the lights on set making a film. You feel the beauty of the filmmaking. The ability to integrate all those aspects of filmmaking, frame by frame, is what elicits such a visceral response in all the films that Damien makes,” says Platt.

Director Damien Chazelle and Director of Photography Linus Sandgren on the set of Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

“As much as the silent era of Hollywood is tied to the Roaring Twenties, I don’t think that moniker fully captures the ‘wild west’ atmosphere of that time,” says Chazelle. “There was an incredibly diverse group of pioneers building an industry from scratch combined with a manic pace of creativity that created a strange brew of sex, drugs and music that may never be duplicated. It’s that alchemy that attracted so many fascinating characters to the edge of the desert to create a new industry and turn motion pictures into a new art form that was still really in its infancy when the movie begins. That’s what I wanted to explore — the madness and the ambition and the drive of the people who were first in line in creating this art form and this industry, because through all the pain and the heartbreak, the highs and lows of their crazed lives, all that they gained and all that they lost, what they pioneered still lives on today.”