It's no secret that Damien Chazelle has an affinity for Old Hollywood. Look no further than La La Land, his ode to movie musicals throughout history and love letter to the enduring magic of cinema itself. That film won six Oscars, and when Chazelle took home the award for Best Director at the age of 32, he became the youngest person in history to do so.
Whereas La La Land was a tenderhearted homage to the classics of yesteryear, his latest movie, Babylon, is a descent into the debauchery of early Hollywood. Set in the 1920s, the maximalist epic tells a story of ambition and excess, full of sex, drugs, and movie stars, as the industry makes the transition from the silent film era to talkies.
"What you get as a result is a very fragile society that as soon as something major shifts, like a piece of technology that totally pulls a rug out from under you, it's like a wrecking ball," explains the writer and director. "It's a disaster, and all the chips fall. I was trying to convey the intensity of that society and then how fragile it really is at its core, and how fragile the people really are, even though they might not seem it."
Those swept up in the madness include Brad Pitt (a recent Oscar winner for another movie business flick, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood) as a fading silent film star, two-time Oscar nominee Margot Robbie as an aspiring starlet set on conquering Hollywood on her own terms, and Diego Calva as an immigrant and wide-eyed dreamer hoping to grasp a piece of the American dream. If you know your lore, you'll also surely recognize the fictionalized yet familiar characters played by the likes of Li Jun Li, Jean Smart, Olivia Wilde, Tobey Maguire and more.
In a conversation with A.frame, Chazelle delves into the making of Babylon and his honest approach to the "totally unhinged" history of Hollywood.
A.frame: You've said you wanted to avoid cliché and expectation with this movie, as far as what people think of when they think of 1920 Hollywood. What inspired such a subversive approach to the time period?
I think it was partly just because a certain depiction of the 1920s and old Hollywood in general has been done so many times in movies. To me, it felt like the one thing that hadn't quite been captured in a way that matched the sort of things I would read about or hear about just how dangerous and transgressive and anarchic the behavior and lifestyle was at that time. So, it felt like there was this opening for a sort of truly unvarnished, R-rated approach to that time period. The idea being that the further we could push the extreme behavior, the more viscerally you would then feel the desperation underneath it. Especially in the first half of the movie, there's something very fun and funny and sometimes even joyful about it, but there is this desperation, this hysterical need to flee from something or to prove oneself or to stay away from real life. To create a fantasy bubble within real life. That's driving all of this behavior.
The movie has, as you hinted at, some truly wild moments — there are orgies, there's drugs, there's an elephant! What did you find in your research of the era that inspired those more R-rated moments?
All of that was really from the research. Because the outset, it wasn't the goal to push those kind of limits. I wanted to tell a story about society at that time and how it shifted when sound came in. It felt like there was more to tell in that story than I'd seen before, especially how brutal that change was. And it was in the research of that period, especially looking at, well, what was Hollywood like right before sound came in? Researching that period, I was continually gobsmacked by things I would find. Once I got past the more official histories, once I got into oral histories or interviews with people who were there on the ground, you start to see what lines up and what doesn't.
There was just this overall vibe of totally unhinged behavior that I didn't think was a reality until at least the '60s, '70s, '80s. I didn't think that level of drug use or partying or sexual experimentation was a thing. But in some ways, it makes sense when you think of the '20s as this reaction to the Victorian era before, but also you have World War I. You have the Spanish flu. People go through an apocalypse and come out the other end, and they're like, "Well, f–k all these rules! We're just going to live each day like it's our last, because it might be!" There's a little bit of that kind of hysteria. So I'd read specific things about something they would do at this party, or something that happened there, or some kind of crime that the studios would cover up, or people dying on the set of a movie shoot and they would just keep shooting.
Or just the drug regimen on movie sets: Uppers in the mornings and downers at night, and movie stars, through cocktails of drugs, shooting multiple movies a week. But somehow they're still partying like there's no tomorrow at night. There's a lifestyle here of no sleep, constant work, constant partying, constant drug use, constant booze, constant sex. There's this constancy of it that of course is terrible in the long run for one's health, but maybe you needed some element of that madness to even create Hollywood in the first place. I don't know. That, I think, is a little bit of a question up for debate, but to me, the more I read, there was no point to do a PG version of that period because it just wouldn't be honest.
"People go through an apocalypse and come out the other end, and they're like, 'Well, f–k all these rules! We're going to live each day like it's our last!'"
You've been working on writing this movie in some form or another since you first moved to Hollywood. How has Babylon changed from the idea you started with to now, the finished product?
The germ of it was much more specifically about the transition when sound came in and the aftermath to that. And then it morphed more into a kind of portrait of a society as a whole, both before sound and after sound. Also, I think I became really interested in the changes that weren't necessarily because of sound, but that were concurrent — this idea of the morals of a society changing and that sense of the Wild West becoming civilized, so to speak. The novelty of cinema becoming the giant, global business of Hollywood, and L.A. going from a rural cow town to one of the world's major cities. All these transitions happening at once. You could say in some ways it's a loss of innocence that society went through, or had to go through. But I think those dimensions didn't really become clear to me until several years in, through the research. In other words, it became bigger as I worked on it more.
The scope of Babylon is, in all senses of the word, epic. Including the cast — you've got Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and this newcomer in Diego Calva. As a director, how did you work with your actors on building these characters?
It was my ideal of a real collaboration, a give and take between actors, where we had a lot of time to discuss the characters in the script before cameras started rolling. With Diego, I wound up rehearsing a lot of the movie to find the little nuances of the character. And we'd improvise things that then would wind up in the script, and vice versa. By the time we were shooting, we all felt on the same page. But then in the shoot, this definitely felt like the kind of movie where we wanted to shoot the script but also allow room for accidents and new things to happen. Sometimes that would mean shooting fully improvised versions of scenes. Other times, it would mean we would sort of veer off script a little bit here and there. And other times, we'd be completely wedded to the script but just trying to find those little nuances of behavior in between the lines.
I like to begin by having the actors surprise me — having the actors bring their own ideas and personalities to it — and then we can refine it, refract it, find something together. That's how I like to work. This definitely wound up being a shoot where it was lots of takes. Every scene, we tried to make sure we had explored every nook and cranny, so lots of takes and lots of different approaches before we would move on to the next scene.
You interest in the history of Hollywood was evident in La La Land. Were there any lessons learned from making that film that informed how you approached Babylon?
It was a different set of muscles than La La Land, other than having done an L.A. location movie before. It was funny. I got to know parts of L.A. I didn't even know living in L.A. through scouting for La La Land, and I think the same wound up happening on Babylon. A lot of scouting on Babylon wound up being the outskirts of L.A. Because that's where you have to go today to recapture what L.A. might have felt like in the '20s, when Beverly Hills was still orange groves and when much of Wilshire Boulevard was still just dirt roads. You have to go out to Piru or Lancaster or Fillmore, places like that, to try to recapture a little bit of that. In some ways, it did feel like a parallel experience, discovering the movie through the scouting.
The shift from silent films to sound transformed the entire industry into what we know it as today. Is there anything happening in current filmmaking landscape that you feel is causing or could cause a similar seismic shift in how movies are made?
In some ways, it feels like we're going through a confluence of smaller shifts or things that could be shifts: Obviously, the increasing digitalization of things since I began making films. Now, more recently, there's a lot of debate about how films are shown and theaters versus streaming, things like that. It feels like every era of Hollywood has some kind of shift that's unique to it, and our era is no exception. It's hard to imagine something as dramatic as the shift that they went through there. You have something that redefines the art form to such an extent — from silent to sound — and it's not even so much that. It's how fast it happened. It feels like we're now going through these transitions where they happen slowly enough that we're not even sure if they are a transition or are they a fad? Or does the pendulum swing back and forth?
Whereas there really was an end of the silent era. There really, truly was. And it was demarcated within the span of a few years. In 1926, 1927, the idea of sound on film being the future was still a joke to a lot of people, and by 1930, almost nothing was being shot that's silent. That's insanely fast by any standards, and so there's never been anything quite of that level, and maybe never will be again. It might have had something to do with how ultimately young the art form itself was. I think that helps make it unique in history and maybe uniquely brutal for those who lived through it.
By Elizabeth Stanton