[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Babylon.]
In Damien Chazelle’s latest star-studded film, Babylon, the audience is transported to Old Hollywood when film was first transitioning from the silent era to talkies. Set in the ‘20s in Los Angles, Babylon details the skyrocket to fame – and the crash back to earth – of the time’s glittering celebrities. Jam-packed with opulence, debauchery, and excess, Chazelle’s latest will no doubt wow audiences.
Chazelle is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter whose previous feature, 2016’s La La Land, garnered a spectacular 14 nominees, taking home six of them. Throughout his career with Hollywood, the director’s productions are often critically acclaimed and characterized by stylish themes and ensemble casts, but according to Collider’s Ross Bonaime, this time “Chazelle has created an orgy—both literal and metaphorical—of madness.”
With Babylon now sweeping across theaters, Collider’s Editor-in-Chief, Steve Weintraub, spoke with the director about the sheer undertaking of a movie like this. During the interview, Chazelle discusses the research he did, and explains how he “only scratched the surface” of the extremes of Hollywood. He also talks about some of the wild stunts they were able to pull off for the film, the editing process that led to Babylon’s runtime, deleted scenes, and how he decided on a special third-act sequence. For all of this and more, you can read the full conversation below.
COLLIDER: Do you enjoy the process of having to talk about your movie, or do you wish you could be like [Stanley] Kubrick and just say, “F all of this.”?
DAMIEN CHAZELLE: It depends. I go back and forth. Well, you know what? Honestly, it’s kind of like making the movie. There [are] parts of the process I love and live for, and parts I despise. I think the same comes to talking about, promoting, whatever. There [are] certain conversations that are really fun to get into, and then, with anything, certain aspects that could become drudgery. But yeah, it’s part of the job, I think.
There are going to be people out there who’ve never seen anything that you’ve made before. To those people who’ve heard of your name, maybe not seen anything, what’s the first thing you’d like them watching and why?
CHAZELLE: The first thing I’d like them watching… Well, I mean, it would be… I’m not sure. It’d be this movie. It’d be Babylon. I mean, that’s all I care about people watching right now.
I butchered the way I said the question, but it’s basically like where do you want people to start within your… Doesn’t matter, let’s go with Babylon.
CHAZELLE: In my oeuvre?
CHAZELLE: When I’m doing the syllabus of my career? Well, yeah. I guess you could start from the beginning and work your way. I would either do chronological, or I would just skip and start with Babylon, skip the earlier ones. ‘Cause they’re all in Babylon anyway, so you get three for one.
In all of your movies, you have pulled off some incredible shots. When you think of all the films you’ve made, including Babylon, which shot do you think ended up being the hardest to pull off and why?
CHAZELLE: The hardest shot to pull off? It’s tough to say because there’s certain… There’s the kind where you try to do a big-end camera one, or that you know instinctively that you’re approaching something that’s going to take a lot of time to shoot, but you’re not going to have to shoot coverage of, so it’s like once you’ve shot it, you’ve shot the entire scene. You wind up still making your page count per day ratio type of thing. It’s just that you spend two days on one shot, but that one shot encompasses five minutes of film, or something.
The opening of La La Land would be one of those. In this case, close to the opening, the circuitous snaking wander through the initial party sequence. That took about a day – a few days of rehearsal, a day to shoot, or maybe a day and a half to shoot, or something. I’d say in some ways maybe that one was… Well, they each had things that made them harder or less hard than the other ones, but I’d say that’s where you can isolate a single shot and go, “Okay, that’s the hardest single shot.”
There are sequences that are comprised of multiple shots. That can be even more difficult. I still think, technically, some of the space sequences in First Man were still probably some of the most difficult things I had done. Or, I would just say some of the set pieces, stunts-oriented set pieces, in this film, in Babylon. Whether it was the elephant truck hill with the shitting and all that stuff at the top of the movie. The battlefield with the various elements of chaos going on through there and trying to couple that with the kiss at sunset, and the butterfly, and all that stuff. So again, those would be instances where it’s not so much the one specific shot that was a backbreaker, it was just the whole sequence was a backbreaker. Sequence-wise, yeah. Those would be the most difficult I’ve ever done.
I’ve seen the film once and why I’m looking forward to seeing it again to study how you pulled off some of those shots. Because as I was watching it, especially the battlefield sequence, I’m like, “How is he doing this?” This is not what I normally see in a movie. I give you a lot of credit. The thing about the ’20s and ’30s of Hollywood is that there are so many things that happened that are crazy that people don’t know about. I know you’ve studied this era of Hollywood to bring it to life in your film. Was there anything that you read about that you found was so crazy, or so debaucherous, that you’re like, “I can’t even put this in the movie because no one’s going to believe it’s true.”?
CHAZELLE: Well, I think there [were] a lot of instances where I’d read something of that ilk, but it does become a certain question, at the end of the day, of what you can actually fit into the movie. I think we only scratched the surface, for instance, on all the extremes that filmmakers went to shoot. For instance, a battlefield scene in those days, sometimes, would be in terms of the [number] of people who could actually die. If you look at the making of Intolerance, or you go a little bit later, and you look at the making of Noah’s Ark, Michael Curtiz’s film, you just see the number of literal casualties to some of these set pieces. It boggles the mind. I mean, just utterly boggles the mind.
I think the amount of drug use, I would say. Obviously, we have a lot of drugs in the film, but I would still say that the reality, especially when it comes to the filmmaking, was, the behind-the-scenes of Silent Era filmmaking was probably even more drug-filled than you see in the film in certain cases. We couldn’t have all our characters drop dead from drug overdoses, even though so many of their peers and compatriots in that span of years, [the] early ’20s to late ’20s, did die under just such circumstances.
I mean, there was this unhinged drug epidemic where a lot of these drugs were still legal, and people were only figuring out the problems with them through trial and error in some cases. That whole thing collided, conversing with everything that was going on in the film world. It just wound up being a lot to take in. We just tried to hone in on: What are those specific things? They come down to really specific things, and it comes down to: How did they get the extras to fill the battlefield scene in Intolerance?
It was shot a little bit before the time of Babylon but wound up being the inspiration for this idea. Because it’s what they did, pulling junkies from Skid Row, they called them, and just giving them a box lunch and throwing them on the set and giving them a spear and telling them to go fight each other, and that was it. Just that approach to filmmaking, people paying to see someone eat a rat. Stuff like that, where you’d read this stuff and go, “This is insane. Can we fit this into the movie?” Some of them can, and some of them you can’t.
The movie, it’s a little over three hours. I’m a fan of the longer movies. What was the length of the cut that you had before that, that you were really happy with, that you’re thinking to yourself, “How am I going to get this shorter?”
CHAZELLE: Well, it’s funny, the movie did this accordion thing, which hadn’t really happened to me before. I remember, the first cut that Tom [Cross], my editor, and I finished, where we felt like, “Okay, let’s show this to people. Let’s show this to the producers,” whatnot, was shorter. It was about 2:50, 2:55, and we had cut a lot out to get to that length. But that was our first cut that felt like the movie. And then, when we got the producers’ feedback and watched it through their eyes – sometimes, you just want to sit and watch someone watch your movie, and you get a sense of… – We just realized that some of the stuff we’d cut out, we’d been right to cut out, and some of the stuff was just necessary stuff that we thought would maybe be inferred, [but] actually we were losing density and richness of character from losing these moments that were in-between moments.
The types of things that would be on the cutting room floor, now, are some of my favorite moments in the movie. It’d be moments like Brad Pitt on the beach shooting shortly before he dies near the end of the movie, shooting a sound film on the beach there, or sitting in a cutting room watching his first sound film and trying to gauge whether it’s good or not. Moments like this that are in-between moments that you don’t really need for the plot, per se. We had excised all of those, but without them, you just lost this dimension and this richness of character that the movie needed, it felt like.
We wound up putting all that stuff back. Then, the movie got way too long. Then, it ballooned to three hours, 40 minutes, three hours, 30 minutes. We started progressively chipping away to get it back down. It wound up somewhere in the middle. Like you said, it’s shortly over three hours. It’s somewhere right there where it felt like it had that balance for us, of the right amount of density and novelistic density of character that we wanted. But, where it still felt paced. We definitely did not want it to ever feel like a three-plus hour movie. We wanted people to come out of it feeling like they’d been on an unstoppable rollercoaster, and then be almost surprised by how long it was.
You accomplished that. Is there any chance that I, and fans of the movie, will see the deleted scenes and extended cut, or is the version that is in theaters the final thing, no chance of seeing more?
CHAZELLE: Yeah, there’s definitely more that could be seen. I’m working right now, actually, on certain deleted scenes, or extended scenes, I think would be fun to put on the Blu-ray and DVD, and whatnot, when it hits home video.
I’m not a big fan of going back into the movie and tinkering with it afterward. I’m not sure there’ll ever be that longer version of the movie just to put stuff in because I ultimately don’t think it needs it. I think this is the right length for the movie. But having some of those deleted scenes that, on their own, I’m proud of and think are really fun, but just didn’t quite make sense within the context of the movie. Those I think are fun to have as their own little specimens. At least for me, as a filmmaker, I always learned a lot from those when I could see what had been cut from other filmmakers’ films, and try to figure out why.
Yeah, I’m putting in a request directly to you. Please include deleted scenes on the Blu-ray. I would really like to see them.
CHAZELLE: You got it. For you.
Yeah, exactly. One of the things that’s interesting about you is, you are not one of those people that announces tons of future projects the way other people do. Things that you’re developing, and whatnot. Do you do that on purpose, or is your mindset: I’m focusing on one thing at a time, and I can’t think about the other things I might be doing? Or is it just that it never gets in the press?
CHAZELLE: I think it’s a little more the second of those options. I have a hard time multitasking, and it’s always been a limit of mine that I’ve struggled against because it’d be nice to be more productive, but I am a little tunnel-visioned with each given project. And so, there will invariably be things that I’m either developing or simmering on the burner somewhere. I have a hard time fully tapping in until I feel like I’ve truly closed the book on the previous project, so that might be part of it. It’s a little bit one-project-at-a-time for me usually.
For me, there’s a really cool sequence in the third act involving editing and other movies, and I’m just curious, where that idea came from, and how you picked what you wanted to include.
CHAZELLE: It was an idea born in editing, actually. Because initially, the scene was simpler. Basically, it was purely, simply Manny, Diego Calva’s character, watching Singing in the Rain and having this mixture of pain relief and epiphany watching it, and the refraction on his own life that he’s coming to terms with at that moment, or forced to come to terms with, maybe for the first time, at that moment. On the page, it was that simple. In the film, it wound up feeling like it needed just one more dimension to it really. The basic idea of it just needed a little more externalizing, a more overt presentation because of the movie that had preceded it. Because we’re at the tail-end of three hours of maximalist, in-your-face movie-ness. It was almost too quiet of an ending that it wound up feeling like the movie ended with a whimper, and this was a movie that needed to end with a bang.
What we wound up doing was the exact same idea, basically, as what was in the script, or what we had shot, but instead of communicating the emotion we were trying to communicate purely through one film, it was, “Let’s use that one film to open up to a whole host of other films, and a host of memories, and eventually just boil down to what I’d call the fundamental building blocks, the atoms of cinema, just colors and music, or color and sound.” It’s just that ultimately it all comes down to that, and it all comes down to a light and sound show. That basic idea, that is so basic, it has lasted a hundred-plus years. I mean, obviously, you could argue that it has its ancestors before it going back way more than a hundred years. I would argue it’s going to go on for way more than another hundred years.
That there’s something primal and eternal about images flickering on a wall, whether it’s in cave-painting days, or in a movie theater, that I think is never going to go away. That bigger idea and our character realizing, that’s the epiphany for me on some level. Not that I want to reduce it to words, but that on some level there’s something bigger that he can only just faintly grasp, that any one of us can only just faintly grasp. That we are all just cogs in this much bigger wheel that will outlast all of us.
One of the things I really think the film does well is talk about the machine of Hollywood, and it’s going to go on no matter what. It just churns people out, if you will, right?
CHAZELLE: Yeah. It’s brutal and merciless, but you have to accept it in a weird way. Otherwise, you’re doomed for disappointment.
Babylon is now in theaters.