Babylon is Damien Chazelle‘s fourth overall feature film and his most ambitious production yet. There seemed to have been lots of intricate planning in re-creating 1920s Hollywood for a grandiose, CinemaScope-level production that needed to be experienced on the biggest screen possible for the fullest effect. Production designer Florencia Martin, who recently won a Critics Choice Award (and just got nominated for an Oscar with set designer Anthony Carlino) for the film, attests that Chazelle’s script was amazingly detailed and “full of descriptions of the setting and even the tone of the period. We worked together closely to research both from the era itself and different mediums to come up with what this world would be like. It had to accurately portray very specific things that were happening at that time.
What was terrific about the longer runtime of the movie was that we got to tell so many stories in Babylon. We go from the formation of the Los Angele silent film era into sound. The collaboration between myself and Damien had to be very strong to execute it properly. It was really important for him for this film to be an immersive experience for the audience. I spent a lot of time with the other departments, so we could make everything feel real for the period. My collaboration with Damien ranged from the big picture to small details that very much enhanced the movie.”
Preparation time for the movie was quite small, with Martin reading the script and coming onto the project three months before they started to prep, stating that “Damien and I met weekly, and looked through images and sketches that I did to be on the same page. By the time we started to prep, we were 12 weeks out from shooting. We had done a pre-prep scout, which allowed me to make a set Bible for each set and big boards that liven the entire art department. We had over a hundred of these big boards with the exact set references and location photos. That was an amazing way for us to hit the ground running when everyone started because it took us about six weeks to build the silent film studio. That was the first day of shooting, which was a great way to start the show. But it was a very big ambitious set to kick off on, and we had our work cut out for us as a team.
One of the biggest challenges for the production was that they did not have any travel days to shoot outside of the Los Angeles area:
“We were staying within the zone, as we call it. We did go outside slightly, but we were trying to transform Los Angeles back to the 1920s. And it’s a very urban city. It does not look how we intended the film to look, so we had to find pockets throughout the city. And we wanted to portray, especially in the early part of the story 1920s, how undeveloped Los Angeles was. So finding an area where we could shoot to tell that story was challenging.
Building our silent film studio was another challenge. That was important to be able to shoot at a location where we could have control in 360 degrees, surrounded by mountains and orange groves. The same can be said for the interiors we didn’t build on stage. We wanted to make sure that there was that contrast that you were feeling, that barren desert, outside of these opulent interiors built by these dreamers of the period. So you have Jack Conrad [Brad Pitt]’s house and Elinor St. John [Jean Smart]’s office that are amazingly rich. You can practically open the door, follow the cameras with the actors out, and be in that early Los Angeles period.”
In designing the film’s outdoor set, where a considerable amount of the first act of the movie occurs, one of the first things Martin did was “researching what these studios looked like at the time. We saw that these studios were unbelievably set in the middle of undeveloped land with some artery roads that lead from the hills. We then started scouting for locations, and we were looking at actual ranches with some barns or some groundwork for what the set would film studio would have evolved. The locations we were scouting weren’t lining up to how desolate we wanted that landscape to be. The first part of the process was finding a location. Then we staked out where we would have our entrance and road coming in, alongside each set’s basic layout and scale. Damien had storyboarded the entire film, so everything had to sync up timewise, where the Nellie LaRoy [Margot Robbie] gets out of the car, goes through the front gate, and then lands on the set, and experiences all of Kinescope.
Damien and cinematographer Linus Sandgren choreographed how fast the camera would move. Because we shot on anamorphic, instead of the sets being extremely tall, which they were in that era, we went a little bit wider. We built them to be shallower so you could always feel the kinetic energy of the framework of the sets and also see into the barren desert. And that was important in that montage and working closely with our assistant, directing team, and extras.
It was an incredible experience, We all worked together to tell the story of each set being shot. And because they weren’t shooting with sound, we wanted it to feel as kinetic and explosive as possible so that you could see these big action sequences in the jungle and then a character cooking in a kitchen. You then go through this Asian scene through a bar doorway that reveals the reverse shot of what you just came from. It was an incredible, exhilarating design process because there were so many aspects to what we were trying to get on camera and so many stories we were telling in that one scene.”
In crafting one of the most complex sets of the film, Don Wallach’s [Jeff Garlin] house, where the film’s party scene occurs, Martin explained that “it was important for the first scene of the film to set the tone of what Los Angeles looked like in 1926. It had to match up with our research. The location we found was built in 1926 and was still standing. That’s where we shot the party scene. Many family-owned acres of land was sitting there untouched. It’s basically in its original state. So we could transform that into what Damien had scripted this big Hollywood executive’s mansion at the top of the hill.
It was great because we wanted it to feel as barren as possible but believable, and because this location was essentially at the top of this mountain, we could re-landscape everything. And in front of one of the existing parts of the house, we built the ballroom entrance, which we shot at the Ace theatre in downtown LA. So once we entered the theatre, we were scouting for film premieres for Nellie and Jack. We realized what an incredibly opulent space was and spent weeks retrofitting the theater and transforming it into a residential ballroom. So we took hardwood floors over the carpet and plugged all the openings into the theater with gothic doorways that were all practical. It was a layered experience and set piece that also involved building a bedroom and a hallway at the end of our shoot, where you see the overdose. There was a lot of planning and pre-production, to have all those pieces together to formulate a plan on how all of that was going to come together for that final sequence.”
Babylon is now playing in theatres everywhere.
[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]