Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s star-studded exploration of the depravity and excess of 1920s Hollywood, had its world premiere in Los Angeles on Thursday alongside stars Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva.
Chazelle first came up with the concept, which focuses on the era of transitioning from silent films to talkies, 15 years ago when he first moved to L.A.
“I just became really interested in the origins of this, this whole insanity, and I think what really made me think there was a movie there was I would read things just out of curiosity and I’d find myself continually shocked by them,” he told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet. “I’d read about the parties, the drug use, the way movies were shot in these days — the uninhibited, unhinged wildness — and I would just find my jaw on the floor all the time.”
“I kind of felt like OK, if I can capture some semblance of that and put that on screen, and not compromise it, not sanitize it — I just feel like so many movies about old Hollywood buy into the old Hollywood myth of everything being clean and elegant and it wasn’t that, at least in this time,” the writer-director continued. “So if I could do that, it felt like OK, that’s a movie worth making.”
Pitt plays fictional silent film star Jack Conrad in the movie, with Robbie as aspiring actress Nellie LaRoy and Calva as Mexican immigrant Manny Torres, who is searching for his big break. In casting his three leads, Chazelle said Pitt was the first to sign on, and “there’s not many people, I think, who could play Brad’s role in this. The character is an all-time movie star so you kind of need an all-time movie star to play it; there aren’t many of those today. With Margot, you needed someone who is a movie star but also someone who has arrived on the scene recently. I wanted someone who kind of mirrored her character’s journey a little bit and also was utterly fearless.”
As for Calva, who counts the film as his first major English-language project after appearing in Narcos: Mexico, Chazelle said, “That was kind of the Hollywood cliché of a true discovery. I had this dream it would be someone in that role who we didn’t know, who was a newcomer for people, but that’s a hard thing to actually do, to find someone who’s really new who can hold their own against Margot and Brad and people like that. So I was just lucky, it was the luck of the draw to be able to stumble upon Diego and find him and put him on screen. I think he’s a true movie star.”
One of the film’s biggest talking points has become its crazy, extravagant scenes, which included hundreds of extras, snakes, alligators and a party scene so debaucherous it took almost two weeks to shoot.
Pitt admitted that when it came to filming the party, “the first day was a bit shocking, even for me. I went, ‘Wow, wow, we’re really doing this,’” teasing there was “a lot of nudity, a lot of nudity. And then day three it was like, ‘Yeah, a lot of nudity.’ And then two weeks into it, it was just like another day at the office.”
The star also pointed to another scene “where we’re racing the light and there are 700 extras behind us, and we’re trying to capture this shot and everyone’s panicked to get it and rushing and the crew’s going mad — that to me represents filmmaking, that’s a lot of times what it’s like.”
Pitt added of exploring the 1920s era of Hollywood, “It’s a whole different acting style. They were big, they indicated, and it wasn’t until I started studying them that I could see the real charm and artistry in what they were doing.”
Aside from its lead trio, Babylon also features a starry ensemble including Jean Smart, Tobey Maguire, Olivia Wilde, Samara Weaving, Max Minghella, Flea, Lukas Haas, Eric Roberts, Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li.
Minghella recalled first reading the “insane” script, and how Chazelle had “a singular vision, it was really clear he saw something that none of us were going to be able to see until we were there. When I sat down to watch this movie, I sort of was almost weeping throughout, just from the joy of seeing something this cinematic.” Li said when she first watched it, “I remember holding onto my face so hard that I had handprints on my cheek after I got out. I also remember that Jean Smart and I were at the same screening and we came out and both of us were saying to each other, ‘Whew, we forgot to breathe,’ because it was such a wild ride.”
It may have been the wildest ride for the producing team, as producer Matt Plouffe said when he first heard Chazelle’s idea 13 years ago, “I thought it was probably the most impossible movie that I’d ever be involved with. Honestly I’m just really grateful to be here because for so long I thought, ‘This movie will probably never get made.’ There’s just so few places in the world that would make this film, to be honest, and Paramount stepped up and did something that is just unheard of, to back a film like this, made this way.”
Plouffe added, “It really felt like every day the whole thing could come apart, so it was almost like there was something spiritual looking out for us — maybe our Hollywood ancestors.”
Babylon hits theaters Dec. 23.