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Damien Chazelle: ‘Babylon’ Is a ‘Crazed, Manic’ Vision of a Wild West Hollywood

At TIFF, Chazelle said his silent era epic draws from films like "Nashville" and "La Dolce Vita" to convey a world of "more excess, more drugs, a more extreme kind of living."

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

“Babylon”

Paramount Pictures

Alligators, snakes, and a coked-out Margot Robbie: The “Babylon” trailer, which screened for audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival, is about to break the internet. The TIFF audience ate up the trailer — so much so, that Bailey showed it a second time.

In it, you see Robbie in a red dress and wild hair hysterically unraveling amid tableaux of Jazz Age bacchanalia. There’s also a drunken Brad Pitt tap-dancing in his underwear. The sizzle is a propulsive series of images that come at you hard and fast, but one standout is breakout actor Diego Calva, who plays a character called Manny Torres, appears to be the lead.

In a conversation with TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey, director Damien Chazelle said that the super-sized Hollywood epic, set circa 1920s Los Angeles as silent films transitioned to talkies, isn’t finished. He’s in post, readying for a December 25 Paramount release.

These characters, Chazelle reminded the audience, are fictional but take inspiration from recognizable luminaries from the period.

“‘Babylon’ was the biggest cast, the biggest number of roles I’ve ever juggled by far,” he said. “The casting process took a long, long time. It’s a mostly fictional film where the characters are fictional, but inspired by composites of real-life people. Writing them I was getting inspiration from a lot of those real-life sources, but pretty quickly you move to the casting phase and you’re just looking for people to surprise you. That was the guiding principle, to demolish all preconceived notions of that era, those people, and find actors who would convey that spirit.”

Chazelle, who called himself a “disciple of pure cinema,” also name-checked a few influences on the movie, which don’t just include silent-era movies but also the sprawling, great American epics that defined the 1970s. (And “Babylon,” like many of those films, is said to have a three-hour-plus running time.)

“The high points of the silent era are some of the high points of cinema, period,” Chazelle said. And one of the tragic ironies of that period is right when the art form was reaching its apogee, the legs got cut off from underneath it by sound and by a whole host of changes, both technological and societal, and industrial.

“That led me to look at movies that captured the idea of whole societies in transition,” he continued. “It was my first time doing a real ensemble, panoramic movie. I was trying to look at novels and movies, like certain Fellini pictures like ‘La Dolce Vita,’ Altman movies like ‘Nashville,’ the ‘Godfather’ pictures. These old-school epics that manage through a handful of characters to convey a sense of an entire society evolving and changing, so that by the end of the movie you’re in a completely different world.”

Chazelle also confirmed what the trailer tells us: This is a wall-to-wall debaucherous movie stuffed to the brim with dissolution and sensuous excess, all shot in widescreen by Oscar-winning “La La Land” cinematographer Linus Sandgren. The cast also includes Tobey Maguire, Olivia Wilde, Samara Weaving, Jean Smart, Max Minghella, Katherine Waterston, and Lukas Haas, among many others, though the trailer really only gave us glimpses of Pitt, Robbie, Calva, and briefly Maguire.

“There was a lot more ‘wild west’ than even in our conception of the Roaring Twenties,” he said. “There was more excess, more drugs, a more kind of extreme living on all ends of the spectrum than people even realize. What fascinates me about this time is that in the weird way it goes part and parcel with the industry that they created.”

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