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How Damien Chazelle’s Orgiastic Hollywood ‘Babylon’ Could Shake Up the Oscar Craft Races

"Babylon" might have a bumpier Best Picture road than “La La Land,” but the film’s Roaring Twenties hedonism leads to some adventurous craft.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

“Babylon”

Scott Garfield

 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” was just the warm up for “Babylon,” his epic comedy-drama about Hollywood during the seismic shift from silents to talkies in the late 1920s — think “La Dolce Vita” meets “Nashville” by way of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” This allowed the Oscar-winning director to step out of his comfort zone with a wild, orgiastic ride through hedonistic excess and extreme living before the sound revolution transformed the movies into a cultural phenomenon.

Judging from the mixed response to Monday’s Academy screening, however, “Babylon” might have a bumpier Best Picture ride than its singing and dancing predecessor. It should be a major crafts player, though. That means likely nominations for some or all of Chazelle’s collaborators: cinematographer Linus Sandgren (Oscar winner for “La La Land”); production designer Florencia Martin (“Blonde,” “Licorice Pizza”); costume designer Mary Zophres (nominated for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “La La Land,” and “True Grit”); composer Justin Hurwitz (Oscar winner for “La La Land” score and its “City of Stars” song); editor Tom Cross (Oscar winner for “Whiplash”), the sound editing team of Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan (nominated for “First Man” and “La La Land”); and the makeup and hairstyling team of Heba Thorisdottir (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) and Jaime Leigh McIntosh (“Blonde,” “Don’t Worry Darling”).

With his panoramic and propulsive aesthetic, Chazelle’s guiding principle was to demolish all preconceived notions of the fledgling industry and its players, charting the rise and fall of fictional Hollywood legends played by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and newcomer Diego Calva. The trio leads an ensemble that also includes Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Jean Smart, Tobey Maguire, Olivia Wilde, Samara Weaving, and Max Minghella. While Minghella portrays real life MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg, the rest of the cast plays composites: Pitt’s aging icon, Jack Conrad, combines John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks, while Robbie’s aspiring Nellie LaRoy is mainly inspired by Clara Bow, with additional nods to Jeanne Eagels, Joan Crawford, and Alma Rubens. Calva portrays Manny Torres, a Mexican-American film assistant with his own artistic aspirations.

Cinematography

For Sandgren, “Babylon” was like working with Chazelle unchained. He captured the filthy reality of the period with great expressiveness. They resumed shooting on 35mm Kodak film with anamorphic lenses, but this time customized for flaring the most burning highlights. He also took an impressionistic approach to the exposure and colors of the light. The sets had to look authentic, full of rich details, so the stages were only lit with lights specifically built to look period correct, while other locations were lit in a more naturalistic way, but intended to fit the raw storytelling and sweaty, dirty textures.

Sandgren also treated the film stock harder by push processing the film to increase the contrast and colors of the sets and costumes. Similar to “La La Land,” the language of the camera movement was musical and curious, but for a much more intense ride. They used a lot of crane and Steadicam in long takes but in a joyous way; and, in other scenes, they worked with a handheld camera to enhance the nerve of the story with more emotion.

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in “Babylon”

Scott Garfield

Production Design

After evoking the quaint San Fernando Valley of the ’70s in “Licorice Pizza,” and recreating the Hollywood of Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas) in “Blonde,” Martin took a deep dive into the city during the Roaring Twenties. The production highlighted the parallels between the formation of L.A. and the constant state of construction and dismantlement in the industry. The team of a 150 crafts people created a world of lavish, jewel-toned fabricated environments set against the hot, barren, and inhospitable desert of early L.A.

They looked at traveling circuses and Dorothea Lange photographs depicting impoverished characters in the unforgiving dusty and harsh landscapes of the West. In contrast, Martin and the art department looked to the opulent societies of New York City that were showcasing their wealth by fabricating a world inspired by Europe and Asia.

They scouted throughout Southern California for period-accurate locations and designed sets showcasing the era’s popular revival style architecture — Mission, Gothic, Spanish, and Tudor. For each character, the architectural style represents a manifestation of the world they want to be in, from the over-the-top, excessive wealth in a Gothic castle on top of a hill, or an exquisite and studied Spanish home desperately displaying Jack’s need to show off his knowledge, taste, and travel.

Costume Design

Zophres found Chazelle’s vision audacious and primal, and the immense scope dwarfed her previous work. She worked with Chazelle and her craft colleagues in assembling visual references from photographs, films, posters, architecture, paintings, poetry, and dance music. They shared thousands of images and started creating albums for the various characters and scenes.

She then gathered costumes and fabrics from all over the country and Europe and started working in three dimensions. Many of the fabrics inspired the costumes for the lead characters, including Nellie’s eye-popping red dress. It was a tremendous fitting process, with about 250 speaking parts and 7,000 backgrounds. It was a monumental task, which Zophres calls the hardest and most gratifying of her career.

Makeup and Hairstyling

The challenge for makeup artist Thorisdottir and hairstylist McIntosh was to let go of everything they knew or thought they knew about the ’20s, especially where their Hollywood craft was concerned. Chazelle encouraged them to find the more obscure and unseen looks of the period. Thus, they worked closely together to find a balance between honoring the era and the director’s big, bold, brash, vision.

This meant there would be no pristine, crisp fingerwaves and perfectly drawn cupid bow lips. The story instead called for dirt, grit, blood, and sweat for looks behind and in front of the camera. The parties called for their own special sultry looks. Inevitably, the duo had to complement one another. If Thorisdottir leaned into the classical period, then McIntosh pivoted in the opposite direction and vice versa like a rubber band. It was a constant dance of balance between makeup, hair, and costumes.

Original Score

Hurwitz spent three years composing more than two hours of original music for the 48-track score. The goal (in close collaboration with Chazelle) was to give “Babylon” a unique musical universe — a sound that wasn’t so anachronistic that it took us out of the ’20s, but was also a far cry from the quaint jazz of the period. With wailing trumpets, screaming saxes, shades of rock ‘n’ roll riffs, and modern house beats, the music was a fresh concoction that matched the wild, hedonistic world of the movie. They used this sound not only for Sidney (played by Adepo) and his band, but also for many of the score sequences. Meanwhile, other cues were scored by an equally manic 100-piece orchestra, and some by circus sounds.

As for the first two score tracks released from the soundtrack, “Call Me Manny” and “Voodoo Mama,” they capture the wild sound. The former plays during the furor over Manny’s latest gig, while the latter accompanies the sexual heat of Nellie on the crowded party dance floor at the start of the movie.

Sound

Lee and Iatrou Morgan had to shatter the sonic cliches associated with the period to make “Babylon” seem real, huge, and overwhelming. Overall, they termed it a no-holds-barred roller coaster ride that leaves the viewer breathless. Period-correct sounds were also recorded, from ’20s cameras whirring to vehicles to worldizing soundtracks on ’20s speakers and amplifiers.

Editing

With “Babylon,” Cross tackled yet another genre and tone with Chazelle — it was “big, loud, and aggressive.” Which is quite a feat for 188 minutes. The characters work hard and play hard, so the director wanted muscular editing — “quick cuts of film sprockets, blood spatter, and disappearing lines of cocaine” — to hurl the viewer into the Wild West of Hollywood. Since the film is very music driven, the director and editor worked closely with composer Hurwitz, fine-tuning the work until they found the right frantic energy.

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