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Damien Chazelle on Life Imitating Art Behind the Scenes of ‘Babylon’

Toolkit Ep. 195: Oscar winner Chazelle says he can relate to Diego Calva's "Babylon" character: "I still find big movie stars intimidating on some fundamental level."

BABYLON, from left: Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, director Damien Chazelle, on set, 2022. ph: Scott Garfield /© Paramount Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection

On the set of “Babylon”

Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

From giddy highs to tragic lows, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is an exhilarating ensemble piece that covers everyone in the motion picture industry from movie stars and studio heads to extras recruited from skid row and animal handlers dealing with elephant dung, and shows how quickly someone can go from one to the other and back again. It’s a film about what Hollywood does to the people who work there — what it gives them, and what it takes away.

Unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, the circumstances of the film’s creation occasionally mirrored the story it was telling, Perhaps the most obvious example of life imitating art was the casting of unknown Diego Calva in the pivotal role of Manny Torres, a character who works his way up from the bottom rungs of the industry to become a pioneering executive. Just as some of the characters in “Babylon” are plucked from obscurity and made stars, Calva found himself starring in his first major Hollywood movie in scenes opposite Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Chazelle told IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast that he found he had to take different approaches to the actors of varying experience levels to make the whole thing work.

In Calva’s case, Chazelle worked with the actor for months to find the performance in rehearsals, basically shooting a version of “Babylon” on an iPhone and editing it together and then reshooting until Calva nailed the character. With Pitt, Chazelle just had general conversations but avoided rehearsing. “With Brad, I’d be worried that if you did that you’d suck the life out of whatever happy accidents might happen,” Chazelle said. “Because Diego was so new to the process, I felt confident that the newness for him was never going to be extinguished. No matter how many times I rehearsed with him, once he got on set with Brad Pitt and it’s his first time on a large American set with movie stars, there would be enough new about that experience for him that something real and genuine would come out.”

You can listen the full discussion above, or subscribe to the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast below.

To a certain degree Chazelle can still relate to the wide-eyed enthusiasm with which Calva’s Manny approaches the movie business and its practitioners. “I still find big movie stars intimidating on some fundamental level,” he said. “I’d say less so when you’re on the ground shooting — the intimidation is more early on when you’re having your first meetings and sussing out whether the relationship is going to work. There’s something about the elements when you get the camera rolling and you’re out in the dust and the dirt, there’s just something that never changes when it comes to that camera rolling and trying to get the shot with the actor, whoever that actor is. I compare the making of ‘Babylon’ to some of my first films, and it’s such a different scale… yet the fundamentals feel exactly the same.”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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