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‘When in Doubt, Cut to Margot’: Editing the 30-Minute Opening Bacchanal of ‘Babylon’

Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross tells IndieWire how the party served as a microcosm for the movie, anchored by Justin Hurwitz's jazzy score and Margot Robbie's performance of a lifetime.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

“Babylon”

Scott Garfield

 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

Typically, director Damien Chazelle and his Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross (“Whiplash”) start cutting a movie from the last scene, since it’s the most challenging. So it went for the “Caravan” showdown in “Whiplash,” the “What if?” epilogue in “La La Land,” and the suspenseful Apollo 11 mission in “First Man.” But for their magnum opus, “Babylon,” they began at the top: The opening bacchanal at the mansion of Kinoscope Studios executive Don Wallach (Jeff Garland), a nearly 30-minute tour de force that sweeps through the colorful cast of characters and sets the manic, hedonistic tone for a Wild West Hollywood caught between silents and talkies in the late ’20s.

“Here we did something different because Damien wanted to make the party to end all parties, and thought it had more of the ingredients of the rest of the movie instead of the end, where we go to these dark places,” Cross told IndieWire. “It’s a microcosm, and, in a lot of ways, it was probably the most difficult thing we’ve ever done together. But you could say that about the whole movie. I think he saw the beginning as the audience’s roadmap for at least most of the movie. From the very beginning, Damien wanted to shatter the expectations that the audience might have of a period piece movie. Damien wanted it to be loud, reckless, and dangerous — and he wanted  every element to support that, including the editing.”

Indeed, it was the director’s intent to put the audience in a disarming wrestling hold from the outset. “It was always about pulling them in with excitement, with humor, and with lightness, and then hoping that they’ll stick with you when the story starts taking these turns and going to these dark places,” added Cross.

Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

“Babylon”

Scott Garfield

But they had never before tackled an “epic ensemble” piece so it was important to set the character dynamics in motion amidst the controlled chaos of sex, drugs, jazz, song, and dance. There’s matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) at the peak of his stardom; Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the party crasher-turned gyrating life of the party, with her eye on cocaine and stardom; and Manny Torres (Diego Calva), the Mexican-American all-purpose fixer, who longs to work for the studio and instantly becomes infatuated with LaRoy.

In addition, there’s Black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a Chinese-American cabaret singer and intertitle writer, who also crave the movie spotlight; and Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), the grand dame of Hollywood journalists with a keen perspective of their fleeting place in history.

Diego Calva plays Manny Torres and Jean Smart plays Elinor St. John in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

“Babylon”

Scott Garfield

“Damien wanted to give all the characters their due because he created them to touch on different aspects of this Hollywood world he was creating,” Cross said. “In that way, it was really hard because also these stories intertwined in a very specific way, and it was difficult distilling the movie to its very essence.” As a result, they referenced such classic ensemble films as “La Dolce Vita,” “Nashville,” and “The Godfather” for balancing the characters and their Hollywood dreams.

“For all of them, in their own way, it’s about presenting this world that’s intoxicating and pulls you in because it’s so loud and it’s so brash,” Cross continued. “But then you ultimately see that it’s kind of like a Hollywood meat grinder. And it’s like this big parade float that people jump on and off. Sometimes they get run over by the float, but the float just keeps going.”

But the biggest help in navigating the party was Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy score, which transcended the period with wailing trumpets, screaming saxes, shades of rock ’n’ roll riffs, and modern house beats. “The opening party, like much of the movie, is very chaotic, but we used Justin’s music to kind of glue it together,” Cross explained. “His high energy, uptempo, percussive score became our North Star for the rhythm of the cutting, and we worked really closely with Justin. He was constantly revising his music in a room next door to my editing room.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

“Babylon”

Paramount Pictures

“He started doing this with us on ‘La La Land’ and continued on ‘First Man.’,” he continued. “On ‘Babylon,’ we worked even more closely together, more intensely, so Damien and I would rough out a scene and we’d give it to Justin to make some musical adjustments, which would often come with new riffs and arrangements. And then Damien and I would get it back and adjust our picture, and we would go through these little rinse and repeat cycles constantly.”

Specifically, they used trumpet notes or certain downbeats that were built into Hurwitz’s score to provide an out for entrances (such as Conrad’s, when he barrels through the door) or percussive transitions (such as the studio exec played by Flea running outside to look for Torres). “It was also important to give each of these little character vignettes an edge,” the editor added.

At the same time, cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s bravura 35mm camerawork provided another rhythmic guidepost, craning up and down and sweeping through the party in a series of oners. “There were some stitches in the opening party oner that moves down from the balcony,” Cross said. “Some were pre-planned and others were executed during the editing process to switch to different takes, but also to compress some dialogue, such as [Elinor’s] intro when she talks to Manny.”

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

“Babylon”

Scott Garfield

Robbie’s siren-like performance as LaRoy on the dance floor turned out to be the highlight of the party. “Linus had a lot of beautiful footage of her dancing and Damien wanted to lean into certain takes,” added Cross. “That is to say not to editorialize too many moments. It’s a very voyeuristic moment and we cut to Manny strategically in a couple places because it was important to see everything through his eyes, especially when she’s being lifted up. And the idea is that Nellie’s magnetism is so great that she causes the entire party to go to even more intense places.”

It reminded Cross of the USO show from “Apocalypse Now,” where the already rowdy soldiers get stirred up into a frenzy when the Playmate of the Year dances. “That was a reference for this scene, too,” he said. “And Margot gave the performance of a lifetime. This is one of those scenes that, when, in doubt, you cut to Margot. She brought an untethered energy that never seemed to waver in any of the takes. It always seemed organic and real. At the same time, as an editor, you’re given an amazing performance in dailies by an actor, and you can tell that it’s painful for them, that it destroys them. This was kind of perfect. Her magnetism rivaled Nellie’s.”

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