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The Finest Victrolas, the Most Squalid Toilets: The Stories Behind 5 Key ‘Babylon’ Sets

Oscar-nominated production designer Florencia Martin and set decorator Anthony Carlino discuss taking Los Angeles back in time for Damien Chazelle's Hollywood epic.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in “Babylon”

Scott Garfield

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In the last two years, Florencia Martin has quickly established herself as the go-to production designer for auteurs who want to transform modern day Los Angeles into a vivid evocation of the city as it exists in our memories, dreams, and fantasies. Her meticulous recreations of the 197os San Fernando Valley in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” and 1950s Hollywood in Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” represent some of the most impressive design work in recent memory, but Martin was just getting warmed up: With “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s celebration and indictment of Hollywood in the late 1920s, the production designer has created her most sprawling, detailed, and audacious sets to date.

Working with set decorator Anthony Carlino, Martin fills scene after scene with colorful surroundings that both express and comment on the characters’ inner desires and tensions, all while remaining faithful to the period without losing a modern sense of immediacy.

Below, Martin and Carlino discuss five sets in “Babylon” that were particularly important within the overall fabric of the film.

Nellie’s Apartment

One of the most trenchant and timeless aspects of Chazelle’s script is its recognition of the wild class disparities in Los Angeles — a city where the broke can find themselves mingling with the obscenely wealthy on any given night. After Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is discovered at a wealthy studio executive’s party, she goes home to an apartment that serves as a stark contrast to many of the film’s tonier environments. “Nellie is scrappy and just starting out in the industry,” Martin told IndieWire. “She doesn’t have a dime, and we really wanted to set her in a realistic place that reflected her origins.”



To that end, Martin turned to a book of census photographs depicting people living in poverty in Los Angeles in the 1920s, which gave her layers and textures she wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. “You wouldn’t think of how unbelievably worn these spaces were when you’re telling a story of a city that’s just being formed,” Martin said. Carlino noted that one of the most appalling pieces of set decoration, a handmade toilet seat with a bucket underneath, came directly from Martin and Chazelle’s research. “It was the most disgusting thing,” he said. “I remember dressing it and it just showed the horrible squalor of her living conditions.”

Jack Conrad’s Home



Scott Garfield

On the other end of the financial spectrum is the house where movie star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) lives, a Spanish revival based loosely on the homes actors like John Gilbert (a loose inspiration for Conrad) owned in the 1920s. “There’s a great book by Sam Waters on the houses of Los Angeles from 1920 to 1935,” Carlino said. “It was my bible for ‘Babylon’ because of all the different types of homes, but it had particularly great research on Spanish revivals.” Shooting at the Hummingbird Estate in Simi Valley, Martin and Carlino aspired to convey Jack’s refinement in every detail. “The estate really matched the scale and style we wanted for his character,” Martin said. “He’s showing off his wealth and knowledge.” Carlino filled the interior with custom made sconces and furnishings and then added another layer of antiques — items that Jack would have bought on his travels in Europe. “It’s a big contrast from Nellie,” Carlino said. “Everything is beautiful. The Victrola in the house is the nicest Victrola of the time, and we found it and had it not only refinished but made it work so that it would actually play when you turned it on.”

Elinor St. John’s Office

BABYLON, from left: Jean Smart, Brad Pitt, 2022. ph: Scott Garfield /© Paramount Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection


©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Like Jack Conrad, gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) is part of Hollywood’s old guard, and her office conveys a similar sense of ostentatiousness. “For Elinor I was looking at Victorian interiors, especially from the Gilded Age, and they would have all these antiques and art on the walls, again that were collected through travels,” Martin said. Building her set in the Castle Green Hotel in Pasadena, an apartment building originally built in the 1890s, Martin took advantage of a well-preserved lobby area and then transformed the space with Carlino by decorating it with Victorian furnishings and all of Elinor’s writing accoutrements and books, many of which are a little out of their time. “It was important to showcase the previous era because not everyone is buying things brand new,” Martin said. “We’re telling the story of characters who are already starting to fade into the past, so it was really important to anchor Elinor in that past.” The vivid colors that define Elinor and her surroundings were both a pleasure and a challenge for Carlino: “It’s tough doing a period movie in color, because you’re doing all this research and it’s in black and white,” the set decorator said. “Thankfully, Flo and Damien weren’t afraid of lush, saturated colors in this movie.”

James McKay’s Home

BABYLON, Tobey Maguire, 2022. © Paramount Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection


©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Late in “Babylon” one of its most intriguing — and terrifying — characters is introduced in the form of Tobey Maguire’s James McKay, a very creepy but rich and powerful crime lord whose surroundings are appropriately lavish and bizarre. “His house was inspired by the Garden of Allah, a popular hotel in Hollywood at the time,” Martin said. “We transformed this outdoor tiered garden into a Moorish opium den, filling it with Moroccan antiques and candles – and lots of rugs and pillows. Our story for McKay was that this was a place where he was the king of the night, just holding court in Los Angeles.” The set was built at the Wattles Mansion, a historic property that Martin used to jog by every day without realizing it was there until location manager Chris Baugh pointed it out. “It’s pretty spectacular how Los Angeles always has these hidden gems,” Martin said. “It’s one of the biggest pleasures and the biggest challenges of doing these period pieces — being on the hunt for places that haven’t been aggressively remodeled and still stand intact.”


BABYLON, cinematographer Linus Sandgren (left), Olivia Hamilton (center right), on set, 2022. ph: Scott Garfield /© Paramount Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection


©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

One of the biggest and most intensively researched sets in “Babylon” is the Kinoscope studio, which itself is made up of multiple sets — a situation that created a number of interesting challenges and opportunities for Carlino as he had to dress not only sets but sets within sets — and the equipment that was ostensibly being used to shoot the movies within the movie. “The film equipment was a whole other monster,” he said. “Not only were we sourcing period movie lights, but [cinematographer] Linus Sandgren was actually using them to light the set. So we had to take these period lights to the electrical department at Warner Bros. and they would take the guts out of the lights and put in whatever Linus needed to actually light the set.” Carlino had to make all of the equipment period accurate down to the cables, ladders, bounce cards and electrical boxes while also adding details in the background that many viewers likely won’t even notice. “We wanted to make it seem like Kinoscope was a farm at one point, so we found a place in Bakersfield with all this old farm equipment and had semis full of it brought to the location.” Although the camera often flies past such details, Carlino felt they added to the overall texture of the film. “It was important to Damien, and it was important to me to get it right, and to make it feel big and massive. But yeah, it was a hard movie.”

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