New film directed by Damien Chazelle explores the Wild West of the industry's early days
The Mercury spoke with the director and producer of “Babylon,” which chronicles the highs and lows of vintage Hollywood. The film, released worldwide on Dec. 23, won a Golden Globe for Best Original Score, and the film and the actors are nominated for the 95th annual Oscars.
The beginning of Hollywood screams romanticism, filled with shining lights, triumphant underdogs and campy body language only fit for the silent screen. Cinephiles praise the ’20s for introducing stars that continue to entertain even after death, but refuse to acknowledge that the transition into that era was less than smooth. Damien Chazelle — director of hits like “La La Land” and “Whiplash” — and film producer Matt Plouffe pour copious amounts of cocaine and depravity over that rose-colored lens to show how the explosion of the film industry changed the landscape of culture while simultaneously destroying the lives of the people whose livelihoods revolved around the big screen.
The film begins in the 1920s at the peak of the silent film era and brings viewers through several transitions that have shaped modern media. Along with these technological advances came vast changes to society that forced people to either change their moral code or fall under the pressure of the industry. “Babylon” uses characters that ooze sex and charisma, intense cinematography and a memorable jazzy soundtrack to describe a world that can seem unreal.
“In my experience, the producer is the one telling you to stay in a box and don’t try to upset the applecart too much, and [Plouffe] was the opposite,” Chazelle said. “It was you know, going back to the edit room, just forget there was a box. Whatever you do just make it fucking weird. Just break down those walls and go a little crazy.”
The film has viewers experience this period of overindulgence and chaos through the eyes of Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a man who does the heavy lifting and dirty work behind the scenes of Hollywood’s glitziest and untamed parties. He represents the people who dream of entering the film industry but are stuck on the outskirts of fame. Calva’s performance as Manny is heartbreaking and genuine. You get sucked into the glimmer of hope in his eyes and feel every emotion vividly as he navigates the space between reality and fantasy. Manny is a dreamer, and it is easy to yearn as he does and crumble when he reaches his breaking points.
“The conception of Manny originally was that he would sort of be this everyman, our axis point as an audience to a world that otherwise is so hard to fathom because it is so insane, so larger than life, so chaotic and fast moving,” Chazelle said. “We needed some sort of a grounded perspective that we could identify with and feel in his shoes that would ideally take us on that journey. And I think in his case he makes the biggest mistake of all. He falls in love with a movie star.”
Through his eyes, we meet people who are larger than life. One of these characters is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who enters the screen with a literal crash, exuding the essence of Hollywood’s Wild West. She demands attention with her fiery personality and easily garners the affection of Manny, who sneaks her into the party he is working at. Robbie carries herself without fear, yet with a layer of sensitivity that shows that Nellie is more than an untouchable sex bomb. Her performance is brutally raw, perfectly displaying the duality of fame.
“[Nellie is] someone who is sort of destined to always be out of reach,” Chazelle said. “Her nature is to always be moving, to never be still, to be constantly looking for the next party, the next fix, the next whatever. That’s something Matt and I talked a lot about when working on the script. Margot and I talked a lot about it, Diego and I talked a lot about it. It actually is a real question — to what extent will she be able to share the love for [Manny]?”
The viewers experience the industry along with Manny, and he acts as a tether to reality in an environment where many characters lose their self-perception through booze, sex and fame.
“In some ways [Manny] wishes that he could kind of control [Nellie], who wishes he could have some say in how the story unfolds, but really he is a bystander,” Chazelle said. “And at the end of the day he does what he can to help, but he does have to learn the hard way that he’s in a situation that is, to borrow another character’s phrase ‘bigger than himself,’ and that’s where I would say the tragedy comes from.”
Justin Hurwitz composes a soundtrack that is the epitome of LA in the jazz age. His music is at once somber, intense and energetic, accurately matching the energy of the film. There is both hope and loss in participating in a culture that demands so much sacrifice, and the soundtrack encourages viewers to immerse themselves in that grit and glamour.
“How do you actually articulate the idea that you are a part of something called movie making that is bigger than you and all of us and everyone that loves movies and everyone who has devoted their lives to movies,” Plouffe said. “How do you do that? Damien and I used to say to each other [that] we’ve taken them to the highest highs and lowest lows, and now we want to vault them into the stars.”
Between the visually impactful scenes, moody soundtrack and the big cast of characters, the audience stays stimulated throughout the three hour run time. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) have fully fledged personalities and ambitions that made them seem real and they further show the cruelty of the industry through mental illness and the fetishization of people of color. They all have undeniable star power, yet the ways they cope with fame are incredibly different. Throughout the chaos of the film, Chazelle is able to keep the spotlight on multiple perspectives.
“Love comes in many shades, and it is an incredibly complex love story that Damien wrote,” Plouffe said. “I think the final acts are open to interpretation. It’s heartbreaking and absolutely exploding with love. I hope that people will talk about that long after the movie is over.”