The creator of ‘Whiplash’ and ‘La La Land’ does Q&A at Malibu Film Society sneak preview
Malibu resident Damien Chazelle is the writer and director on his latest film “Babylon,” which comes out Friday, Dec. 23. He appeared in person at the Malibu Film Society’s sneak preview screening of the film last Sunday night for an audience Q&A.
The three-hour and eight-minute long epic comedy/drama has a large ensemble cast with Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie in starring roles. Set in 1920s Hollywood — a time of “decadence, depravity, and outrageous excess,” in the words of the studio — the story follows the rise and fall of three key characters during the film industry’s transition from silent to sound films.
Chazelle, 37, won an Oscar for Best Director for “La La Land” in 2017. He was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay for “La La Land” in 2017 and Best Adapted Screenplay for “Whiplash” in 2015. “Babylon” has received five nominations for the 80th Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy.
During the Q&A, Chazelle revealed himself to be a major early Hollywood film history buff and “Babylon” very much represents that interest. When one questioner likened production of the film to a “three-ring circus,” he said “Circuses were probably the forerunner of movies … The dirt, blood and sweat of the three-ring circus is where Hollywood came from.”
“Movies started as ‘down and dirty’ working-class entertainment, while people with money continued to attend opera and ballet,” he noted, explaining that early moviemakers had the “freedom and willingness to experiment” because they worked in a largely unregulated environment.
As a new Harvard grad, Chazelle first came to Hollywood with his dreams back in 2009. He actually began pitching the idea for “Babylon” back then, knowing it was a “pipedream” project. It combined two of the things he loved most about film: It was “epic” and it was about Hollywood history. Because the film didn’t get made right away, he spent years collecting ideas for things he wanted to include in it.
“Anything that shocked or surprised me — anecdotes, characters, people, and interviews — I kept a whole notebook of things to add to the cauldron.”
In addition, he kept his dream for making “big canvas cinema, like some of the epics I grew up with — gargantuan pieces of cinema like “Titanic” and “JFK” in the ’90s. They were inspiring to me, and they’ve become more and more rare, these three-hour spectacles.”
There were a lot of ups and downs in getting “Babylon” made, according to Chazelle.
“Most studios said ‘no’ flat out,” he said. “Finally, Paramount, God bless them, were crazy enough to say ‘OK.’ Making a movie always seems to be like rolling a boulder uphill.”
However, the pandemic hit, and the making of the movie was delayed for a year, which caused them to have to do some recasting.
“The chairs all had to be reshuffled,” Chazelle remarked. “We could feel the movie slipping from our grasp, but on the positive side, we had time to spend on casting all the small parts with faces that are unique and singular.”
“Babylon” hired 320 actors and 7,000 extras — and it wasn’t easy to find extras willing to take those parts.
“They either had to be naked or fighting on the battlefield, or dealing with alligators and snakes,” Chazelle conceded. “The level of things people were being asked to do was a challenge.”
For a third major role in the film, he specifically wanted to cast an unknown actor, which resulted in his discovery of Diego Calva from Mexico City.
“Finding Diego took the better part of that [pandemic] year,” he said. “I wanted a fresh face in that part — an everyman — a newcomer; so we can experience the larger-than-life characters played by Pitt and Robbie through him.”
“I originally found him through a head shot,” Chazelle said. “He was the epitome of a beginner, but he bloomed, and during rehearsals, suddenly he and Robbie felt like a pair of equals — electric and alive. He’s a major star in the making — a gift.”
There were often so many things going on at one time in the film that Chazelle resorted to choreographing the various scenes as if he were making a musical.
“We were choreographing extras like they were dancers,” he explained. “And actors needed to time their dialog. Pitt has a slower rhythm and I had to push him to get through his dialog faster, which was the only way to coordinate with the other people in the frame, the overlapping dialog, the stunts, the fighting, and multiple people and things going on at once.”
One of the points Chazelle tries to make in the film is that, “Your soul lives forever on celluloid…there’s a weird eternal quality [to being in a movie]. Even today, we can watch Marilyn Monroe or Charlie Chaplin on film, and there‘s a kinship with these people that makes us feel like we know them.”
Chazelle and his wife, Olivia Hamilton, are both Ivy League graduates and live with their son on Point Dume.