Babylon has been a long time coming. In fact, Damien Chazelle first started conceptualizing his eccentric, outrageous, cocaine-infused take on Hollywood's transition from silent pictures to talkies over 15 years ago. "It predated all my movies," he tells Total Film, "but it felt so big that I had to earn my way to it."
And earn his way Chazelle certainly did. First, there was Whiplash, an arresting Sundance sensation that won J.K. Simmons an Oscar for his unrelenting performance as a ruthless jazz instructor. Next came La La Land, which saw Chazelle single-handedly rejuvenate the movie musical – and become the youngest person to ever win the Oscar for Best Director. That one-two punch, followed by the well-reviewed Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, starring Ryan Gosling, made him one of the most sought-after filmmakers working today.
No wonder Paramount had faith in Chazelle to helm an $80 million epic, darkly comedic tale about 1920s Hollywood that does not center on any single real-life star. Diego Calva and Margot Robbie lead the ensemble; their characters – a Mexican film producer and a rising starlet – amalgamations of historic figures. They're joined by Brad Pitt as the soon-to-be-forgotten actor Jack Conrad, Li Jun Li as a Chinese-American cabaret singer, and Jovan Adepo as a trumpet player.
With so many players, it's unsurprising the script was over 180 pages. Normally, when such a beastly screenplay is pitched to a studio, it gets heavily cut down. "It's usually like, 'We've got to get [the runtime] down. We've got to get so many screenings a day,'" Pitt says. "And Damien said, 'No, no, no, we're going to do a minute a page.' And when I watch the film now, it's exactly that. There's this percussion, this propulsion, this beat, this rhythm to the thing. I don't think I've ever been a part of something like that."
Pitt's conviction in Chazelle came from the director's prior accomplishments, in particular Whiplash. "It was self-evident," he says of the filmmaker's skill with a camera. However, more impressive than Chazelle's dogged approach to preventing anyone from cutting down Babylon's three-hour runtime is the movie's wild party scenes.
To set the scene, let's start at the beginning: Babylon opens with an elephant being driven to a Californian mansion. The truck's too small to transport the animal, so a group of men must push the elephant up a hill. It quickly starts shitting on them; you can almost smell the feces through the screen. Later, at the mansion, everyone's doing drugs, people are fucking very publicly, and the elephant's entrance is used as a distraction so that an overdosing girl can be carried out of the party without alarming anyone. It's hectic and rambunctious and incredibly well choreographed, filled with long takes that sweep through – and above – the crowd.
"It's organized chaos," Li says. "Damien is one of the most prepared genius directors out there. And he directs everything down to the millisecond. He is the king of oners, these long shots. If you are that actor who messes it up for everyone else… you don't want to be that person. Everyone's always on top of their game."
"There was a lot of rehearsal," Adepo adds. "Mandy Moore, the choreographer, worked with Damian and [composer] Justin Hurwitz to put everything on a counting system. So by the time you got from one to 45, everybody that you see on this backdrop had to be in a different position, because the camera was going to be panning through, swiping, going up, going down. That alone sounds stressful, right? But Damien was able to navigate such a big spectacle. Between takes, he would play contemporary music, and keep everybody enthused and excited to keep going, because we were working on the first party scene for maybe 12 days. It sounds cool, like a big party, but not quite. But it was fun to really get to hang with the main cast."
Both Li and Adepo have major close-ups during the opening party scene. Li's character, Lady Fay Zhu, gives a commanding cabaret performance of a song titled 'My Girl's Pussy', though only part of her act appears in the final movie ("I hope that one day we get to see [the full thing] in Damien's Director's Cut," she says).
Meanwhile, Adepo's musician Sidney Palmer plays trumpet front and center. Despite Adepo playing the notes that Sidney would really be playing, the actor did not previously know how to play the instrument. He had a stint trying to play trumpet during high school but abandoned it to play football. "The way I had to learn it for the movie was just through visual memory because I don't read sheet music," he says. "I had to watch my coach play and just commit to watching his fingers. It was a bit stressful. But you do what you got to do for a film like this."
Working with Chazelle was an opportunity no one on Babylon's cast could pass up – especially Pitt. Chazelle, though, was nervous approaching the Fight Club, Seven, and Ocean's Eleven actor. "I realized I'd written myself into a corner, into a dead end, because the role, there were really only one or two, maybe three people in the world who could play him. It's that kind of role," he says. "I tried to not have Brad realize this, but there was a certain desperation in me when I came to him. You try to be casual, 'Hey, here's a script, if you want to do it great, if not, we'll find something else!' I was like, 'Please, please, please do this.'"
"That was after Clooney and Gosling had passed," Pitt, sitting alongside his director, jokingly interjects.
"The desperation was that I was 10 people in and scraping the bottom of the barrel," Chazelle says, laughing, before getting more serious again. "But I was just so thrilled when he engaged with it and, as a movie fan, I can't even list the number of movies of his and performances of his that I've loved. But it was even more of a thrill actually getting to shoot with him."
"And I was cheap," Pitt says.
"Every day on set was a real struggle to get there," Chazelle says, now with a knowing smirk. "A lot of editing to his performance, a lot of face replacement, voice replacement. There's very little Brad, actually."
That, of course, is a lie. Pitt manages a melancholic performance as the silent movie star Jack Conrad, and it's a testament to Chazelle's direction that it stands out in such a monstrous movie about a turbulent time period. Racism, sexism, and homophobic attitudes were growing in America, and Babylon reckons with that.
Li, in particular, was surprised by the discrimination that Anna May Wong, a real-life star on whom her character shares many similarities, faced. "We all have our own struggles, whether it's racial, or gender preference, LGBTQ queer struggles," she says. "But to see what she went through in her biography, 100 years ago, was really utterly heartbreaking. And it only makes her more inspirational because of how relentless she was, and she still fought through it and made this memorable career."
The 1920s also saw the dawn of a new era in film. The future of cinema was in question thanks to technology progressing at a rapid rate – similar to how, right now, the age of streaming is seen as a threat to theater-going. It's not by coincidence that cinemas are currently filled with films – The Fablemans, Empire of Light, Babylon – about how special the medium is.
"We are at a time where there are a lot of questions about the future of cinema," Chazelle says. "You could say the first instance of that, the first real crisis that the industry faced where there was a fork in the road, and when people had to debate the future of cinema and what is cinema, was in the 20s."
For the director, that was not reason enough to do this project. After all, Babylon had been quietly thrumming the back of his mind for well over a decade. "At the end of the day, it's a little less intellectual than that," he continues. "It was more a story that moved me, a world I found fascinating. And then, working with these actors and everyone involved, it was a wild adventure getting it on film."
Babylon is in UK cinemas from January 20 and in US theaters now. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way soon.