Of all the technological innovations that have shape the moviegoing experience, the most significant might be one we take for granted. It’s been almost a century since silent films gave way to the wonders of sound.
That seismic shift in a burgeoning industry during the late 1920s is the focus of Babylon, the wild-ride ensemble epic from Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) that paints its setting as a time of radical transformation marked by excess, extravagance, glamour, debauchery, and scandal.
The film is sprawling and boisterous as it follows various characters — composites of real-life figures — struggling to adapt to cultural changes and industry demands. They include an aging screen star (Brad Pitt) who enjoys the party lifestyle and isn’t eager to pass the torch, an alluring starlet (Margot Robbie) trying to parlay her sex appeal into a breakthrough, and a Mexican immigrant (Diego Calva) who starts as a low-level assistant to pursue his filmmaking dreams.
Chazelle, 37, visited Dallas recently to discuss his inspiration for the three-hour passion project, which opens on Dec. 22, and how he was able to pull it off.
On his fascination with the period itself:
“I had kind of seen versions of that story told, but then I did some more digging, and found out that it was a good deal more sordid, and dark, and brutal than I thought. What was the society that preceded that change and got demolished by that change? This was this wilder, more unhinged time before the more refined, pristine, glamorous Old Hollywood we think of. I was trying to dig into that.”
On his visually lavish approach to the Roaring Twenties, filled with sex and scandals and outrageous parties:
“I had this pet peeve with period pieces of all stripes that would make the past feel smaller or feel quaint. You get this feeling that there was less color in the past, that everything was a little more adjacent to sepia or black-and-white. Behavior that was shocking at the time is very mild for today’s sensibilities because we’re so much more jaded and so much more world-wise. All of that is bullshit. If anything, we’ve gone backward. You could make an argument that there has never been a time that was as wild and boundary-pushing and transgressive as the 1920s.
It felt like the way to do this movie was to let it rip. It has to be bordering on too much and hysterical in its tone at some point. You have to feel the vulgarity, so we understand how vulgar movies were considered at that time. This was a tawdry, immoral, Babylonian kind of world that polite society sneered at, until it started making so much money that polite society couldn’t afford to sneer at it anymore.”
On gaining the clout and confidence to tackle such an ambitious project after pitching the basic idea to one of the producers as early as 2009, and keeping it on the backburner for almost a decade:
“I initially attacked this as a research project, with an idea of the bare bones of it as a fictional story. These various storylines and characters started to suggest themselves. The narrative of a society changing became more fascinating to me. This was a fundamental shift from one kind of culture to another, and a loss of innocence. It was going to be a story of a Cowtown becoming a city, of a circus atmosphere becoming a corporate global behemoth. What used to be vulgar became mainstream. You could tell the story of the silent-to-sound transition without at least touching on that much broader transition underneath it.”
On the 72-day shoot reigniting the same energy he felt in his breakthrough independent film Whiplash (2014), and finding a balance with the more intimate, character-driven moments:
“You can write that an elephant marches through the party, or a thousand warriors battle on a field. It doesn’t cost you a dime to write that. But then we actually had to try to make it. I’ve always had a version of that rude awakening with every script, but never more so than with this. It’s the biggest movie I’ve made by far. It was a run-and-gun, put-everything-on-the-screen mentality. There was a crazed energy that spilled intangibly into the fabric of the movie.
The set pieces wind up logistically taking the most time, but there were also these quieter moments that were just as delicate where I knew we needed the space to let the actors find things in the moment. You don’t want to rush those moments, either.”
On paying tribute to the actors and filmmakers of the silent era by depicting both their successes and their struggles during an unprecedented time:
“They built the edifices that filmmakers like myself now stand on. On a basic level it was paying tribute to the pioneers of this art form and this industry. I was in awe of the way they created the rules as they want along. There was no real set of precedents. There was a blank-canvas freedom that we’ll never have again. There was a sense of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what stuck. That’s part of the reason why the transition to sound wound up being so cataclysmic and so traumatic, and why so many people were not able to adapt — why so many careers were wrecked, why so many people committed suicide, and why there was this real collateral damage. Sound was a wrecking ball. It must have been wild.”