How ‘Babylon’ Roars Through the 1920s

The writer-director Damien Chazelle and the production designer Florencia Martin discuss how they captured the excess of a period when Hollywood was heading for a reckoning

Margot Robbie as the character Nellie LaRoy in “Babylon.”Credit…Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

After he turned the streets of Los Angeles into a playground and a dance floor for the musical “La La Land,” you might think the writer and director Damien Chazelle would have little left to mine from the location.

But it’s a big, big city.

His latest film, “Babylon” (out Dec. 23), aims to be even more extravagant in capturing the indulgent, mythical nature of the place where starry dreams are made (and dashed). It follows multiple characters through a period in the 1920s when Hollywood, high on the success of silent films, began experiencing growing pains and significant collateral damage from the transition into the sound era.

But before those problems set in, very little about the period, or the way it is portrayed in this film, is scaled back. Instead, Chazelle and his team want to capture what it might have been like to be swirling around in the excess of those early days, when the movies were silent but the living was not.

To solidify the look, Chazelle worked with the production designer Florencia Martin, whose most recent credits (“Blonde,” “Licorice Pizza”) have also showcased the city and the industry in periods of transformation. Following are images from the movie, with commentary from the two on how these outsize moments were assembled.

Castle in the Desert


Jovan Adepo, playing trumpet, in “Babylon.”
Credit…Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Although Los Angeles is now a sprawling metropolis, its urban makeup was much more sparse in the 1920s, something Chazelle wanted to capture in his film. “You still feel the desert when you step outside,” he said in a phone interview. “You still feel the dust and dirt on the streets and big patches of pure rural nothingness. And that’s pockmarked with these insane structures that people, flush with new money, have built.” This party sequence takes place in one such mansion.

The exterior of the space was shot at a residence built in the mid-1920s on the city’s outskirts. “It literally is a castle in the middle of the desert,” Martin, the production designer, said in a video interview. The scene cuts to this interior, featuring the character Sidney Palmer, played by Jovan Adepo, on trumpet. The lobby of the Theater at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles stood in for the mansion’s main hall.

Martin said that she and Chazelle were attracted to the Ace theater because it was built in 1927 and was the flagship theater for the studio United Artists, founded by the silent film heavyweights Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. The design team constructed the bandstand seen here and put in the parquet floors. “We built incredible door plugs and wall pieces to make it feel like a great hall with European influences,” Martin said.

Orchestrated Excess


Robbie, center, in the film.
Credit…Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

This image, featuring a crowdsurfing Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy, continues the film’s party sequence and is meant to show just how lavish things could get in the period. This ballroom was patterned after European halls that would have hosted gatherings for debutante society. “But by the time you get into Los Angeles,” Martin said, “it’s this debauchery and frenzy. This is very much an expression of that influence and how it changed once it got to the West Coast.”

And the crowds (of which this film includes many) were a major component of bringing the period to life. “One of the things we spent the most time on was casting every extra,” Chazelle said. “We needed to really hone in on exactly what kinds of behaviors, what kinds of faces, what kinds of vibes we wanted from different parts of the crowd.” They also paid attention to costumes (designed by Mary Zophres) and how each person is assembled in the frame, “because you’re not just doing individual solo portraits, you’re painting a fresco,” Chazelle said.

More of the detailed set can be seen in the background. “I worked with an incredible set designer, Luis Hoyos, and art director, Ace Eure, who surveyed the space and used Spanish Gothic details and molding from molding shops that are still in Los Angeles,” Martin said. “We created gothic wood paneling, a screen — that you can see behind the puppet head — that we put light through to emulate the continuous rooms of this cavernous castle, and then this incredible double swing door that later Brad Pitt’s character, Jack, enters the party through.”

A Star Is Born


Margot Robbie in the film.
Credit…Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Robbie’s character, Nellie, is one of several whom the film follows through the highs and lows in Hollywood. Her career (and look) echoed those of certain starlets of the time. This image, of a movie premiere when her star is rising, was shot in front of the Los Angeles Theater downtown. “The outfit she’s wearing is inspired by one Clara Bow wore as a costume/going out outfit,” Chazelle said. “A lot of the initial bits of Margot’s character journey were loosely inspired by Clara Bow’s.”

As photographers take Nellie’s picture leaving the theater, the flashes of light overexpose the frame, “so you feel almost accosted by the flashbulbs, by the crowd,” Chazelle said. “We’re trying to capture the energy of that moment with the camera movement and with the choreography of the crowd.”

To add a grandiosity to the front of the theater for this sequence, Martin said they took over the storefronts to the left and right of the entrance and transformed the marquee. The designers also worked with illustrators who do poster art to create custom posters for the films the characters star in. Though not seen in this shot, that artwork appears in the poster boards to the side of the entrance.

Mekado Murphy is the assistant film editor. He joined The Times in 2006. @mekadomurphy

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