At TIFF, Chazelle said his silent-era epic draws inspiration from films like “Nashville” and “La Dolce Vita” to convey a world of “more excess, more drugs, a more extreme”.
Alligators, snakes and a coked Margot Robbie: The trailer for ‘Babylon’, which premiered for audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival, is about to break the internet. TIFF audiences ate the trailer – so much so that Bailey showed it a second time.
In it, you see Robbie in a red dress and wild hair hysterically unraveling amid arrays of Jazz Age bacchanalia. There’s also a drunken Brad Pitt tap dancing in his underwear. The sizzle is a propulsive series of images that come hard and fast at you, but star actor Diego Calva, who plays a character called Manny Torres, seems to be leading the way.
In a conversation with TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey, director Damien Chazelle said the oversized Hollywood epic, set in circa 1920s Los Angeles as silent films transitioned to walkie-talkies, n is not over. He is in post, preparing for a Paramount outing on Dec. 25.
These characters, Chazelle reminded the audience, are fictional but based on recognizable luminaries of the time.
“‘Babylon’ was the biggest casting, the most roles I’ve ever juggled,” he said. “The casting process took a long time. It is a mostly fictional film where the characters are fictional, but inspired by composites of real people. In writing them, I was drawing inspiration from a lot of these real-life sources, but pretty soon you get to the casting stage and you’re just looking for people to surprise you with. That was the guiding principle, tearing down all the preconceptions of that time, those people, and finding actors who would convey that spirit.
Chazelle, who called himself a “pure cinematic disciple”, also name-checked a few influences on the film, which include not just silent-era films, but also the sprawling American great epics that have defined the 1970s. (And “Babylon,” like many of those films, is said to be over three hours long.)
“The highlights of the silent era are some of the highlights of cinema, period,” Chazelle said. And one of the tragic ironies of this period is that as the art form reached its peak, the legs were severed from below by sound and by a whole host of changes, both technological and societal, and industrial.
“It led me to watch films that captured the idea of entire societies in transition,” he continued. “It was the first time that I made a real panoramic film. I was trying to watch novels and movies, like some Fellini pictures like “La Dolce Vita,” Altman movies like “Nashville,” the “Godfather” pictures. These old-school epics that manage through a handful of characters to convey the feeling of an entire society evolving and changing, so that by the end of the movie, you’re in a whole different world.
Chazelle also confirmed what the trailer tells us: this is a wall-to-wall bawdy film crammed with dissolution and sultry excess, all shot on the big screen by Oscar-winning cinematographer “La La Land” Linus Sandgren. The cast also includes Tobey Maguire, Olivia Wilde, Samara Weaving, Jean Smart, Max Minghella, Katherine Waterston and Lukas Haas, among others, although the trailer really only gave us a glimpse of Pitt, Robbie, Calva and Maguire briefly.
“There was a lot more ‘wild west’ in it than even our conception of the Roaring Twenties,” he said. “There was more excess, more drugs, a more extreme kind of life on all ends of the spectrum than people even realize. What fascinates me at this time is that, in a strange way, it is an integral part of the industry that they have created.