Damien Chazelle's lavish showbiz epic takes place in 1920s Hollywood, when "everything was new and wild".
Damien Chazelle has been working on the story of Babylon, at least in his head, since moving to Los Angeles 15 years ago: "The basic idea was just to make a big, multi-character epic set in the early days of Los Angeles and Hollywood, when those two things were becoming what we think of them as today," he tells Vanity Fair in his first interview about the film, which is due to be released by Paramount in December.
The 1920s was a pivotal time in Hollywood history. Los Angeles was becoming a metropolis and the film industry, in the midst of the transition from silent to talkies, was teeming with people seeking fame, wealth and power.
Fifteen years ago, Chazelle had none of that as an aspiring writer-director who had just moved from New York to Los Angeles. He hadn't yet made his smashing Sundance Film Festival debut with Whiplash – which earned JK Simmons a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of an explosive jazz teacher – nor had he become the youngest person to win the Best Director Oscar for La La Land: "I kept putting the project off, because it was a little too big," he explains. He finally tackled the script after finishing his 2018 film First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong.
From the early footage and images, Babylon looks to be a lavish journey through Hollywood's burgeoning golden age, starring a brash Brad Pitt, an uninhibited Margot Robbie and newcomer Diego Calva. But beneath the glitz and glamour, Chazelle wanted Babylon to underscore the fact that the city's rapid change and growth came at a price: "Everything is moving," he says, "and I became really fascinated by the human cost of disruption of this magnitude, at a time when there was no roadmap, when everything was new and wild."
Casting two of Hollywood's biggest stars in the lead roles of Babylon made sense, both thematically and financially. Pitt and Robbie, who co-starred in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, are playing actors at very different points in their careers, and Chazelle knew his stars would see echoes of their own lives in these roles. "Part of what was magical about working with them in these roles is that each of them felt like they could make this performance the most personal thing they've ever done," he says.
The majority of the characters in Babylon are fictional, though Chazelle drew inspiration from real-life Hollywood stars. Pitt's character, Jack Conrad, is a "super movie star," as Chazelle puts it, inspired by John Gilbert, Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks: "He comes to a point in his life and career where he starts to look back and wonder what's next." And Brad Pitt expressed a similar sentiment about his own work in a recent interview for GQ.
As for Robbie, she plays Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actress who is an amalgam of early stars like Clara Bow, Jeanne Eagels, John Crawford and Alma Rubens. Nellie is a new transplant from Hollywood who suddenly finds herself in the spotlight, an experience the Wolf of Wall Street star could relate to. "Margot has this – very Australian – brash, bold, hungry side that she was able to tap into and do some really fun things with," Chazelle says.
New cast member Calva plays Manny Torres, a Mexican actor who, as an outsider in Hollywood, serves as the audience's eyes in the world of Babylon. According to Chazelle, "In many ways, he's had a very similar experience to the character he's playing, of stumbling into a larger-than-life land and wondering what's going on."
Babylon's many supporting cast members-including Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Jean Smart, and Tobey Maguire – also play fictional characters (the only real person named in the main ensemble is producer Irving Thalberg, played by Max Minghella), whose dreams of fame and success rely on navigating a perilous city.
Chazelle reunited many of his former collaborators, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren and composer Justin Hurwitz, who both won Oscars for La La Land. He had in mind a film packed with spectacle that reflected the extravagance and hedonism of the time: "I wanted to capture how big, bold, brash and uncompromising this world was."
But Chazelle also wanted to probe the underbelly, to juxtapose the gorgeous Hollywood settings of La La Land with the darker examination of Whiplash's record of ambition. "It was really a Wild West time for these people, this gallery of characters, as they rise and fall, rise, fall, rise again, fall again," he says, adding that "the thing they're building turns on them and eats them up."
Expect a story that explores the multiple levels of transformation, from the city itself to the industry to the people hoping to succeed. Chazelle refers to the "unbridled and reckless ambition" of this era as the central theme of his film. And it's no coincidence that he says Babylon is his most ambitious work to date: "It's certainly the most difficult thing I've done. The logistics of the project, the number of characters, the scale of the set pieces, the length of the film, all contributed to making the project particularly difficult, but it was an exciting challenge to take on."
Babylon will be released in theaters in the U.S. on December 25 by Paramount. This feature is part of the Awards Insider exclusive series featuring previews and in-depth interviews with some of the biggest contenders of the upcoming season.