As a bevy of buzzy fall titles have made their debuts at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, one project has been notable in its absence: Damien Chazelle’s Jazz Age bacchanalia Babylon. But Chazelle himself is in Toronto this week, and during a career-spanning conversation with TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey on Tuesday afternoon, he revealed one reason why Babylon is not currently having the length of its standing ovations tracked by everyone on Twitter: He isn’t done with the film yet. “I hope I finish it!” he told the festival crowd, shortly after we had been treated to a surprise viewing of the Babylon trailer (and shortly before we were treated to a second viewing, just because). But for a project that’s heretofore been shrouded in mystery, Chazelle did pull back the velvet curtain just a bit, to whet our appetites before the film’s December premiere.
Babylon takes place in Hollywood at the tail end of the silent period. “It was pure cinema, just image and music,” Chazelle said. “One of the tragic ironies of that era is that right when the art form was reaching its apogee, the legs got cut out.” Though you can make jokes about Chazelle once again doing a film about jazz, the initial itch for the project was to consciously swerve away from the movies he’d made before. After building his first four films around a central pairing, he wanted to make an Altman-style ensemble film, and after the stillness of First Man, he wanted to do something big and loud. The result, he said, was his most grueling shoot ever. In part, this appears to be due to Babylon’s sheer scale. If the trailer is anything to go by, the film will include a massive battle scene, an elephant, a jazz extravaganza, copious nudity, a crocodile, and Margot Robbie fighting a snake. (It also includes another woman I thought was Margot Robbie and turned out to be Samara Weaving, though no word on whether the inclusion of the two Australian doppelgangers is a plot point.)
The first thing you see in the Babylon trailer is the stars in the Paramount logo getting snorted up like a line of cocaine, and the preview wastes no time in establishing Chazelle’s vision of Old Hollywood as a Wild West of filthy, booze-soaked misbehavior — “humanity at its most glamorous, and at its most animalistic and depraved.”
“In the early part of the 20th century, L.A. was this dusty cow town,” Chazelle said. Then came the movies, and over a few short years its pastoral landscape was transformed completely. “They were building the city from scratch, and they were building the industry from scratch. And to do that, you need a certain kind of crazy person. It’s the American dream: this crazed, manic vision to conjure stuff up out of nothing.”
The debauchery of the silent period is one of Hollywood’s favorite foundational myths, its legend retold both in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, and by Karina Longworth’s series of You Must Remember This debunking many of Anger’s larger-than-life claims. Babylon is explicitly a work of fiction, but each of its main characters is an amalgamation of a few different real people. The casting works as shorthand: Brad Pitt is playing a veteran movie star, Margot Robbie an up-and-comer, and newcomer Diego Calva plays a fresh arrival who quickly rises up the ranks of the industry. “The fun of it was having a gallery of characters,” Chazelle said. “It’s a mix of faces you know really well but maybe have never seen quite like this, and faces you’ve never seen before.”
Among those also glimpsed in the trailer are Tobey Maguire, who gets sprayed by an unknown substance; fellow Pussy Posse member Lucas Haas; the briefest possible appearance of Olivia Wilde; and Jean Smart, who gets the honor of delivering the trailer’s kicker: “You thought this town needed you,” she tells Pitt’s A-lister. “It’s bigger than you.” Truly, a film for every niche fandom.
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