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Babylon Director Damien Chazelle on the Silent Era of Filmmaking & Editing

Jan 18, 2023


Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle returned to the big screen on a massive scale with his latest, Babylon. Based on an idea the writer-director first cooked up years ago, the film explores the manic energy of Old Hollywood, set during a time when cinema was shifting from silent films to talkies.

Centered on the pulse of filmmaking in an era of decadence, Babylon traces the depravity and excess of the time with a cast that boasts big names like Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Tobey Maguire, as well as fresh faces like Diego Calva’s who plays the wide-eyed Manny Torres in the movie. From rising stars to the folks behind the scenes, Chazelle’s epic captures a glamorized version of an unbridled, tumultuous time in Tinseltown.

During a screening and Q&A moderated by Collider’s Editor-in-Chief, Steve Weintraub, Chazelle spoke in-depth about the making of Babylon. The director shared the moments he wasn’t sure Babylon would make it to the big screen, how he worked with Pitt on his role as silent film star, Jack Conrad, and how Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Jonze ended up in the film. Chazelle also discussed the filming of that opening party scene, when he realized Calva was perfect for Manny, his unique editing process that keeps him from having a stroke, and how that final scene came to be. For all of this and much more, you can read the full transcript below.

COLLIDER: Everyone in this room knows how the sausage is made in Hollywood. They know the behind-the-scenes of what it takes to make a film. What do you think would surprise people to learn about the making of Babylon that maybe they wouldn’t know?

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: That’s a good question. I don’t know if this would be any sort of surprise, but something that was surprising to me with this film is that there would be these kind of things, various things along the… It was a long road kind of getting the film made, longer than I’ve experienced on other movies. First, it was just the gestation process of trying to actually muster up the courage to write the script. And then, there were various kinds of roadblocks as we started getting the movie up and going. And in each case, it’d be a sort of moment where I thought that the movie was dead, but we’d get lucky, move through it, and in retrospect, those were the moments where the movie, I think, was actually saved from a lesser version of itself, in my opinion.

So it’s things like, for instance, we were supposed to shoot in the summer of 2020, so we started prepping right in March 2020. So you can think of the timing of that. I remember being so excited to get into the production offices. It’s always an exciting moment because it’s one of those moments in the movie’s life where you sort of feel just that much more real because the studio’s spending enough money to have a production office. You’re not quite at shooting yet, that’s when you really feel real, but the production office is a step on the way.

And before I could even get in the door there, everything had shut down. So that was a moment where it was like, “Okay, fuck. Let’s see, let’s try to reassess, recollect ourselves. Is this going to be a week, two weeks?” We all know how that went. And it was one of those moments where you just try to pick yourself back up from the ground. And I just wound up spending the time casting, looking at self-tapes, Zooming with actors, rewriting the script, working on storyboards, just stuff that I would’ve had to do in the maelstrom of prep but might not have had the headspace to be able to do. And then exactly about a year later, we were ready to start shooting again.

So there were things like that, there were casting changes that came like bolts of lightning from the blue that just, again, felt like they almost hobbled the movie or killed it in its tracks. But then some kind of stroke of luck, someone else would be waiting in the wings, and we’d be able to muster forward. So there were things like that, even more so – things like that I’ve experienced in every movie, but more so in this one where it just seemed to kind of die and get back up and die and get back up, such that by the time we were really shooting, it felt, on the one hand, like a real pinch-yourself kind of moment because it somehow had felt like this thing that was so precarious to get to. And on the other hand, I think there was just this sort of, at that point, wind behind our sails.

So the shoot was, on the one hand, logistically the hardest shoot I’ve ever had to do, but it was, in some ways, the most exhilarating, the most filled with gratitude just to actually be able to be there. And especially with the crew and cast, a lot of them having just gotten back into the process of making movies relatively recently after the lockdown, it was, I think, that kind of energy [that] propelled us through. I don’t know if that answers your question at all, but I think it was an attempt.

Brad Pitt is offered every script in town. And so what is it like actually getting him to say, “Yes,” and when did you find out he was like, “Oh, I’m going to make the movie?”

CHAZELLE: Well, he initially got the script – I was in Paris shooting a pilot for a TV show, and he was presumably here in LA, so we spoke by phone very briefly after he had read it. And then I happened to be back in LA, I think maybe a month later or something, and sat and talked with him a bit.

I remember the only thing I needed to talk him through, I remember, was it was this idea of the character being a little bit of someone who enjoys going to parties, let’s say. Someone who actually enjoys the high life, the master of ceremonies kind of role. That might be very [in] keeping with the sort of glamorous image of Brad Pitt, or any sort of movie star, but it wasn’t. That was the thing that he felt the most sort of… He felt comparatively asocial compared to this character and felt like that was not him, but also just something that he couldn’t quite tap into.

I don’t know exactly what clinched it for him. I just tried to talk about how the way I saw the character was that he was someone who, yes, went to the parties, who exuded the sort of larger-than-life presence with social, would throw parties, things like that, but always with a little bit of this – we talked about [Jack] Nicholson in the ’70s – that sort of vibe of just a little bit of a court jester underneath, that you’re sort of winking at it. He sees through the ridiculousness of all of it, even from the get-go.

Now that said, the vulnerability of the character is basically based on the fact that he doesn’t really think he’s going to fall victim to that ridiculousness. He thinks he’s separate from it and above it and can enjoy it in this kind of Mad Hatter way, and be a little bit removed from it. Once the arrows actually start coming towards him, then of course, that Mad Hatter act goes out the window, and you see the real vulnerability and then the real insecurity underneath.

But to be able to play the social animal with a little bit of a remove and a little bit of a reverence, I think, was something that just kind of came out in the conversations. And once we agreed on that as an approach, then yeah, he said he was good to jump on it.

Image via Paramount Pictures

How did Spike Jonze end up as the German director?

CHAZELLE: Actually, I think that was my wife [Olivia Hamilton] who had the idea, so I have to give her credit. She’s a producer on the film. I had tried casting. There were a bunch of people I’d tried getting, either actors I knew, both German and not German. It felt like this unlucky role where we were just never going to find anyone because everyone was unavailable or couldn’t make it work.

And then Spike, I knew a little bit but not super well. When my wife suggested it, I really thought he would not want to do it. He doesn’t act very much. He’s mainly making his films, but I just figured it couldn’t hurt. Before even sending the script, I think I just sent a description of the role, just the broad strokes of it, just sort of insane, rageaholic German director.

And I’ll never forget it. I thought he would respond with an email saying either, “No thanks,” or maybe yes, but I wasn’t expecting that. But instead, he sent me a 10-minute audio clip of just him ranting in a German accent as a director. And it was the most brilliant… I mean, I can’t do it, but it was the most… He just went on and on. I mean, a lot of it wound up in the film, just talking about how God charges him with what to do with the camera, and he finds his shots through God and, “I never storyboard, it’s an instrument of the coward! And God tells me where to put the camera and get out of my way you stupid crip!”

And it was just that for like 10 minutes, and I was just like, I’m still not sure if he wants to do the role or not. This is just maybe some kind of cathartic exercise for him to get all this off his plate. But I responded, called him up, and he was like, “Yeah, you liked some of that?” I was like, “Yeah, could you just do that on set?” He went, “Okay. If that works for you. You know I can’t do a real German accent.” I was like, “I don’t give a shit, just do that.” And that was it.

So yeah, that was one of the funnier casting wrinkles of the process. But that’s what he’s like, for those of you who don’t know him. Yeah, I think he enjoys the game of it all.

The opening of the film, and I know you’ve talked about it a lot, has an incredible oner. And I’m just curious, how do you decide where and when you want to use a oner, and do you look at something like Birdman and say, “I’ll never fucking do that,” or “Oh my God, that’s amazing”?

CHAZELLE: No, no. Yeah. I mean, I guess I’m attracted to things where I feel, in any movie, where I feel the filmmaker trying to wrestle with the form a little bit. So in a weird way, that often manifests itself in me just finding I have a taste for either super fast cutting or no cutting at all. My editor [Tom Cross] and I joke, in terms of the movies we’ve done before, Whiplash was all about super fast cutting. [In] La La Land we joked that all he had to do as an editor in that was cut the slates off shots, everything was a oner.

And here, it was a little bit about having a little bit of both. I associate oners in my mind with (director) Max Ophüls and some of the MGM musicals, so my mind immediately goes to things that are a little more lyrical, a little more romantic, there’s something sensuous about how the camera moves. Or I think of (director) [F.W.] Murnau, as well, speaking of the Silent Era, this sort of sensuousness to the camera movement. Whereas editing can be used in a more percussive, punch-you-in-the-gut kind of way, like (director) [Sergei] Eisenstein or something, so I sort of separate the two out in that way.

As a result, with this movie, it felt like, in general, where we leaned into oners would mainly be, for instance, in the first third of the film. It’s always helpful, I think, as a way of introducing the world in a way that feels kind of real-time, especially when you’re showing really over-the-top stuff, to almost prove the reality of it, to not overly cut it, to just allow you, the viewer, through the camera to discover it the way you would at a party like that or on a film set, just kind of looking around peering. So preserving that, it almost creates a kind of documentary reality to it that I like.

But there’s also a kind of exuberance, and it’s weird to talk about romanticism with that party, but it’s sort of a romance to that kind of shooting that I think is very different from the type of shooting and cutting we tried to employ in the second half of the film once sound comes in and suddenly people can’t move the way they want to anymore. So it felt appropriate that the camera would become much more static and things would become much more reliant on quick, sometimes violently quick, cuts in the scene where they’re trying to shoot Sam for the first time.

So it was thinking of that as an oppositional strategy where we begin with oners and end in a place where the editing was telling the story.

How does the oner actually impact your schedule and your budget, and does your line producer, or the producers, pull you aside and say anything? Because I’m not sure how that actually works.

CHAZELLE: It’s tough to predict. It winds up almost… It’s tricky because it can net out. The nice thing with the oner is that once you’re done, you’re done. Let’s say the whole scene is designed to be captured in one shot. It means you don’t have to then take care of coverage. You don’t have to think about whether you’re crossing the line, you don’t have to think about match cutting, you don’t have to think about various inserts to clean up the scene. You don’t have to think about any of that. You just know that you’ve gotten everything you need on whatever page, or [a] few pages of script, with one shot.

Now, usually, it’s a very complicated shot just because of how much action you’re trying to cram into it. You wind up making up or filling in the time you might have saved by just having to prepare it and rehearse it and whatnot. So I think, ultimately, it probably, again, nets out the same on a shooting schedule, unless you’re talking about a really inordinately complicated oner.

But there is always that moment, I find, in shooting – I learned this on La La Land and am reminded of it on this – where when you’re doing shots like that where they will really seem like disasters for the first several takes. I mean, all through rehearsal, it’ll really look like it isn’t anything. And then maybe you’ll start to get a glimmer of something, enough of a glimmer to feel like you can actually start rolling camera or rolling film on it. Once you start rolling film, again, it’ll just feel like one bad take after another bad take after another, and for longer than it feels like you have any right to be doing bad takes for it.

But I’ve learned it doesn’t necessarily mean the shot itself is wrong. It can mean that there are things that need to be fixed in the language of the shot, but I think sometimes once you’re at take seven or take eight, or it’s take 10, and it’s still bad, you start to panic. There is that thing coming in where you feel the clock, and you feel all the other stuff you have to do that day bearing down on you, and you want to go, “You know what? Actually, maybe this just won’t work, or maybe we should at least give ourselves a safety net and let’s get this as good as we can, and then we’ll shoot some coverage to cover our bases.”

But it’s always darkest before the dawn. I always find that, almost like clockwork, we would start to have our first good take around take 12, take 13. It was always somewhere in the low teens. Now, if you go past that then – because that was where we normally start having a good take – then I’d probably start getting panicked.

With a big shot like that where you know you’re not going to have coverage, I’m also always terrified of, especially shooting on film, that you’re going to get in the edit room and there’s something that you didn’t realize, a hair and the gear’s been out of focus or something that you couldn’t catch in the monitor. So I always have this rule; if I can, sometimes you can’t because of time, but whenever possible get two takes that feel perfect, not just one. And so let’s say you get your first take that feels perfect enough to circle, to have the script supervisor circle, somewhere in the teens, and you want to keep going until you get a second one. And maybe that’s in the twenties or in the thirties, or something. So normally you wind up shooting 30 to 40 takes, but it’s those first 10 that are brutal. But then you work past that. Usually.

Speaking of editing, I’m fascinated by it because, ultimately, that’s where the whole thing comes together. So I’m curious, when you watched the first cut, and you’re in the editing room, you’ve seen all the footage together, are you ready to jump out the window, or were you like, “Oh, we have this”?

CHAZELLE: Well, I’ve learned the hard way never to watch a first, first cut. Sometimes you’d call it an assembly where, essentially, you get into the edit room and see what the editor has, sometimes with feedback from you, if you’re in and out of the edit, but very early in the editing process to begin by looking at what the assembled film looks like. I did that for the first time on Whiplash, and it took me about, I don’t know, four weeks to just recover from the stroke, the aneurysm, everything that I had while watching that, and life’s too short. So I’ve decided never to do that again.

So Tom, the editor I work with, he will still do the same work that he’s always done while I’m shooting, but I like to let him, for the most part, do his thing. I’m focused on shooting. I’ll talk with him every day or every few days to just get a sense from him, I trust him so much, get a sense of what he feels he’s getting enough of, what he feels that maybe he could use more of in terms of colors or performance, or whatnot. But by and large, I like to keep the edit at a distance while I just focus on the shoot.

And then once I’m done shooting, I’ll just go in the editing room and then, he and I, we’re together every day, and he’s got an assembly of the film, but I won’t watch it. I’ll just go scene by scene with him. So we’ll decide. Sometimes we’ve started from the end, certain films, sometimes we start from the beginning, but just going scene by scene. I find it’s much easier on the stomach to watch a ghastly three minutes of footage than a ghastly three hours.

So I can watch a scene, keep myself from suicide, and then we go in, and we roll up our sleeves and cut the scene, and only once that scene feels good enough to set aside, do we then move on to the next scene. And so we go bit by bit by bit, scene by scene by scene for as long as it takes. I’ll go back and watch chunks as we’re doing it. I’ll watch a reel once we’re finished with a reel, or every 20 minutes or 40 minutes or so until we start to get to where we’re close to finishing the film, and then I hold off and don’t watch it in full.

So my version of watching the full cut for the first time is really once he and I have done our pass together and have actually been through each scene with a fine tooth comb, then we’ll sit down, [and] screen it from beginning to end. I guess every time I do this, it’s always the same kind of hope that maybe this time it’s just going to be this blissful screening where we just cracked it all in that first round. Because we feel good about each individual scene, so theoretically, it should all add up to something pretty good. Invariably it doesn’t, but at least he and I have processed it together, so it’s never quite as traumatic as just being exposed to an assembly at the beginning would be.

So we screen that full cut, [and] come out with a ton of notes, he and I both. At that point, we still haven’t shown the film to anyone yet. It’s still just entirely the two of us. And then we’ll work on that, and we’ll try to do all the revisions we think need to be done, the re-editing that needs to be done. Only once we get the cut to a place where we actually feel decent about it, will we then start bringing in other eyes, whether it’s Justin [Hurwitz], the composer, or the producers and whatnot.

And at that point, I’m a big believer in just screening, screening, screening, just anyone you trust, friends and family screenings, just anything you can do to start to see the movie through other people’s eyes. Because it starts to get harder and harder, once you pass those first cuts, to see it with fresh eyes. So that’s when you start to rely on people that you trust and yeah, letting that take shape through that.

So the movie’s three hours and eight minutes, 10 minutes, I forget the exact run time. Did you have a much longer cut that you were happy with? How did you end up with the run time that you did?

CHAZELLE: Well, ironically, our first cut was shorter. It was two hours 50-something, not much shorter, but it was a little shorter, and certainly, we felt good enough about it at the time to show the producers, I remember.

But rewatching it and also getting their feedback, it became apparent to us that… I guess because I always knew this length was going to be this albatross we’d be struggling with, with this movie. We knew the script was long, [and] the amount of footage we’d shot was long, so we knew if we weren’t really ruthless with ourselves, this could be a four-hour, five-hour, just totally unwatchable thing. So we tried to be pretty ruthless in that first cutting stage. You’re just going scene by scene, sometimes even just within… I’d cut a scene, and then we’d decide, “You know what? Actually the scene doesn’t really earn its place in the film,” and we’d throw it out.

So as we were kind of going scene by scene and compiling that first cut, the stack of deleted scenes was growing and growing. Once we screened the full thing, [and] showed it to the producers, we were able to all talk about it, take a step back from it. It was that thing that sometimes happens where you realize: actually, you’ve cut a little too much where there [are] nuances that, because you’ve been hewing so close to the bone of just plot, there [are] nuances of character and little quieter moments or in-between moments that you’re missing now.

So then we sort of reached into the stash of some of the stuff we deleted, not all of it, but some of it, put it back, and the movie got way too long. Then it got to, I forget, three and a half, or 3 hours 40 or something, and then you winnow it back down.

And so I’d say the story of the edit from that moment on was this kind of accordion process where it ping-ponged around the run time it finally wound up at. A little under, a little over, a little under, a little over until, if nothing else, by trial and error you find what feels to you, at least your best estimation at the moment, the sweet spot where you’re getting enough of the richness and the character, the nuance that you want in there, but hopefully, keeping the pace up in a way that people don’t get too restless.

I know you ended up with a bunch of deleted scenes on this, and I know you’ve obviously ended up with deleted scenes in your previous movies. What is it like telling an actor who delivered a great performance, “Hey, you were awesome. You had 20 minutes of screen time, but now you’re down to 10 minutes, or five minutes, or whatever happens in the edit”? Are you calling them before the premiere, or what is that conversation like?

CHAZELLE: Well, there is that famous story of Adrien Brody showing up to The Thin Red Line premiere. I don’t know if this is true, but he was supposed to be the lead of that film, and then showing up and realizing, in all three hours of it, he was in one shot and Jim Caviezel had become the lead. So whether that’s true or not, I guess I’ve always found some fascination in that story, maybe because I love that film so much.

But it is true, maybe not so much so in a film like this than it would be a [Terrence] Malick film, but where the edit is going to tell you things that you wish you could make educated guesses about ahead of time. But you just can’t. Especially once you get down to budgeting, and you really get down to needing to slash the script to just be able to actually shoot it.

I always wish that I could just take a time machine and just go to the edit and just find out, “What are all the scenes? Great, we don’t need to shoot any of those. Amazing.” It’d be so much easier. And every time I think that I’ve cut the script so much down to the bone that this time, we’ll just watch, we won’t have deleted scenes, just watch. And there [are] always so many deleted scenes, so it’s something I wish I got better at, but I don’t think I have.

And so yeah, as a result, you always wind up with those moments with actors because sometimes it’s scenes or performances that you love, very often it is. I like to try to call them up when I can or write them. Sometimes it’s nice to just, once you realize a performer has been cut altogether from the film because they were just in one scene, set that footage aside and send it to them so that at least they can see what they did, use it in a reel or something like that. That can be helpful for them.

So you just try to do the bare minimum like that, but it’s always a bummer to have to tell someone who worked hard that they’re not in it.

I’m going to do one more editing question. I’ve spoken to a lot of directors, and they talk about how there’s always one sequence or two sequences in a movie where they repeatedly keep going back to it because they’re just never happy with it. Did you have one of those in this, and was it in the third act during a big edit?

CHAZELLE: Well, you’re talking about maybe the last scene? I mean, yeah there’s always a scene like that or a few scenes like that, or yeah, very often it’s like chunks of the film. You have chunks that pretty early on find their groove, and so you know that that reel or those two reels, you can set them aside for a while, you’ll tinker with them, but the foundations are there. And then there [are] others where, up to the last minute, you’re contemplating really radical things.

In the case of the scene that went through the most radical editing at the last minute was the final scene, but it wasn’t so much a scene that we kept returning to. It was more a scene that we initially edited relatively quickly, got it to a place that felt okay, set it aside, and then didn’t really touch it too much for most of the edit. We focused on other stuff in the movie. And it was really only once the rest of the movie got more fully baked that the problems with that ending became apparent.

I mean, to be more specific about it, it was a more literal version of what’s in the film, and it had Diego [Calva], who plays Manny, going into the theater, watching Singing in the Rain. There was a little bit of shot-for-a-shot between him watching and what he’s watching. And then the camera did its crane move over the crowd, landed back on him, and the movie ended with Singing in the Rain playing over the credits.

And that was what had been in my head, initially, writing the script and whatnot, so it didn’t make sense to me that it wouldn’t… The script had worked for me. I’d lived with the script for several years prior to shooting it. So it felt like that ending as filmed should work, and yet something just wasn’t clicking about it. And I realized, going back to reread the script, going, “Well, what was it about the script that felt different?” And I realized I did what I’m often guilty of doing when I write scripts. I did a lot in that last page of the script. It was a lot of description, a lot of, not just, “He sits and watches,” but it was a lot of very kind of purple prose, very overwritten as I often do, just prose about what’s going on in his head and then the mix of emotions, and this and that.

It just occurred to me, reading it, that actually all of that, in the process of reading it, you created a certain kind of feeling, a certain kind of charge and energy to it that I hadn’t really put on screen because I’d been too literal about it and that I had to go a little indirect. I had to be a little less literal in order to capture that emotion.

So that’s where we started trying things that felt crazy at the time. Trying things like incorporating memories from earlier in the film, other film clips, these shots of dyes that are used to dye silent film that we used very briefly in a previous montage earlier in the film, reprising some of the celluloid that you see in those dyes, mixing them all together at the end, using some of Justin’s music that had been composed for other parts of the film initially that we hadn’t used. And using different parts of the footage that we’d shot of Manny on his face, just scrolling through all the takes. We’d shot a lot of footage, camera trained on him, and that closeup of him taking in what he’s watching in different ways, and trying to find the little moments that could tell this different version of that same story.

And so it felt very like, “Let’s rip open what we have and just see what happens.” Very instinctive, messy, just throwing it all against the wall editing. Quite late in the process. I mean, we had started mixing already on the rest of the movie so it was a moment where we had to halt the gears on finishing the film and, Tom and I, just sort of [burrowed] ourselves for a few weeks in the edit, just sort of playing.

And it was actually kind of great because we hadn’t really played and experimented that way since the very beginning of editing. Normally, [in] editing, you have this sort of open horizon at the beginning. It’s very fun. I love the beginning of that editing where you can do anything. But once you start to get towards the tail-end of post, the machinery starts to kick in, and you need to mix, and you need to make dates, and you need to color correct and finalize VFX and ADR, and everything starts to become a little more codified, and you’ve got to start locking reels, and you can’t just have these willy-nilly– or it becomes harder to have these blank-page ideas. “What if we did this? What if we threw in Avatar? That’d be great.”

And so it was fun to actually create space for just a moment because it was just one scene we were able to – and thankfully the studio was very supportive to just give us the time – we were able to experiment and burrow in and try things, even if they felt crazy, knowing that they might not work, but just to try them. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t, but at the end of a few weeks, we had the basis of something that felt interesting and, I guess most importantly, felt way more in keeping with the energy that was on the page even though it didn’t literally have anything to do with what was on the page. There was no description of other film clips, or anything, or going into the future or anything like that on the page, but that kind of madcap energy that felt so intrinsic to the movie, what the movie wanted to be from the get-go, to have that energy at the end.

Yeah, I sort of knew instinctively, even when it was still really messy as a scene, and we still needed to tinker it, knew instinctively that this was, for me at least, this was the only way that the movie could end and feel like it had actually reached some kind of aptitude.

Diego is fantastic in this movie, and he’s never done a role with this scale and scope. I’m curious, when did you know he was the right person, and was it like an audition? How did you know that he’s the guy?

CHAZELLE: It was a lot of auditions. I mean, initially, it was just a headshot. I didn’t know who he was, but there was something about his face and his eyes, and it was just very, I don’t know, he’s just got this captivating quality in his face that I felt the camera would fall in love with. And then I started Zooming with him. He was living in Mexico City, I was in LA, [and] we just started doing a lot of Zoom auditions basically, and chemistry reads with Margot [Robbie].

It took a while because even though I felt really captivated by him from the get-go, to be honest, I was also scared of giving, let’s say, the main role or third main role if there’s kind of a triangle with the main roles of the film, one piece of that trio to someone who had never… I mean, he had done a couple of small indie films in his hometown. He had never shot in the States, he didn’t speak English that well, he’d never been on a big movie set, [and] he had never done anything period. So just how green he was, I think it both excited me and, knowing just what a difficult shoot it was going to be, scared me.

But I just couldn’t dismiss him, you know? There was something too captivating about him, and especially when it really clinched it was when I was finally able to get with him in person. Because there’s obviously a limit to what you can suss out on Zoom or self tapes. But getting with him in person, I remember he and Margot, they did a few scenes, improvised a few scenes with me in my backyard, and I was just shooting it on my iPhone and that was one of those eureka moments where any of my hopes for him felt completely vindicated, and any of my fears felt completely quashed. There was just something effortless, natural, electric about him, about the two of them together.

Yeah, so that was the moment where I went from on the fence to 100% sure.

Was there something to casting essentially an unknown in that role because you had Margot and Brad as the other two pieces?

CHAZELLE: Yeah, I always wanted an unknown, so I knew I’d created a challenge for myself. I think in my mind I would’ve had, initially, an unknown, someone unknown to the broader American audience, but who maybe had still done a lot of films or a lot of theater, or even a lot of smaller work on their own where they came armed with an arsenal of technique such that I wouldn’t feel that I had to sculpt the performance so much from the ground up. It was more doing notation as a director.

And so I think I had that fantasy in my head and, in some ways looking back, I think I needed someone less experienced, not just for the fresh face, but even just that real-life quality of it. The fact that Diego… I mean, first of all, I think experience or no experience, I think he’s an actor of incredible raw talent and range and can do anything. But there also was something not fakeable about his first day on set that we were able to capture with him playing Manny. And it’s the scene where he arrives on set with Brad in the car, and he’s dealing with the extras. That was Diego’s first day on set, that was his first day shooting with the full team and everything. And he’d barely met Brad Pitt, and suddenly he’s acting alongside him.

I mean, all of that, I think, conspired to create something very real-world about the wide-eyed kid who’s just like, “Whoa, what the hell? Where am I?” That was so key to the character, especially where we meet that character in the beginning. We had to feel, genuinely, that fish-out-of-water and in-over-your-head dreamer’s feeling right at the get-go. So he was able to convey that so naturally, maybe because so much of it was real.

So, I think looking back, it all wound up taking the path it was meant to take, even though it might have felt risky at the time.

How much are you involved in looking at the schedule and saying, “I don’t want to shoot that at the beginning,” or is it like you can’t really control that due to budget and the way it all shakes out? For example, you mentioned that this first thing that Diego shot was, it was a great scene for him to shoot on the first day. Was it engineered that way?

CHAZELLE: Yeah. I mean, Bob Wagner was the [assistant director] on the film and he and I… I mean, I definitely get very involved in how we’re scheduling out the film. But yeah, it’s always that real compromise, I’d say, between what you artistically might envision would be the creative ideal, which is usually just shooting completely in sequence. And some films are able to do that, very rarely, where you can just shoot the story in story order. So generally, you try to get as close to that as you can, but you’ve got to juggle all the things that conspire to make that not feasible: location availability, other actors’ availability, et cetera, et cetera.

So you juggle all of that, and then you see where the chips fall, and then within the chunks where you can, you try to go in order. So for instance, the whole opening party scene of the film, we didn’t shoot until about halfway through, but at least we were able to mainly stay in this kind of young Manny, sort of the beginnings of Manny’s time in LA, or in Hollywood rather, for the first chunk of our shoot. And then things like the blockhouse or the last scene of the film, or anything that was much later in the shoot, pretty much towards the tail end. You try to keep the broad strokes as reflective of the character arc or story order as you can.

I’m also a big believer in beginning with something relatively difficult. Not easing your way into a shoot, but beginning with something that you can prep up until the last minute because you’ll never have as much time to prepare something as you will before you start shooting anything. So it can be very tricky to be prepping a big sequence halfway through a shoot while you’re shooting another sequence. So try to pick something hard that needs a lot of rehearsals, so you can really rehearse it and be fully focused on that towards the tail end of your prep right up until the day of shooting. And then, if it goes well, then you have this wind behind your sails, you’re embarking on the rest of your shoot feeling like you took out a major bite and not just had difficulty swallowing a few crumbs, and you’ve got so much more of a meal to come. You really feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Week one was Margot’s first day on the silent film set with the tear and the dancing and the fire and everything. And then week two was Spike in the battle and the hilltop kiss, and the extras and Manny racing with the camera, and all that stuff. So it was sort of two weeks that felt a little bit insane on paper, but we were able to really prep them until the last minute, and really plan them out to a T. It was all very storyboarded, all prepared in that sense.

And then I remember the feeling at the end of week two where we felt like… I think it was like in the film. We had just gotten the shot with the sun setting and the butterfly, and the cannon blasts going off and the extras down below. You had this kind of exultant feeling of, “Oh, we can do anything. The rest of the shoot’s going to be…” I remember very naively thinking the rest of the shoot would be a breeze, that nothing would feel hard anymore. And then a month later, we all wanted to kill ourselves. Yeah.

So it all went south maybe, but it was this great kick in the pants, I’d say, to begin things off, without which I think we might have still had an even harder time getting the whole train rolling.

I know that you came up with this idea many, many years ago. It’s something you’ve been really thinking about. Were there other ideas that you came up with all the way back then that you are still thinking about? Like, “I might want to still do that”?

CHAZELLE: I guess there [are] bare sketches of ideas. It’s hard to even call them ideas. There’s the drawer of half-baked concepts, or parts of ideas or sketches, and this was one of those, so some of those come to fruition, some don’t. So it’s hard to say. I don’t know exactly what the next film is, and I’m trying to leave things open to figure that out.

This maybe was a little unique in the sense that it felt somewhat clear to me early on what it wanted to be. It just took a while to figure out how to execute on that, how to learn enough about the time to be able to feel like I could actually fill in the details of the story on the page, then to be able to actually muster the resources to be able to actually execute what was on the page. So all of that, that’s what took the time. It was probably the time it needed to take.

In terms of things I have in the drawer right now, I don’t know. Yeah, I don’t know if there’s anything that promising, but we’ll see.

Image via Paramount

One of the things that this film does is talk about the Silent Era, and what’s really tragic about the Silent Era is right at the end, they were making these great movies, and then all of a sudden, boom! The Silent Era’s over. So for people that maybe haven’t seen any silent films, possibly ever, is there one or two or three you really want to recommend?

CHAZELLE: Well, I think the tragic irony of the Silent Era is exactly what you’re saying, that arguably, its best years were its last years. And I mean, you could even make the argument that the greatest silent films ever made were made after sound first came in. It’s that 1927 to 1929 period that’s just that final flowering where you see certain filmmakers making films. You think of things like Sunrise, Murnau’s film, or Wings, or the Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928. There [are] films like that where you almost get the sense that the filmmakers kind of knew it was the last gasp of this art form or this kind of cinema.

I don’t know if they actually thought this, I mean, there was a lot of debate at the time, people debating whether sound was here to stay or whether it was just a fad, but there’s a kind of go-for-broke, fever dream, rapturous charge to those last great silent films. It’s hard to find any parallel in film history. It’s the great triumphant close to that whole way of making movies.

I would recommend any of those. I mean, there [are] great silent films from beforehand. We were cribbing a lot from Intolerance and The Last Laugh et cetera, et cetera. [Charlie] Chaplin, obviously. But yeah, for me, I think I have a special place in my heart, maybe again, just because of the historical context of it, the sort of tragedy of it, the poignancy of it, of those last years, 1927, ’28, and ’29. Yeah.

It’s crazy that those films were made then and that it was 12 years later, Citizen Kane. Just that period of time, it’s bananas.

CHAZELLE: Yeah. And some people will argue that, I don’t know if I entirely share this viewpoint, but that silent film was reaching this kind of apogee and then cinema, in general, was sort of hobbled at the knees and set way back by sound, and it took 12 years for cinema to be able to re-approach the heights of silent cinema, and that’s Citizen Kane. That what makes Citizen Kane a breakthrough, is like it’s a sound film relearning, finally, how to be as expressive as the great silents were.

Again, I think that’s a little simplistic. There [are] a lot of great films in between 1929 and 1941, but there is something to that. And again, across the world, you think of German Expressionism, you think of what (director) [Carl Theodor] Dreyer is doing in Denmark and France. You think of obviously what the Americans are doing, what [D.W.] Griffith and King Vidor and [William A.] Wellman and Chaplin are doing. It’s just across the world, there’s something going on at the end of the Silent Era.

I mean, again, part of the beauty of it is that it was this kind of utopian ideal of the universal language. I mean, that’s really been lost. I mean, of course, cinema still is this kind of universal language. We can talk about it as such. But the truly universal language where, especially Murnau, people like that, would talk about trying to reach a point in the art form where they wouldn’t even need inner titles. Trying to reach a point where you could really do without, let’s say, words at all, and you would have an art form that was truly, truly universal, that would play the same whether you were in London or New York or Berlin or Shanghai, that this was something that could truly unite the world. There was this kind of utopian promise of that that certainly was lost with sound.

So yeah, it’s easy to shed tears for it, but at the same time, we’re lucky to have the films. We still have the films, and they’ll last forever.

Babylon is in theaters now.

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