Nestled under a plain gray T-shirt and a simple watch, sharply contrasting with the lighter hues of the wall behind him, Damien Chazelle sat in front of his Zoom camera.
This minimalist wardrobe may not be what some would expect from an Academy Award winner, particularly the director behind a film as brazenly grandiose as Babylon. But perhaps the simplicity of his Zoom setting gives us a lens into his directorial brilliance – breathing life into the seemingly mundane.
Babylon explores the intertwining lives of three people in 1920s Hollywood. In a round table Q&A, Chazelle talked about the nuances of one character in particular – production assistant-turned-studio-executive Manny Torres – who is struck by a surreal epiphany about movies as a medium “that’s bigger than [himself], that’s going to outlast all of us.”
Chazelle, who was also the filmmaker behind Whiplash and La La Land, studied at Harvard University before moving to Los Angeles and working as a writer for hire.
With little success garnering interest for what would later become La La Land, he eventually wrote the script for Whiplash, which was featured on the 2012 Black List as one of the best unproduced films of the year. A portion of the script was adapted into a short film as a proof-of-concept for the Sundance Film Festival, and the financing rolled in soon after.
The Whiplash most cinema fans recognize came out in 2014 to major success, including five Academy Award nominations and three wins. Two years later, La La Land debuted at the Venice International Film Festival and Chazelle became the youngest director to win a Golden Globe and Academy Award.
Now, he's on a press tour to break down Babylon, his latest feature film starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and newcomer Diego Calva. Chazelle first pitched the idea for the film to his producer, Matthew Plouffe, back in 2009.
“When I met him, we were in our mid 20s and he made a black-and-white [movie] in college,” Plouffe said. “It was like some weird love child of Lou Reed and Martin Scorsese walked into my office. I called him and I said, ‘I saw your movie and I saw ambition.’”
Chazelle called Babylon a long process requiring significant gestation, during which the idea would slowly grow in his mind as he made other films. Massive binders of research chronicling the history of old Hollywood icons such as Claire Bow, John Gilbert and Joan Crawford became integral to the development and outlining of the story itself, he added.
“It changes from script to script,” Chazelle said of his writing process. “Sometimes I don't outline at all. With [Babylon], everything was sort of methodical because it was so big and architectural and sort of daunting. So I did an outline. I did many, many drafts of that outline and it became kind of a 50, 60, 70 page treatment. We would get matched responses to every draft and once it felt ready, only then did I move to script.”
Plouffe called his three-year text conversation with Chazelle the very first outline for Babylon. He printed out 600 pages of text messages and gave them to Chazelle as a gift following the production’s wrap.
“It was just this daily back and forth, and falling in love with the time period and building the characters,” Plouffe said. “And watching [Chazelle's] brain work and building that outline to the script was the most fun I've had building this movie, creating this wild circus.”
And a wild circus it was. Babylon boasted a budget of nearly $80 million, and a strong supporting cast including Tobey Maguire, Olivia Wilde and other A-list actors.
Through the entire process of script to screen, Chazelle explained that the freedom he had to operate as an artist while filmmaking felt particularly empowering.
“I think part of what made this possible was it was almost like a hobby for us,” Chazelle said. “The movie wasn't set up with any studio or anything. There was no financing. There was no actor attached. There was no concrete thing. So it was just ‘One day we'll make this movie, wouldn’t that be fun?’ Might as well make it as ambitious and crazy as possible.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to better reflect the source of the story's reporting. A previous version of this story did not clarify that Chazelle spoke to journalists in a round table Q&A. NBN regrets the error.