He is 37 years old, manages stars like Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling or Margot Robbie, accumulates awards and reigns at the top of the Hollywood food chain. Meeting with the Franco-American filmmaker Damien Chazelle for his craziest film, set in the wild era of the pioneers of silent cinema.
A crazy party in a castle in the middle of the desert, with hundreds of party-goers dancing to frenzied jazz, couples getting laid in every corner, or snorting mountains of coke Tony Montana style, followers of golden showers, a corpse that we try to evacuate in the middle of the crowd thanks to… an elephant! Welcome to ZinzinLand, or rather babylon, Damien Chazelle’s fifth film, which takes place during the silent film era with Brad Pitt as a mega star, alcoholic in the last degree, and Margot Robbie as an aspiring starlet. The first sequence, 30 minutes of uninterrupted fiesta against a backdrop of jazz and technical virtuosity, takes you into an epileptic whirlwind that evokes Federico Fellini, Robert Altman or Baz Luhrmann as well. Total cinema, in freedom, which places Damien Chazelle at the top of the Olympus of 7e art. It was well worth a little interview with a hilarious and relaxed top of the class, as he works tirelessly on post-production (“little things, I polish the sound, the light”) in order to finish his film on time.
Damien, are we doing the interview in French or in English?
Damien Chazelle: Hum, in French, it’s fine.
Why did you decide to become a director?
(Laughter) I do not really know. In any case, what I know is that I always wanted to be a director. When I was little, I watched movies and I wanted to do “that”. It started with cartoons and I drew a lot, then small short films with actors. I was writing stories, I was doing home movies with my dad’s camera. It started like that and I never wanted to do anything else.
I thought, however, that the great passion of your life was music?
It came after. I started playing the drums around ten or eleven years old. And it became a passion in high school, especially jazz. I had a teacher who terrified me, a bit like the sadistic teacher in whiplash. But cinema was my first love and after high school I came back to 7e art. And, of course, I found a way to combine my two passions.
Your journey is amazing. You’re 37, you went to Harvard, you’ve been making movies for 15 years, you’ve got an Oscar in your pocket and now you’re working on blockbusters with stars like Brad Pitt. Do you pinch in the morning to find out if all this is real?
(He bursts out laughing) Occasionally ! But the problem is, I’m still just as stressed and dissatisfied as I was when I was younger, outside of this industry. I don’t know if satisfaction will ever come, I’m not sure. But hey, maybe it’s not so bad for an artist to remain dissatisfied; I want some, I’m always hungry.
La La Land was a tribute to the musical of the 1940s-1950s, to the cinema of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. This time, you’re tackling the 1920s.
I have always loved silent cinema, a major art, a language that is constantly evolving. In 1926, 1927, 1928, the sound arrives, then at the beginning of the 1930s, moral codes and censorship arrive, in particular the Hays code, art and the whole industry will change. The major battle scenes that were shot outdoors are now filmed in the studio. And we were shooting in silence for the sound! The freedom of the pioneers was lost. I wanted to show the disaster represented by the arrival of talkies. A star could go all the way down the food chain overnight and a guy who scrubbed the toilet could find himself in charge of the studio! Everything was reorganized in a fast, chaotic way, and it offered excellent narrative material. Hence my fascination.
It’s true that you were inspired by the German series Babylon Berlin ?
No. I know about this program but I haven’t really looked at it. But above all, I started to write babylon in 2008, long before this TV series.
As much first-manbased on the life of Neil Armstrong, was depressed, as babylon looks like an electric shock. You are considered top of the class in Hollywood, how could you make such a wild film?
That’s the whole point of Babylon. When I was researching pre-Hollywood Hollywood, when Hollywood wasn’t yet an industry but was very much like the circus, and LA was still a small town, I discovered that the spirit of the times was completely crazy, wild. Not really the idea that we have of the “Roaring Twenties”… There were no rules, no limits, it was an extreme period, with demented characters. I wanted to make a huge, noisy film about that era, filming the ups and downs, humanity at its most glamorous and at its most bestial and depraved. You know, alcohol was banned and drugs like cocaine were legal (he’s fed up). After the First World War, people wanted to experiment with everything, to break down all the barriers, there was a real spirit of freedom that hovered. To change everything! In Hollywood, a community formed because these people weren’t allowed to make movies on the East Coast. They built this city, this industry very quickly, and it was all done in a climate of madness. At the beginning of the film, it seemed essential to me to transcribe this madness, to capture the spirit of this period, because I had never seen that in another film about this period.
It feels like the Wild West, it’s just crazy.
(He chuckles) Exactly ! These pioneers are building a city from scratch and an industry from scratch. And to do that, you need a certain kind of crackpot. What I show is this sort of deviant American dream, of deranged and crazy vision. It was really the Wild West spirit.
What is the part of truth in babylon ? The obese character at the start evokes Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, implicated in the death of actress Virginia Rappe; Bratt Pitt looks like John Gilbert; Robbie Margot to Clara Bow… Are your characters composites of famous actors or directors?
It is exactly that. There are one or two characters who actually existed, like producer Irvin Thalberg, played by Max Minghella. Otherwise, they are fictional characters, composites. Clara Bow was very important in building the character of Margot, like young Joan Crawford. For Brad Pitt, I was mainly inspired by John Gilbert, of course, but also by Douglas Fairbanks, Gary Cooper…
But the lives of John Gilbert or Clara Bow are just amazing.
These actors, fascinating, mind-blowing as you say, this period, all of this is crazy, improbable, hence my interest. I wanted to find out what it was movie star. Before, the stars were singers, princes, kings, theater actors. With the cinema, we see for the first time close up. We discover in close-up the faces of Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Rudolph Valentino. The spectators have the impression that they know these stars, these gods, there is a real intimacy which develops, a kind of madness takes hold of the spectators. When Valentino died, do you know that women committed suicide? It was completely new, with an almost religious love for these new stars.
Do you think a star from 2022 could behave like a star from 1922?
(He howls with laughter) Oh no ! With their stories of drugs, sex scandals, alcohol, it would just be impossible today.
Your film lasts more than three hours. How many days did you shoot it?
72 days, with a budget of 78 million dollars. We ran a lot. I would have liked to have had more time, but it’s difficult for a somewhat original film. We must therefore redouble our reactivity with the resources and the budget. We must have been smart…
I read that you hesitated between Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio for the role of Jack Conrad. Why did you choose Brad?
No, no, I never considered Leonardo and passed the script on to Brad and him alone. He was immediately interested, but he wanted to talk about it with me to really understand his character and the era. I went to his house, I gave him a book on John Gilbert, films of the period, and he became more and more excited, fascinated. Like me !
Can we direct Brad Pitt?
Yes ! And it’s a great experience, a real pleasure. I don’t know if it’s because he’s been in the business so long, but he’s a real pro, in every sense of the word. When he’s on set, he’s ready to try anything. We sometimes have very complicated shots in the film and we had to multiply the takes, and Brad was always up for it, in a good mood. Same thing with Margot. Working with such actors is a director’s dream. With this film, I brought together the biggest cast of my career, it was a very long process.
How did you film this 30-minute party-orgy, with mind-blowing sequence shots, hundreds of extras, dancers, a golden shower and even an elephant?
Everything that happens in the house was shot in eight days, in the lobby of a theater in Los Angeles, the rooms, the corridors were recreated in the studio, and for the exterior, we found an Irish castle quite weird, in the middle of the desert. We did a lot of rehearsals, we worked with a choreographer, the dancers, the extras… The challenge was to rehearse and rehearse again. And to find during the filming a feeling of freedom, madness, and above all to make people believe that everything was spontaneous…
You weren’t afraid of the sex scenes?
Even while writing, I was afraid, I wondered how I was going to do it. It was essential for the speech and the structure of the film, it was necessary to show this society which fully lived this freedom, to also show afterwards how everything changed. The beginning had to be extreme and so we made choices before shooting and we rehearsed a lot, to show just what we wanted.
Your first sequence is a long gag with an elephant climbing a mountain and defecating… Is this a metaphor for contemporary cinema?
Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, but that’s good. The cinema of the time was a mixture of the trivial and the most absolute beauty. When you see a close-up of Garbo, it’s beyond human, it’s so beautiful, something made by God or angels. Yet, it was really people who made these sequences and they sometimes behaved like animals at orgiastic parties or behind the walls of their offices. It was this contrast that fascinated me.
babylonreleased in theaters on January 18
Interview Marc Godin