Nothing captures the wanton decadence that director Damien Chazelle wanted to portray in Babylon quite like the first party sequence at the mansion of Hollywood producer Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin). No matter how you may have imagined life in the Roaring Twenties, Chazelle and his production team take it to another level with a no-holds-barred approach to the people who worked hard by day and played even harder by night.
“The more I researched those early days of Hollywood, the more I became aware of just how insane that time period was,” says Chazelle. “It was this sort of larger-than-life assemblage of misfits who came together and built a city and a new industry from nothing. I didn’t feel like that kind of crazed behaviour had been accurately captured on film before, and I wanted to present their lives and lifestyles in an unvarnished and totally unsanitized way.”
From the opening moments, it’s a frantic tour of writhing bodies, kinky fetishes and all-around debauchery that takes hold of you and never lets go until the sun comes up the next morning. “As we were making the movie, we described those early days of Hollywood like a punk circus,” says producer Matthew Plouffe. “Hollywood was creating hit movies for mass markets, but it was also still fringe and filled with fringe circus folk. We wanted to capture the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll spirit of that time in a way that had never been properly put on film before.”
Manny Torres (Diego Calva) steps into the wild party with the same wide-eyed expression that any outsider would have in that moment. He gawks at the sheer beauty of the people contrasted with the simultaneous ugliness of their behaviour happening all in the same frame. A Spidercam was rigged from one corner of the room to another and flew through the crowd capturing dancers, partygoers falling from balconies, and two dozen vignettes of sexual encounters. “Early on, I felt we needed to try to begin the movie with a giant party sequence that would top all party sequences,” says Chazelle. “There have been some great party sequences in movie history, so those are large shadows to try to get out from under.”
For the exterior of the Wallach mansion, Florencia Martin and Supervising Location Manager Chris Baugh found Shea’s Castle in the foothills west of Palmdale, about 60 miles outside of Los Angeles. Baugh picked the site as much for its remote location and views as its history as a playground for the stars. “Shea’s Castle was originally built by an entrepreneur named Tommy Lee in the 1920s, and it was built for parties just like the ones portrayed in Babylon,” he says. “It took a couple of hours to drive to the house from Los Angeles, so Lee built a landing strip, so they could fly people from L.A. to the party. 24 Socialites used to fly out here and stay for the weekend and do whatever they felt like doing when nobody was watching.”
There was also a lot of authentic Hollywood history built into the ballroom of the Wallach party, which was shot at the Ace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. “It was originally built by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to kick off their new company, United Artists,” says Baugh, “The Ace Hotel purchased that property about ten years ago and restored it, and they did a fantastic job.” The location was chosen at Martin’s urging to utilize and add on to the existing historical architecture and elements of the space. “It just had all of the elements that matched up to Damien’s vision of how the sequence was going to be shot, of how Manny first sees the party up from the third-floor balcony and sees this bedlam of everyone going crazy,” says Martin. “We just were so enamoured by the detail in this theatre, and that it was unlike anything we had ever seen.”
The thump-thump-thump of the music at the Wallach party serves as a rhythm for the throng of revellers, with bodies writhing and undulating to the beat in an almost hypnotic state, captured by a camera swooping in and out of the action as the band plays on. “The complexity of that party scene is like nothing I’ve ever been a part of,” says Jovan Adepo, who plays virtuoso trumpeter Sidney Palmer. “There was a camera craning around me and coming within inches of my face while I’m playing the trumpet, so I needed to be perfect with my playing or risk ruining the whole take.”
When Margot Robbie’s character, Nellie LaRoy, makes her way into the sea of bodies at the party, she lets the music take over her soul and demands everyone’s attention with nothing more than the movement of her body and the fire in her eyes. “Nellie’s got really good instincts, and I think her superpower is that she knows when something works, and she knows when something doesn’t work,” says Robbie. “So, she knows when she gets up and dances on a table that people are going to watch her and they’re going to be titillated and they’re going to be shocked and they’re going to be intrigued.”
When Wallach’s right-hand man, Bob Levine (Flea), starts searching around the party, looking for an actress for the next day’s shoot, he notices Nellie across the crowded room, points and says, “Her.” Nellie’s instincts to make sure she’s at the right place at the right time have paid off. “The party scenes throughout the film are integral to the story, because you can learn almost everything you need to know about a society by their parties,” says Chazelle. “Within a Hollywood party, people can move up and people can move down in the blink of an eye.”…….or if it’s the Oscars, the slap pf a face!