How ‘Babylon’ Roars Through the 1920s

The writer-director Damien Chazelle and the production designer Florencia Martin discuss how they captured the excess of a period when Hollywood was heading for a reckoning.

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By Mekado Murphy

After he turned the streets of Los Angeles into a playground and a dance floor for the musical “La La Land,” you might think the writer and director Damien Chazelle would have little left to mine from the location.

But it’s a big, big city.

His latest film, “Babylon” (out Dec. 23), aims to be even more extravagant in capturing the indulgent, mythical nature of the place where starry dreams are made (and dashed). It follows multiple characters through a period in the 1920s when Hollywood, high on the success of silent films, began experiencing growing pains and significant collateral damage from the transition into the sound era.

But before those problems set in, very little about the period, or the way it is portrayed in this film, is scaled back. Instead, Chazelle and his team want to capture what it might have been like to be swirling around in the excess of those early days, when the movies were silent but the living was not.

To solidify the look, Chazelle worked with the production designer Florencia Martin, whose most recent credits (“Blonde,” “Licorice Pizza”) have also showcased the city and the industry in periods of transformation. Following are images from the movie, with commentary from the two on how these outsize moments were assembled.

Castle in the Desert

Although Los Angeles is now a sprawling metropolis, its urban makeup was much more sparse in the 1920s, something Chazelle wanted to capture in his film. “You still feel the desert when you step outside,” he said in a phone interview. “You still feel the dust and dirt on the streets and big patches of pure rural nothingness. And that’s pockmarked with these insane structures that people, flush with new money, have built.” This party sequence takes place in one such mansion.

The exterior of the space was shot at a residence built in the mid-1920s on the city’s outskirts. “It literally is a castle in the middle of the desert,” Martin, the production designer, said in a video interview. The scene cuts to this interior, featuring the character Sidney Palmer, played by Jovan Adepo, on trumpet. The lobby of the Theater at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles stood in for the mansion’s main hall.

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