Hollywood movies transition from silents to talkies in Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” as decadence and extravagance are all the rage in the 1920s showbiz milieu embodied by Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Tobey Maguire.
“Babylon” production designer Florencia Martin is no stranger to recreating a certain period in Los Angeles. For Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” it was the 1970s: “I’m telling the story of the story of the suburbs of America, of the San Fernando Valley and Ventura Boulevard,” he said then.
For the Netflix film “Blonde,” based on Marilyn Monroe’s life, Martin used locations that were “cookie cutter” America, symbolizing the perfect wife and perfect house as Monroe seemed to crave that type of post-war stereotype in her marriages while continuing her career as an actor. “The locations are simple and understated,” Martin says, adding that many were real-life locations frequented by the Hollywood star.
In “Babylon,” Los Angeles becomes a character. “We were able to showcase the formation of the city,” says Martin.
However, an ever-changing LA landscape meant that Martin was “focused on looking for locations that matched the research.” That meant finding open land to show where the city would eventually be built.
“We wanted the audience to feel the heat and the inhospitable nature of that environment, and the contrast of this incredible time where people were forming the city, fantastically and extravagantly,” she says.
Location scouting for those exteriors took Martin to northern Ventura County and the towns of Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula.
Dirt fields and mountains meant Martin had a blank canvas to build from the ground up including Cinescope studios. The film had more than 150 sets. “I put in telephone poles and built barns inspired by Dorothea Lange’s photos,” he says.
Chazelle shot in anamorphic. In contrast to the barren landscape, there was a “technicolor world.”
Martin explains that the other world in the films was “fantasy-like,” and she found inspiration from New York City and the Europeans who were coming to Hollywood and bringing that culture into LA “So you have this amazing thing that was happening, which is desert and planted palm trees, and then built worlds,” Martin says.
One sequence in the film tells the story of LA in the Roaring ’20s and the rush to modernization. “The driving sequence was made up of six parts because we wanted to get the transition from the barren desert into early Hollywood and the single-story buildings to huge electricity poles.”
Director Damien Chazelle on the set of Babylon from Paramount Pictures.
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