Sets within sets within sets: The places and spaces of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon

Sets within sets within sets: The places and spaces of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon

Babylon is Damien Chazelle’s take on the heady, hedonistic days of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as the industry transitioned from the silent era to the early days of talkies, innovative soundtracks and technicolour. Set in 1920s Los Angeles and starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, the film tells a story of ambition and excess during an age of decadence.

The period comedy-drama explores a pivotal era in filmmaking. Production designer Florencia Martin (who had an extraordinary start to her career in the art department of Mad Men, and more recently as production designer on Licorice Pizza and Blonde) together with set decorator Anthony Carlino had a field day creating the film sets of Babylon. These places and spaces help convey the outrageous excess and ambition of the rich and famous, through their rise and as well as their falls.

“Florencia Martin has brought back history in a way that has made it so alive” says producer Matthew Plouffe in Paramount Pictures’ production design featurette (see below).

Chazelle wanted the sets to be as historically accurate as possible and Martin therefore delved deep with her research to understand how Los Angeles really looked during the 1920s. The featurette details the process of creating the mesmerising film sets of Babylon and Chazelle says “Florencia had an insane challenge with this movie. Not just re-creating Los Angeles, but within that, re-creating each studio experience and, within that, re-creating each of the fictional movie sets. You’re talking about sets within sets within sets”.

An Old West–style film sets of Babylon
An Old West–style film set created for Babylon. Photo: Paramount Pictures.

The production design team created a series of outdoor silent-era stages in the desert outside LA. Typical of the era, they built them close together, and ran multiple sets simultaneously to echo the “chaotic immersive world depicting how silent-era films were produced.”

film sets of Babylon
The ballroom party film set in Babylon. Image: Paramount Pictures.

Babylon opens with a grand, raucous party (complete with elephant) at producer/movie mogul Don Wallach’s (Jeff Garlin) Spanish Gothic castle, reminiscent of the mansions built by power players like Hearst. This sequence was comprised from eight different filming locations and built settings.

Wallach’s mansion was shot partly at a castle built in 1926 by the real estate developer of Hancock Park, an hour outside Los Angeles, and an extension was built in front of the garage to serve as the entrance to the ballroom.

film sets of Babylon
The nightclub set in Babylon draws on Expressionism and features a set of black Thonet Chair No 18 . Image: PARAMOUNT PICTURES

The opulent living-room-cum-ballroom was filmed in the lobby of downtown LA’s Ace Theater, built in 1927 by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks to showcase their films. It has Hollywood history in its very foundations. The lobby was to transformed into a ballroom with gothic doors, parquet flooring and a bandstand was also added by the team.

The band set (above) makes great use of a set of black Thonet Chair No 18 (the bentwood curves of this Thonet Chair also looked very much at home in the swinging Berlin club of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret). Generations of art directors and set designers have cast a Thonet bentwood chair also known as the ‘bistro chair’ or ‘cafe chair’, in their films.

Fading star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt)’s Spanish Mission Revival mansion home in Babylon

Among the movie’s 120 sets which provide a feast for our eyes, we have the Spanish Mission Revival mansion home of fading star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) which reflects his interest in the arts and architecture, the Craftsman home where Manny Torres (Diego Calva) lives, the home of gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) – which was filmed at Pasadena’s Castle Green (built in the 1890s) – and, after several different considerations for the the Hearst party scene, the team used Busby Berkeley’s former home, a Beaux Arts Italianate manse.

The home of gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) in Babylon was filmed at Pasadena’s Castle Green

Interior decor, antiques and lighting were sourced from Revival Antiques – the Warner Brothers prop house, and Omega Cinema Props in Los Angeles, as well as antique shops in New York and Europe. History For Hire were the source for many of the old cameras and microphones seen in the film.

P.J. Byrne plays Max (Ruth’s AD) and Olivia Hamilton plays Ruth Adler in Babylon
P.J. Byrne plays Max and Olivia Hamilton plays Ruth Adler in Babylon. Image: Paramount Pictures

“There are two worlds in this film – there’s people that are impoverished and then there’s people who have a lot of money” Martin says, and she felt strongly that colour was significant in differentiating these worlds. Chazelle wanted bold colour choices while still being historically accurate.

Babylon is at the scale of these mythical movies you’ve heard of in the past,” Martin adds, Babylon was “an actual living, moving, kinetic thing while we were making it”.

Babylon is in USA theatres now and UK cinemas from 20th January.

Watch Babylon’s production design featurette below:-


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