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Throughout his career, director Damien Chazelle ’07 has distinguished himself as an adept chronicler of the creative process, weaving intricate portraits of artistic projects great and small. His breakout second feature, “Whiplash,” tracked a young drummer’s feverish obsession with his craft with heart-stopping urgency, bringing basement practice sessions and bombastic performances to life onscreen. Chazelle later won an Oscar for his next film “La La Land,” which told the story of two young performers struggling to make it in Hollywood’s cutthroat film and music industries, painting the city and its creative cultures in vibrant detail. Chazelle has spent the last several years unraveling a new epic of artistic discovery with his fourth film, “Babylon,” released in December 2022.
Years before he became the youngest person to win the Academy Award for Best Director, Chazelle was living in Currier House at Harvard College, alongside his friend and artistic collaborator Justin Hurwitz ’08, who has composed the scores for all of his films. The two have most recently collaborated on “Babylon,” a sprawling tragicomedy about the end of Hollywood’s silent era.
The Harvard Crimson interviewed Damien Chazelle ahead of the release of “Babylon,” discussing his inspiration for the story as well as his experience studying film at Harvard.
In both “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” Chazelle explored the lives of artists and the difficult, often unforgiving industries they navigate. Chazelle has never shied away from showcasing the harsh realities of the music or film industries; from the abuse jazz drummer Andrew endures from his teacher in “Whiplash,” to the constant rejection faced by aspiring actress Mia in “La La Land.” “Babylon,” however, exposes an even grittier, darker, dirtier side of Hollywood; a wide cast of characters gets caught up in the corruption and excess of the 1920s and ’30s, including silent era star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), rising star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), and assistant-turned-studio exec Manny Torres (Diego Calva).
Chazelle, who also wrote the script for “Babylon,” discussed his vision for the film; he spoke of the dissonance between the art of filmmaking and the industry that surrounds it.
“Whereas ‘La La Land,’ for instance, was almost purely an affectionate love letter, here I wanted to put a spotlight on the more sordid qualities of Hollywood and Hollywood history, and the darker underbelly that Hollywood is often adept at sweeping under the rug,” he said.
The story that unfolds in “Babylon” revels and reels at the drug-fueled, sex-saturated chaos of early Hollywood, showing how newcomers Nellie and Manny are inducted into the wild parties and dysfunctional showbiz scene of early twentieth-century Los Angeles. In this world, movie sets aren’t scenes of serene collaboration — instead they are barely workable, bogged down by logistical nightmares, drunken actors, manipulative businessmen, and the rapidly-changing demands of the film ecosystem. However, Chazelle didn’t want to focus solely on the depravity of Hollywood — he also worked to highlight the duality of the industry.
“If you’re trying to tell a panoramic story, a big story about Hollywood and its origins, you kind of have to include both high and low, beautiful and ugly. Because I think [what] makes Hollywood so fascinating is that the two coexist, sometimes even in the same frame,” he said. “You know, to only condemn Hollywood, or only celebrate it, I think, is to miss a big part of the picture.”
In ambitious, gripping, and sensory-rich sequences, Chazelle illustrates how movie magic arises from the ashes of chaotic productions. In one standout scene, Manny gets his first on-set gig assisting Jack on the set of a giant war epic, where the hectic dysfunction of the set makes it seem like the day will end in disaster — until, at the last moment, Manny salvages the shoot, enabling a cinematic marvel that belies the behind-the-scenes drama.
“There’s a mercilessness to it, but there’s also of course this tremendous beauty to it as well, and, to the work that Hollywood has created, and to my mind the entire lineage of Hollywood history,” Chazelle said.
Chazelle’s vision of early Hollywood unfolds on the backdrop of an almost-unrecognizable Los Angeles, as its characters navigate the scattered sprawl of mountain top mansions, ramshackle sets, and underground parties that popped up long before Los Angeles grew into a bustling city. With this portrait of early Los Angeles and its rapidly-expanding footprint, Chazelle tackles a different side of the city’s legacy than he illustrated in “La La Land,” but continues his exploration of the city’s relationship to the industry it has become synonymous with.
“I think there’s something in the DNA of L.A. that’s inextricable from the movies,” Chazelle said. “The movies themselves were this unprecedented industry, no one had seen anything quite like it, like this sort of technology parade and art form … where people would just flood in from all over the country, like moths to the flame, trying to be part of this thing. It was like a circus on a bigger scale than had ever been seen before,” Chazelle said.
Like his earlier work, the film portrays Los Angeles as a city of dreamers, although ambition manifests in different kinds of behavior in this film. “The idea of that kind of a dream factory driving the growth of a city, it attracts a certain kind of person, it attracts a certain kind of behavior. I think a lot of that helps explain the particular kind of hysteria and madness, intensity, extreme living, so to speak, that characterized Hollywood and Los Angeles at that time,” he explained.
When asked which old Hollywood movies served as inspiration for “Babylon,” Chazelle immediately mentioned “Singin’ in the Rain,” the classic 1952 Technicolor musical that tells the story of a silent era actress who struggles to adapt to the talkies. The legacy of “Singin’ in the Rain” is a through-line in “Babylon,” which more grimly depicts Hollywood’s adaptation to the advent of talkies — as hilariously captured in a scene when Nellie goes to record her first film with an on-set microphone and the challenge nearly brings the entire production to its knees.
“It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, and it definitely plays a big role in ‘Babylon.’ You know, in some ways, ‘Babylon’ is kind of this weird indirect origin story for ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ almost like a making of without being a making of. But you see the roots where ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ came from. And I found that really interesting. ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ of course, being this great example of Hollywood turning its gaze on itself, and sort of spoofing its own growing pains,” he said.
Chazelle also discussed how his time at Harvard impacted his career. He studied film in the Visual and Environmental Studies department (now the Art, Film, and Visual Studies department.) “I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker … before I even knew what movies really were,” he said. From his earliest years watching animated Disney movies, he felt an instant connection to the art form. While he always had a passion for film, his Harvard education only deepened his understanding of the craft.
“The professors at Harvard really kind of opened my eyes to … this whole other world of making cinema that was outside the Hollywood mainstream, outside the normal commercial avenues,” he said. “And it was sort of liberating, it was the epitome of having your eyes opened wider.”
Chazelle emphasized that Harvard didn’t provide him with a mainstream Hollywood education — and he’s extremely grateful for it.
“What was actually, in retrospect, the greatest thing about the Harvard film program was that it wasn’t some sort of echo of Hollywood. It wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to try to give you the Hollywood experience before you go to Hollywood,’ it was the opposite of that … and it was actually really helpful and liberating to have this grounding at Harvard, in something completely outside of that, something even oppositional to that.”
At Harvard, Chazelle studied alternative forms like cinéma verité, documentary-style film, experimental film, and the avant garde, all of which helped shape him into the dynamic filmmaker he is today. He fondly remembers several professors from the film department, including Alfred Guzzetti, Robb Moss, and J.D. Connor; “I can’t emphasize how much I learned from them, and how much they helped me grow, not just as an artist, but even just thinking about film.” He explained that to this day he still attempts to infuse his fictional work with his knowledge of documentary and experimental-style filmmaking that he picked up at Harvard.
Chazelle’s very first feature film, a musical-romance called “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” began as his senior thesis project at Harvard, and eventually premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009, a year after his graduation. Discussing how his earlier films prepared him to embark on a project as ambitious as “Babylon,” which replicates the dramatic scope of early film sets complete with hundreds of extras and an expansive main cast, Chazelle noted that he faces the same challenges in projects of all different scopes.
“You still always feel like you don’t have enough money, you don’t have enough time, you can’t get this shot because the sun is going down, you have to run against time,” he said. But Chazelle highlighted how his fundamental approach to filmmaking hasn’t changed. “The footprint might grow larger, but you’re still, at the end of the day, just kind of putting pen to paper alone when you’re writing the script, or when you’re on a film set, just rolling a camera with an actor or two, trying to capture a moment that feels true, or that feels beautiful, or that feels interesting in some way. And that’s been the same as when I was making movies at Harvard.”
—Staff writers Jaden S. Thompson and Harper R. Oreck can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
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