‘Babylon’ Party Opening: Editing of the 30-minute sequence

Academy Award-winning editor Tom Cross tells IndieWire how the party served as a microcosm for the film, anchored by Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy score and Margot Robbie’s performance of a lifetime.

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Typically, director Damien Chazelle and his Oscar-winning editor, Tom Cross (“Whiplash”), begin editing a film with the final scene, as that is the most challenging. It continued with the “Caravan” showdown in “Whiplash”, the “What if?” epilogue in “La La Land” and the thrilling Apollo 11 mission in “First Man”. But for their magnum opus Babylon, they started at the top: the opening bacchanalia at the mansion of Don Wallach (Jeff Garland), executive director of Kinoscope Studios, a nearly 30-minute tour de force punctuated by the eclectic cast of characters sweeps and sets the manic, hedonistic tone for a Wild West Hollywood caught between silent and talkies in the late 1920s.

“Here we did something different because Damien wanted to make the party end all the parties and thought it had more of the ingredients of the rest of the movie than the ending where we go to those dark places,” Cross told IndieWire. “It’s a microcosm, and in many ways it was probably the most difficult thing we’ve ever done together. But you could say that about the whole film. I think he saw the beginning as a guide for the audience, at least for most of the film. From the start, Damien wanted to shatter any expectations audiences might have of a period film. Damien wanted it to be loud, ruthless and dangerous – and he wanted every element to support that, including the editing.”

In fact, the director’s intention was to put the audience in a disarming wrestling match from the start. “It was always about drawing them in with excitement, humor and ease, and then hoping that as the story starts to take these turns and go into these dark places, they’ll stick with you,” added Cross.

Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer in Paramount Pictures' Babylon.


Scott Garfield

But they had never tackled an “epic ensemble” piece, so setting the characters’ dynamic in motion amidst the controlled chaos of sex, drugs, jazz, song and dance was important. There’s matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) at the height of his fame; Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the party crasher turned whirlwind life of the party, with her eye on cocaine and fame; and Manny Torres (Diego Calva), the Mexican-American all-purpose fixer who longs to work for the studio and falls instantly in love with LaRoy.

There’s also black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a Chinese-American cabaret singer and intertitle writer, who are also craving the film’s spotlight; and Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), the grand dame of Hollywood journalists with a keen eye on her fleeting place in history.

Diego Calva plays Manny Torres and Jean Smart plays Elinor St. John in Paramount Pictures' Babylon.


Scott Garfield

“Damien wanted to do justice to all of the characters because he created them to touch on different aspects of this Hollywood world that he created,” Cross said. “It was really difficult in that way, because those stories were also woven together in a very specific way, and it was difficult to boil the film down to its essence.” As a result, they referenced classic ensemble films like La Dolce Vita, Nashville ‘ and ‘The Godfather’ to balance the characters and their Hollywood dreams.

“They’re all about presenting this world in their own way, which is intoxicating and draws you in because it’s so loud and boisterous,” Cross continued. “But ultimately you see it’s sort of a Hollywood meat grinder. And it’s like that big parade float that people jump on and off. Sometimes they get run over by the swimmer, but the swimmer just keeps going.”

But the biggest help in navigating the party was Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy score, which went over the top with wailing trumpets, screeching saxes, shades of rock ‘n’ roll riffs and modern house beats. “The opening party, like much of the film, is very chaotic, but we used Justin’s music to tie it all together,” Cross explained. “His energetic, fast and percussive score became our North Star for the rhythm of the cut and we worked very closely with Justin. He was constantly revising his music in a room next to my editing room.

Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu in Paramount Pictures' Babylon.


Paramount Pictures

“He started with us on ‘La La Land’ and went on to ‘First Man,'” he continued. “On ‘Babylon’ we worked even more closely and intensely together, so Damien and I would rough out a scene and have Justin do some musical adjustments, which often involved new riffs and arrangements. And then Damien and I would get it back and adjust our image, and we would go through these little rinse and repeat cycles all the time.”

In particular, they used trumpet tones or certain downbeats built into Hurwitz’s score to provide an exit for performances (like Conrad’s bursting through the door) or percussive transitions (like the studio manager played by Flea running outside). , to accomplish). torres). “It was also important to give each of these little character vignettes an edge,” the editor added.

At the same time, cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s bravura 35mm camera provided another rhythmic guide, rippling up and down and sweeping through the party in a series of ones. “There were some stitches in the opening party moving down from the balcony,” Cross said. “Some were pre-planned and others were executed during the editing process to switch to other takes but also to compress some dialogue such as [Elinor’s] Intro when she talks to Manny.”

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Paramount Pictures' Babylon.


Scott Garfield

Robbie’s siren-like performance as LaRoy on the dance floor turned out to be the highlight of the party. “Linus had a lot of beautiful shots of her dancing and Damien wanted to dive into certain shots,” added Cross. “That means not editing too many moments. It’s a very voyeuristic moment and we strategically cut to Manny at a few points because it was important to see everything through his eyes, especially when she’s being picked up. And the idea is that Nellie’s attraction is so great that it makes the whole party go to even more intense places.”

It reminded Cross of the USO show of Apocalypse Now, where the already rowdy soldiers are sent into a frenzy when Playmate of the Year dances. “That was also a reference for that scene,” he said. “And Margot gave the performance of her life. It’s one of those scenes that you cut to Margot when you’re in doubt. She brought an unbound energy that didn’t seem to waver in any of the shots. It always seemed organic and real. At the same time, as an editor in daily newspapers, you get an amazing performance from an actor and you can tell that it hurts them that it destroys them. That was kind of perfect. Her magnetism rivaled Nellie’s.”

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https://www.indiewire.com/2023/01/babylon-party-opening-editing-1234794926/ ‘Babylon’ Party Opening: Editing of the 30-minute sequence

Lindsay Lowe

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