For Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, there is no better feeling than briefly residing in a different universe — especially the lavish, unruly Hollywood in Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon.”
The Academy Award-winning director’s period drama plunges viewers into the glamor and glitterati of 1920s Los Angeles. While depictions of Old Hollywood often overtly romanticize filmmaking, Chazelle candidly dissects the underbelly of the industry during this period, pinpointing the consequences of its ambition.
In line with the chaos of the industry is the film’s eccentric ensemble, including the audacious Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). Desperate to rise to stardom, Nellie embraces the throes of filmmaking, no matter the cost.
“Every time we’ve seen Hollywood depicted 100 years ago on this scale, certainly, it’s been very buttoned up,” Robbie said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “There’s flapper girls, and there’s the Charleston and maybe they’re having a martini, but that’s as crazy as it gets. And the reality was it was just such a wild, chaotic, debaucherous, decadent time.”
The Los Angeles in Chazelle’s “Babylon” is a leap from the saccharine city displayed in his 2016 film “La La Land.” Striking and unpredictable, the first 20 minutes of “Babylon” present an unbridled party held by film mogul Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin), complete with drugs, dancers, musicians and an elephant.
“(Filming the scene) was like a never-ending bender,” Robbie explained. “You’d go outside to get a coffee or something and you’d see the sunlight and be like, ‘Ugh, get me back inside. I don’t even want to think about real life right now. I have to stay in party mode.’ ”
As the camera flits between groups of partygoers, viewers are introduced to the frenzy of Hollywood through the eyes of Manny Torres (Diego Calva) — an earnest visionary who, much like Nellie, longs to break into the film industry to “be part of something bigger.”
Manny and Nellie initially take solace in one another due to their shared status as outsiders, merely adjacent to the world of filmmaking. Intermingling with figures they idolize in the industry, the two remain tethered to their deep emotional connection, something that is exacerbated through dance.
“It was some of our first opportunities for physical connections when we would rehearse these dance scenes together,” Robbie said. “Manny and Nellie have such a lasting bond throughout this film. It was so important even just to be able to be physically close and connected in that way.”
As “Babylon” progresses, the two grow apart, experiencing the travail of moviemaking before eventually entwining their lives back together. Yet, over the course of their turbulent relationship, the industry itself also encounters change given the transition to sound in the late 20s. Chazelle examines the calamity of this advancement; though the period is coined the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” “Babylon” is unafraid to recognize the depravity of the era.
“I like the quote in Spanish ‘Un pueblo que no conoce su historia está destinado a repetirla,’ ” Calva said. “That is like, ‘a civilization that doesn’t know their story is condemned to repeat it,’ and I think (‘Babylon’) is important because of that.”
Certainly, there is an underlying meta layer to Chazelle’s epic. By presenting the precariousness of the industry during its transition to talkies, “Babylon” proves the extent to which filmmaking has evolved. Yet, Hollywood 100 years ago remains eerily similar to its contemporary form, particularly in relation to the rise of the celebrity.
Calva, now a Golden Globe nominee for his breakout role in “Babylon,” has paralleled his character’s journey entering the film industry, though the two are separated by nearly a century. Like Manny, Calva has experienced the magic of Hollywood, working alongside actors he has revered since he was a child, such as Tobey Maguire.
“The first time I saw (‘Babylon’) I felt the same feeling like when I was a kid going to watch Tobey in ‘Spider-Man,’ ” Calva said. “I was living in the ‘Spider-Man’ world for weeks after watching the movie … and when I saw ‘Babylon’ for the first time, I really had that feeling like I just want to live in this universe forever.”
Similar to Calva, Robbie’s rise to fame has been fast and fervent. The two-time Academy Award nominee has quickly become one of the most successful actresses of the 21st century. Both Robbie and Calva thus transposed their own experiences in the industry into their performances.
“There were so many instances where we were reenacting something that we’ve done,” Robbie explained. “We’ve had that moment where you do your first audition, and no one is expecting you to do anything great and then you get to blow their minds … and you have that moment, most importantly, where you hear the director say ‘Cut, we got it,’ and everyone in the crew screams and runs in and cheers and hugs each other.”
“Babylon” exposes the emotional toll of producing art — an experience that Robbie and Calva each long to relish in, despite its strenuousness. For, despite the mayhem that pervades the film industry, enchantment imbues every production, spellbinding those involved with its creation.
“I’m so addicted to that moment when you capture movie magic … You go see ‘Babylon’ and you get to experience that moment where everyone captures movie magic on celluloid,” Robbie said. “There’s honestly no greater feeling.”