The ‘Babylon’ sound team on the notorious elephant scene and other film secrets [Exclusive Video Interview]

When it came time to staff up the sound department for his epic Hollywood drama “Babylon,” director Damien Chazelle enlisted some of his Oscar-nominated “La La Land” and “First Man” collaborators to bring the project to aural life. It was a good thing, too: “Babylon” is an ambitious and unhinged tour-de-force that tracks Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talking pictures and includes blood, sweat, tears, other bodily fluids, and even snake venom — and all the accompanying sounds.

“I remember when I started reading it, I got to about page six and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh if this film comes out anything like this script, this is going to be wild. And sure enough, of course, it did come out exactly like the script,” re-recording mixer Andy Nelson – a two-time Oscar winner and 22-time nominee – tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. “So that was the first sort of fun surprise of the whole thing – just that he really delivered it.”

“Babylon” starts with a bang and a splash: an already notorious sequence where an elephant evacuates its bowels on a pair of Hollywood gofers in graphic detail. “One of the things that Damien wanted me to investigate and research was the sound of the elephant pooping,” Ai-Ling Li, a four-time Oscar nominee, including two nominations each for “La La Land” and “First Man,” says. Chazelle, like with so many other aspects of the film, wanted the elephant’s impromptu bathroom break to sound larger than life. But, as Li found, elephants “pooping and peeing actually already sounded pretty big. So I felt like we need to go even bigger than that. Just to create the surprise.”

To do so, she added various effects, like “plunger explosions from toilet bowls” and “guttural growls” from seals, plus “pitched-down burps and blowing bubbles into liquid.” 

“But part what made it also more gross is also hearing the poor elephant wrangler choking and gurgling when he tries to talk. So we tried replacing some of that from the production sound. The main thing is about building the arc. It’s almost like music, right? For everything to [crescendo] at the end into an abrupt cut”

For a drama-comedy about Hollywood, “Babylon” isn’t shy about engaging in gross-out humor. In a later scene, silent movie star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) learns about the existence of “The Jazz Singer,” the first “talkie,” while in a public bathroom. When he wonders aloud why an audience would want to watch a movie with audio to match its visual imagery, an unseen man experiences what can only be described as explosive diarrhea.  

“It was in the script. I read it and I just like broke out laughing,” Li says of the audio gag. “In ‘Babylon,’ there are so many genres – you have drama, you have comedy, and some action. So with sound work, we have to decide when to play it more grounded and real and when to go full-blown over-the-top.”

For that bathroom scene, Li says “over-the-top” worked – and the final product included some, uh, natural sounds. “One of our editors, he actually… yeah, he recorded it,” she says of the bathroom moment. “We took some of that and then laid it in with some other effects and then I added a grunt for the poor guy in the stall after the sudden outburst.”

But “Babylon” is about far more than just bathroom sounds. The film weaves almost two hours of music, written by Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz, and overlapping dialogue together at a breakneck pace. It also isn’t afraid to get quiet – such as during a showstopping sequence in the film’s midsection when silent film star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) must contend with being on the soundstage for the first time. During that scene, as recording usable sound takes priority on the film set, things quickly spiral out of control – and it’s the sound guy who gets berated.

“I don’t think we enjoyed the way the sound guy was treated,” supervising sound editor – and two-time Oscar nominee – Mildred Iatrou says with a laugh. 

“I was the ADR supervisor in addition to being a sound supervisor and I remember, early on when I started doing this, someone warned me and said, ‘Be careful never give direction to the actors,’” Iatrou adds, recalling that she was told one famous unnamed actor took great umbrage being “directed” once by a sound person – a scenario that plays out in “Babylon.” 

“I just thought that was hilarious to see in the film because it’s one of my biggest fears as a sound person,” she says.

“Babylon” is out in theaters on December 23.

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