Florencia Martin interview: ‘Babylon’ production designer

When it came time to recreate 1920s Los Angeles for Damien Chazelle’s sprawling Hollywood epic “Babylon,” production designer Florencia Martin wanted audiences to really feel the history of the central city.

“Damian and I met over Zoom for the first time actually, because we were in the pandemic, and started immediately sharing images of these depravity-stricken characters mixed in with a barren Los Angeles,” Martin tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. “It’s unbelievable to look at these images of early Los Angeles and see how it was really a city in formation – which is how Damian wrote and wanted to kick off the film and the story. So we spoke about creating a world that was really visceral, that allowed the audience to step into all these amazing circumstances that our characters find themselves in. So you really wanted to create a world that was like a visual tapestry of the emotional journey that these characters were going in and show the evolution and the formation of Los Angeles and Hollywood from the silent film era into talkies.”

“Babylon” is one of the biggest movies of the year: a three-hour chronicle about the rise and fall of Hollywood film stars as the industry transitions to sound. The ambition of the characters – particularly Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and Manny Torres (Diego Calva) – is matched by Chazelle’s scope for the story. “Babylon” opens with a wild party of debauchery and mayhem at the home of a powerful studio head, and the location feels almost extra-terrestrial: a massive castle-like mansion dropped into the middle of a barren landscape. Martin says eight locations and builds were stitched together to create the home.

“We were discussing whether we were going to build this ballroom entrance and then do the rest and green screen. But Damien really wanted to get everything in camera as much as possible, and so we found mysteriously through a lot of research this castle that was built by the real estate developer of Hancock Park in 1926, an hour from Los Angeles, called Shea’s Castle,” Martin says. “What we ended up doing was relandscaping the grounds, so you felt this like the early formation of this house – small palm trees, a front gate, the rotunda that has the sculpture that Nellie runs into, and the entrance to the ballroom which we extended on location.”

As for the ballroom itself, Martin landed on The Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, which was built by silent film stars Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford in the 1920s (and was then called the United Artists Theater). “That’s in Spanish Gothic style and we were actually scouting for movie theaters for the premiere scenes for Jack (Brad Pitt) and Nellie,” Martin says. “We stepped into The Theatre and it was just this dripping with detail and levels that you could shoot through and compression to create that manic party.”

Martin, who worked last year on Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970s-set “Licorice Pizza,” has a knack for recreating period-appropriate Los Angeles. So perhaps it’s fitting that the “Babylon” location she calls one of her “favorites” just so happens to be a film set. In an early section of the film, as Nellie and Manny find themselves in the middle of a Hollywood production for the first time, Chazelle presents a day in the life of a silent film studio, a manic catalog of what it required to make a movie in the 1920s.

“We looked at a lot of early circus photographs, photos by Dorothea Lange in the desert, and census photographs of the homeless issues in the 20s in Los Angeles. I didn’t realize the depravity and the amount of deterioration that there was already in this new sparkling city [at the time],” she says. “So it was really important for Damien to showcase the origin of what it felt like to be in this barren Hollywood and then create these amazing set pieces that they were forming in the silent film studios.”

Martin and her team built many of the sets within the sets. “It was important to me to get the feeling that these were all in construct and could be ripped down and as easily as put up,” she says. “We actually purposely made the sets smaller and shorter, so that you could feel the construct of the sets – the technology of all the movie lights and the shade cloth and then the ranch, which is what you would have seen back then in the 20s, which is just a big dirt field with orange groves and hills in the background. So it was just this amazing opportunity to be really layered and showcase what it felt like to step into the studio then.”

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UPLOADED Dec 22, 2022 3:30 pm