Tom Cross interview: ‘Babylon’ editor

When editor Tom Cross first read Damien Chazelle’s script for “Babylon,” he knew it was going to be unlike any of their prior collaborations on “Whiplash,” “La La Land,” and “First Man.” For starters, the script was 180 pages long. It was also an ensemble movie with multiple characters and complicated set pieces – and it all had to adhere to one goal: to show how Hollywood transforms people in service of itself and its production.

“I remember reading the script, which was amazing, but also noting how big it was, and Damien said, ‘You know, this is going to be a big, long, long epic of a movie, but I want it to have this energy to capture the Wild West days of Hollywood,” Cross tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. According to the editor, an Oscar winner for “Whiplash,” Chazelle gave him a list of features to reference but had two films in particular that were important for the edit: “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Whiplash.” He wanted it  “be relentless, loud, and feral at times,” Cross says. He wanted it to “feel like this cacophony.’”

Mission accomplished. Starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and newcomer Diego Calva, “Babylon” is unhinged from its first scene – an already notorious sequence where a distressed elephant defecates on a couple of industry gofers. The film, about Hollywood’s rocky transition from the silent era to talking pictures, races ahead from there and includes some of the most thrilling sequences of Chazelle’s acclaimed career – including a wild Los Angeles party and a chaotic day of movie production that’s as intoxicating as any of the narcotics the main characters overuse in the film’s early stages. But as Cross explains, the key to the film in Chazelle’s eyes was making sure “Babylon” could slow down to allow the audience to recalibrate itself.

“He really wants to build in these peaks and valleys. And so even though out of the gate it’s big and loud and bombastic, there are certain points in the story where he wanted to bring it down to zero,” Cross says, citing another standout sequence – the first day on a soundstage for Robbie’s film star Nellie LaRoy – as a prime example.

“For the first time in the movie, there’s no music. This is the scene that unlike what comes before is told with silence,” Cross says. The editor says he and Chazelle referred to the sequence as the film’s “Whiplash” scene because of how it reminded the director of a famed scene in his breakout film when an abusive music teacher (played by J.K. Simmons) berates a young student (Miles Teller) for his failure to keep up with the tempo.

“In the case of ‘Whiplash,’ it was like, ‘How do you make band practice feel like a war movie?’ Well, in the case of ‘Babylon,’ it was like, ‘How do you take a man sneezing and amplify that to make it feel like life and death?’” Cross says of the scene, which builds tension to almost unbearable levels as take after take is blown.

“Damien knew that the power of this section would be to repeat and be relentless in the repetition,” Cross says. “There’s power in repeating it, because every time you repeat it, you’re kind of creating discomfort with the audience. You want to play around with their expectations a little bit so that when you repeat it, they start thinking, ‘Am I going to see the take bust at the same exact point? Or is it going to go longer?’ So I gotta hand it to Damien for really understanding that as a filmmaker and storyteller that there is power to repeating, power creating an editing rhythm… Hopefully, you are creating a feeling in the audience’s guts that the scene is barreling along and as the characters get more manic and crazy and hysterical, the audience is feeling like you’re on this mechanical march toward a very bad outcome.”

Cross says in their previous collaborations, he and Chazelle would start the edit at the end and work back. “Part of it is his feeling that those last scenes are often the reason he’s making the movie. It’s kind of an excuse for him to make the movie. And so his thinking is that we can work on this hard scene first and be happy with it, and then we can feel invigorated that we got it done and then it also is going to inform how everything that comes before that leads up to it,” Cross says.

But that changed with “Babylon,” where Cross and Chazelle started with the opening scenes instead. “Because the beginning is going to be closer in tone with its music-driven scenes, its high energy, its adrenaline – that’s going to be a better roadmap and a better place for us to start,” Cross says. “It’s better for us to start with this broad and maximalist tone at the beginning, because that’s going to be more indicative of what most of the movie is going to be like, and then we’re going to change from there.”

As with every rise and fall story like “The Wolf of Wall Street” – or “Boogie Nights” and “Goodfellas,” two other films that feel in conversation with “Babylon” – Chazelle’s tale of Hollywood glory has a harsh comedown. In its final hour, the raucous party turns sour, and every major character faces a difficult end. But the movie doesn’t conclude on a completely downbeat note. Instead, during an epilogue, Manny – the character played by Calva – experiences a cinematic catharsis while watching “Singin’ in the Rain.” The sequence, a sprawling movie montage that includes shots from “Avatar” and “Jurassic Park” as well as scenes from “Babylon” itself has split audiences, in part perhaps for Chazelle’s refusal to allow the ending to be either a celebration of moviemaking or a condemnation of the industry.

Cross says that the ending wasn’t in the initial script. “The reason it came about is that we had this, I think, beautiful scene that Diego Calva played that Damien wrote, which was Manny going into the theater and seeing ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and having a very emotional reaction to something on the screen, that the audience is having a very different emotional reaction to,” Cross explains. “But when we got down to watching rough cuts of the movie, there was something about the ending that we were left unsatisfied about – it never quite felt as emotional as what we had in our heads and what we had on the page. So Damien and I went back and reread his original script. And we recognized that he wrote it in a way that was very emotional. And it was emotional. But there were things that were missing from what we had on the screen. And so he came up with this idea of going into Manny’s head. And doing that by way of the movie screen.”

With the idea firmed – and with inspiration from the stargate sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” – Cross and Chazelle went about finding the right films and scenes to feature in the montage.

“Damian certainly had things he wanted to say with that sequence,” Cross says. “There were agendas. But it was something we had to be very careful about because we always wanted it to remain experiential and somewhat abstract. In other words, It was important that it wasn’t merely informational. And that really informed what film clips we had, and how we cut them. Because we really did not want to have it be an overly familiar celebration of cinematic clips, like a highlight reel. One of the notes that had to hit was one of elation and celebration, but it was more important that it must be this experience, and that it would be somewhat feral and out of control, like the movie.”

“Babylon” is out in theaters now.

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UPLOADED Jan 9, 2023 11:30 am