HomeMovies‘Babylon’ Filming Locations: The Stories Behind 5 Key Sets
‘Babylon’ Filming Locations: The Stories Behind 5 Key Sets
February 5, 2023
Oscar-nominated production designer Florencia Martin and set designer Anthony Carlino talk about taking Los Angeles back in time for Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood epic.
Over the past two years, Florencia Martin has quickly established herself as a go-to production designer for authors who want to turn present-day Los Angeles into a vivid evocation of the city in our memories, dreams, and fantasies. The meticulous recreation of the 197 San Fernando Valley in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” and 1950s Hollywood in Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” are among the most impressive recent works of design, but Martin has only just begun to warm to it: “Babylon , Damien Chazelle’s celebration and indictment of Hollywood in the late 1920s.
Working with set designer Anthony Carlino, Martin fills scene after scene with a colorful environment that expresses and comments on the inner desires and tensions of the characters while staying true to the era without losing a modern sense of immediacy.
Below, Martin and Carlino discuss five set pieces from “Babylon” that were particularly important to the film’s overall structure.
One of the most striking and timeless aspects of Chazelle’s script is its recognition of the wild class divides in Los Angeles—a city where the broke can mingle with the obscenely rich on any given night. After Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is discovered at a wealthy studio executive’s party, she goes home to an apartment that stands in stark contrast to many of the film’s more toned-down settings. “Nellie is scrappy and just starting out in the industry,” Martin told IndieWire. “He doesn’t have a penny and we really wanted to restore him in a realistic way that reflects his origins.”
To do this, Martin turned to a book of census photographs of people living in poverty in Los Angeles in the 1920s, giving him layers and textures he might not have otherwise considered. “You wouldn’t imagine how incredibly weathered these spaces are when you’re telling the story of a city in the making,” Martin said. Carlino noted that one of the most gruesome pieces of the set, a handmade toilet seat with a bucket underneath, came directly from Martin and Chazelle’s research. “That was the most disgusting thing,” he said. “I remember getting dressed and it just showed the horrendous squalor of his living conditions.”
Home of Jack Conrad
At the other end of the financial spectrum is the house where movie star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) lives, a Spanish Revival loosely based on home actors like John Gilbert (Conrad’s loose inspiration) in the 1920s. “There’s a great book by Sam Waters about houses in Los Angeles from 1920 to 1935,” Carlino said. “It was my Bible for ‘Babylon’ because of the different homes, but he did a lot of research on the Spanish revivals in it. Filmed at the Kolibri estate in Simi Valley, Martin and Carlino sought to convey Jack’s sophistication in every detail. “The estate really suited the scale and style we wanted for his character,” Martin said. “He shows off his wealth and knowledge.” Carlino filled the interior with custom-made lamps and furniture, then added another layer of antiques—items that Jack would have purchased on his European travels. “It’s a big contrast from Nellie,” Carlino said. “Everything is beautiful. The Victrola in the house is the most beautiful Victrola of its time, and we found it and not only restored it, but made it work so that it actually plays when you turn it on.”
Like Jack Conrad, gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) is part of Hollywood’s old guard, and her office conveys a similarly ostentatious feel. “For Elinor, I was looking at Victorian interiors, especially from the Gilded Age, and there were all these antiques and art on the walls that she had collected from her travels,” Martin said. Set in Pasadena’s Castle Green Hotel, an original 1890s apartment building, Martin took advantage of the well-preserved lobby, then transformed the space with Carlino, complete with Victorian furniture and all of Elinor’s writing equipment and books, many of which were a little out of date. “It was important to show the previous era because not everyone buys brand new things,” Martin said. “We’re telling the story of characters who are starting to fade into the past, so anchoring Elinor in that past was really important.” The bright colors defining Elinor and her surroundings were both a joy and a challenge for Carlino: “It’s hard to make a period film in color because we do all the research and it’s black and white,” said the set designer. “Luckily, Flo and Damien weren’t afraid of lush, saturated colors in this film.”
At the end of “Babylon,” one of the most interesting – and terrifying – characters is introduced, Tobey Maguire’s James McKay, a very creepy but rich and powerful criminal whose surroundings are suitably opulent and bizarre. “His house was inspired by the Garden of Allah, which was a popular hotel in Hollywood at the time,” Martin said. “We transformed this outdoor tiered garden into a Moorish opium cave, filled with Moroccan antiques and candles – and plenty of rugs and cushions. Our story to McKay was that this was the place where he was the king of the night who was courting Los Angeles.” The set was built at the Wattles Mansion, a historic building where Martin jogged by every day without realizing it was there until location manager Chris Baugh pointed it out. “It’s pretty spectacular that Los Angeles always has these hidden gems,” Martin said. “This is one of the greatest joys and the biggest challenges of these period pieces – finding places that haven’t been aggressively transformed and are still intact.”
One of the largest and most intensively researched sets in “Babylon” is the Kinoscope studio, which itself consists of several sets – a situation that created many interesting challenges and opportunities for Carlino, as he had to dress not only sets, but also sets. within sets – and the equipment that was apparently used to shoot the films within the film. “Film gear is a whole different beast,” he said. “Not only did we get period film lights, but (cinematographer) Linus Sandgren used them to light the set. So we had to take these period lights to the electrical department at Warner Bros., where they took out the lights and put in everything that Linus needed to light the set. Carlino had to make all the equipment period accurate, down to the cables, ladders, jumper cards and electrical boxes, while also adding details in the background that many viewers probably won’t notice. “We wanted it to look like Kinoscope was a farm, so we found a place in Bakersfield with this old farm equipment and brought it half full to the location.” Although the camera often flies past such details, Carlino felt that they contributed to the overall texture of the film. “It was important to Damien and it was important to me to get it right and to feel big and powerful. But yeah, it was a tough movie.”