Editing: Paramount Pictures' <I>Babylon</I>
Issue: January/February 2023

Editing: Paramount Pictures' Babylon

Paramount Pictures’ Babylon is set in 1920s Los Angeles, where the film industry is making the bumpy transition from silent films to talkies. Written and directed by Academy Award winner Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land), the film stars Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad, the silent era’s leading man, who is now struggling to be taken seriously as moviemaking evolves. Margot Robbie is Nellie LaRoy, a rising starlet who’s created her own path, but is also facing career challenges. And Diego Calva portrays Manny Torres, a hard-working immigrant who manages to climb the Hollywood ladder, ascending from go-fer to studio executive. The film’s ensemble cast also includes Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, PJ Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Samara Weaving and Olivia Wilde.

Editor Tom Cross has a history of collaborating with Damien Chazelle, having worked on Whiplash, for which he won the Film Editing Oscar, as well as on La La Land (Oscar nominated) and First Man. 

“I’ve edited four feature films for Damien,” says Cross. ”There was a short film version of Whiplash, which led to the financing of the feature film, and that’s how we connected. And with each of these projects, I get very excited because as an editor, I get to really flex a lot of different storytelling muscles and stylistic muscles.”

Chazelle, says Cross, likes to articulate his story through the editing process. In the case of Babylon, the director would send him drafts of the script as he worked on it, along with photos and reference movies that inspired him for how he wanted to tell the story. 

“The list of reference movies was monumental,” says Cross. “He had Clara Bow movies. There were a lot of silent movies. There were also a lot of big, epic movies. Some of the big references were movies like La Dolce Vita. And one big thing was, as he was writing the script, he told me that he wanted it to be very different, in some ways, from the previous movies we had done.”

‘Different’ because it would involve an ensemble cast. The script was approximately 180 pages, and Cross could foresee the edit being a challenge.
“It was a little daunting, because we had never done an ensemble before and ultimately ended up being, I think, the most difficult movie I’ve ever worked on.”

On past projects, Chazelle and Cross would collaborate on the movie’s ending first. But on Babylon, they started at the beginning, “because the movie and the characters go through so many changes that by the time we get to the end of Babylon, the movie is very different in terms of where the characters are, but also stylistically very different than where we started,” Cross explains.

The feature was shot on 35mm film in the anamorphic format by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who also worked with Chazelle on First Man and La La Land, for which he won an Oscar. Cross and his editorial team were set up in Building 32 on the old Fox lot, where the film would ultimately receive its color grade and final mix.

“It’s a long movie,” says Cross of the final cut, which comes in at three hours and nine minutes. “It was always designed to be epic, so even though it was going to be a big, long movie, [Damien] really wanted it to move. And something we knew early on was that it was going to be a music-driven film. It was going to be a movie where the storytelling — the picture editing — would be heavily intertwined and braided together with Justin Hurwitz’s music.”

Cross cut the feature on an Avid Media Composer at DNx115 resolution, which provided quality suitable for projected screenings during the review process when necessary. He had the benefit of hearing some of the rough music demos even before shooting began, which helped him in figuring out the film’s pacing. 

“I could tell that there was an energy to it,” he recalls of Hurwitz’s work. “It was very up-tempo. It was very fast and kind of frenetic, so I had a feeling that a lot of the pace and the style of the picture editing would follow suit.”

The shoot began some time in July of 2021, and editing was almost simultaneous.

“When Damien comes in to work with me, we have a very interesting process, which is different from the way I do other movies,” Cross explains. “We start cutting together to Justin’s music. We even do music edits. Then we hand it back to Justin, who is in a room next door to my editing room, and he refines it and improves it, and he starts to embellish it and add his own improvements. He sends it back to me, and then I, in turn, revise my picture to match what he’s doing. We have this kind of ‘rinse, repeat’ cycle back and forth. And we did that for every scene that had Justin’s music — and there’s a lot of music in the movie. So the three of us [worked] very closely together.”

Babylon is a tale of both intense ambition and extreme excess, and that is clearly illustrated in one of the film’s early sequences — a party at an exclusive mansion, filled with drugs, debauchery and even an elephant! It’s the first time Jack, Nellie and Manny cross paths, and each takes in the chaos from a different perspective.

“We actually meet all the characters,” says Cross of the scene. “I think it was notable that we started at the beginning because Damien knew that that would be kind of the roadmap for the audience to get into the rest of the movie.”

The sequence is music driven and sets the tone for the chaos of Hollywood at that time.

“[There’s] almost everything under the sun,” says Cross of the scene. And while Chazelle wanted to showcase that chaos — loud, reckless, dangerous — he also wanted to have a certain amount of control.

“That’s where the score came in, because I feel Justin’s score was the element that sort of glued all of this chaos together, and at the same time gave me percussive moments to bounce the picture off of,” the editor explains.

Cross calls the scene a showpiece, where all of the film’s different disciplines — production design, costumes, makeup, cinematography and performances — all shine.

“The party is made up of pieces long and short,” he explains. “So you have a lot of long camera moves, some of them designed to look like [one take], but there’s really some digital stitches holding some of these pieces together. Then, those moments are bridged by these quick percussive cuts that are designed to sort of throw you into the next scene. These quick cuts of a record playing on the Victrola, or a close up of a straw snorting cocaine, all of these things. Somehow, we had to find a way to have room for all of that and blend it all together.”

Nellie’s first sound take is another editorial highlight, and what Cross describes as one of the film’s hardest sequences to cut.

“What’s kind of interesting and challenging about that is, that is a scene where we’re going in the opposite direction of what we’ve just come from in the early part of the movie,” he explains. “From the beginning, we’re leaning into the loud. We’re leaning into this maximalist, pushing-the-envelope, in-your-face style, both sonically and pictorially. And all of a sudden we switch to setting the table for this very moment, where silence is kind of the star in a way.”

Nellie is on a soundstage for a shoot,  and is forced to repeat her same performance more than a dozen times. Each time, there is some sort of distraction or technical problem that blows the take. The set gets hotter and more tense with each take, and the audience finds itself in a Groundhog Day scenario, wondering if the repeating cycle will ever be broken.

“Damien knew that if we leaned into the repetition, that that could be a strength,” says Cross of the scene. “Often in film editing, you try to keep things fresh. We changed the angles or we change the sizes so that the audience doesn’t get bored. Well, Damien really wanted to lean into the repetition, so that it would start creating almost discomfort and unease with the audience. And with each take, we started cutting that little preamble faster and faster. So we sped it up along the way. The hope was that not only are we creating a shorthand with the audience, because the audience already knows what to expect — or they think they know — but you are also upping the ante a little bit.”

Babylon opened in theaters in late December, and Cross says he's lucky to collaborate with the likes of Chazelle, as well as other filmmakers, such as Scott Cooper, Cary Fukunaga and David O. Russell. 

“I get great material,” he states. “I get dailies with amazing performances by people like Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt and Diego Calva. I am also given permission to — and directed to — work very stylistically, so it often means that my work is very visible. And people respond to that.”