Rumours surrounding Damian Chazelle’s Babylon have been flaring up as of late. The Hollywood period drama is said to be set during the transition from the silent era to talkies, and it’s no wonder the film is a hot ticket, beyond its supposed star power (Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie in another partly fictionalized Tinseltown drama), Chazelle has had eyes on him since long before becoming the youngest Best Director Oscar winner ever.
His breakout was the high intensity critical darling Whiplash, an examination of the perils of striving for greatness, though the lens of a viciously competitive Jazz conservatory. If you haven’t yet seen the film, trust that it does make playing drums into something of a high-wire sport, involving you so heavily that it pulls off an absolutely virtuosic ending. It’s a brilliantly written screenplay, with a strong focus on a complicated idea (how far should we push to achieve, where is the line?), and enough breathing room to allow the filmmaking to soar and speak on behalf of the characters.
Andrew, a young drummer, wants to be the next Charlie Parker, his bandleader is the cruel and tyrannical Fletcher, who spends most of the film pushing him farther then he has any right to. Andrew begins to match up to the task, but his values shift. He and Fletcher want the same thing, but will this torture realise it, and more importantly, would it even be worth it?
Much of the reason we buy into Andrew’s conviction is the real life experience Chazelle brought to the film as a jazz drummer. He spent some time writing spec scripts, with an eye on what would pay the rent, but writing about what he was familiar with resulted in a far more relatable and dynamic story than the potboilers he had been churning out and failing to sell. Although, he remained pragmatic, knowing filming the contained locations of Whiplash would be cheap.
Chazelle claims to still suffer from nightmares about falling flat during a performance. This translates fantastically into the tense sessions Andrew performs, as does Chazelle’s thoughts on whether the dynamic between teacher and student he underwent could ever be justified. The final script was deeply personal, and, feeling embarrassed, Chazelle shelved it for a while. But it was precisely because of this proximity to the material that he was able to convince backers to allow him to direct.
An extensive monologue by Andrew, explaining how he is inspired to do great things when he sees Charlie Parker perform, was cut out of final draft, after Chazelle concluded this sort of wordy explanation read as insincere. He resolved to trust the audience to understand the inextricable drive behind Fletcher, which urges him to eviscerate mediocrity in his protégé, and behind Andrew which sees him cow-tow to Fletcher’s appalling denigration because he fundamentally agrees with him.
The key example here than is of the adage “Write what you know”, but Chazelle dispenses far more in the video above, an amalgamation of the best insights from various interviews on Whiplash.