Babylon star Margot Robbie and director Damien Chazelle have discussed the film’s fantastical look at Hollywood’s past, and whether the big screen will survive the age of streaming.
The latest film from La La Land helmer Damien Chazelle shows the debauched and twisted underbelly of 1920s Hollywood, with Robbie starring as Nellie LaRoy – a fledgling star loosely inspired by 20s It Girl Clara Bow who will stop at nothing to achieve success.
However, it also provides a frank look at huge cinematic changes of the era, specifically when silent films made way for the ‘talkies’, which revolutionised the way audiences consumed films.
Now, more than 100 years after sound pictures first arrived, it’s been argued that the advent of streaming services presents the biggest existential threat for films on the big screen. Cinema attendance levels continued to dwindle in 2022, while Cineworld also faced bankruptcy proceedings.
Asked if the big screen faces a fresh existential threat, Robbie responded: “The seismic change you see in Babylon from the silent films to the talkies is bigger than the shift now and it was more abrupt. It was overnight, a shutdown and building sound stages is what our characters were dealing with in this movie.”
She continued: “I think this is a bit more of an incremental change, but it’s definitely a huge shake-up in the industry, streaming versus theatrical. I hope that there’s always going to be a place for theatrical because I don’t think it can ever compare. You can never have the same experience watching a movie in a cinema with a crowd of people.
“On the big screen and with the sound design. It’s literally like hearing a song on the radio versus hearing it in concert. Are you going to remember the time you heard it on the radio? Maybe, but you’re never going to forget the time you saw whoever play live. I think there will be a place for it, but sadly it’s going to be less and less.”
Chazelle, meanwhile, entirely dismissed the notion.
“I don’t buy the notion they’re in crisis anymore than they were in the 50s, when television started to really become people’s main mode of watching moving images, or the developments that followed – VHS, DVDs and the rise of the internet,” he said.
“Streaming now is just the latest chapter in what I think is a development of a way of looking at movies that really began in the 40s, if you look at the beginnings of TV. There’s always been this kind of competition and movie makers, studios have always fretted that the sky is falling and that a certain chapter is ending.
“I think that the real story of cinema history is one of constant transition and evolution. The core fundamentals remain the same, but the trappings change and they’ll keep changing. As filmmakers we have to keep up and we have to adapt with changing times, which is part of what this movie is about. But I think the fundamentals will always remain the same. The big screen would have died by now if it was going to die. That’s my opinion.”
As for the film itself, Chazelle hailed it as “La La Land’s dirty cousin that you want to keep away from the children.”
“I’ve always been interested in the beginnings of Hollywood. Where did it come from and what fuelled its rise?,” he said.
“When you look at it, it’s insane how quickly it went from being a tiny rag-tag team of misfit dreamers into a giant corporate global industry. With it comes the idea of Los Angeles being an organism too, it went from being a rural cow town to one of the world’s biggest cities at the end of the twenties. I wanted to work out what fuelled that, and ultimately a lot of it was this party-fuelled, drug-fuelled energy and an unbridled ambition.”
Robbie, meanwhile, hailed the expansive production as one of her most memorable shoots to date.
“There are so many memorable moments in this film, but I remember getting to watch the scene where it’s our film crew who are filming a film crew as they film their film. Brad Pitt, while playing a movie star, has this epic kiss while a battle is happening in the background with hundreds of extras brought in from skid row. There was explosions, we were catching the sunlight and Spike Jonze is playing a director. It was something I’ll never, ever forget.”
Babylon hits cinemas tomorrow (Jan 20).