Florencia Martin knows Los Angeles. As a production designer, she recreated the suburban sprawl of the 1970s San Fernando Valley in Licorice Pizza and the 1950s apartments and homes inhabited by Marilyn Monroe in Blonde. Martin’s sharp attention to detail and palpable love for the city’s history made her the perfect choice to bring Damien Chazelle’s decadent and depraved vision of 1920s Los Angeles to life in Babylon.
“That’s the beautiful part about shooting on location and in Los Angeles like we had the opportunity to do,” says Martin. “I always feel like it’s a great opportunity because even though the Hollywood industry is here, you’re not always making stories about Los Angeles. In my last three projects, I’ve been really fortunate to showcase Los Angeles as a character and storyline in the films.” In Babylon, Martin worked with her team to design and build historically accurate sets that depicted the socioeconomic statuses of the large ensemble cast and the ever-changing landscape of a city that emerged from nothing in the desert. Each architectural and design choice in the film says something deeper and more purposeful about each character in the frame.
While building countless historically accurate sets within sets in Babylon may seem like a herculean undertaking, Martin spoke about the project with such enthusiasm. She shared, “this film was so much fun because we felt like we were living in the moment they’re living in. The first day of shooting for us was Nellie’s first day on set at the silent film studio.” The sets at the fictional Kinoscope Studios they captured on their first day of shooting are somehow just a sliver of what Martin and her team accomplished. To mark the transition from the silents to the talkies, Martin and her team even secured period-correct filming equipment that they retrofitted and refurbished to work on the set of Babylon the same way it would have in the 1920s. Frankly, the production design in Babylon is unlike anything I’ve seen in a film about Hollywood history, and it’s impossible not to be pulled into this film’s opulent, intoxicating world.
I was delighted to speak with Martin about her incredible work on Babylon. We discussed the fascinating blend of architectural styles in the film, hunting for the perfect location, and what it means to look back on Los Angeles’ history.
SC: You really have a knack for recreating period Los Angeles. I love how you ensure that these settings feel so authentic in your films.
FM: Thank you. That really means a lot to me. That’s always a goal we are trying to find, especially on Babylon with Damien. We talked a lot about creating an immersive experience for the audience to really feel the way the desert felt, the hot sun, and the barren nature of Los Angeles as it was forming. We always tried to not only bring in the elements of history, but also the characters in the story and the imperfections of life to make the world we were creating more believable.
SC: I like that you said “imperfections” because I do feel like sometimes period films can feel somewhat staged and too perfect in how they look. It’s hard to get the feeling that the characters actually fit in the world, but here you can really feel that, which is great.
FM: That’s great. Yeah, exactly. And sometimes, that serves the story. It’s always just, “what is the anchor point?” It’s the script, and the story. And Damien wrote this very loud and bold film with no trepidations and very intense settings. We wanted to match that in the design of the film.
SC: And it really is a bold spin on the Hollywood epic. You touched on this a little bit, but what were those essential things you discussed in your initial conversations with Damien about creating this specific world?
FM: You touched on that, too, the fact that we didn’t want it to feel like a perfect world, and we knew the concept of the period of the twenties could feel sweet. The operative was to create a world set in the formation of Los Angeles before the city looked like what we see today. Let’s put these characters in environments that really reflect the socioeconomic times. There was a lot of homelessness, depravity, and the world which Nellie and Sidney come from versus these oasis creations of Don Wallach and Jack Conrad. We called them the “jewel boxes in the desert.”
Whether that’s also the built sets in the silent era that you see at Kinoscope when Nellie first steps on set, or this lavish party at the opening scene of the film, or Jack Conrad’s house full of antiques from Europe, there’s this contrast to what you would think would be happening in Los Angeles. It was a desert that was just being built. So our key goal with Damien was to set the film’s tone and then, of course, take you into the era of sound with this dramatic shift from shooting outdoors to having to be on a soundstage. Then, that oppression that our characters feel as we pinhole the lens and go all the way underground into the darkness of the Blockhouse.
SC: You can definitely feel the various contrasts throughout the film. I love how you described some of the creations as “jewel boxes.” I think we see the first jewel box when the film begins in the desert, with a few palm trees, and Don Wallach’s house is a sort of castle on a hill in the distance. How did you conceptualize that as a set and create that first party inside?
FM: Yeah, so we looked at these photos of the first mansions built in Los Angeles and the Hollywood Hills, which were pretty impressive architectural feats. And so, as you said, we start with this barren road that match-cut to a reference photo we had of Wilshire Blvd and Sunset Blvd, 1926. They used palm trees as mile markers, they were starting to cut in the roads, and you saw these zigzag roads that led up to the hills. Damien scripted Don Wallach’s mansion to be up at the top of the Beverly Hills mountains, so that was important in our location. To create this montage, we had to find those locations and figure out how to go back in time to show what a mansion looked like at the top of the Hills with no other properties or landscaping around it.
Many beautiful mansions of Beverly Hills still stand from that time, including the Doheny Mansion and many others. I’m like, “How will we take on this challenge? Is it going to be shot with a green screen? Do we just build the doorway?” There were many different avenues that we could take, but it was really important for all of us to get everything in camera, to immerse the actors, and see the shoot-ability of everything on screen. The goal was to find a location where we could at least get twelve feet and under in camera. We started to look at castles, all sorts of hotels, and various locations, and we stumbled across this castle built by the Hancock Park developers an hour and a half away in Los Angeles. It’s still standing in the middle of the desert, and it was built as their party palace in 1926. So it all just felt too good to be true. (Laughs)
SC: (Laughs) Oh, that’s perfect.
FM: Yeah, I was like, “Wait, wait, wait.” So we went and scouted immediately, and it was up this winding road still sitting there, and it’s amazing. It’s like a miniature scale of a mansion. It’s still a six-bedroom home, so we built an extension in front of their garage to be the entrance to the ballroom scene. The house’s architecture is so gothic and all out of stone and set into just barren, desolate desert where there wasn’t one tree in sight. Then we found the Ace Hotel, which was the United Artists Theater built in the 1920s by the silent film actors to showcase their films independently. That space is Spanish Gothic, all gold, with three layers.
SC: Wow. That’s incredible.
FM: And we knew we would have this amazing contrast between the interior and the exterior, and we had just fallen in love with that space while we were scouting for theaters for all the premieres. Then we built the bedroom and the hallway from the beginning on a stage to marry everything together. There are about eight or nine locations that we’ve stitched together to create that big opening sequence. It was just so important to set that scene of what early Los Angeles was, what the contrasts were, and what these historically accurate, unexpected interiors were. Damien also wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a 1920s interior. So, we started to look into Spanish Gothic because all the revival periods were very popular in Los Angeles. We knew that Don Wallach, a studio head, would gravitate towards this grandiose style and imports. We ended up doing that too because we couldn’t find enough multiples from Europe. So we got all of our chairs from Belgium and, you know, just put on the best show he could.
SC: I like that detail that the real silent film stars from the period had a hand in that place where you decided to shoot. That adds a layer of historical accuracy to it for sure.
FM: It’s pretty incredible, too, to think that that’s what they chose as a style to showcase what they were trying to tell the world about their art. There’s this very famous Woody Allen line where he goes, “Oh, Los Angeles, you know, you got a Spanish next to a Tudor next to the Victorian.”
It’s true. There were no rules yet, and everyone was trying to emulate their idea of society or money or home. So they were looking at all of these different influences. That kaleidoscope of architecture is what we looked at to showcase and say, “Okay, Jack Conrad’s identity is going to be the classic silent film actor’s Spanish home that you saw Busby Berkeley and John Gilbert emulate and follow.” With his character, too, we showed the importance of the arts, painting, and books. So we had a lot of older, stately antiques in his home. Then Elinor St. John’s office is set in the Victorian Era., because she’s of the past guard–and not just to be on the nose. With the film set in 1926, we thought of what those interiors in the 1910s and turn of the century were going to be because not everyone was buying everything brand new in 1926. So that was our anchor point of going into the character of the architecture matching the character of the story.
SC: I love those examples. And with Manny’s house, too, you can see his evolution as a character and how that comes through in the architecture. His house is Craftsman, right?
FM: Exactly right. Manny’s is Craftsman, which just felt right. It’s stately and strong, almost pulled back. We discussed that it would’ve been a studio home; perhaps Kinoscope would’ve helped him with it or put him up. Chris Baugh, our location manager, presented us with a street of all historically preserved Craftsman homes in Los Angeles owned by a single owner. It’s incredible. And they’re all full of furniture and antiques from the era. It was great because it allowed us to practically pull back as Manny and Nellie are running back to the car to see this great street. It was a great opportunity to show an historical Los Angeles.
SC: Yeah, absolutely. And at the beginning of the film, right after we cut to the title card, we see where Nellie, Lady Fay, and Sidney live, which makes their arcs throughout the film that much stronger. How did you go about designing where these characters come from as a way to convey more about them?
FM: I did lean heavily on research. I found a group of census photos from the ’20s and ’30s in Los Angeles that documented poverty and homelessness with descriptions. It was heartbreaking to see how we haven’t really come that far. So it was important that we really got that right, especially for Nellie. I put images together for each set, and that color really attracted me for her bedroom. So we found an old bungalow in the middle of the farmland, where we shot the silent film studio. That area was developed at the turn of the century and still has structures that emulate the interior of these bungalow apartments. They would’ve been near Poverty Row, like Sunset Gower Studios. And then for Sidney, the same. We looked at the working-class culture of African-Americans and the shared community spaces they lived in.
And then, for Lady Fay, we leaned really heavily on the research of Chinatown, which actually got bulldozed to build Union Station. It was one of the oldest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. It just shows you that rise and fall that we also talked a lot about in the style of the film; as quickly as things come up, things come down. So we found a location in an industrial factory with similar architectural styles to that of Chinatown, which is brick and wood. We built her entire apartment and hallway within that location. It was this one long navigation from her room down through an alleyway where you get just a taste of the Chinatown that would’ve been, and then into her family’s business at the laundromat. So yeah, it was a lot of research, a lot of working with color and working with Linus Sandgren and Mary Zophres very closely throughout the entire process to look at these little worlds we were creating for them.
SC: I’d love to hear more about Nellie’s first day on set at Kinoscope. What did you learn from your research about silent film sets that you wanted to ensure that you included in the film? You built so many sets within your set. How did you pull that off?
FM: That’s a great question because, honestly, you could make a film of just one of the sections of the silent film era. There are a lot of different evolutions just in that period of time. So we actually looked at earlier references from the 1910s of in-studio and the Poverty Row studios. We definitely wanted that contrast of Nellie’s first big day on set. It’s actually not at one of the big five studios, like Warner Brothers, Fox, or Universal, but at this little smaller picture studio. But it’s still an amazing and awe-inspiring experience for her. So with the first shot, we didn’t want it to be that obvious to the audience what this place was. Studios were also all built on farmland. So there was an influence of farm culture with barns, windmills, and farming trucks.
To showcase that feeling of constant change, I also looked at a lot of behind-the-scenes research on the silent studio and found that they were working really quickly with lumber, tearing things down. In designing the sets, we had a great challenge: it was timed to music. So, we had to work with Damien and Linus to get the timing and the tempo of how the camera would move through the opening scene and then into Nellie’s experience of seeing all these sets. I was surprised, but since they weren’t shooting with sound, you could have film sets side by side, on top of each other, and people rolling at the same time with these cameras that make a lot of noise because they’re hand-cranking. You always see people coming and going, and it’s because that didn’t matter; they could be living harmoniously. Sometimes they would steal actors and set walls from one scene to another. It was a cacophony and very kinetic. So it was important to show how the extras were moving and how the sets were filmed. Gay Perello, our prop master, and Anthony Carlino, our set decorator, got each set piece exactly right as we start with this jungle, move into the kitchen, go through this Asian set, and into this western bar.
And Linus was shooting anamorphic, so to constantly set the scene that they were within this barren farm ranch and to have the behind-the-scenes of the structure, we designed the sets to be lower and a little bit wider and shallower so that you could get these layers within each shot and really feel immersed in what they were experiencing on the set.
It’s one of the best sets I’ve had the opportunity to design because we started from scratch and land-mapped it based on how the studios had weighed out their prop rooms, editing days, and shooting areas. I spent a lot of research and development time working with my entire team, who are all experts in their craft–set designers, graphic designers, and our construction and paints teams. I think we had over 160 crafts members working on this film. And it’s such an amazing opportunity and honor to collaborate and create with so many amazing people.
SC: Was your team able to find historically accurate lighting and machinery that would’ve been used in the period, that you could then use practically on set?
FM: That’s a great question. I have to give Anthony and Gay all the kudos in the world because they sourced all of the real historic props that were used in the period and that were practical—so retrofitting or upgrading these mechanics to work. So for the silent film studio, they sourced all the original cameras, the original dollies, and the lighting. For sound, we all went into designing what the first prototypes were for the microphone, the sound box, and the camera box that they had to house the entire camera in because there weren’t blimps yet. It was just so fun to not only be in this era but also to showcase this time when they also didn’t exactly know what was happening, but that change was happening and hopefully evoking that by using raw sticks of wood and making the camera and the sound boxes look simple and like they weren’t fully developed.
But they did a tremendous job sourcing everything. They worked closely with History For Hire, a prop house in Los Angeles that are incredible archivists of Hollywood history and rents out props. They even had the original Vallen Howard sound system for the first microphone and the first pamphlet of how everything was engineered and done. So we really got into the details of every single moving piece. And then for sound too, hundreds of lights were used to light the first day of sound and Singin’ in the Rain, and all those lights were retrofitted, in conjunction with the lighting team, to work practically. It was amazing to be able to be on set with all these original pieces working again.
SC: That’s incredible that you created this new world using these antiques. It’s interesting that when we see Nellie arrive on set, we see this worn Kinoscope sign that shows how rag-tag everything seems. I love that contrast at the very end when Manny comes back to Los Angeles in 1952, and the studio sign is so clean that it almost sparkles. I felt a sense of melancholy thinking back to where it all started and how everything had changed.
FM: That’s so cool that you picked up on that and that it had that effect on you because it was purposeful of just going, okay, now it’s this monolithic identity. We, as audience members, can now recognize that it’s a film studio. But it really does give you a sense of longing when you do look back on those images of what Paramount looked like and that fact that all of Los Angeles was orange groves. And you go, “Wow, look where we’ve come in such a short time.” And then, even when we continue to follow Manny and see the Hollywood Hills with the Hollywood sign. It was important for us when we were doing the early Kinoscope to try to have those mountains, too, to tie you into that moment in the end. I’m glad that it has that effect.
SC: Oh, that’s great. I feel like everyone is talking about the ending of this film. How did you find that location of the particular theater where Manny has such an emotional experience?
FM: I had that theater in mind because Damien wanted a local movie theater, like a working-class movie palace. We are fortunate to still have a lot of these big theaters still in Los Angeles that have housed like a thousand audience members. To think that those shows would sell out multiple shows a day of people coming eagerly to see films, that’s how he had envisioned it. He storyboarded the whole film, and he envisioned starting on Manny’s face and then craning the camera down to do these amazing reveals of the alleys of the theater and the audience trapped in the film. So we knew we needed a mezzanine. We actually scouted closer to Paramount, where we did the exterior of Kinoscope. We scouted the Hollywood area and looked at the Pantages Theatre, and it was a little too grand for us and very constrained with time to shoot there.
I remembered having the opportunity to shoot at the San Pedro Warner Theatre, which was built by the same architect as the Pantages Theatre in the 1930s, I believe. It was really cool because the Pantages is gold, and it’s a very opulent theater. It’s one of our most opulent theaters in Los Angeles. The San Pedro theater, which is set on a now-historic street, has the same art deco lines, but everything is brown, with tones of bronze and brown. So you still get this beautiful palatial architecture they were looking to when creating these movie palaces. But it is more constrained, and it was the right size for what Damien wanted to show.
You don’t see too much of it, but we had dressed out that entire block back to 1952. So it’s a really great feeling because you go past a pawn shop and a radio store. You land in the theater, and then you actually keep going a little bit, and you see an empty lot next door. And that’s so important because parking lots or these mini-malls weren’t developed yet in Los Angeles in the early fifties. So I was really excited that we got that little one sliver of still undeveloped land for something to come.
SC: That’s such a great detail. And to wrap up, is there a particular location you scouted, set you built, or prop that your team found that maybe you haven’t talked about yet that you are particularly proud of and want people to know?
FM: I’m really proud of this team and the specificity of what they were able to get into. But one that we really haven’t talked a lot about is the last scene with Sidney in his jazz club. I think that’s really special because we were going to shoot that on location, and we actually had to fit it into our stage work. We built a club based on a real nightclub that we had scouted outside San Pedro and on research. I’m just really proud of how that all came together with the honesty of that era and the fact that it was this neighborhood nightclub that Sidney had chosen to come to. It’s in such contrast to the nightclub we see him in earlier, which is also one of my favorite sets of the film. It’s where he has this very challenging circumstance and has to wear blackface. We recreated this very glossy nightclub to show him at the height of his career with this intense green backdrop and how everything is happening for him. And then, he chooses to give that all away and return to his roots. So it’s a special interior for us because we really wanted it to feel layered and real and set you into this moment for him as a character.
SC: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you again for joining me today, Florencia. And congratulations on Babylon.
FM: Thank you! This was such a fun conversation.
Babylon is currently in theaters from Paramount Pictures.