How ‘Babylon’s’ Cocaine-Snorting Opening Sequence Came Together

When film editor Tom Cross and writer-director Damien Chazelle worked together for the first time on 2014’s “Whiplash,” it paid off for Cross with an Academy Award win for film editing. (The film also won Oscars for sound mixing and supporting actor.)

But that was just the beginning of a four-film collaboration that continued with 2016’s “La La Land,” 2018’s “First Man” and now “Babylon,” Chazelle’s bold, brazen, audacious, adrenaline-fueled 3-hour-and-8-minute epic about Hollywood’s volatile transition from the silent film era to sound in the late-1920s. It’s a whole lotta movie that finds the Oscar-winning “La La Land” director pulling out all the stops, working without a net and throwing in everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink.

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And as Cross explains, it was the culmination of everything they learned on their previous films. “When it came to the precision and the cuts at right angles – and how the picture punctuates with the music – that’s very much like ‘Whiplash.’ At the same time, Damien envisioned this movie to also be told with these long takes and very complicated camera moves. That’s very ‘La La Land.’ And there are moments where we go into a handheld cinema verité style that’s very feral and rough, like we did on ‘First Man.’”

From there, Chazelle proceeded to pump up the volume, so to speak. “The biggest thing Damien said to me was, this movie has to feel like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and ‘Whiplash,’” Cross says. “He wanted to make something maximalist. It was important to show Hollywood in a certain way, but he wanted to show it through the perspectives of all these different characters, and that required a big movie. He wanted it to be very loud and reckless and feel out of control and chaotic.”

Chazelle set the stage for that reckless and chaotic tone right out of the gate with an ambitious, sprawling, nearly 32-minute pre-title sequence that takes place at a wild, decadent party in Bel Air. It’s a bold scene that combines quick cuts with longer takes that were stitched together.

“The opening sequence establishes everything, and it was kind of a roadmap for the audience of things to come,” says Cross. “Damien shot these amazing details and insert shots. We’re talking close-up shots of trumpets rising and cocaine being snorted through straws, as well as other pieces that are meant to help fill out the texture of this world. But he and [cinematographer] Linus Sandgren were also particular about the longer takes they created, which were perfected even more in the editing room by stitching takes together with the help of visual effects.”

But the key component to perfecting the editing process came from Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurtwitz (“La La Land”), whose score was fine-tuned while working with Chazelle and Cross. “A big thing that was important for us to really get right was how the music and the picture braided together at that party,” says Cross. “Justin’s high energy, up-tempo music drove the cutting to be very fast and like a roller coaster, and it served as a guide to the rhythm of the picture.”

As Cross further explains, “Damien and Justin would work out melodies and score ideas way ahead of pre-production. So, by the time they started shooting, and by the time I got the first dailies, I already had digital demos of Justin’s music that I’d be able to cut to. I would do music edits, and then we’d send them next door to Justin for him to perfect the music. And then he would add his own touches, which he would send back to me, and I’d further refine the picture. We had a round-trip, a rinse-and-repeat cycle that got very intense between the three of us.”

Now that they’re four movies in, Cross has high praise for his collaborative process with Chazelle. “He’s always there with me in the editing room. We are practically camped out there – breakfast, lunch and dinner. He loves to experiment, and he loves to root for something to work. He is a very precise director and loves to control the storytelling. Still, at the same time, he is a great collaborator, he’s very open to ideas, and the conversations that he and I have in the cutting room are very freewheeling. He’s just very creatively approachable.”

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