Babylon, Making Movies and Why I Won't Be Critiquing Film in 2023


The wildest night you've ever had, the weirdest dream you've woken up dripping in sweat from can and will not compare to the resplendency of Damien Chazelle's Babylon. To review Babylon is counter to what the film is defined by; a cast and crew who gave every waking hour to make this once-in-a-lifetime portrait of what movies are capable of. 

Movies are miracles. I say this often, knowing it to be true. My directorial debut will premiere in 2023, and by the time people are soaking it in, it will have been four years since I received the first draft in my inbox in April 2019. The film had its lead by December of the same year, its supporting roles by January and funding by April 2020, followed by a global lockdown which meant "action!" wasn't uttered until May 2021, when we shot the first block of scenes for the film. We wrapped in July 2022, which meant four days of filming for fifteen minutes on screen took a year and two months to complete because the team of people behind it wanted the best for the film. We were patient, and we were rewarded with a gift of a movie. 

Chazelle's Babylon took three months to film. When speaking with Carey Mulligan for Variety's Actors or Actors series, Margot Robbie said there was a general feeling on set that they would not be able to make another movie like this again. To place a personal lens on this: Babylon is my favourite film of the year. I think it's outrageous and thrilling and hilarious and dirty and compelling and repulsive all in one. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen for one second because I was so hyper-aware that I'd only get one chance to see this film for the first time that by the end, I was bubbling with energy that manifested in speechlessness. It felt silly to try to articulate why I so diligently lapped up every second of it because when movies are at their best, they make us understand something about living that we didn't before the lights dimmed and we were transported for a few hours. 

What made me become a filmmaker was the refuge of a cinema. Whether what played out on the screen before me became a new favourite or just a two-hour break from the endless inquisitions of living, I wanted - and still want - nothing more than to sit in a dark room with strangers and be simultaneously enamoured or bored with them. I feel comforted knowing that while someone else is experiencing 120 minutes of a lifetime transformation, I could be having the worst time and vice versa. It's magic to be just five feet from someone experiencing the opposite spectrum of emotion as myself.

Babylon has drawn that spectrum with its divisive 55% on Rotten Tomatoes. As a fan of the film, it's discouraging to see. As a filmmaker, it is earth-shattering. That breadth of freedom has not been seen on screen with a huge cheque behind it for a very long time. Chazelle is lucky he is something of a wunderkind, being the youngest person to win the Best Director statuette at the Oscars at only 32 years old, which ultimately led him to the good grace of getting $100 million to realise his passion project. He will likely continue to get the good grace, and I hope he does. I hope money keeps getting put in his pocket to make whatever he wants because it is so encouraging to see someone like him making big ambitious movies that feel reminiscent of the gems that led many to the craft. He's one of our great living directors.

There's a lot of talk about its box office and what that means for the future of films of this kind, but I want to refer back to my earlier sentiment of how movies, at their best, make us understand something about living. When I left the screening room, my mind was gushing with reflections on my own experience of the film industry. The beautiful and the unpleasant. In an empty room, somewhere among an intoxicated congregation, Manny and Nelly have their first conversation. They rhapsodise about where they would go if they could go anywhere, Manny landing on "a movie set". Chazelle takes us there just moments later, and it's as transfixing and erratic as the party we've left behind. It's everything Manny described it to be, only different. There's coherence to the chaos. People are serious about the outcome of this entirely frantic world. There is no reason they should care so much, but they do, and it's contagious. 

Leaving Babylon felt like departing from a world I'd promised myself, and with initial reactions describing the film as "a coked-up fever dream", I've almost certainly raised some eyebrows here. However, if you pull back the performance, the bravado, the drugs, and the nudity, you are left simply with humans aching for their dreams to come true. Believing that when the dreams come true, life will hurt a little less, only it hurts a whole lot more. As Fitzgerald taught us: when dreams are merely enigmatic lights in the distance, they are tantalising. We do everything in our power to be as close to them as possible, then from up close, they look like complex jigsaws that can only be resolved by negotiating with who we are and making sacrifices we'd long ago sworn we wouldn't make. 

Babylon picked me up, turned me around and nudged me back in the direction of my north star. When I saw Silver Linings Playbook in 2012 and understood that films were made by human hands, when I saw American Hustle in 2014 and began a love affair with film, when I saw Joy on New Year's Day in 2016 and made a private vow to become a director, when I saw Lady Bird in 2018 and made a public vow to become a director it was leading me to the moment I saw Babylon in 2022 and decided that there isn't a life worth living where my all wasn't entirely given to striving to be part of the incomprehensible madness of moviemaking. 

Negotiating with your dreams is a dangerous thing. Negotiating with who you are is worse. I'd done both by the time I saw Babylon.

For many, the next few personal details may not matter, but I want to write them because they will contextualise the ultimate impetus of this piece. When I began this site in July 2018, I had no intention behind it. I didn't know about press passes, Film Twitter or the fanfare that comes with awards season. I started it because I wanted to continue writing about movies while on a summer break from film school. I wanted to better understand and articulate why a film did or did not work for me to become a finer filmmaker. I am so far from that initial intention now that I fear if I told my 2018 self the results that would come, she would retreat immediately or worse; she may purposefully fall into the trap that I accidentally descended into. 

All this to say, I had no dreams of being a film critic. The sparkle kept me here as long as it did, and now I'm ready to leave it alone and go back to the thing that sets me alight the way writing about film sets many of you aflame. 

In 2023 you should be getting three films from me. It is truly an honour to be releasing things in the same year as Greta Gerwig's Barbie. When you see those films, please remember that every inch of my heart is inside of them, just like every inch of every creative that has ever stepped foot on a movie set is inside of their pieces. When we remember it is human hands that make these miracles, we can only be inspired and want to push harder for bold new voices to be part of that magic. 

We can only want to be one of those bold new voices.

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