Babylon: Is the 2022 Period Movie Based on a True Story?

Image Credit: Scott Garfield/Paramount

‘Babylon’ is a period film written and directed by Damien Chazelle. It stars Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Tobey Maguire, Jovan Adepo, and Li Jun Li in the lead roles. The comedy-drama is set during the 1920s and depicts Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films. Amidst the changing landscape, several Hollywood stars experience a downfall while new stars take their place.

As a result, an outrageous tale of outgrown ambition unfolds through a group of dreamers. Given the film’s take on 1920s Hollywood and the changes it experienced during the era, viewers must wonder if the film is inspired by real people. Here’s what we know about the actual inspiration behind the movie.

Chazelle’s Vision for Babylon: A Fictional Tale Rooted in Real Events

Writer-director Damien Chazelle, who became the youngest person to win the Best Director Academy Award for his work on ‘La La Land,’ crafted the film’s original story. After delivering critically and commercially successful films such as ‘First Man,’ ‘Whiplash,’ and ‘La Land,’ Chazelle chose to explore the shift in Hollywood when the industry transitioned from silent to sound films as the subject for his next movie. He drew inspiration from several real-life events and public figures from the 1920s to create a fictional story.

Image Credit: Scott Garfield/Paramount

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Chazelle revealed that the genesis for the film’s concept took place in the late 2000s. However, it took him years before he could write down a working script about the subject he wished to explore. After conducting research for years, Chazelle finally finished the script for ‘Babylon’ after completing work on ‘First Man,’ which was released in 2018. The Academy Award winner described the film as having the recipe for a disaster movie, given the sheer impact of the move of filmmaking from silent to sound.

“Comparing some of the last silent films to some of the first sound films, you see right away just how brutal the shift was — that suddenly the open-air freedom and expansiveness and experimentation of silent film gets sandwiched and cloistered onto very confined soundstages where you can barely move because they hadn’t quite figured out yet how to move the camera easily with sound,” Chazelle told Entertainment Weekly about the impact of the shift on filmmaking that forms the roots of his story.

While the film is inspired by the Hollywood industry of the late 1920s, most of the characters in it are fictional. Chazelle revealed that the film explores the personal cost of success and its impact on different individuals as well as society. “What really fascinated me was trying to map that theme over a broad array of people, and a whole society at large, rather than just a single individual or pair of individuals,” he stated in the same interview. Hence, most of the characters in the movie are an amalgamation of several Hollywood personalities.

In the movie, actor Bradd Pitt portrays Jack Conrad, a flamboyant Hollywood film star from the silent film era. Chazelle revealed that the character is loosely inspired by John Gilbert, Clark Gable, and Douglas Fairbanks, all successful movie stars during the silent film era, but their careers took a nose dive with the advent of talkies (sound films). Similarly, Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy is said to be based on real-life actresses Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Jeanne Eagels, and Alma Rubens.

Although the film primarily focuses on fictional characters inspired by several real-life figures, the film portrays fictionalized versions of Irving Thalberg. The film producer is best known for his work at Universal Studios and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) during the early years of the last years of the silent film era and early talkies era. Similarly, fictional versions of actress Marion Davies and businessman William Randolph Hearst also have a small presence in the movie.

Chazelle wanted to create an authentic depiction of films and filmmaking during the transition between the two eras in Hollywood. Therefore, he watched several classic silent movies, used photographs as a reference, and filmed the footage in an anamorphic format. Furthermore, the director scouted the actual locations used for filming the classic movies to serve as the sets for ‘Babylon.’ As a result, the locations and filming techniques used in the movie add depth to the visual representation of 1920s Hollywood.

Ultimately, ‘Babylon’ is not based on a true story. It is a depiction of the overall shift that the filmmaking industry experienced with the advent of talkies. It grounds the narrative in reality by using fictional characters that showcase the life of film stars during the time of change and highlights the state of filmmaking as a whole. In Chazelle’s words, the film aspires to “take an honest, unvarnished look at the good and the bad of a really seismic shift.” Thus, by authentically portraying the ground and brutal reality of the industry during a time of a major shift, ‘Babylon’ creates an illusion of reality.

Read More: Where Was Babylon Filmed?