Damien Chazelle On Babylon’s Fantastic Jean Smart Speech And That Bravura Ending [Exclusive Interview]

The Elinor St. John speech to Jack Conrad is one of my favorite movie moments of 2022. What do you remember about conceiving and executing that?

It went through some different iterations. The basic idea was tied up with how I wanted to present Elinor St. John as a character: That the person who seems like a buffoon and almost like a caricature of herself at first, and you only realize late in the game, the way that Jack Conrad, Brad [Pitt]’s character, does, you realize that actually she was the smartest person in the room all along and that she sees things in a way that the rest of the people who are in it are incapable of seeing. So, knowing at the outset that scene between the two of them would be a “pulling the rug out from underneath you” scene, would be a scene where we see a new side of her, and then as a result of what she says, you hopefully see a new side of Jack Conrad because he’s never actually been confronted in this way.

In some ways, it’s actually what he’s been begging for throughout the rest of the movie. You see him often begging for people to just be honest with him. It’s the thing that probably goes out the window most quickly when you’re a movie star, is people actually willing to just call a spade a spade to your face. And he goes in thinking he is going to basically rule the roost with Elinor as he thinks he always has. She’s always seemed to be someone who’s just pecking at his hand, and he thinks he’s going to throw his weight around and finds that actually, he’s in for something very different. But in some ways, she gives him the gift of honesty. So when he says “thank you” at the end of the scene, yes, he’s not in a happy place, but there maybe is something genuine to that “thank you.”

Did it take a lot of drafts to eventually reach the specific language she uses to convey that information to him?

Yeah, it did. I definitely remember, I’d write a pass at the scene and then sit with it for a bit and come back to it and read it and hate it and write it again and come back later and hate it. I kept playing with it, and I think the first time that I reached some version of the scene that felt decent, it stayed like that in the script for quite some time. And I forget exactly when, because this project had a long kind of gestation period, but at some point, maybe shortly before prep, I remember talking with one of the producers, Matt Plouffe, about it, and I think something was maybe not sitting quite right with either of us, and I think we both just felt like there was one more step for the scene to go. It hadn’t quite gotten to the real meat of it. I hadn’t gone far enough, basically. 

So I think I then wound up going back in, using what we had on the page already as a starting point, and just writing more and having Elinor continue. So there is a little bit of this moment now that I can kind of recognize it in the scene where she murders him in the first two-thirds of the scene. But then, where my first instinct had been to end the scene, she continues. And where I think it actually gets most interesting is where she, not builds him back up, but tries to deliver some kind of … “comfort” is the wrong word, because it’s still pretty damn blunt, but some kind of hope to him. And that would be even more interesting than just the sort of simpler “mic drop, I just schooled you” kind of approach to the scene.

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