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The Babylon of Director’s Jail

What is director’s jail? What does this mean for Damien Chazelle’s career? Find out below what made Babylon so controversial.

The Babylon of Director’s Jail
Babylon / Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

“It’s good to have something that stimulates conversation and debate and a lot of fierce opinions on either side. We all knew the movie was gonna ruffle some feathers and get some people mad, and I think that’s good. More movies should do that.”Damien Chazelle

Despite being the youngest Best Director winner at the Academy Awards with La La Land—Damien Chazelle managed to make a film so controversial it had people leaving the theatre in the first thirty minutes. Leading to poor word of mouth and box office performance, as well as leaving a bad taste in some audience member’s mouths.

First things first, what made Babylon so controversial? Babylon was a three-hour-long chaotic adventure, packed with erotic parties, drugs, and jazz—in a 1920s Hollywood setting. Starring Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad, Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy, and Diego Calva as Manny Torres. The film shifts from one character to another, continuously exploring their careers in an exploitative industry throughout the entire film.

Unfortunately, with Damien previously releasing Whiplash, La La Land and First Man, people thought that we were getting what seemed to be his magnum opus at the time—especially when he compared Babylon to other works widely regarded as cinematic legends such as The Godfather, or saying that the film was inspired by La Dolce Vita. The film was also prefaced with the fact that Chazelle had been working on the film for 15 years after he had first pitched it to a producer in 2009.

Ultimately, the film was released one week after Avatar: The Way of Water, which went on to gross $2.3 billion at the worldwide box office, negatively affecting Babylon’s performance at the box office earning $63.4 million worldwide with a $78-80 million production budget.

The Babylon of Director’s Jail
Babylon / Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

What Is Director’s Jail?

Now, how bad can director jails be for filmmakers? Many directors like Chazelle deliver a film only to disappear from the figurative room, but what exactly is a “director’s jail”? It’s reasonable to define it as when a filmmaker makes one or two poorly received movies, whether this reception is critical panning or failure in the box office space.

These poorly received films usually cause executives to doubt the director’s abilities in that aforementioned area. In a nutshell, it means that the filmmaker will not be able to make movies as much as they want to or with creative freedom like they were previously allowed and will have to face difficulties whether it would be in budget or production.

Damien never directly stated if he was in a director’s jail or not, but recently it was reported by Deadline  and The Hollywood Reporter that Damien would be writing a musical for Matthew Vaughn and producing David Ayer’s next film Heart of the Beast respectively, which spirals everyone’s thoughts making them wonder whether Damien is in director’s jail or not.

Additionally, on the Talking Pictures Podcast on YouTube, Damien said that he is currently working on his next script post-Babylon but he is unsure whether it’ll get made or not, with him saying: “I won’t get a budget of Babylon size any time soon, or at least not on this next one.”

The Babylon of Director’s Jail
Damien Chazelle & Linus Sandgren on the set of Babylon / Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

An Example Of Director’s Jail

A good example for this scenario is a film from 1960 titled  Peeping Tom—directed by Michael Powell (The Red Shoes). Powell is an English filmmaker who is often referred to as “one of the greats”, he was a role model to many current filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese.

At the time of its release, Peeping Tom was considered quite the controversial film due to how much violence and sexual content it had; leading to the film getting banned in several countries and ending Powell’s career in England. Meaning that the definition of director jail was always applied with examples dating back 64 years ago.

Peeping Tom on the other hand is considered a cult classic nowadays, with a lot of modern critics calling it misunderstood and ahead of its time. In retrospect, it’s tragic knowing that Powell passed away in 1990 without knowing how much people would praise his film as societal norms changed and evolved.

The Babylon of Director’s Jail
Peeping Tom (1960)

Why Damien Chazelle Deserves Better

Having been inspired by psychological dramas filled with intense character study such as Raging Bull, Full Metal Jacket, and Black Swan—Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash was born. Whiplash follows the story of Andrew Neiman, a jazz drummer trying to become “one of the greats,” looking up to an idol such as Charlie Parker whilst having an abusive jazz teacher by the name of Terrence Fletcher who promises him an unimaginable career.

Whiplash was originally a short film directed by Damien starring J.K.Simmons which he wrote initially after being frustrated over the fact that he couldn’t make La La Land. Winning Short Film Jury Prize at Sundance, Damien got the funding required for a feature film starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, with the latter reprising his role as Fletcher.

Everyone had their expectations surpassed by this emotion-bending psychological jazz-fuelled drama that even Damien was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards when he was only 30 years old.

Interestingly, the plot of Whiplash centres around Damien’s personal life as a semi-autobiography. Damien was a jazz drummer in Princeton High School Band where he based Fletcher on his former merciless band instructor who would constantly yell at him and his colleagues.

This outlines, at least in my view, that Damien doesn’t deserve to be in a director’s jail—due to a combination of artistic talent, a clear portrayal of dedication and commitment to the craft despite obstacles surfacing left, right and centre.

The Babylon of Director’s Jail
Whiplash / Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Following the massive success of Whiplash, It was certain that Hollywood had its eyes on Damien and what he would be making next. Just announced by the end of 2014, La La Land was Damien’s next project which was a contemporary musical in the vein of 40s and 50s MGM musicals. Miles Teller and Emma Watson were originally set to play lovers dreaming of their careers in Los Angeles as a musician and an actress respectively.

As the project furthered its development, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were cast instead as the yet-to-become iconic lovers of Los Angeles. Damien compared both Ryan and Emma to a 1940s old Hollywood movie couple such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “Yet at the same time, they feel, at least to me, completely contemporary. They have a way of grounding everything that they do in a very believable way. Once we were able to cast them in the film, it’s like the whole thing sort of woke up.”

As soon as the film hit theatres, everyone was blown away by how phenomenal La La Land was—receiving wide critical acclaim. Imbued with one of the most iconic and colourful set pieces in film history, a catchy score composed by Justin Hurwitz that won’t leave your mind and an opening scene in LA traffic that hooks you into the film in a way never done before.

La La Land was a master-class in filmmaking and an achievement in film overall. Taking all of the MGM musical elements mixed with modern filmmaking while also being heavily inspired by Jacques Demy’s musicals such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, La La Land made people crave more films like these and turned viewers who had never liked musicals to not just like, but LOVE musicals.

The Babylon of Director’s Jail
La La Land / Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Ultimately earning 14 Oscar nominations at the Academy and winning 6 of them, of course people were yearning for more movies of the same quality thus explaining the skyrocketed expectations viewers had for Babylon.

On one last note, It’s evident how Damien Chazelle portrays stories about dreamers wanting to reach their goals whilst  having to go through life-changing sacrifices. It’s as if he is telling every single viewer to chase their dreams no matter what, properly reflecting art on the viewer.

I do hope that Damien does not end up in what has been explained as director’s jail, because of how it can take a toll on filmmakers’ careers and most importantly their mental health. It does seem like Damien will not be able to make a big-budget film like Babylon anytime soon, but maybe it is for the better to allow some time to pass which will possibly allow people to understand how brilliant the 2022 film was.

Perhaps Chazelle will do an action film next like his frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz has suggested.
Having made great films such as Whiplash, La La Land, First Man, and Babylon, I can only hope that the director’s next film is a return to critical form complete with his signature jazzy vibe.

The Babylon of Director’s Jail
La La Land / Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

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Mohaned is an Egyptian aspiring filmmaker who writes articles about movies he's enthusiastic about. He currently helps coordinate the Twitter / X content for Feature First.