Academy Award winner Damien Chazelle returns to the Oscar race with a meticulously researched love letter to filmmaking in the decades-spanning original epic Babylon. For both Makeup Department Head Heba Thorisdottir (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Don’t Worry Darling) and Hair Department Head Jaime Leigh McIntosh (Blonde, Don’t Worry Darling), the film’s unvarnished look was exactly the reason they wanted to be involved with this project.
“I didn’t want to do the movie if it was going to be pristine, I wanted to do it if it’s dirty and gritty,” says makeup artist Heba Thorisdottir.
Set in Los Angeles in the 1920s and led by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, with an ensemble cast including Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li and Jean Smart, Babylon revels in excess as it traces old Hollywood moving away from silent films to talkies. Decadence and debauchery on full display, it features the best party scene captured on screen maybe ever.
The hair and makeup team delved into the makeup products that were used in the 1920s, finding both original makeup packaging and even products from that time. In a devasting scene where Jovan Adepo’s character Sidney Palmer has to apply makeup on screen, he is actually using the real thing.
“It is burnt cork from that period. Thank God for eBay,” shares the makeup artist. Adepo even took the makeup home with him. “We gave him some to try it and work with the texture because he has to apply it himself in the scene,” adds Thorisdottir.
Thorisdottir and McIntosh spoke to Awards Focus about how Death in Venice inspired Tobey Maguire’s haunting look in the film, using mugshots as a reference and their favorite moment on set.
Awards Focus: You’ve both worked with big name directors, and this is the first time either of you have worked with Damien Chazelle. How did you get involved and what drew you to the project?
Heba Thorisdottir: Yes, correct. It’s the first time I’ve worked with Damien. In our first meeting, the first thing Damien said to me was, “This is not a pristine movie. This is a lot of dirt and grit.” And that was it. We just totally connected on it.
Jaime Leigh McIntosh: Normally when I read a script, I’ll get distracted and I’ll go off and do something else but with this, I did not put it down the entire read and I was just saying, “I can’t wait to see this film. I want it to be made already. I want to watch it.” Like Heba, I could tell this can’t be done in the way we normally think the 1920s should look. There’s got to be something different about it. And then speaking to Damien and him saying that he does not want it to look like the cliche 1920s were all so used to seeing and I was like, “Yes, this is so perfect.”
AF: How do you then go about achieving this unvarnished, gritty look? The amount of research that goes into a project like this must be overwhelming.
Thorisdottir: The movie got pushed a year because of Covid and so there was tons of research we all did. Damien had files upon files, and I am still finding files on my phone that I never even knew I had. He was very particular in wanting it to be timeless, not be locked into that 20s look. When you look at movies you always see the movie stars but not everybody in Hollywood was like that. So, we started actually looking at mugshots from that time. There’s this wonderful book and we brought some photos to Damien and he loved it. And those were kind of real people, it wasn’t always just criminals who got arrested, it was regular women off the street. We used that a lot as a reference.
When you see where Nellie lives and you walk through her house, it sets off where she comes from – she had nothing. When you see her in the beginning, she doesn’t have her hair done and her look is kind of like, “Yeah, I borrowed lipstick from my neighbor because I needed to get into this party, and I found the scarf and I made a dress”. We purposely didn’t touch up her lips because she didn’t even own lipstick. So, we had her lips fade throughout the party scene.
AF: Let’s talk about Margot Robbie’s wild, electric hair in this film. The character of Nellie is inspired by Clara Bow but that’s not where the hair inspiration comes from. Could you talk about finding that particular look and if that was always the look you wanted for her character?
McIntosh: When first talking to Damien and swapping references, we started with the general feel of the entire film and what to stay away from and how far to dig into things you just haven’t really seen before. I remember Damien saying that if we can find evidence of the hairstyle existing in the 20s, we can use it.
We had a day where Heba, Margot and myself were just testing out as many things as we could. It was everything from little micro bangs and bobs up to cheekbones all the way through to the long and wavy hair. It was a broad spectrum of lengths. Everything we did had a wildness to it. Then we went and camera-tested them properly and Damien just couldn’t move away from the longer hair.
We didn’t use Margot’s hair. She has wigs. Damien was a little nervous about that but even though we wanted it to be big and crazy it wasn’t packed full of crazy amounts of hair. We all know what Margot Robbie’s hair looks like so it’s not a far cry from there to think maybe she grew it out for this role, so it’s a little more believable. If you build the wig how you want the end result to be and do all that styling to get it to that place, then it will be more of a smooth sailing from there. We made sure the wig fits her very well, that it’s comfortable for her and she can fling it around and wear it like it is her own. All those things are going to help sell it.
Thorisdottir: Most of Damien’s references for Jamie Leigh was Janis Joplin. Swinging her head.
McIntosh: It was lots of women mid-dancing with hair stuck on their face and I didn’t quite understand what is happening. I was thinking, ”What is this character doing for the entire movie?” Honestly it wasn’t until I saw that dance routine I was like, “Oh my God I finally understand, this is genius, it looks amazing.”
AF: We have to talk about Tobey Maguire’s character and achieving that sort of haunting, deranged look he has. What were the discussions behind that?
Thorisdottir: Tobey seemed a little surprised at first when we started talking about it. One of the reference movies we got from Damien was Death in Venice. He wanted him to have white makeup and we tried a couple of versions of that. We wanted to stay away from the Joker look. We wanted him creepy, but we still had to have a build-up to the white face. Damien wrote that scene of him taking out his compact and reapplying the makeup into the script, to keep the continuity of it.
AF: Does shooting on film change the way you work? Is there more pressure that comes with it?
McIntosh: It’s more exciting. For me I guess it’s a little more forgiving when working with wigs. HD is too crystal clear.
Thorisdottir: With film what a lot of people don’t realize, it’s a series of stills, so there is the magic of cinema. It is a little bit more forgiving too. HD is just recording so you don’t lose anything, there’s no magic in it. It’s just too real.
AF: As you’re working on these different scenes, were you able to use any of the products that would have been used back in the day or is that not even possible anymore?
Thorisdottir: There is a scene that we shot that is not in the movie when Nellie is sent to do makeup. We had five or six actresses putting on makeup in this scene using original makeup packaging from that time. I had to do a lot of research about the colors that existed during that time. We had to replace what was in the packaging, some of it did have some leftovers in it. We had to take it all, clean it, sanitize it, put in compatible makeup from today but the packaging was correct, and we had correct colors in it, but it was new products inside. Damien did give us the freedom to use other colors, to keep that timeless look and theme going, to not be too married to the 20s.
AF: It is wild you could find packaging from that time.
Thorisdottir: Right? Thank God for eBay. And prop houses.
AF: From your respective departments was there a scene that was especially challenging to work on?
McIntosh: On a whole everything was a challenge. The most difficulty I had with a scene was the one we shot over two or three days when Nellie arrives in college for the first time. She gets sweatier and sweatier as the scene goes on and there’s lots of yelling and the characters keep restarting the scene. For me the continuity of that was like some kind of a nightmare. Cause we had like seven stages of sweat?
Thorisdottir I think there were like 14.
McIntosh: It was crazy. We would get her to the sweatiest look and then we had to go back to sweat stage number three. She was drenched and then she’d need to be dry. It all had to match, it was a constant back and forth and Damien yelling, “More sweat! More sweat!” Just technically trying to keep some type of continuity, I found it really difficult. It was a beast.
Thorisdottir: I was practically in that scene, I was hiding in a corner cause Damien didn’t want to cut and it was not shot in sequence. We would start all clean and then we would go to sweat stage seven and then stage four. I was there and literally had like 10 seconds to reset Margot’s look every time.
I was in a Q&A with the editor the other day and he was saying he had a whole team of people just trying to sort out this sweat look and all its the different stages.
McIntosh: And we thought we were having problems.
AF: Do you have a favorite look or a moment that stands out to you from this film?
Thorisdottir: My favorite look is from the bar scene when Margot Robbie’s character looks like some Italian movie star up on the bar dancing. It was magnificent shooting that, it was one of our first days. I will never forget walking on set and seeing everything happening. We had a movie in a movie, these big sets in the middle of nowhere and all these people dressed like the 20s and my knees went literally weak and I thought, “Oh my God we did it.”
McIntosh: Yeah, and we had to do it again and again and again.
Thorisdottir: Usually in a movie you have that one big scene and after you get through that it’s smooth sailing. On Babylon every day your creative senses were going a million times an hour and it was just enormous work. One day we had 800 background people, and everybody had to go through hair and makeup. I remember Damien going, “Hey, Heba, that guy number 734 way in the back, doesn’t have black enough teeth.” We had a team just dirtying up teeth. It was insane.