‘Babylon’ Production Designer Florencia Martin on Embracing the Film's Chaos

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Photo Source: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Florencia Martin has collaborated with some of the best. She’s worked as a set decorator on projects from the likes of Jordan Peele, David Lynch, and Ryan Murphy; and as a production designer on films by Paul Thomas Anderson, Andrew Dominik, and Damien Chazelle. Her work with the latter on last year’s “Babylon” has earned Martin her first Oscar nomination. The Los Angeles native is a master at taking her hometown back in time, whether to the 1950s for Dominik’s “Blonde,” the 1970s for Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” or the silent film era for Chazelle’s visually stunning Hollywood epic.

The most recent films you’ve worked on have all been passion projects for their creators. Is that a coincidence, or are you drawn to that kind of personal investment?

It’s so cool that you picked up on that, because that’s the most important thing. You don’t know what the collaboration is going to be with each director; but from the first conversation, you get this feeling that it’s very important to them. They envision what the story is, and they understand that they’re bringing you on to execute that. If the passion’s not there, then you don’t have it. For me, it’s also always deeply rooted in story. And so I tend to gravitate toward directors who are writing their own scripts, because they’ve already done their research and have a clear understanding of the motivation.

What was your reaction when you first read the script of “Babylon”?

It was tremendous. It’s all there—and more, actually. I got emailed the script before I met with Damien, and I put it down and was like, I have to work on this film. It just was so exciting to read something that was fearless, bold, and so descriptive. As a creative person and filmmaker, I can really start to envision this environment and this world, and it’s really inspiring and motivating. I had such an amazing partnership with Damien. He came to the table with a bible of 400 images, and it was really about narrowing it down to each set and creating a contrast.

Production on “Babylon” kicked off with an engaging sequence out in the desert in which dozens of films are being shot at once; it’s a window into the frantic pace of Hollywood production circa 1926. How did you go about crafting something like that from scratch?

It’s a dream to get to world-build in person. You’re not going in later in post and filling it in; that it was all there [was] a magnificent opportunity. We started looking for locations that were ranches, that had barns and other buildings, but they were too small. There wasn’t that vast feeling of the great outdoors and the great desert expanse. We wanted to really scale up in epic nature and have these big, sweeping moments, so we ended up building from the ground up in Piru, [California]. It was pretty ambitious; there was just this big, flat expanse of dirt, so we had a big road carved in, and then we built a huge barn, windmill, circus tents, and all these sets. Damien had storyboarded everything, and we ended up building a digital model and a white model, [then] repeatedly going to the location and shooting the sequence to make sure that we were getting that whole weave of the one shot that shows you this kinetic, crazy film studio.


What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career?

We do tend to shoot a lot on location, and I would stick true to that. There’s a beauty about the real, tangible architecture and history of a space, why it was built, and the preservation and timelessness that becomes a character all on its own. [It] just adds so many amazing variables of how the lighting is going to be, how it’s going to feel for the actors to walk in. Just trusting that it’s going to lead to really great discoveries, and always keeping the persistence of looking and searching until it feels right.

What advice would you give to aspiring production designers?

Keep working toward your goal. You learn from being there, and you learn from the best. Follow your heart to the filmmakers that inspire you. And just getting to work and being surrounded by that team—take that in and be patient. I owe a lot to the art directors, production designers, and set decorators who gave me my first jobs and trusted me and allowed me to be in the room. Being around a film set, being present, and just going through the process, you will pick it up all right there.

What filmmakers inspired you early in your career?

In my senior year of studying theater, I watched [David Lynch’s] “Twin Peaks” for the first time, and I was blown away by the storytelling and the abstraction of the worlds that were created. And then I started to look at filmmakers in that way. [When] I was working on “A Single Man,” I came into the office on a Saturday and watched [Paul Thomas Anderson’s] “Magnolia.” My dad had just passed away, and I remember being so unbelievably moved that a film could touch you and encompass you in that way. So to be able to collaborate with [Lynch and Anderson]—it’s a full-circle dream come true.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 9 issue of Backstage Magazine.