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‘The hardest part was the poop’: An oral history of Babylon’s explosive elephant opening

Why a gross-out gag took an artistic army to pull off

Manny (Diego Calva) disheveled and walking up a hill with the elephant truck behind him in Babylon Image: Paramount Pictures

After an early New York screening of his new film, Babylon, director Damien Chazelle admitted that his jazzy ode to the depraved underbelly of early 20th-century filmmaking was ultimately a “hate letter to Hollywood.” Obviously, he loved cinema — no one gets into movies without passion — but a decade of research into show business’s turbulent transition from silents to talkies left him seething.

“There’s a lot of shit that goes into the industry, into the making [of a movie], and the lives wrecked in order to make this thing,” Chazelle said at the Q&A, “but something comes out of the other end that is undeniable and that humanity will always have to show for itself.”

Chazelle’s interest in “shit that goes into the industry” and “something that comes out of the other end” isn’t just metaphorical. Though Babylon weaves together the lives of glamorous movie star types played by Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, the movie’s focus is on Manny (Narcos: Mexico’s Diego Calva), an immigrant with big-screen dreams who, in the film’s increasingly notorious opening, is dragging an elephant up a hill to a cocaine-fueled party hidden away in the desert hills of Los Angeles. Moving an elephant in a flimsy 1920s-era truck proves difficult, and more so when the animal unleashes fecal hell on Manny and his wrangler accomplice. Chazelle, working somewhere between There Will Be Blood and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, sends his camera right into the spew. Seriously, it is a tremendous amount of dung. Everywhere. This is minute four of a 189-minute run time.

The elephant scene sets the tone for Babylon, a roller-coaster ride that zips through zany set pieces and around dark turns as it interrogates what we really know of the “golden age” of Hollywood. And despite all the work that went into realizing the world of his film, Chazelle couldn’t have imagined what it would take to get the largest-known land animal to spray poop on the camera and cast. This is how it happened, safely, and how the gag left one courageous stuntman soaked in the name of art.

An elephant strides through a ballroom floor lit with dim red light, pushing through partygoers and balloons in Babylon Image: Paramount Pictures

Damien Chazelle, writer-director: I started with the idea of an elephant at a party. It felt appropriate as the type of thing that they would sometimes do at parties of this time, with everyone trying to top each other in how outsize and elephantine (excuse the pun) they could make their soirées.

Then it was this funny thing of working backward from that and actually asking, practically speaking, how do you transport an elephant to a party? Especially if it’s in one of the big castlelike houses at the time, out in the middle of nowhere, up on a hill — it’s as impractical as possible for getting an elephant there. And what if everything that could go wrong does go wrong? The truck driver for some reason wasn’t aware that he’s transporting an elephant, refuses to, then has to be bribed. Then they get the elephant going, but then they have to go up an insanely steep hill. Will they be able to make it? Then when it feels like things couldn’t possibly get any worse, well, that’s when the elephant suddenly has a bout of diarrhea.

Linus Sandgren, director of photography: Damien wanted the movie to feel like something between Whiplash and La La Land in the style. That had to do with the energy. We mixed the styles quite a bit in regard to movement and stuff, where you had both handheld and long sorts of moves, as well as the frenetic editing from Whiplash.

Jimmy Ortega, “elephant wrangler”: I was booked on the job for a month, and then one day, a buddy of mine called me and said, “Hey, Jimmy, your scenes are coming up. What do you know about elephants?” I said, “Well, they’re big... I’ve seen them at the circus...” And he goes, “OK, let me talk to the director.” And then he calls me back like a half hour later and goes, “You’re the guy.” So I start doing everything, watching documentaries about elephants, trying to prepare for it, and then I get one more call: “Hey, man, I forgot to tell you, but the elephant’s just gonna shit on you.”

Chazelle: Everyone for some reason thinks of the past as gentler, quieter, less vivid colors, sepia, and that the wildest thing people did was maybe have too many sips of champagne or someone dances the Charleston and a bunch of people go, Ooh! It’s a quaintness that has really warped our perception of what was actually a really transgressive, radical, wild, filthy, insane time. So to put the audience at ease in the beginning, then really deliberately pull the rug out from under their feet and have the elephant literally shit into the camera... We had to go for that sort of hard collision.

Sandgren: Some people may leave the theater at that point. We had that discussion. In the first 15 minutes, we give everyone a lot of what they’re going to get. We establish the comedy of the film.

Damien Chazelle holds up a director viewfinder on the set of Babylon while DP Linus Sandgren stands behind him in a hat with a group of period-dressed extras stands in the background near a fake movie set Photo: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Florencia Martin, production designer: That elephant we used was so incredibly specific, and for Damien, it needed to look 100% real.

Chazelle: We couldn’t shoot with an elephant. We did things to this elephant on screen that should never be done to any elephant.

Martin: So, first thing we did, the most important thing we did, was cast an elephant. We looked at many elephants in sanctuaries across the United States to find an elephant that had features that were a good fit. We found one who had a little spot in front, was the right scale — this was supposed to be a circus elephant; they weren’t African — and it was great casting. Then we worked with [Industrial Light and Magic] and the incredible [visual effects supervisor] Jay Cooper, who really understood how important this was to Damien, to photograph the elephant and build him in 3D.

But we had to resolve the volume of the elephant in the space. We didn’t want to have a void there; we wanted something for the actors to act against. So we worked with our prop master Gay Perello and art director Ace Eure to find all the pieces of elephant as puppets and prosthetics.

Arjen Tuiten, prosthetic designer: They first called me about doing the makeup on Babylon’s Elephant Man-looking guy and the conjoined twins for later scenes. But then they were like, Oh, we also have this elephant behind. We know it’s not really your cup of tea, but do you want to please take it on, so it’s under one roof? I’m like, Uh, yeah, I’ll do it.

One of my guys went to the LA Zoo with the visual effects team, and we studied one of the elephants that they liked. We photographed it, then started sculpting. And we worked with Elia in special effects, who did the fake feces. There was so much to figure out for it to be safe for the actor.

Elia P. Popov, special effects supervisor: My company [Jem V/X] builds stunt vehicles. Probably close to 300 stock vehicles per year out of here alone. On Babylon, it was our responsibility to manufacture anything that has to be what they call “show action.” So in the case of the opening scene with the elephant truck and all the poop emitting, the truck itself was a picture car, but the elephant box didn’t exist.

Martin: We did extensive research on horse trailers of the period, and it actually scaled to where we could fit an elephant behind the truck without it being uncomfortable. We didn’t want to put an elephant in a situation where it would be completely outside the trailer, and obviously the elephant is much taller than a horse, so we redesigned the truck, which was a Model T, and redesigned the truck bed in a way that our characters would have dismantled it at that time in order to make the elephant fit in. We got it so that his legs are at the back and his butt is kind of pushing the back gate forward. It was amazing to work with such artisans who could be so accurate.

Popov: Step two was getting the prosthetic from Arjen, and building a whole system to mount the elephant butt in the bed itself. Then we also came up with an auger system to distribute the elephant poop.

Sandgren: There was a green-screen buck that they later put CG skin on, but the ass was there, and it could shit.

Tuiten: We sculpted the behind and then we did two different... anuses? I guess you could call them that. We made them out of a very light shell of soft silicone. They had to be reinforced.

Martin: Elia basically reconstructed the guts of an elephant in a very simple way in order to get our elephant poop to push through the anus accurately, and projectile forward.

Popov: We do the Kids’ Choice Awards, where they slime the kids, and actually used those pumping systems because they can move substances with the viscosity of butter. That was the only system that wouldn’t aerate the liquid. You couldn’t pump it with a traditional pump; the poop would look like froth by the time you did it. So these are all big pressurized vessels with big valves and big hoses and augers that distributed the poop as needed.

Martin: I remember Elia had set up the elephant in the backyard of the shop to do tests. So we were surrounded by all the movie special effects equipment, and there was this elephant shooting projectile poop onto road crash dummies.

Popov: But the hardest part was the poop.

Martin: The material was really hard to get so it could projectile, be the color, and the right consistency. It took a lot of recipes.

Popov: We did many, many, many tests with many different textures for different camera angles. When they looked at it one way, with backlighting, it needed to be textured a certain way. When it was front-lit, it was another. And we had to make it all biodegradable because we were doing this in the California desert, and we had to be responsible for the grounds, so it had to be food-grade stuff that would be, you know, not harmful. No chemicals, all natural dyes, oatmeal base.

The actual opening of the rectum had to look as realistic as possible, so when we see the first poop ball comes out, [the anus] had to stretch and allow it to come through. And that took a long time between both of our teams. We relied on Arjen to make us probably four different versions of that silicone area. Plus the bladder. So that as the ball came out, it opened the sphincter the right way so that it would allow the ball to come out, but not distort the ball.

Martin: The feedback from Damien was always so specific, and also entertaining. He’d say, “The elephant would be stressed. He’s distressed, he’s riding through this road on this truck, and it’s not very hot. So maybe he doesn’t feel very well.” We needed a mix of normal poop, but also diarrhea.

Popov: At one point, Damien wanted an insert shot of steaming poop. So we crushed dry ice into a couple of selected poop balls, and as they fell and hit the ground, they would actually steam up a little bit because the moisture in the slimy poop reacted with the dry ice.

Chazelle: There was no limit to what we could do with the feces. The MPA doesn’t care about animal excrement. The only scene where we had to negotiate a bit was the peeing scene later in the movie, the one sort of inspired by Fatty Arbuckle.

Martin: The key ingredient to the poop balls was actually the sawdust from our construction coordinator, Michael Diersing, from all the set builds. Just bags and bags and bags of sawdust.

Popov: I gotta give so much credit to the art department, especially Flo and Ace. They were here at our shop manufacturing so the poop was perfect. Which production do you know that would actually go to the dirtiest job on the movie and be there hands-on?

Martin: It was a difficult journey to get the accuracy of this, and we wanted to deliver on that final burst. And then, like everything on Babylon, working on such a vast scale, there were never enough hands. I think Elia had a team of 10; I had my art direction team, Ace and our assistant art director May Mitchell; our prop master Gay. But I kid you not: On the day of shooting, there were 20 people making elephant pellets for hours, even though we had made a full truckload of solid waste a couple days before. There were never enough!

An elephant in a truck being dragged up a dirt hill by another car offscreen in Babylon Image: Paramount Pictures

Chazelle: During the shoot, the two most photoreal things that were camera ready — where VFX didn’t have to do that much to augment them — were the sort of orifice of the anus and what comes out of the anus, and the trunk, which an amazing makeup effects artist designed.

Tuiten: The trunk is actually my arm and Ron Binion’s, one of the puppeteers. It’s basically made out of foam latex, which is something that’s been around forever. We didn’t mold it; we casted it. Then it’s basically my arm slapping that actor in the face.

J.C. Currais, “truck driver”: For the driving scene, Damien was, like, right there behind the camera with me at that moment. So while it was a big stunt, it made me feel like we were just goofing around. The puppeteer who played the elephant trunk was having a great time.

Tuiten: With puppets, that’s where you get those happy accidents.

Currais: The best part is, the whole time we’re on set, Damien keeps going, “He’s not dirty enough! More elephant slime!” He wanted it to be grimy. Oh, and all that goop that you see on my face is actually K-Y Jelly.

Sandgren: We always wanted to pump up the expression. The desert should feel really hot, so we overexposed it a bunch, and we push-processed the film stock, and at night we let it go dark. It’s more expressive and more outside of the safety box than I normally would have done.

Currais: That day was a hot day. And there was a lot of fake elephant poop. The stunt man who played the handler was fantastic. He had a quick change each time, and maybe we did it three times. We were all having a great time on that set.

Ortega: They showed me what’s in the poop, and the poop is hay, and there’s maíz, like stuff they use for tamales — they had all kinds of concoctions in there. I saw the buckets and I said, “Wow, they really got a lot of buckets.” I didn’t realize they were gonna use it all on me.

Sandgren: We didn’t know the consistency of what would come out. It was actually very funny because sometimes it came like chunks, and sometimes it’s just water or whatever.

Ortega: So I’m watching the [elephant poop machine] test and counting the speed, and I’ve got in my mind that the shot will be just a few seconds. So great, now we set up the real thing, they call action, and the shit starts coming out.

Manny drives an old timey car during sunset with an elephant in tow in Babylon Image: Paramount Pictures

Sandgren: We wanted the moment to be handheld so that it felt chaotic. If you’re in war, like in Saving Private Ryan, and you get a blood splatter on the lens, it’s... well, it’s fucking awesome. So I was handheld and covered in plastic bags, and I just jumped in there to shoot it.

Ortega: In my mind I went, Wow, this shot should be over pretty soon? Then it kept going for, like, a minute. And a minute was an eternity, man.

Sandgren: I felt like the audiences needed to see that. It was quite gross.

Tuiten: I think we wound up with something that was realistic but not… off-putting.

Sandgren: Damien also never cuts, so it just kept going. The poor guy was completely drenched.

poop emoji smiling Graphic: Apple

Ortega: Damien was yelling at me like, “Scream! Scream!” But I couldn’t hear him. My ears were full of shit; I couldn’t hear anything. So the camera assistant is tapping me saying, “Jimmy, they want you to scream like you’re frustrated.” And yeah, I was frustrated — it just kept coming down! Yell cut! But you know what? I’ve worked with a lot of great directors. That was great energy.

Popov: By the end of the day, we all went home and everyone was changing our clothes because we were covered. You couldn’t avoid it. It was splattering everywhere, and you’re doing take after take. I think I just threw my shoes away.

Chazelle: I don’t know if I ever felt 100% sure that [the tone of Babylon] would come together. I think it sort of found itself organically. As I would read stuff or stumble upon anecdotes, that just would sort of feel like the stuff of farce, almost the kind of physical pie-in-the-face comedy that you saw in the early silents. There was a way in which the lifestyles at that time were so intense, so extreme, people living so out on the edge, and the levels of intoxication being so high, damage rocked by the parties or the making of films, it sort of made this convergence of styles feel like the only possible language that would do justice to the world.

Popov: Damien was very specific in his vision for what he wanted [...] and I bet this took us the most man-hours, put into prepping and testing, of all the gags we did. Even for the battlefield scenes with big explosions, we did a couple of tests to get the right texture and color, Damien picked the right amount of color in the dirt, and we were done. But none of those gags required as much absolute detail of testing as the elephant poop gag.

Ortega: People might say, “Hey that’s the shitty guy from the movie.” But I like to think of myself as, Hey, that guy’s the shit.

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