Writer/director Matt Piedmont’s forbidden tale of love and betrayal, “The Spoils of Babylon” [Out on DVD: March 8], is a masterpiece of filmmaking that instantly conjures up images of those epic television mini-series events of times gone by. Narrated by “author” Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell), the six-part series is a momentous journey through a familial generation. One filled with corruption, denial and ultimate bloodshed.
Jonrosh introduces us to the brilliant adaptation of his best-selling novel. A sweeping chronicle of the provocative and captivating exploits of the Morehouse family. It follows Patriarch Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins), who shepherds his daughter Cynthia (Kristen Wiig) and adopted son Devon (Tobey Maguire) from meager beginnings in the oil fields of Texas to powerful boardrooms in New York City.
With a tremendous cast that also includes Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer and Haley Joel Osment as well as cameos by David Spade and Molly Shannon, “The Spoils of Babylon” is satire of the highest order. As weird as a 1970’s Orson Wells narrative and as cinematically wonderful as “The Thorn Birds” or “The Winds of War”, it is a story that’s both insatiably wonderful and patently absurd.
I recently spoke with Piedmont about “The Spoils Of Babylon” and more in this exclusive interview.
James Wood: Were you a fan of those epic mini-series like “The Thorn Birds” and “The Winds of War”?
Matt Piedmont: I grew up with those epic movies. I remember there were only three channels on TV (along with the public station) and whenever those movies were airing the TV was off limits for the week [laughs]. You could always choose to leave the room but you knew you were in it for the long haul!
JW: Where did the idea for “The Spoils of Babylon” originate?
MP: I was up in Portland, Oregon at Powell’s Books. It’s an amazing bookstore that’s a celebration of both old and new books. I was walking through and they had giant tomes in hardcover of shows like Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War”. It literally looked like three phone books glued together with a hard band. I laughed and thought they were so great and remember walking out the door and texting my partner, Andrew Steele – “We need to do one of these!” I knew right away that it would be called “The Spoils of Babylon”. The name really didn’t mean anything but the title was so lofty. It was that kind of a lightning bolt that spurred it.
JW: What was the casting process like?
MP: Going in, we already knew that we wanted to go to Will Ferrell for the author because we have such a good relationship with him. For the rest of the cast, we decided to just aim high and see what happened. We put together a green list and put out the word and people started to gravitate and come on board. We were very excited!
JW: Will Ferrell’s character, Eric Jonrosh, reminds me of those Orson Wells’ narrative pieces from back in the 1970s. Was that done on purpose?
MP: That was the inspiration for the character. Wells was always one of my heroes. Playing off of that history was a good starting point for Will.
JW: What was it like working with him on this project?
MP: Will is a great guy who’s really giving as a performer and insanely talented. He’s also willing to go to different places and challenge himself. He’s always up for doing things that are unique that he hasn’t done before. He’s committed to a premise and gives you his all while at the same time has the talent to make it brilliant.
JW: How would you describe the story of “The Spoils of Babylon”?
MP: Generally speaking, it’s about a generation of an oil family and how it all falls apart amid some kind of forbidden love. For me, it’s also an exposition of film styles. We didn’t just keep it in the realm of a straight parody. So there’s melodrama; allusions to “Gone With The Wind” and even some filming techniques we did in black and white. It’s a satire of that era but in a weird way it’s also a celebration of the history of cinema. Rather than just let it stay in satire, we used it as a catalyst to explore all of these other realms.
JW: There are both comedic and dramatic actors in the series. Was it challenging trying to get them out of their comfort zone?
MP: A few of us come from a SNL background and were already very comfortable with each other. With some of the dramatic actors the process was a little more involved, but the biggest challenge was making sure everyone was on the same tone page. It was fun to see these actors mix it up and once it got rolling there was such an enthusiasm. I liked having the clash of comedic and dramatic actors filming together.
JW: Was being a writer something you always aspired to do?
MP: I grew up on Spokane, Washington, which was pretty isolated and about five hours from anywhere. I remember religiously watching “Saturday Night Live” and “Letterman” and my brain got kicked into wanting to do comedy. It was always a dream growing up but one I didn’t think would be possible. But I kept dreaming about it and eventually decided to pursue it. New York always had this lighthouse appeal to me. It was something that I wanted to experience and it was a place that met all of my expectations and more.
JW: Is there a message you’d like people to take away from watching “The Spoils of Babylon”?
MP: The biggest thing for me is wanting people to be entertained. But I also like the synthesis that happens whenever there’s a combination of cool cinematography and actors who haven’t done something before. It all adds up to something that’s new and exciting. And despite the fact that it’s a spoof, at the end people really do feel for Devon. Despite all of the obstacles we put in you actually come away experiencing a feeling about something– and that was by design!
The Spoils of Babylon will be released on DVD on Tuesday, March 8.