Matt Piedmont and The Spoils of Babylon

Posted March 8, 2016 in

The joke is that the overblown mini-series was “cut down from the original 22 hours” and is hosted by the fictionalized author/producer/director who set out to make one of the most highbrow epics of all time. The Spoils of Babylon satirizes the sweeping, made-for-TV epics of yesteryear with the likes of Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire, and Tim Robbins among an impressive cast. Clocking in at just over two hours in length, the mini-series spans from the Great Depression through the beatnik ’50s and concludes in the sepia-soaked early ’70s. The show is hosted by the adapted novel’s author-slash-director-slash-producer-slash-actor, Eric Jonrosh (Ferrell), who is a pretty accurate skewing of Orson Welles in his last years (Ferrell in a fat suit), with an added sprinkle of Stanley Kubrick eccentricity. Piedmont points out that all of Ferrell’s dialogue was masterfully scripted, and shot in a single day. “Welles is a hero of mine,” he says, the “architect of his own demise” appealed to Piedmont, and he and Ferrell created an honest and loving tribute to the late actor and filmmaker. “I don’t think we could do it if we didn’t truly kind of love Welles, for all of his faults too and I think Will kind of nailed it.”

Matt Piedmont
(L–R) Cynthia Morehouse (Kristen Wiig) and Devon Morehouse (Tobey Maguire). Photo: Katrina Marcinowski, IFC

As Jonrosh progressively consumes more and more wine, he becomes increasingly belligerent to the TV crew while still trying to outdo his own artful verbosity (see what I did there?) to bring his masterpiece to television. Filmed in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Jonrosh character is now, years later, a washed-up has-been alone in a restaurant, berating the film crew as he introduces each chapter of his epic. The running joke is that he’s got no limit to his over-drawn and pompous style, conjuring up everything from Gone with the Wind, French art-house films and everything awkward about the ’60s technicolor hippie culture. His monologues ramble on, the death scenes are neverending and even an inscription on a pocket compass takes several minutes to read out loud. Jonrosh then clues the audience in on the drama behind the scenes and candidly admits that he “slept with every single cast member.”

In the ’50s, he brings home his new bride, Lady Anne and—not to spoil it—she is not played onscreen by an actress. Carey Mulligan makes an appearance as the voice of Lady Anne, a mannequin. This is tongue-in-cheek commentary, as all actresses were just seen as replaceable “mannequins” at the time. Piedmont and Steele created a full backstory of Jonrosh browbeating actresses so much that there was litigation that tied them up, so he gave up and just put in a mannequin in place of an actress. After Lady Anne’s tragic and 3-D-filmed death, Devin succumbs to an addiction that makes him look and speak like Jack Kerouac meets Bob Dylan. The antics grow more and more dramatized, while the over-the-top acting will have you giggling constantly. Into the ’60s, the characters encounter hippie culture, drug culture and lots of words flashing on the screen to drive home the themes.

Outside of the absurd setup, the story focuses around the daughter Cynthia (Wiig) of a wealthy Oil Man (Robbins) who falls tragically in love with her adopted brother Devin (Maguire). Their love is doomed and, well, really inappropriate. Of course there would be (hilarious) tragedy with a tagline like “Love has no morals.” Their enduing forbidden relationship is played off by some characters as disgustingly wrong, and by the lovers and Jonrosh himself as a beautiful, heartbreaking union. The spanning time frame follows the creation of the family’s oil wealth, up to the ’40s when Devin becomes a war hero.

The all star cast brings in more seasoned and comedic actors as well: Haley Joel Osment as the megalomaniac vengeful son of Cynthia; Jessica Alba as Daisy, a buxom and sexy marine biologist; Val Kilmer as a military conspirator; Michael Sheen in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-role as the What’s His Name? Husband; Molly Shannon and David Spade. “We’ve got a cast that rivals the best ensemble cast, and it’s pretty insane,” Piedmont says. After his last project with Ferrell and his stint on SNL, Piedmont liked mashing up comedians and people not known for comedic acting. In this sense, The Spoils of Babylon is not just a straight comedy, drama or period piece. Tim Robbins and Toby Maguire, for instance, are not known for possessing comedy-acting chops. When pulling together his A-list of actors, piedmont got a dream team. “It’s really just trying to be a kind of snake oil salesman and tricking these people into ending their careers by doing this project,” he laughs. “We found it kind of cool that people really responded to the material and wanted to come have that kind of fun.”