On the eve of his high school’s big end of the year concert in Princeton, New Jersey, Damien Chazelle had bandages on his hands. They were not as one might think, after seeing his second feature “Whiplash,” from the hours on end he would spend perfecting his drumming, for which he collected many accolades, but rather the car accident that happened the day before in which he flipped over twice and thought nothing of performing the next day as if it hadn’t happened.
“Oh my God,” gawked Miles Teller, only hearing this story now only for the first time at the film’s recent press day, after playing a more extreme version of the single-minded jazz drummer in “Whiplash.”
“This shit’s more autobiographical than you think,” Chazelle can say now with a smirk about the incident that he recreated in the film.
While Chazelle has since given up the drumsticks for a camera, it’s clear what hasn’t changed is that when he sets his mind to something, you better get out of the way. It’s a dedication to craft that permeates “Whiplash,” a dazzling display of cinematic virtuosity that seems to act as a testament to the very thing it’s about – the grueling, isolating process of practice and patience in the pursuit of greatness. But it was evident as early as his first feature “Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench,” a romantic musical shot on the streets of Boston and stitched together over the course of two years on nights and weekends, seemingly fueled by the passion its players had for making it and reined in by the writer/director’s strong vision and canny edits in which the visuals would keep pace with the bewitching jazz of its score. Even in “Grand Piano,” the thriller Chazelle wrote in the interim about a pianist who must keep playing to keep an assassin at bay, exudes an elegance wrought from ridiculously intricate preparation and the education that only comes from trial and error, reaping the benefits of skillfully arranging the collision of perversely incongruous elements.
With the knowledge that the devil is in the details, Chazelle has created a real monster in “Whiplash,” featuring a truly fearsome performance from Simmons as the indomitable instructor Terrence Fletcher who pushes the first-year music student Andrew well past his breaking point in search of the next Buddy Rich and an equally exciting and poised turn from Teller, whose willingness as Andrew to give himself over so completely to his teacher begs the question of whether he’s made the same Faustian bargain Robert Johnson was said to struck by the Mississippi River. Shortly before “Whiplash” hits theaters, Chazelle spoke about where he picked up his interest in jazz, the harmony of horror and musicals in his head and the challenges of shooting a movie in just 19 days.
After seeing “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” I was both excited and perplexed when the next thing I heard you were working on was a script for “The Last Exorcism: Part 2.” But then I saw “Grand Piano,” which you wrote, and “Whiplash,” and realized musicals and horror films might be interconnected for you. Is that the case?
I like thrillers. I did a lot of writing for hire work just to pay the bills, but [“The Last Exorcism: Part 2”] doesn’t fit into any kind of artistic [pursuit]. They gave me a story, then I wrote it and they replaced me. But the stuff where my words are actually on the screen like with “Grand Piano,” “Guy and Madeline” and this, it’s fun to try to push music into areas that we don’t normally see it.
Certainly with this movie, I wanted to show a harsher side to music than we see and I’m also interested in process – what people at work and what they have to do to achieve something. You can sit back and listen to a great drum solo or a great piece of jazz and enjoy it, but it’s really interesting to me to wonder what exactly led to the creation of that thing.
In “Whiplash,” you keep returning to this formative story about how Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head and the legend has it that was what made him a better saxophonist. How did that story open up this one?
My dad who told me that story back when I was eight and he’s a huge jazz fan. He’s always telling me jazz stories, so I grew up with a lot of jazz music and mythology in the house and like many people and Charlie Parker is his idol in terms of jazz. I remember hearing that story even before I really was old enough to appreciate the music, but I loved it – the idea of such a towering genius being booed off a stage early on in his career was just so interesting. Of course, as you get older, you find that the story is almost like a fable or a biblical story that just gets repeated and replayed in so many different people’s careers, so I really like it as kind of a primal origin story and it certainly wound up motivating [the story of this film].
I remember the first time I wrote JK [Simmons]’ speech [which includes the Jo Jones story], it was actually in a totally different script that I wrote in college for a short film about a jazz musician who’s rambling on about why jazz is dying. He gets this really great speech about that story and what if Jo Jones had just said “Good job” and what the hell would have happened? So I resurrected that speech for this character.
One of my favorite things about the film is how tangible it all feels, which has to do with its rhythm. You’ll splice in shots of a fly trembling on the floor or someone sucking a popsicle stick loudly. Did you know how you would edit this film well before shooting?
I draw everything in advance, I storyboard the whole movie and do animatics for the music, so I had a plan all in advance but at the same time as soon as we were on set, we had a second camera most of the time so I instructed the second camera to just be always on the lookout for little details that seem interesting, even if they weren’t part of the plan at all. Get close in people’s faces, especially because most of the people on screen are real musicians so watching them actually warm up, get their instruments ready and unpack, it’s just this whole ritual that actual musicians have that you can’t really fake, so I wanted to try to capture that.
You shot “Guy and Madeleine” over the course of two years on weekends, so did a 19-day shoot contribute to the intense attitude of “Whiplash” by comparison?
It did. It certainly contributed a mad energy. You couldn’t really overthink things, which helped, and we ran and got as much as we could, but every day I was nervous whether we were going to get the stuff I need because I knew that if this movie wound up being just the bare minimum of coverage of what was needed to cover the scene, the movie wouldn’t work. I wanted a movie that had a language that fit the music – fast and precise but also kinetic – so that just requires a lot of set-ups. The challenge was always how do we get this many set-ups in this number of hours? There was always a timing challenge, trying to move as fast as possible and double up set-ups and use the second camera.
People would see our super-long shot list before the day [of shooting] and just go, “You’re fucking nuts.” And I’d just try to cross off shots over and over again and figure out, “You don’t need that, let’s do that.” That’s my main memory of shooting the movie. It was like trying to fit a square into a round hole. We were banging our head against the wall trying to get it.
If you were originally a musician, do you get the same sense of satisfaction out of being a filmmaker? I imagine the standing ovations this receives at the end, when the film builds to this climactic drum solo, must feel similar.
Certainly, the fear is very similar in that I get these pre-screening jitters whenever I have to be on hand for a screening and they remind me a lot of stage fright as a drummer. But with this movie, it was important that it feel like a piece of music and at the end, you wouldn’t really see the audience so that we become the audience and it really feels like you’re just there. You’re not separated from the musicians.
It’s tough because with a scene like that [where you’re really] going for it, you don’t want it to be a situation where you tell a joke and no one laughs, so you want the applause at the end of the movie that you would hear on-screen to be the off-screen applause. But when we were editing it, we never really knew whether it would play or not. We just tried to make something that we would enjoy, then you just hope for the best.
“Whiplash” opens on October 10 in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood, the Century City 15 and the Landmark and in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Regal Union Square before expanding into limited release on October 17th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.