Damien Chazelle’s WHIPLASH is currently drumming up excitement among audiences nationwide, but its road to the big screen was not an easy one – requiring of its director a dedication that mirrors that of his protagonist, a young musician determined to be one of the jazz greats. In 2012, the screenplay was featured on the Black List, the film industry’s annual catalog of the best unproduced screenplays. The following year, Chazelle directed an 18-minute, condensed version of his script, highlighting the story’s aggressive central relationship between instructor and student. The short won big at the Sundance Film Festival – essentially proving the power of the concept, and giving Chazelle the leverage to finally realize his full vision for the film. In 2014, he returned to Sundance with the feature length version and took home the festival’s two top honors: the Grand Jury and Audience prizes.
We sat down with Chazelle to talk about the making of WHIPLASH, the intensity of the chemistry between Andrew (Miles Teller) and Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), as well as the young filmmaker’s own thoughts on how far someone can be pushed to achieve greatness.
AFI: The story is very personal to you. You yourself drummed for many years and said that you had a high school band conductor who spurred you to become better and great. Was filming the movie cathartic?
DC: Not as much as I thought it would be. I still have nightmares about going to a band rehearsal or going on a stage and not knowing the chart, or not having properly learned the chart. I thought that would go away after making this movie and it hasn’t at all. So in that sense it wasn’t very cathartic. But the personal element of it helped give me the confidence to make it. I knew this world. I felt like I had a certain amount of authority to be able to tell this story because it was so close to what I’d lived. As a newbie director, it helped me have the confidence to go on set and tell people what to do.
AFI: What was it about Miles Teller that convinced you he was the right person to portray Andrew?
DC: It was a really quick thing. I saw his first movie, RABBIT HOLE, when I was still writing the script and I was just blown away. He has this kind of raw vulnerability in that movie that I just knew was such a key part of who Andrew is. Miles has actually been playing drums since he was 15. I didn’t even know that when I first saw him in RABBIT HOLE. I really decided he was the guy just based on his acting, which makes me feel even better about the fact that it then turned out he did drum and was even more related to this character than I’d initially thought. But I fell in love with his acting right away and I’m even more in love with his acting, now having worked with him.
AFI: On the topic of acting, what was it like to film the highly explosive scenes between Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons?
DC: It was fun. This is the kind of movie where you know if you’re getting it on set. You can feel if the sparks are flying or if they aren’t. And every day the sparks were just flying between these two guys. We even did a table read-through before that was pretty much our only rehearsal with the whole cast. Even just hearing J.K. and Miles reading dialogue off the page to each other with barely any motion, I could tell that there was a chemistry between them – that they would be really special onscreen together. So the entire process of shooting was just watching this great chemistry develop and become elaborated on and, at times, explode. It was like when you watch a great love story – you just see these two lovers, like they belong together. I think J.K. and Miles, at least how they interpret these characters, deserve each other; for better or for worse.
AFI: The film is about pushing someone to achieve greatness. Do you think there’s a limit to which someone can be pushed to achieve that greatness?
DC: I guess it’s for everyone to decide on their own. I don’t think there’s necessarily a limit to which you can push yourself. I do think there’s a limit to which you should push someone else. I think there’s a real moral dilemma when you have an educator decide that it’s their prerogative to just push someone to heartbreak or madness or physical abuse in the name of greatness – whatever that might be. I think that’s where it really becomes immoral and indefensible. But a part of this movie that I do side with a little bit is the idea of the importance of hard work. Sometimes we have this idea that artists are just born artists: you just roll out of bed and you paint a Da Vinci or you play a Charlie Parker solo. And if you can’t do that, you’ll never be able to, no matter how hard you try. And I just don’t believe that. I believe that there are certain things you can practice and you can get better at and you can learn, but that it’s about really working hard and not giving up and not giving into all the nos that you hear. So that side of it is something that I do believe in and hope is something that can be inspirational. But I wanted to make sure to push this movie to an extent where it’s not just an inspirational movie, but there’s really a moral question being asked, which is “at what point does human decency have to be preserved?”
[SPOILERS: NEXT TWO QUESTIONS]
AFI: Can you talk a little bit about how you shot the car crash scene?
DC: It was our second day of shooting, so we were all very nervous about it. I wanted it to feel like a single take, like we’re in the car with Andrew. The car gets swept over and we’re still in the car. We just stay there with him. So what we did was combine three shots: we filmed Miles actually driving on an real road, whipped the camera down, use that whip pan to hide a cut, whipped up to Miles against a green screen which we put a truck over, and as soon as the truck hit, Miles flings his back towards us and that obscures the second cut, which then brings us to a stunt double in a car being flipped over. So we basically used hidden cuts to construct the scene.
AFI: Was that one of the more technically complex shots?
DC: Probably the most. Certainly this was not a special effects heavy movie, but that scene involved visual effects, special effects, stunts – specifically a very dangerous stunt. We had a couple of minor stunts in this movie but that was the one stunt that you really need to watch out for. We wound up being able to do one take of the stunt, because as soon as we did it once, the car buckled so much that it wasn’t safe to do another one. So it became a one-take thing. Basically if that one stunt hadn’t worked, we wouldn’t have had the shot. So we were lucky that the first try worked. Everything about it, being on the second day of shooting, everyone was a little nervous.
[SPOILERS END HERE]
AFI: As a musician and a filmmaker, what kind of connection do you find between music and filmmaking?
DC: Rhythm, especially in editing really comes down to rhythm and tempo. I love thinking about editing as the way you think as a drummer about rhythmic patterns and pacing. I think film, especially this idea of pure cinema, really aspires to music in the sense that it’s this direct emotional connection that doesn’t necessarily have to do with narrative or dialogue – that it really just becomes something pure. I tried to create a narrative structure that allows you access those moments, where it can just be music or can just be cinema, whatever that means. I like it when the two art forms feel close, because I think that’s when cinema is probably being the most that it can be.
WHIPLASH, which also features cinematography by Sharone Meir (AFI Class of 1993), is currently in theaters. Watch the trailer here.