Whiplash maestro Damien Chazelle on drumming, directing, and J.K. Simmons

Whiplash maestro Damien Chazelle on drumming, directing, and J.K. Simmons

Most movies about jazz are celebrations: To play an instrument, they insist, is to be liberated, to give voice to the feelings of the soul, to have the best damn time of your life, etc. Whiplash, though, has a different perspective on the matter. Here’s a film that makes playing music look as punishing—physically, mentally, emotionally—as boot camp. Set at a prestigious, fictitious New York academy clearly modeled on Juilliard, Whiplash chronicles the rehearsal-room war between a talented young drum major (Miles Teller) and the ferociously demanding conductor (J.K. Simmons, acting with his veins) who takes him under his wing. Cymbals are struck. Chairs are thrown. Blood, sweat, and tears are spilled. It is not a film for the faint of heart—or for those feeling apprehensive about their first year at music school.

This uniquely intense portrait of artistic hardship comes courtesy of writer-director Damien Chazelle, who knows from experience the pressures of keeping tempo for a hardass instructor. The 29-year-old filmmaker, whose Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench was one of those aforementioned movies about the joys of jazz, played drums in high school—and he’s channeled that borderline-traumatic ordeal into a blistering drama. Opening old wounds seems to have paid off: Whiplash won both the audience award and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, where it made a big splash this past January. After that, the movie toured the festival circuit, earning raves at Cannes and Toronto; last weekend, it opened to more acclaim in New York and Los Angeles, and the film continues to expand across the country. The A.V. Club caught up with Chazelle during last week’s New York Film Festival to talk about the making of, and inspiration behind, his stellar second feature.

The A.V. Club: When writing Whiplash, you drew on the real anxiety you felt as a young musician. How autobiographical is the film? Is J.K. Simmons’ character, Terence Fletcher, a proxy for a real instructor?

Damien Chazelle: He’s definitely a proxy for a real instructor—specifically a bandleader I had in high school. It was a very competitive jazz band that was modeled after professional bands. And I remembered being very terrified. That was my overall emotion during those years. Just dread. And not being able to eat meals before rehearsals and losing sleep and sweating my ass off. I wanted to pour that into the movie. And as for the actual portrait of the character, most of it is pulled from my teacher, but I certainly pushed it further. There’s a little bit of Buddy Rich in him, in terms of how he treats his players, and a little bit of other famously tyrannical band leaders in jazz history who would throw things at their players, and hit them, and yell at them, and scream at them. I was just interested in that tendency, particularly in big-band jazz. These authoritarian, dictatorial band leaders, and what that does to a musician.

AVC: Was there a time in your life when you were seriously pursuing music as a career?

DC: By the end of high school, I had this fork-in-the-road moment where part of me considered going to vocational music school to really pursue it. And certainly a lot of my friends in the band did and are professional musicians to this day. There are a lot of musicians in my life. But movies came first for me. That was my original passion. So I stuck with that. But it’s a testament to how influential and intimidating my conductor was that something that beforehand had been a kind of side hobby for me became, for four years, absolutely my life and an obsession. There was nothing I thought about other than drums and tempo and studying Buddy Rich and Joe Jones. That was my entire life. It was a pretty narrowly focused life.

AVC: Do you find filmmaking less pit-of-the-stomach stressful?

DC: It’s stressful in a different way. I don’t have the person screaming at me in film, at least not most of the time. So it’s more me screaming at myself internally. Maybe because it hadn’t been this burning passion beforehand, the stress of drumming became distilled into this one guy. So if I was playing concerts or competitions, it wasn’t the audience that made me nervous. I didn’t have traditional stage fright. If there was 500 people in the audience or three people in the audience, it didn’t really make a difference. What made a difference was the conductor. Everything that I was scared about as a drummer was him. It was his face. It was whether or not he’d approve of my playing. And if he approved, it didn’t matter if no one else did, I was on cloud nine. And if he disapproved, it wouldn’t matter if the audience leapt from their seats, it wouldn’t matter if people came up to me and said, “That was such a great solo.” I would feel like utter shit.

AVC: Do you ever feel like you channel any of that instructor into your interactions with actors or crew?

DC: I try not to throw as many chairs at them. [Laughs.] I like a set to be a happy place, where people can feel free to experiment. Especially, for instance, with this set. We only had 20 days to shoot the whole movie. The stress and the anxiety were just inherent in the schedule. So I tried to make it as stress-free of a set as possible. And J.K. and Miles are really good at snapping in and out of character. They’re just total trained pros in the sense that they can be 100 percent in the moment when the camera is rolling, but are very pleasant to be around when it wasn’t.

AVC: That’s surprising, because you’re seeing so much stress on-screen. It was a grueling shoot to some extent, right?

DC: Yes. The shoot itself was 100 percent grueling. No one was sleeping and everyone was exhausted. And J.K. cracked two ribs when Miles tackles him in that scene. And I got into a car accident halfway through the shoot. And relationships crumbled because of the shoot. There was a lot of shit going on outside of the shoot, but the actual process of shooting? For the most part, people got along. The only thing that made the shoot possible, let alone successful, was the actors and the crew. No one was getting paid a lot. They were working insane hours and they were so focused on the work at hand. All of us felt passionately about the movie and getting it right. And a lot of people involved in the film, whether cast or crew, had music experience or came from that world. So we were all on the same page, trying to make as authentic a portrait as possible of that world. It was a lot more fun than it had any right to be, given the circumstances and all the shit that was going on.

AVC: People have gotten used to J.K. Simmons as this kind of paternal presence. They forget how scary he was on Oz. How much did you have to coerce that intensity and cruelty out of him again?

DC: Not at all. The only direction I gave him in that regard was early on. We pulled a scene from the script and did it as a short [2013’s “Whiplash”] to help attract investors. And he was in that. And the day before the shoot, I said just one thing: “When your character screams, and you really go after someone, I want you to take it past what you think the normal limit would be. I want you to become non-human. I don’t want to see a human being on-screen anymore. I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal.” And he sort of nodded and gave me a wry smile and then went home. [Laughs.] And then he came back the next day and did exactly that. That was pretty much all I said. The rest of the time, I’d give him an occasional direction, but it was always a micro-direction. He was so on the money, and so thoughtful, about the broad strokes of the character. He kind of showed up on set and when the camera rolled, he was Fletcher. I didn’t have to build anything up from scratch.

AVC: Were any of the actors terrified of him? Most of them were musicians, not professional actors, right?

DC: Most of the people in the band had never been on-screen before. They were music students or young, professional musicians. And they [Laughs.]… I mean, J.K. is so good that when he gets up in your face, whether there’s a camera there or not, you get a little scared. So I was always trying to make sure my camera was trained on any little flickers that happened on their faces that might not be acted. But what kept the shoot from being nightmarish was that when we weren’t rolling, J.K. was as sweet as can be with them, and everyone was cracking jokes. There’s certainly something to be said for the full-on Method way of working, but I know that with this movie, it helped energize us for when the camera was rolling that when the camera wasn’t rolling we could sort of breathe out a little bit.

AVC: You do see a little bit of his sweetness. The problem is that for this character, it’s usually a trap.

DC: Right. That’s where it became fun that Oz was such a long time ago, and people associate him more with Mac MacGuff [from Juno] than Vern Schillinger. To play on that sweet-dad kind of thing was part of the fun, especially in the hallway scene with Miles where he seems to be showing his softer side, only to go in for the jugular in the next scene.

AVC: Miles Teller has some experience as a drummer. Did he require more training? Was that a complicated process?

DC: He had been drumming since his teens, but purely rock drumming and never with any formal training. Jazz is its own thing. So he had to learn a different way of holding the sticks. He had to learn a different way of approaching the drum set, just physically. And then the charts. They’re a different level of complexity than anything he was used to—weird time signatures, weird patterns. We were picking some of the most complicated charts for drummers. It was important to me that we not tone down the difficulty of the music to accommodate a less-than-pro drummer. So he trained a lot. We didn’t have much time, but it was very intensive. We knew exactly which parts of what songs he needed to be able to play. We had a visual double occasionally for a few little shots of hands. But almost everything you see on-screen is Miles himself. We could just throw the camera on him and have him play.

AVC: That’s important for the choices you can make as a filmmaker, too. You don’t have to spend all this time masking or cutting around people who aren’t actually playing.

DC: Exactly. I wanted to try to minimize that as much as humanly possible. I wanted Miles to get as good as possible and to surround him with as many real musicians as possible.

AVC: Whiplash has this really propulsive rhythm to it. Do you think the time you spent playing drums helped you think about rhythm in cinema?

DC: It’s certainly informed my love of editing. I love being in the editing room and playing with tempo and with the rhythm of shots. Even the writing of the script—I wanted the dialogue to feel really musical and percussive and rhythmic. So it’s definitely something that I’ve thought about. When someone is playing drums, they aren’t actually moving around a space, they’re just moving their arms and limbs. They’re stuck behind the drum set. So to film someone playing the drums and make it feel as kinetic as a car chase or a shootout or a battle scene was the challenge. It comes down to the tempo of the camera moves, the tempo of the cuts, the alternation between close and wide. I was just trying to think as musically as possible—to make a movie the way a musician would.

AVC: This is the second film of yours to hit theaters this year after Grand Piano, which you wrote much earlier.

DC: Yeah, it was a spec script I wrote back in ’09. It wasn’t something I wrote for myself. But it’s funny looking back, I only realize now how similar the two movies are.

AVC: Do you think that the common focus the two films share—the stress of playing music professionally—could be applied to other genres? Do you have a comedy in you about that world?

DC: I’m too self-serious for a comedy. [Laughs.] No, I don’t know. The next movie I’m making isn’t a comedy, but it’s an old-fashioned musical in the tradition of MGM and Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. It’s certainly a light-hearted and more joyful approach to some of the same questions, because it’s about artists—and specifically musicians—trying to juggle a life and their art. I guess I’m always drawn to that subject, because of my experience. It’s just something I feel like I have enough authority to write about. But in general, I’m interested in people at work—the process of people making something or working toward a goal, and what the prices of that goal might be. People who are really driven—I like those kind of characters. There’s a lot of inherent drama in watching unreasonable people butt up against the real world.