Interview: Whiplash director Damien Chazelle

Director Damien Chazelle discusses his electrifying musical drama.

If you asked me right now for my favorite movie of 2014, I’d say Whiplash without hesitation. Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s second feature explores a fierce, frightening clash of wills between music student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), who wants to be the best jazz drummer ever, and his teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who uses any means necessary – including physical, emotional and psychological abuse – to drive his elite music conservatory students to achieving their goals.

The battle between these two obsessive personalities is perhaps the most fearsome firefight you’ll see on the screen this year – with incendiary performances from both actors – and what’s even more astounding is that a lot of it is taken from Chazelle’s own experiences in his high school jazz band. After his script made Hollywood’s Black List of best unproduced screenplays, Chazelle made a short film based on a portion of it (also starring Simmons) which led to its expansion into a feature. The finished film is the antithesis of the feel-good music school movie: this is art as war.

Den of Geek had the pleasure of sitting down with Chazelle in Los Angeles to talk about the making of Whiplash and its roots in real life.

Den of Geek: This is your story in many ways, so tell me about these experiences in your life and the impact that they had on you.

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Damien Chazelle: Yeah. It was that question that sort of kept kind of lingering in my mind of, do the ends justify the means? The end result of my personal story is that I became a really good drummer and I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t have without this really tough conductor and this really cutthroat hostile environment I was in. But it was an environment that caused me to learn what it meant to live for four years with non-stop anxiety and non-stop fear. We’d have rehearsals every day at about 2:00 PM, and then sometimes evenings like 9:00 PM. But my body started to adjust to the clock in the sense that at about 10:30 AM I think every day like clockwork I would start to get a little knot in my stomach and it was just kind of build steadily until I’d literally be just a sweating mess by the time 2:00 PM rolled around, and then we’d have an hour long rehearsal, and whether it went well or not I would stagger out of there like I had just been on a bender or something and then it would all start over again the next day.

But the weird thing is I step back and I look at it and realize my life was never in danger. My career wasn’t even in danger. In my case I was in high school. I didn’t even really want to be a jazz drummer before that. So what the hell was I scared of? There’s nothing rational about it. So it’s that kind of mindset, that sort of irrational fear of music that I wanted to plug into, and also the fact that that mindset can and did in my case lead to being really good. I practiced my ass off out of fear. So that’s kind of where the whole project started from and I was just kind of like, “Okay I’m going to write what that was like.” During the writing of it I transposed it to a music school, which only ups the stakes in a way, I think. It certainly took the story in different directions, but it started with that same kind of question.

By making this about people who were college-age students, essentially adults, did you up the level of the abuse too? Because I’m thinking in high school, the things that Fletcher does in the movie would be considered a form of child abuse.

Basically everything that’s not physical in the movie, and I think probably minus some of the colorful language, is what the high school band was like. I think most people going into it would certainly have been quite surprised at how tough it was for a high school band. But it was also important to somehow capture a little bit what that felt like, even for an audience who maybe doesn’t understand that kind of fear or doesn’t understand how that would arise from music. So I wound up doing a lot of — actually I shouldn’t even say research because it was certainly stories I already knew about Buddy Rich and how he would treat his band. A lot of stuff is pulled from that. Harry James, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, a lot of these sort of very famously tyrannical band leaders/ musicians, even James Brown with his musicians. And then at the same time also like just stories from a lot of my friends who went on to go to music school and went on to stay in music and went onto to be professional jazz musicians. So I had a treasure trove of little anecdotes and stories from them. A lot of it being more physical and more kind of purple language sort of stuff came from that. So the character Fletcher in the movie winds up being this composite of my teacher and then certain other teachers. But I certainly tried to ground everything in something that at least was authentic to jazz or the jazz world.

Where was your high school?

Princeton, New Jersey.

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What happened with the teacher? Is he still there?

He actually passed away about ten years ago. But it’s also this weird kind of thing because he was this hugely inspirational figure really and yet everyone was terrified of him. I mean, you see it sometimes in softer movies, the kind of tough love mentor who yields great things and we’re all supposed to kind of cheer. Certainly there was that side of it, but I wanted to try to get people into my mindset during that period. Maybe I’m more of a wuss than other people, certainly in my head it wasn’t quite as rosy.

What I love about the movie is there’s no redemptive arc for either of them. They’re both willing to fuck each other over right till the very end, which is part what makes this so different from the kind of “mentor” movie that you’re talking about.

I love the way you put that. I love movies like that. It’s very kind of actor-based, is the crass way of putting it. Because as an actor what you care about is, “What’s my motivation in the scene,” right? That’s the cliché sort of thing. And conflict arises from your motivation contradicting another actor’s motivation. So if you build an entire movie about the two most motivated people on the planet, that was kind of where it started. You can’t imagine people more motivated in their perspective pursuits than Fletcher and Andrew. It just doesn’t exist. So put those two people in a room, it’s like putting two rabid dogs into a cage. It’s like watching a dog fight. So it’s horrible and terrifying but because it’s Miles and J.K. they’re somehow able to humanize these people so that you somehow can feel for them in some way. I think that’s what keeps you watching, because I certainly was very aware that a movie about a person trying to be a good jazz drummer in a music school and a movie where I wanted to kind of question certain precepts of education and all this stuff that could turn into a very dry kind of movie.

Were Miles and J.K. always in the mix on this or did you see different people too?

Definitely different people were in the mix at various junctures. With Miles’s character, it took us a while for him to be available, but he was the first person who came to my mind back when writing the script. And J.K. was the first person to be attached in any capacity to the project. Jason Reitman, the producer on the project, asked me one day, “What do you think about J.K. in this role?” And I hadn’t really thought about any particular actor in that role. I haven’t yet put my mind in that space and as soon as he said it we did it. We gave the script to J.K. He miraculously agreed to even just do the short that we were using to raise money for the movie with no promise of there being a feature. He was there right from the beginning. So the casting process was probably pretty unusually quick on this movie.

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They’re both incredible. Now what did Miles do in terms of actual drumming?

He had been drumming since he was like 15, so he knew his way around a kit, but he didn’t know jazz drums at all. It was important for me that Andrew be the kind of kid whose heroes were not contemporary drummers. His heroes were people who were dead or had been playing decades ago, even before he was born. He was going to model his drum set and the pictures on his wall were going to be black-and-white photos and the stuff he listened to would be stuff from the ’60s or earlier. So everything about Andrew was sort of an anachronism, that gets largely pulled from my own experiences growing up as a drummer. The drummers I worshiped where those same guys. So even just teaching Miles traditional grip, that alone was a big mountain to climb because it’s kind of like teaching someone to dance or something. It’s a whole movement of your arms and everything. As soon as he got that then, because he had this background in drumming and because he himself was a dancer, his ability to pick up rhythms is astounding. So then he just learned stuff really quickly. We only had three weeks to actually sit on the drums with him before shooting the movie so…

You taught him?

I taught him kind of here and there, the guy who plays Carl, the older drummer, taught him a bunch as well. He’s an actual drummer. But yeah, everyone was nervous about the little amount of time we had to get Miles up to snuff, but he was on set he wound up blowing us all away. And certainly the vast majority of the stuff you see on screen is him.

Tell me a little bit quickly about La La Land, your next film.

That’s a romantic musical that I’m shooting with Miles and Emma Watson in L.A. in March.

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And do you still play drums?

A little bit, not too much. I occasionally play with friends, but it’s sort of depressing. I’m not as good as I used to be. Maybe I need someone barking in my ear.

Whiplash opens in limited release tomorrow (Friday, October 10).

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