5 Questions With Whiplash Director Damien Chazelle
Twenty-nine-year-old writer/director Damien Chazelle has found himself in career overdrive. He made quite a splash at this year’s Sundance festival with Whiplash, his latest work about a maniacally hard-driving jazz teacher and his equally obsessed drum student. (The film took home both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize.) The film, which offers star-making turns for both leads J.K. Simmons and Downingtown native Miles Teller, is an uncompromising exploration of true artistic attainment, and the heavy price of achieving it. It is also a brilliantly executed and savage back-and-forth between pupil and student that leaves the film’s audience shifting allegiances and sympathies—not unlike so many time-signature changes in a Thelonious Monk composition.
Ticket spoke with Chazelle over the phone the evening before his film finally opened outside the festival circuit.
On the film’s autobiographical elements
I was a drummer in a very competitive high school jazz band, with a very tough teacher, so I learned pretty quickly what it was like to be a musician dealing with fear on a daily basis. And it was definitely an eye-opener. Up until then, drums had really been a pure hobby, never a source of dread or anxiety, and suddenly my skill set at the drums—or lack thereof—just became everything. It became my life for a while, and became how I defined myself. And a lot of this was due to the impact this one teacher had. So looking back at it, I wondered to what extent did the ends justify the means.
On playing with audience sympathies
I’m not certain it’s about whether the person is “likable” per se, it’s more if they’re good at what they do. That makes them compelling. Even Fletcher [the teacher] is good at what he does, so he’s interesting to watch. He compels our attention, and I think Andrew [the student] is the same way. But unlike Fletcher, Andrew does have a real decency in him. I think he just stamps it out through the course of the movie. He decides that part of him is just counter-productive to his music and that he can’t afford to be a decent person.
On Miles Teller’s ability to play the drums in the film
The thing that really saved me was that Miles had been playing the drums himself since he was about 15. He never had any formal [drum] training and certainly had to go through a crash course to learn jazz and everything. But he at least has rhythm and knows his way around a kit a little bit, so he was a very quick study. We were able to accomplish with him in about three weeks what it probably would have taken three months with someone else. A lot of it is just credit to Miles. I was worried I was going to have to do a lot more cheating than I actually wound up having to do. I could just point the camera and shoot him a lot more than I initially thought I would. And, oh God, his drum faces are just amazing. There’s stuff going on in his face that he’s legitimately not conscious of. That’s what makes it feel real.
On comparisons between the film and war movies
Basically, any kind of movie that reflected what it felt like to me to be a drummer, whether it was Black Swan or Full Metal Jacket in terms of what the environment felt like, those things found their way into the movie. There’s that question of how far is too far.
On being prepared for post-Sundance notoriety
I don’t know if “prepared” is the right word. Certainly, you’re hopeful; you hope that people will care. But Sundance is such a weird, kind of crazy intense echo chamber; you can never really be fully prepared for it. But it’s great. It’s been fun taking it to different festivals. These are festivals I dreamed of going to—Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, New York—they’re dream places for me. It’s been fun doing the rounds.
Whiplash opens in Philadelphia this weekend, at Ritz Five in Old City. Check out the trailer below.
Piers Marchant is a film critic and writer based in Philly. Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.