“I Did Not Get Slapped in the Face”: Damien Chazelle on Whiplash
Whiplash, an equally exhilarating and frightening foray into the cutthroat world of music conservatories, explores the sadomasochistic relationship between ambitious jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) and his ferocious pedagogue Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Writer-director Damien Chazelle put together his first feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, while an undergraduate at Harvard in 2008. It received theatrical distribution in 2010. The now 29-year-old has Whiplash in theaters, Grand Piano (which he wrote) on VOD, and La La Land in pre-production.
When I spoke to Chazelle he appeared elated to be in San Francisco, but also fatigued by the endless interviews he’s been tasked with conducting since the movie’s premiere in January. He spoke about capturing real musicians in their natural environment, the challenges of storyboarding drumming sequences, and finding another Charlie Parker. Be warned: a key third-act twist is discussed below.
Filmmaker: The line between a profession and an obsession is something you’re playing with in Whiplash. Are you drawing from your own experiences?
Chazelle: It’s certainly a challenge that I share with Andrew. Juggling the personal and professional is never easy. I was a drummer myself and looking back at some of those years, that was a specific kind of bubble and mentality. The drums can be very solitary in a way. Even though you’re playing with other musicians, you’re spending most of your time practicing. That’s a very lonely activity. So I just spent most of my time in a practice room playing, and when I wasn’t in the practice room I was playing for this conductor who scared the shit out of me. So it was that really intensified relationship and mindset that wound up becoming my life. Everything else got shut out.
Filmmaker: Did you ever get slapped in the face like Andrew by your ruthless conductor?
Chazelle: (Laughs) No. No I did not get slapped in the face. Thank god.
Filmmaker: You seem that type of treatment in sports all the time — coaches inflicting physical and mental abuse on their players. But we don’t often see this in the realm of music.
Chazelle: That was definitely part of the intention. To blow the lid off that a little bit and try to show how it’s not as dissimilar from the sports worlds as we think. That there is this raw, angry side of it.
Filmmaker: Is that why you included the brother who plays Division III football?
Chazelle: Yeah, I guess a little bit. You know in the sense that there’s always this battle — artists versus athletes, musicians versus athletes — that’s funny. But it was less sports specific and more what it feels like to be giving your all to something and then going to the outside world and no one really cares. And you feel like it’s so intense for you that you feel that everyone should just immediately get it. When they don’t, it’s deeply frustrating.
Filmmaker: You’ve written and directed two films now. Have you seen a progression in your abilities as a writer, from Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench to Whiplash?
Chazelle: This was written in a different kind of framework in the sense that it was really written. It was worked on as a script, and then we more or less filmed the script. I don’t know, I wanted this to play as a thriller so that it operated on that visceral level. So it was less about chasing behaviors. There was more of narrative structure in place, and then turning the screws within that structure.
Filmmaker: And in the structure you’re breaking the film up into two acts.
Chazelle: To me, it was almost a three act thing in the sense that it’s just about a kid who is becoming more and more obsessed and addicted to this drug. And we build that all the way up to the moment where the outside moment comes marching in going, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Then he tries to live sober for awhile and isn’t able to.
Filmmaker: Sober for Andrew being not playing the drums.
Chazelle: It was his addiction, and certainly destructive.
Filmmaker: But he was good at it.
Chazelle: So that’s the sad thing I guess. He’s perhaps healthier during that summer season before he runs back into Fletcher, but he’s certainly not happy.
Filmmaker: How did you integrate the jazz music into your film?
Chazelle: The two central charts in the movie, “Whiplash” and “Caravan,” were preexisting charts that I played as a drummer and meant a lot to me as a musician. We licensed those. Then it just became a matter of building out the rest of the musical soundscape. Everything else was composed originally for the movie. It was all in that style — big, aggressive, big band jazz. I think there’s enough movies about cool, soft, laid-back jazz. I wanted this to be about the other side of the music.
Filmmaker: I’m assuming Miles Teller does not play drums as well as Andrew. How were these sequences shot?
Chazelle: He plays really well, but he’s not like a virtuoso. He just learned those specific parts, so we didn’t have to do much cheating with him. We would set up multiple cameras and I had everything storyboarded so we knew where each camera would be for each bar of music. Big storyboard, like 150 pages of crude drawings. But at least it gave us a starting point. Otherwise we would’ve been totally lost because we didn’t have enough time to shoot it. We had 20 days, so we just had to run and gun.
Filmmaker: Were the other members of the band on screen genuine musicians? There’s a great series of shots in which the core members are tuning and calibrating their instruments.
Chazelle: Pretty much everyone else. It was important to me that we had real people, so you know we’d see them actually set up and actually tune. I love getting that stuff, those little details of actual musicianship. Most of those guys had never been on screen before and they were either professional musicians or music students. They were just doing their thing. It also helped for Miles and JK, to be in that context. We’d be playing the music live on set and what you hear in the movie is either prerecorded or post-recorderded. But on set it felt like we were at music school.
Filmmaker: Were you basing this fictitious conservatory on any school in particular?
Chazelle: It’s a mix of Juilliard and Eastman and Lincoln Conservatory. And then Fletcher is partly based on my conductor, partly based on conductors some of my music buddies have had, partly based on Buddy Rich and what he was like as a band leader to his players. At the end of the day there’s no excuse for treating people that way, even if you do get a genius drum solo out of it. But it was important for me to write Fletcher in a way that I believe him. I tried to make his philosophy as compelling as possible. I was almost trying to sell Fletcher. He’s very good at selling his philosophy, and I do think there’s something to be said for not coddling people and not accepting less than great.
Filmmaker: Not accepting less than great from people who can be great.
Chazelle: Exactly, and that’s the thing that Fletcher is good at. He’s good at identifying who those people are. I think at the very beginning of the movie no one but Fletcher would’ve seen Andrew and gone, “That’s the guy.” Fletcher’s not a great musician himself; he’s a great identifier of musicians.
Filmmaker: You’re talking about selling his philosophy and yet you include the truth about the student he claims died in a car accident.
Chazelle: I just mean selling his philosophy. I intentionally wrote Fletcher to be as monstrous and destructive as possible. He leaves this wreckage in his wake, but he doesn’t give a shit. In his mind if he destroys 99 people’s lives and it leads to one person becoming a Charlie Parker, then it was worth it.
Filmmaker: And you don’t think it is?
Chazelle: (Laughs) No, well, it’s hard for me to say because obviously I’m thankful Charlie Parker existed and I’m thankful that so many great works of art that came about through suffering exist. I also think that there’s a whole other side of art which is about compassion and using art to understand other people. And I think Fletcher sees art as this absolutely abstract thing that’s almost not human. It’s about humans doing stuff that humans shouldn’t be able to do. That’s all that matters to him, and I think Fletcher is right about part of the puzzle, but doesn’t get the full picture.
Filmmaker: What about the fact that he very intentionally is trying to sabotage Andrew’s career in that final scene?
Chazelle: Again I think he’s operating on two agendas. He figures either Andrew is going to slink off and never play again, in which case Andrew was never meant to be Charlie Parker … or Andrew’s going to come back on stage and rise up. In a weird way the ending is a win-win for Fletcher. I don’t think he gives a shit about his conducting career. He’s willing to sacrifice anybody and anything, including himself, to find that one Charlie Parker. Even at the end he still holds out hope that Andrew still may be the one. What was fun about writing the end is that in some sense, Andrew is kind of having this victory. But in another sense he’s still just totally a puppet on a string.
Filmmaker: Ands his father doesn’t seem too happy at the end.
Chazelle: I think at the end the dad realizes that he’s totally lost him.
Filmmaker: But lost him to greatness.
Chazelle: Or lost him to abuse, suffering, and misery.
Filmmaker: Well yeah, that too.
Chazelle: (Laughs) I think his dad cares less about greatness and more about happiness. By the end, Andrew cares less about happiness and more about greatness.
Filmmaker: I don’t think he ever cares about happiness.
Chazelle: Actually, you’re totally right. I think he could go either way in the beginning. But ultimately I think the story of Andrew is the story of someone who is basically becoming his truest self as the movie moves on. He’s always had this potential in him and he’s slowly but surely stripping away everything in his life that is not that.
Filmmaker: Which is why he can’t make it work with the girl. He’s such an ass in those scenes.
Chazelle: Yeah, they went on like one date and he’s like, “You’re going to weigh me down.”
Filmmaker: Those scenes play strangely because Andrew is almost non-human in them. He takes tunnel vision to another level.
Chazelle: Yeah, he takes it a level that is very uncomfortable.
Filmmaker: Are you similar in that regard?
Chazelle: I hope not. But Andrew is my worst self in a way. I try not to be like that but I know I have it in me. I guess we all do. The only thing Andrew can really connect to is his instrument. Like a lot of great musicians, he’s really bad with emotions in real life but so good at putting emotions into his instrument.