Interview with 'Whiplash' filmmaker & Oscar nominee Damien Chazelle
The quiet movie that has taken Hollywood by storm, "Whiplash," is the visionary movie written and directed by Damien Chazelle. The film is about a promising young drummer that enrolls at a music conservatory where his dreams of becoming the best are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to push his students into greatness. Word of mouth and critical acclaim gave the film the momentum during movie season. At first, it was the mesmerizing performance by co-star J.K. Simmons and the hot Oscar buzz regarding his performance that had die hard film fans running to their local cinemas. And obviously the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences felt exactly the same - giving the film five nominations, including a Best Picture nod. So how does a movie of such power, precision and passion come to be? Damien Chazelle, the man behind the movie, spoke exclusively in this interview regarding the inception of the idea for "Whiplash" and all the details leading up to and beyond finding out that his film would be forever known as an Oscar-nominated picture.
Many years ago, long before Damien Chazelle became a filmmaker, he was not very different from the young student portrayed in "Whiplash." Damien was a drummer for a percussive jazz band in an elite program at his high school. It was the high school's claim to fame. Chazelle was given the opportunity to travel with his band around the world and compete with other musicians, "It was very exhilarating to me and I really learned a lot formatively and creatively. Jazz drumming became my life, but rehearsals and working with a difficult conductor was very stress inducing. Even now, looking back at it, I find it interesting that I still have nightmares of being in rehearsal or on the concert stage - and not cutting it. And yet, I got so much from the experience that it posed a dilemma to me: how much is too much when pushing people to excel?"
It wasn't an easy road bringing "Whiplash" to the silver screen. After his screenplay was written, Chazelle was having problems finding the monies to produce the film - a quandary that unfortunately is incredibly common with independent filmmakers. He eventually shot a short film of just one scene from his script. Afterwards the short was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 and he finally got the funding to make the feature length film.
With funding in place, Chazelle knew that casting would be crucial. Chazelle had noticed young actor Miles Teller when he starred in the Nicole Kidman film "Rabbit Hole," "The movie came out about the same time I was first writing. I thought he was incredible and that it was one of the best, first debut performances of any actor I had seen. He fully formed on the screen and it was a tricky role to play. I was staggered by it. I wanted to know who he was, where he came from and how I could work with him.
"So, I already had Miles in mind for the part of Andrew. And later, I found out that he also was a drummer. It just seemed like the stars were lining up for Miles to play Andrew."
When it came to Mile's musicianship skills, Chazelle explained, "He played drums as a teenager, but he wasn't at the level we needed him to be at. So, he embarked into a crash course in big band drumming. He starting rehearsing every day and watched clips of older drummers, like Joe Jones and Buddy Rich, who were reference points for the style of music. This allowed him to watch how they moved their arms and how they approached the drum kit altogether. Miles is also a talented dancer and has a great sense of rhythm and it really carried over when he had to mimic the other drummers.
"Miles definitely deserves more credit for his performance than he has gotten, but I also know that he is just getting started."
The next part to cast was much more difficult for Chazelle. Ultimately J.K. Simmons was suggested to Chazelle by the producer of "Whiplash," filmmaker Jason Reitman, "I will always be forever thankful to Jason for recommending J.K. Simmons. Jason has casted J.K. in all of his films. I was having a hard time thinking of the actors of today that could be appropriate for the role of the teacher and Jason sort of just casually mentioned J.K. to me. On a whim we sent him a script and he liked it. I met with him and it became very clear to me quite quickly that he was the silver bullet that I needed."
The question that is resonating with anyone who sees "Whiplash," is "Albeit Fletcher is a villain, but ultimately he is followed by Andrew. So, in the end is he really a true villain?
Chazelle was eager to give his point of view, "At the best Fletcher could be misguided or a very tragic hero. I think at the end of the movie is as much as a defeat as a victory for him. Fletcher was written as the villain. I was trying to write a great villain. And good villains don't think that they are villains. So, it was important to tap into the psychology and the reasoning of why he does what he does. I don't think he is a sadist just for sadism sake. He thinks he is doing right, but in the story he had to function as the villain or as the boogie man.
"The Irony of the story for me is what a simple binary hero/villain story it is except that both hero and villain have the same goal. Usually, the protagonist and the antagonist are defined as having separate and opposing goals. It sort of told me how the ending had to be. This is double victory in a way. But, if you get a villain that gets what he wants in the end, in a way the story is a tragedy."
It was pretty clear to fans and critics alike that J.K. Simmons would be receiving an Oscar nomination very early on in the season. Chazelle described the roller coaster of the morning of the Oscar nominations release, "I was a little awe struck and in a daze. It didn't hit me all at once. I got up early to watch the announcement and I was hoping for a good outcome and obviously we had a good outcome and I was relieved. It only hit me later as the day went on how crazy the whole thing was. You need to take a step back for a second, which is really hard to do in the whole madness of the Oscars."
As far as preparing for a possible win in his own category, Chazelle is not planning to write an acceptance speech, "People tell me to, but I am very superstitious. I can imagine what it's like to be in front of all those lights, how I may not even remember my own name."
Chazelle knows that many people watching the Oscars and might wonder what it takes to be there and be nominated for an Oscar. They may be trepidatious about the process and not know where to start on their own journey to making a film. For those people, Chazelle offered some sage advice, "I guess the few things that I learned from this process is get personal. It doesn't mean that you literally have to write an autobiography. It can be anything. And the more that it seems almost embarrassingly wrong. The more personal - the better. The better you can tap into things you're ashamed of within yourself - the better. And ironically that makes things more universal. We are all humans and people generally relate to what is most human.
"I think also to be really ambitious. If people think that you are unrealistic or you have your head in the clouds, just set yourself goals. If you want to make a movie, there may be many forces trying to pull you down, but really a lot of it is will power. You can will it into being, if you just believe that you are going to make a movie. I don't think that you have to wait around for the world to bestow that upon you. I think it takes a certain kind of blind confidence and maybe irrational ambition. And I think that is where the best kind of work comes from."
Damien Chazelle is obviously a young filmmaker to watch. With an Oscar nomination under his belt, it easy to see Chazelle in the same league as Alexander Payne, David O. Russell and the other bright independent filmmakers. And ultimately, come Oscar day - no matter what the outcome I think that Chazelle's nightmares of high school will dissipate quite quickly as Damien has literally turned those nightmares into a dream. And what a dream it is!