Follow Us on Twitter

Whiplash - Damien Chazelle interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

DAMIEN Chazelle talks about writing and directing the critically-acclaimed Whiplash and why the film is semi-autobiographical, as well as evocative of sports movies as well as music biopics.

He also talks about working with his two leading men, JK Simmons and Miles Teller, allowing them to improvise and bring their own ideas where appropriate and his own mentors in life. He was speaking at a press conference held during the 2014 London Film Festival.

Q. How much of Whiplash is your story?
Damien Chazelle: Uh, too much [laughs]. I was a jazz drummer in a competitive ensemble. In my case it was high school. But I had a very tough teacher and it was a very cut-throat atmosphere. I just remember… if the movie is about anything it’s about the sort of fear that you feel as a musician in that circumstance and how opposite that feels to art. You think of art, especially jazz, as something that should be freeing and liberating and something where you’re kind of communicating emotionally with people. And then it turns into it but at the level of education, of raw honing of technique before you can improvise or do any of the things that we normally associate with jazz. But there is this element of utter rigour and utter discipline… almost military hardship that I don’t think we know enough about or see enough about in movies about musicians. There’s this idea that you kind of roll out of bed and suddenly you’re improvising great solos. So, that sort of aspect of it and the fear that comes from not mastering that kind of technique is what I kind of wanted to hone in on.

Q. Is it true that you encouraged long takes, especially during the drumming sequences?
Damien Chazelle: Well, that’s just one scene. Miles [Teller] likes to give me grief for it. We shot the movie so quickly that when you look at Miles on-screen, he’s not acting exhausted, there’s real exhaustion there! But that was maybe the one weird benefit of having such a tight schedule… an unrealistic schedule.

JK Simmons: Let me get this out there… 19 days.

Q. Did that help?
Damien Chazelle: Well, I think the only way it helped was with that kind of emotion element. That said, I think you could always use more time and certainly Miles and JK are both good enough actors that they don’t need to not sleep to act sleepy.

Q. You’ve mentioned about jazz being spontaneous. Did that lend itself to allowing your actors to be spontaneous with their performances at times?
Damien Chazelle: Certainly, the first things I did in film school were documentaries and semi-documentaries and a lot of verite shooting of jazz musicians. So, this was actually the first time that I’d done something that was written out and storyboarded. But that said, my philosophy is that if you’re literally only going to transpose the script as published it would be a waste of everyone’s time. The whole point of working with wonderful actors is to give them some room to play. So, that was certainly my philosophy.

It wasn’t completely improvisatory because there wasn’t time for that. But when you have actors as good as Miles and JK you want to let them rip and certainly some of my favourite little moments in the movie, whether it’s little lines or looks, are all about JK and Miles. An example is one of the first times JK comes into the band-room, opens up the folder and does this little look that tells you the music that they’re playing is not quite up to his standards. What he says, I didn’t write. But that one line says so much more about the character than the five pages of dialogue I could have written about him.

Q. Have you had a mentor that’s meant as much to you as these characters do to each other?
Damien Chazelle: Certainly, the relationship I had with my band leader was the main inspiration for the character of Fletcher [JK Simmons] and for this entire movie. It made me a better drummer. Certainly, I’m not a drummer now so I can’t say it made me a great artist as a drummer. But in terms of his sheer work ethic, it made me think a lot about the extent to which fear can be a motivator and whether that’s a good or bad thing. If you assume that it works sometimes, which I think sometimes it does… a lot of times it just discourages people. But when it does, then in those few cases, you still have to ask whether it’s worth that kind of torment.

Q. Were boxing films also an inspiration for you?
Damien Chazelle: Absolutely. It started with just the idea of showing the physicality of music playing. In this day and age of a lot of electronic music, or music that’s not made physically per se, the idea of physical musicianship and what it does to the body is interesting and under-appreciated… the way that trumpeters screw up their lips and pianists screw up their fingers, and drummers kind of screw up their hands and arms. So, that kind of relates more to the realm of sports.

So, I guess I wanted to draw some of those parallels… again, because I think there are a lot of music movies about the more intellectual or emotional side of the art form, which obviously are just as crucial but didn’t need to be spotlighted as much. I think there’s more need today to spotlight the sheer physicality and the raw hard work that goes into getting to that level and what that does to your body. And I remember by hands bleeding a lot. So, a lot of the imagery came from my own personal experiences, and also the rage you feel as a musician trying to get something right. In a way, it mirrors Fletcher’s rage at his musicians. He gets just as angry as Fletcher ever does. So, to me, there’s an anger and physicality that’s not that far removed from the kind of stuff you see in Raging Bull.

Q. Were there elements of biopic films you tried to avoid given this is partly semi-autobiographical?
Damien Chazelle: I guess one thing a lot of biopics do by definition is an origins story, or the idea of seeing how someone becomes someone. Certainly, with something like The Motorcycle Diaries, it was about Che Guevara before he became Che Guevara. That to me is really interesting because I think there’s this big question mark of where do these ‘great artists’ come from? What’s the actual process of becoming that?

The Charlie Parker story is referenced a lot in this movie, which Fletcher twists to justify his methods. But there’s also this question that’s underlined, which is that we don’t really know exactly how Charlie Parker went from in his teens being an undistinguished saxophone player, who no one thought would go anywhere special, to suddenly within a couple of years, by the time he was 19, already being hailed as the greatest musician on the planet. So, it poses all of these questions. It’s almost Faustian, or the Robert Johnson myth – that he sold his soul to the devil in order to be great at guitar.

So, it was less about looking at traditional biopics and more looking at that kind of idea of looking at the biographies of some of these musicians and especially the missing pieces from early in their life and filling in what might have been.

Read our review of Whiplash

Read our interview with JK Simmons