Damien Chazelle, Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons
In conversation with the director and stars of Whiplash

12 April 2015

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Let’s face it, this is a film about band practice.  Could there be anything more un-movie worthy?  Kids in band are usually seen in high school corridors trying to unwedgie their underwear from their ass cracks or picking the spitballs out of their mullets as they sit, alone, in the cafeteria.   This is a cinematic milieu traditionally of, say, a young Lindsey Lohan or Zac Efron.  But Whiplash is tenser and more fraught than any war movie since The Deer Hunter.  It’s an astonishing piece of work, a royal flush of ensemble acting, stand out performances, directing, writing, and editing.  It is a battle of wills, a battle of integrity, with characters who are all monsters, to varying degrees.  I winced, as the movie progressed, fearing that it must be headed for the cloying indie cliché where the gruff nasty misanthrope finds, through the patience and innocent wisdom of a young charge, his warm and sticky heart, and everybody cuddles and pats each other on the back.  My trepidation was unwarranted.  It’s very rare in an American movie that a director has the guts to create a character so hideous and irredeemable and then not redeem him in the third act.  It’s also a stunning achievement to pull off a film where both sides lose, and both sides win.

How much of Whiplash is based on your experience?

Damien Chazelle:  Too much, I think.  I was a jazz drummer in a sort of competitive ensemble—in my case it was high school, a special kind of high school program that was modeled after conservatory programs—with a very tough teacher and a very cutthroat atmosphere.  If this movie is about anything, it’s about the fear that you feel as a musician and how antithetical that seems to art.  That you think of art, and especially jazz, as something that should be freeing and liberating, and something that you’re communicating emotionally with people.  But at the level of education, the level of raw honing of technique, before you can improvise, before you can do a lot of the things that we more normally associate with jazz, there is this element of utter rigor and utter discipline and almost military hardship.  I don’t think we know enough about or see enough about it in movies about musicians.  I think there’s this idea that you kind of roll out of bed and suddenly you’re improvising great solos, and I don’t think we see enough movies about practice.  So that aspect of it and the fear that comes from not mastering that kind of technique is kind of what I wanted to focus on.

J.K., what drives your character? 

J.K. Simmons: Passion for the music and utter perfectionism and complete single-mindedness of pursuit of that goal.  Human collateral damage notwithstanding.

How did you prepare?  Did you seek out some obsessives to research?

J.K.S.: Honestly, the preparation that I had to do for the role was just learning the music.  As far as playing the character, it was all there on the page, and I didn’t feel the need to look outside of what Damien had written.  The script was all the inspiration necessary and just sort of hit the deck running and we did our thing.

Miles, you’ve played drums since 15, but you had to learn a whole other discipline…

Miles Teller: I have, both me and my older sisters, we all played instruments; I started with piano.  I actually played saxophone in jazz band in high school.  Any knowledge I have of playing jazz was from that.  But I only played that until sophomore year, then I started playing baseball and other stuff, but yeah, with drumming, I drummed in some rock bands.  I asked for a drum kit when I was, like, 15, and my parents were kind enough to buy me one.   I just started playing with my buddies who played guitar—kind of—and we covered Green Day and stuff like that. But I’ve never taken any kind of lessons for it.  So it was great, when I first started getting these lessons, it was one of those things where it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s so much easier to do it that way.’  I started taking jazz lessons like four hours a day, three days a week, with Damien at first, and then the kid who plays Carl in the film, Nate Lang, who’s a very good drummer, and was teaching me the traditional jazz playing.  It was very basic at first, like, ‘This is how you hold the stick, and this how you hit the snare drum.’  Damien would have me practicing for hours.

 Is it true that shooting the practice scenes, Damien wouldn’t shout cut?

D.C.: It makes me sound so tyrannical.  That’s just one scene that we’re talking about, that Miles likes to give me grief for.  It is true that we shot the movie so quickly that when you kind of…you know, when you look at Miles on screen, it’s not acting exhausted, it’s real exhaustion, and that was the one weird benefit of having such a tight schedule.  Such an unrealistic schedule.

J.K.S.: 19 days for the whole shoot.

Did that help?

D.C.: The only way it maybe helped was again with the emotionality.  That said, I think you can always use more time. Certainly both Miles and J.K. are both good enough actors that they don’t need to not sleep to act sleepy.

J.K., the film has capped off a remarkable few years for your career….

J.K.S.: It’s been great.  Jason (Reitman) expressed that to me that he wishes he had directed me to this performance early on, a similar sentiment about loving what Damien had written and loving the work that Damien was doing.  And Jason, of course, was a producer on the film, as well as making Men, Women, and Children. Being involved in one degree or another in every film that Jason has done, every feature, from the beginning, has been a really fun and gratifying part of my career.  And the fact that this script came to me from him was my first clue that it was going to be something that had a chance to be extraordinary.

Improvisation is vital in Jazz.  Was there a lot improvisation in Whiplash?

D.C.: One of the first things I’d done in school were documentaries, and semi-documentaries, verité shooting of jazz musicians, so this was actually the first thing I’d done that was as carefully written out and storyboarded and everything.  But that said, my philosophy is still that if you’re literally only going to transpose the script and storyboards, you might as well just publish the script and storyboards.  The whole point of wonderful performances, or having wonderful actors, is actually giving them some room to play.  So that was certainly my philosophy.  I wouldn’t say it was a completely improvisatory set, partly because there wasn’t  time for that,  but people as good as Miles and J.K., you want to let them riff.  And certainly some of my favorite little moments in the movie, whether it’s little lines or even just looks, are J.K. and Miles’s.  An example is when one of the first times we see J.K., he comes into the Nassau band room, opens up the folder, and does this kind of little look at the music that they’re playing, which I guess is not quite up to his standards, and says, ‘Cute.’  I didn’t write that.  And that’s something to me that says pages and pages about the character.  I mean, I could have written five pages of dialogue to equal that and it wouldn’t have been as good.

J.K.S.: It was cool to have something that was so thorough on the page, but also to have the freedom to play within that framework.  That’s part of what’s fun about what we do.  But oftentimes on a movie you’ll have one or the other.  You’ll have a really good solid script or you’ll have this sort of ‘We’ve put this down but just do what you want’ kind of thing.   This was a nice combination.

A lot of the film is about being a mentor.  Have you ever had a mentor?

D.C.: Certainly the relationship that I had with my band teacher was the main inspiration for the character Fletcher [J.K. 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 just sheer work ethic, certainly.  We talked about this, the extent to which fear can be a motivator, and whether that’s a good or a bad thing.  A lot of times it just discourages people, but sometimes it does work; then in those few cases, is it worth that kind of harming?

J.K.: Most mentors that I think back on were much kinder and gentler, and the people in my experience who used fear as a motivation, I just don’t respond well to that.  So I don’t.

M.T.: Yeah, I kind of go along with what J.K. said. In terms of responding to it, I had a piano teacher when I was young, she was pretty tough on me, but I didn’t have the passion for the piano so I just quit taking lessons from her.  The closest thing I had to Fletcher was a Drivers Ed teacher.  He used to get so pissed off you could not parallel park.  He’d slam stop and really strike fear into his students, and it was such a bizarre displacement of that kind of energy.  But I never had it with acting.

Did you use any boxing films for inspiration?

D.C.: It started with just the idea of showing the physicality of music playing.  Especially in this day and age of a lot of electronic music is not made physically; the idea of physical musicianship and what that does to the body I think is interesting and underappreciated.  The way that trumpeters screw up their lips and pianists screw up their fingers and drummers kind of screw up their hands and sometimes their full arms.  That immediately brings you into the realm of sports.  So I guess I wanted to draw some of those parallels because I think there’s lots of music movies about the more intellectual or emotional sides of the art form, which obviously are just as crucial, but I don’t think needed to be spotlighted as much.  I think there’s more need today to spotlight the sheer physicality, the sheer raw hard work that goes into even getting to that level, and what that does to your body.  And I just remember my hands bleeding a lot, and so a lot of the imagery just came from my own personal experiences.  And also the rage you feel sometimes as a musician, trying to get something right in a way that mirrors Fletcher’s rage at his musicians. Andrew [Miles Teller] gets just as angry as Fletcher ever does at himself when he’s not getting something properly in his practice room.  That’s a feeling that I think a lot of musicians can share.  Feeling like you’re butting your head against a wall that’s not giving in and you can’t do whatever it is you’re setting out to do.  I think there’s a kind of anger and physicality that comes from that, that to me is not that far from the stuff you see in Raging Bull.

M.T.: Damien actually gave me a copy of Raging Bull to watch as kind of a preparation for this.

For the last scene, what were the logistics of shooting a drum solo?

M.T.: It’s all kind of blurry because we did film it in 19 days.  I think we spent two days on that last performance, and on one day we did, like, a hundred and forty set ups.  So Damien would pretty much tell me to play a ten-minute drum solo, and I also had the music for the drum solo before we started, and it was something that I was listening to, and absolutely there were parts of it, as there were with ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Caravan,’ that I tried to know by heart.  Damien liked when I’d be going back across the cymbals, so he’d go like, ‘Let’s do it again, do that back and forth thing, I really like it when you move around the kit like this.’  For a lot of it, it was like you’re playing a ten minute drum solo and people have to listen to it.  Nobody wants to hear a ten-minute drum solo.

J.K., did you stay in character between takes and terrify the crew?

J.K.S.: We quickly fell into a rhythm of having fun, goofing around on set actually, in between takes.  Damien would yell cut and Miles would reassert his masculinity that I’d stripped him of during the take.  Or he would attempt to.  It was pretty light. Honestly, as far as creating the character I felt like I was just channeling what Damien wrote and there was no conscious effort on my part to achieve anything other than bringing his work off the page.

As this was to some extent autobiographical, where there some elements you avoided so as not to be a biopic?

D.C.: I guess what I was interested in was the idea of an origin story, the idea of seeing how someone becomes someone.  Certainly there’s a whole tradition of that—Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara before he becomes Che Guevara—these sort of ‘becoming’ narratives.  That to me is really interesting because I think there’s this big question mark of where do these quote unquote great artists come from, what’s the actual process of becoming that.  And the Charlie Parker story is referenced a lot in the movie, which Fletcher kind of twists a bit and uses the story to justify his methods.  But also there’s this question that’s underlined which is that we don’t really know exactly how Charlie Parker went from, in his teens, being a kind of undistinguished saxophone player who no one in Kansas City at the time—including all the smart jazz people at the time—thought was going to go anywhere special to suddenly, in a couple of years, literally by the time he was 19, already being hailed as the greatest musician on the planet.  It was just this kind of immediate thing, so it poses all these questions and themes, like a Faust story, of the Robert Johnson myth as well, that he sold his soul to the devil in order to be great at guitar.  I think looking at specific biopics was more about looking at the biographies of some of these musicians and especially the missing pieces early in their life and trying to fill in what might have been that I was interested in.  And also the one thing that I’m grateful for is that a movie about a jazz drummer can actually connect to people who weren’t in that world.  It’s a specific, esoteric world in many ways, but my hope was always that it could connect, and I think that in a large part is thanks to J.K. and Miles.  They humanize and they also universalize it in a way that wasn’t apparent on the page.

What inspires you? 

D.C.: One of the main parts of the movie is about the anomaly of big band jazz, which,  you can argue—even jazz itself has been marginalized in the culture—is nonexistent now to a large extent.  But it was the era when drummers were celebrities in a weird way, Louis Bellson was a showman, Gene Krupa, Joe Jones, Chick Webb, Buddie Rich… these people were, if not the most spotlighted in their group, certainly among them.  So in a way you’re a sideman, but you’re also a front man.  When I was learning to be a drummer, there was something very romantic about that era, which I never lived through, but just watching old footage of those guys, and just the way they would place their drum sets, the gleaming drum heads, the slanted snares, and the way the initials would be written on these huge bass drums.  There was a whole romanticism to it, but now I don’t think exists anymore.

J.K.S.: I’ve never really thought about being consciously inspired by other actors. Certainly there are many, many actors that I greatly admire, but I’m really inspired by—and this goes back to the beginning of my theatre days, really the beginning of my music days—I felt like when I was studying classical music in college it was about Brahms or Schubert of whoever I was singing that I sort of feel like a conduit to great creative artists, whether they’re composers or whether they’re Shakespeare or Chazelle.  It’s the creator that inspires me.

M.T.: It clicked into me that acting was something different than just getting on stage in high school and making people laugh—the entertainment aspect of it that I really enjoyed, hearing people clap, that was really exciting for me.  But there was something more when I started taking classes in New York and going to the Lee Strasburg Institute there.  You walk in and you’re seeing black and white photos of Pacino at that same school, and De Niro and Brando and all these guys, and I think that’s what inspires me.  I just love the history of acting and I think that it’s a beautiful craft and it’s something where you absolutely get out of it what you put into it.  So, for me, I guess that’s kind of what I’m inspired by: just trying to be a part of something that I have such a great respect for and to not disrespect others.

And were you pleased with results?

M.T.: When I saw the movie, it exceeded my expectations for it.  It’s very rarely, at least from my experience, where the movie is better than the script.  Usually the script is so good and you hope to make a version of it that gives you that feeling when you first read it, and absolutely when I saw this film for the first time I was blown away by what Damien had done.  As an actor you really have little to do with the final product.  At the end of the day you film for a couple of weeks and then people mess with it for a year—or in Damien’s case two months—and they put it together and your opinion means nothing.  They’re choosing what takes, and picking what angles they’re shooting it at…it’s the way that Damien shot it and the tension and suspense and all that stuff; as an actor you can’t act suspense, you can’t act tension, that’s all done in the edit.  So I was truly blown away by it, by Damien’s talent and, yeah, that’s why I’m doing his next film.

In the film, Fletcher says that the two most dangerous words in the English language are ‘Good job.’  Did someone say that to you? 

D.C.: No, that’s from my own sick mind.  I do remember when I was young—I grew up mostly in the US, but partly in France—and I remember in France they would joke to me about how, in their mind I guess, their vision of America was people saying ‘Good job’ all the time.  I never thought about it.  I guess it is true.  I guess what’s interesting about that scene to me is that there are many ways to take the Charlie Parker myth and some people pointed out, which is true, that actually even most versions of that myth don’t even involve the actual throwing of the cymbal at his head, but Fletcher really uses it, he twists this myth around to totally justify his own behavior and pulls from it this kind of lesson: that you should never say ‘Good job.’  It’s not a lesson I necessarily agree with, but at the same time, as with any character you write, I guess you want to be able to see their point of view.  And as screwed up as Fletcher’s mindset is, that one thing that makes him somewhat noble: in a world of hypocrites, he has a coherent world view.  It may be a very perverted and despicable one but it’s one that he will go to his grave defending.  He’ll throw his career away in Carnegie Hall in order to defend this point of view.  He literally cares nothing more than about finding this Charlie Parker moment.  So his methods are horrible but at least there’s something, to me, to be said for that sort of blind passion.