Whiplash is the story of ambition, as told through the trials of a jazz drummer. Andrew (Miles Teller) is a conservatory student who wants to be the best, while he is merciless conductor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) continues to push him to the limit, inflicting an intensity that boils down to a battle of succeeding or failing.
Chazelle has previously directed one film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Whiplash is based on a short that he made in 2013; the feature-length version premiered at the Sundance Film Festival the following year. Whiplash is produced by director Jason Reitman.
In an exclusive interview, I discussed with Chazelle the different musical experience Whiplash presents, its visual style, the idea of showing the difficulty of fun music, and more.
Whiplash opens in Chicago today.
Did you play sports when you were growing up?
Damien Chazelle Not really. I played soccer, but you get to that age in high school where you have to choose one or the other. And music took over completely.
When you were making ‘Whiplash’, were you thinking about sports films in particular as something to build off from?
Yeah, and the idea of putting down my personal experience on paper. But one factor that I hadn’t seen in music movies a lot was the physicality of it. I wanted to have the sweat and the blood and to have the physical strain in your body, that it’s not just an intellectual exercise. And yeah, in terms of structure I wanted to build off of sports movies. It was so cathartic and fun building up to the big showdown of the sports movie.
Even when about musicians, music films don’t seem to get that specific idea of instrumentation.
There is always the cheesy thing in movies where someone has to say, “Oh this guy is very good.” I wanted to try to avoid that. You get certain impressions from faces though, especially Miles Teller’s face, which is so expressive.
What excited you about introducing the idea of fear to the musician’s experience?
I think that there is something about music that is inherently joyful or liberating. I found it more interesting to have music that is fun and enjoyable to listen to, but playing it is not definitely not as fun. I definitely wanted to get the fear and the discomfort of that.
How did your own hustle with your previous film, ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’, influence the experience in this narrative?
Definitely at this point I have gravitated towards musicians and music films, writing what you know. My first movie was more about the joy of music, and so I kind of in a way went full-out in the other direction.
How did you go about achieving the visual style of ‘Whiplash’? What was a typical shot setup like?
I also wanted to shoot Whiplash on film, but there was also this sheer number of setups that didn’t work with our time. We worked on getting a darker, more claustrophobic, and constricted color palette. There were a lot of tests that we did to find out what the right color space was, and then trying to really milk it for what it is worth. This [film] was very precisely mapped out, and I storyboarded everything. We usually had two cameras going, with one camera on one thing and another in a different room. We basically tried to double up and triple up what little details we could cover, and then passed them on to the editors.
In your musical films you’ve expressed the spirit of the piano, trumpet, and now the drums. Do you have any interest in sharing the intensity of more instruments?
[Laughs] Well, the next movie I am directing [La La Land, with Miles Teller and Emma Watson], is about piano. But i think I’ll try something different after.