Sundance 2014: 'Whiplash' director on the price of greatness and the intensity of J.K. Simmons

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Image Credit: Daniel McFadden

It’s going to be a memorable Sundance Film Festival if the rest of the movies can keep up with the beat that Whiplash laid down last night. The opening-night premiere from 28-year-old director Damien Chazelle tells the story of an ambitious jazz-drummer prodigy (Miles Teller) who bumps up against an intimidating tyrant of a music teacher played by J.K. Simmons. Bad-ass bald, with bulging biceps that fill his fashionable black t-shirts, Simmons’ Terrence Fletcher is a cruel taskmaster who bludgeons his students with torrents of mocking, often homophobic, invective in his mission to create true genius. Fletcher toys with them psychologically and bullies them physically, like some musical Bobby Knight. “I remember when I first met [J.K.], I just sort of told him, “Remember how you were in Oz? I want to make that guy look like the teacher in Mr. Holland’s Opus,” Chazelle said to the audience after last night’s premiere.

Chazelle himself was a serious jazz drummer in high school, and he based the poisenous relationship on one he had with one of his own mentors. “Drums had always been like a fun hobby for me, and for four years, when I was in that ensemble, it became just a source of constant dread,” he said last night. “Just looking back, it was an interesting experience because I became a much better drummer than I know I ever would’ve, but I also didn’t enjoy it at all. And maybe for people who feel that music should be about joy and fun, it was missing the point. So those were certain questions that I was grasping with and I just wanted to write about it.”

That Whiplash — which refers to a jazz composition composed by Hank Levy — got a prime Sundance showcase is a great tribute to Chazelle’s crew, and an honor to the festival’s spirit. Last year, Whiplash won the Sundance price for Best Short film, and Chazelle spent the last 12 months turning an 18 minute short, that was specially created as a sample to show potential investors, into a deeper, richer two-hander that questions all the blood, sweat, and tears that seem to be the price of greatness. Sony Pictures quickly picked up the distribution rights to some international markets. A big number for the price of the domestic rights would not surprise anyone who witnessed last night’s premiere. (Though if the film becomes a hit, Simmons’ future as a comforting, vest-wearing pitch-man for Farmers Insurance might soon need to be rethought.)

Chazelle, who also wrote the screenplay for Grand Piano, spoke to EW before the premiere about his movie.

I remember last year, when you were in Sundance with the short-film version of Whiplash, your executive producer Jason Reitman described it as “Shine meets Full Metal Jacket.” Not a misleading description: J.K. Simmons does a great Lee Ermey.
A lot of it was inspired by my own experiences in a sort of a jazz ensemble when I was in high school. I had a conductor who scared the hell out of me, and pushed his players really hard. There’s something about that kind of teacher-student slash player-conductor dynamic that I found really interesting. Miles’ character is the drummer who has dreams of being one of the greats but has no real sense if he actually has what it takes. He meets this conductor, who sure enough, starts pushing him harder than he’s ever been pushed. And it’s really kind of mano-a-mano between this two characters in a way that hopefully explores this question of how much pushing is too much, how far is too far, especially when you’re pursuing some kind of competitive goal. Not just being a great musician, but being a great anything, basically. At what point do you have to draw the line.

In recent years, J.K. has played more affable, light-hearted roles, but his performance here gave me flashbacks to his white-supremacist character on Oz. He’s terrifying.
He’s completely different from the original person who inspired the character, the conductor I had. Different physically, different attitude, different in terms of language. And yet, it’s the kind of thing that as soon as he stepped in to the role, I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing it. He just has that kind of ability to scare you but also make you laugh. It’s a sort of charisma that I think the character has to have in order for you to buy why he has such a sway over these students, over this institution in which he works — why he’s able to get away with the behavior he gets away with. Even the first day of the short, he knew exactly who this guy was. And he had certain specific ideas about this guy that I hadn’t even considered that I loved, and quickly it just became the way that I think of this character. So when we did the feature it was almost kind of like him stepping back into a role that I felt at that point he totally owned.

Did much change or evolve in his performance, from when you made the short to when you made the feature? Because obviously, he did at least one of the most mesmerizing scenes twice, once with Johnny Simmons and the second time with Miles.
The scene in the short shows you kind of one side of him, but I think in the feature, you get more of a sense of the philosophy behind his actions — the sort of method to his madness. Hopefully not in a way that endorses it but in a way that at least kind of investigates it and explores it a little more deeply.

How did you land Miles for the lead role?
I have a specify memory last year going to the Eccles Theater [at Sundance] to see The Spectacular Now and seeing Miles on stage doing a Q+A. I loved him since Rabbit Hole, so he was already someone who I’d been dying to work back when I was first writing Whiplash. I just remember sitting there and seeing him on stage — and we were there trying to basically sell the feature version of the movie — and just wondering what it would be to work with him. I watched his Q+A, but that was about as close as I got. I didn’t end up meeting him until after Sundance that we locked the financing and then we started casting. 

At least 35 percent of my friends think they are awesome! on the drums, so I can only imagine you interviewing hungry actors who are all telling you how great they are behind a kit in order to get the role. How skilled did you ultimately demand that Miles be?
He came in with a certain amount of experience with the drums. He never had a lesson but I knew that he had a kit, that he played recreationally, so he knew his way around a kit in a sort of fundamental way that gave us a grounding. But he didn’t know jazz at all, he didn’t traditional grips, he didn’t know a lot of the specific techniques that he would need for the movie, so it was a lot of training. He had the backbone of what he needed, but then, to his credit, he threw himself head first into really intensive lessons, practicing at home, training with me, training with other teachers. Interestingly, Nate Lang who plays the sort of senior drummer in the band that Miles joins in the movie is an actor but he’s also a pro-level drummer. He actually took Miles under his wing and shepherded Miles along before shooting. But ultimately, it was Miles himself who just threw himself into it. He’s great in the film. Certainly I had my eyes on the drumming.

There are certain confrontational scenes that make the audience want to look away, because you feel like you’re violating some intimate shame. How were those heavy scenes to film? Like, does J.K. unload on one of the musicians, you say, “Cut,” and then everything’s just hunky-dory between them?
I think it’s different for every actor, but one thing that J.K. and Miles have in common was and one reason I think that they got along so well on set — they had a really rapport — was just that, in the moment, they are as focused as anybody. It’s almost kind of scary focused. But as soon as you yell, “Cut,” they’d be back to cracking jokes and slapping each other on the back. In fact, we have this one on-set still of Miles red-cheeked, J.K. hovering over him with his hand at the ready to slap him, but the two of them are laughing. 

Ed. note: Originally, this post called Chazelle a first-time director. But he also directed 2009′s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.

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