Whiplash Special - A chat with Damien Chazelle, Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash (out on DVD and Blu-ray from 1st June) sees Miles Teller plays Andrew, an ambitious jazz drummer student who becomes locked in a titanic struggle with his abusive music teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Critically acclaimed, the film became the success story of the US independent scene in 2014 – from winning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival to claiming five Oscar nominations and three wins at this year’s Academy Awards.
Here we catch up with the Damien Chazelle, Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons...
Damien, how much of Whiplash is your own story?
Damien: [Laughs] Too much, I think. I was a jazz drummer in a sort of competitive ensemble. In my case it was high school but a special kind of high school programme that was modeled after conservatory programmes – with a tough teacher and a very cutthroat atmosphere. If the movie is about anything it’s about the fear you feel as a musician in that circumstance and how antithetical that seems to art. You think of art, and especially jazz, as something that should be freeing and liberating and something where you’re kind of communicating emotionally with people. At the level of education and the level of raw honing of technique before you can be able to improvise and before you can be able to do a lot of things that you more normally associate with jazz there is this element of utter rigor and utter discipline and 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 roll out of bed and suddenly you’re improvising great solos, and I don’t think we see enough movies about practice. That aspect of it and the fear that comes from not mastering that kind of technique is what I wanted to hone in on.
J. K. what do you think drives Fletcher?
J. K.: Passion for the music and utter perfectionism and complete single-mindedness in pursuit of that goal, human collateral damage notwithstanding.
When preparing for the role, did you seek out people who are driven by that perfectionism?
J. K.: 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 and what was in me to pull it off the page for any kind of inspiration. I sort of hit the deck running with this guy [Miles] and we did our thing.
Miles, you’ve been a drummer from the age of 15 which must have stood you in good stead, but you had to learn a whole other discipline for this…
Miles: I’d played drums since I was 15. Both me and my older sisters played instruments. I started with piano and I actually played saxophone in jazz band in middle school and high school. Any knowledge I had of jazz music came from playing alto sax and I only played that up until sophomore year, then I started playing baseball and other stuff. With drumming, I drummed in some rock bands. I asked my parents for a drum kit when I was 15 and they were kind enough to buy me one. I started playing with my buddies who played guitar and we covered Green Day and stuff like that. I’ve always taken my drum kit with me but I’d never taken any lessons for it, but it was great. When I first started taking lessons [for the film] it was like ‘It’s so much easier to do it that way’ because I’d been doing it this other way which is wrong. I started taking jazz lessons – four hours a day for three days a week – with Damien at first, then the kid who plays Carl in the film, this guy named Nate Lang. He’s a very good drummer and he was kind of my teacher, just teaching me traditional jazz playing and how to hold the stick. It was very basic at first, literally like ‘This is how you hold the stick’ and ‘This is how you hit the snare drum’.
Is it true that during the practice scenes Damien would keep you going until you reached a point of exhaustion?
Miles: I guess that’s a question for Damien!
Damien: It makes me sound so tyrannical. No, that was just one scene that Miles likes to give me grief for. But it is true, though, that we shot the movie so quickly that when you look at Miles on screen he’s not acting exhausted – there’s real exhaustion that was maybe the one weird benefit of having such a tight schedule and such an unrealistic schedule in a way.
J. K.: It’s time to get this out there – it was just 19 days for the whole shoot.
Did that help with the intensity of the film?
Damien: I think the only way it maybe helped was again with that kind of emotionality. That said, you can always use more time. Certainly Miles and J. K. are both good enough actors that they don’t need to not sleep to act sleepy, you know?
J.K., Jason Reitman, who executive produced the film, has said he wishes he’d been the one to direct you to this performance. Can you speak a little bit about the remarkable run of roles you’ve had in the last few years?
J. K.: It’s been great. Jason expressed that to me – a similar sentiment about loving what Damien had written and loving the work that Damien is doing. Jason, of course, is a producer on the film. Being involved, to 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. The fact 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.
Was the improvisational spirit of jazz something that translated to the set?
Damien: Certainly it was important to me. The first things I’d done in school were documentaries and semi-documentaries and a lot of verité shooting of jazz musicians so this was the first time I’d done something that was as carefully written-out and storyboarded and everything. That said, my philosophy is still if you are literally going to transpose the script and storyboards then you might as well just publish the script and storyboards and not have the pain of working with actors. The whole point of having wonderful performances and wonderful actors is to give them some room to play. I wouldn’t say it was a completely improvisatory set, particularly also because there wasn’t time for that, but when you have people as good as Miles and J. K. you want to let them riff. Some of my favourite little moments in the movie – whether it’s little lines or even just looks – came from them. One of the first times we see J. K. he comes into the band room and opens up the folder and does this little look at the music they’re playing which I guess is not quite up to their standards and he says ‘Cute’. I didn’t write that. It’s an example of something that to me says pages and pages about the character. I could have written five pages of dialogue to equal that and it wouldn’t have been as good.
J. K.: 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 ‘Hey, we put this down but just do what you want’. This was a nice combination.
In one sense the film is all about mentors. Have you had a mentor who has meant as much to you as they do to the characters in the film?
Damien: Certainly the relationship I had with my band leader was the main inspiration for the character of Fletcher and for this entire movie. It made me a better drummer 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 it made me think about the extent to which fear can be a motivator and whether that’s a good or a bad thing. If you assume that it works sometimes - which I think sometimes it does, although a lot of times it just discourages people – in those few cases is it worth that kind of torment?
J. K.: Most mentors that I think back on were much kinder and gentler. The people who, in my experience, used fear as a motivation – I just don’t respond well to that.
Miles: I echo what J.K. said in terms of responding to it. I had a piano teacher when I was young who was pretty tough on me but I didn’t have the passion for piano so I just quit taking lessons from her. The closest thing I had to Fletcher was a drivers’ ed teacher who was so out of left field. The guy used to get so p****d if you could not parallel park and literally would slam stuff and strike fear in his students. It was such a bizarre displacement of energy, but I never had it with acting.
Damien, were boxing films in any way an inspiration for you when it came to filming Whiplash?
Damien: Yeah, absolutely. It started with just the idea of showing the physicality of music-playing, especially in today’s day and age of a lot of electronic music – a lot of music that’s not made physically per se. The idea of physical musicianship and what that does to the body is interesting and under-appreciated, the way that trumpeters screw up their lips, pianists screw up their fingers and drummers kind of screw up their hands and sometimes their full arms. That immediately brings you more into the realm of sports so I guess I wanted to draw some of those parallels – also because again there are lots of music movies about the more intellectual or emotional sides of the art form, which obviously are just as crucial but which I don’t think needed to be spotlighted as much. I think there’s more need today to spotlight the sheer physicality and sheer raw hard work that goes into even getting to that level and what that does to your body. I remember my hands bleeding a lot so a lot of the imagery came from my own personal experiences and also the rage you feel sometimes as a musician trying to get something right. In a way it mirrors Fletcher’s rage at his musicians and Andrew 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 a lot of musicians can share – that feeling of butting your head against a wall and it’s not giving in and you can’t do what you’re setting out to do. There’s an anger and a physicality that comes from that to me is not that far from, you know, the stuff you see in Raging Bull.
Miles: Damien actually gave me a copy of Raging Bull to watch as preparation for this.
Miles, can you talk us through the logistics of doing the final drum solo? How long did it take?
Miles: It’s all kind of blurry because we did film it in 19 days and I think we spent two days on that last performance. One day we did like 140 set-ups. Damien would pretty much tell me to play a ten-minute drum solo. I also had the music for the drum solo before we started and it was something I was listening to. There were parts of it, as there were with the Whiplash and Caravan solos, that I tried to know by heart – whether it was something on the hi-hat or Damien liked it when I’d be going back across the symbol. He’d go: ‘Do that back and forth thing. I really like it when you move around the kit like this.’ For a lot it’s just you’re playing a ten-minute drum solo and people have to listen to it. That’s great because I played drums around the house and my parents never really told me to quiet down, but nobody wants to hear a ten-minute drum solo – but it’s the climax of the movie.
In previous films you’ve made, what other skills have you picked up?
Miles: For this movie it was the first time I really honed in on a skill because it was such a pivotal part of the performance. [Laughs] I guess other skills I’ve shown include not getting in shape. I’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding the six-pack, cliché thing young actors are thrown into. I did a good job with that, until now. I’m doing a boxing movie (Bleed For This) and amidst all the traveling and promoting Whiplash I’ve been getting to the gym. It’s great any time you can parallel a skill that your character has; it makes it even more rewarding, at least for me.
J. K.: I haven’t had a lot in the way of specific physical training for a lot of things. Stunts and fighting and stuff like that early on and doing dialects or accents, but in terms of learning physical skills I’m sure somebody will point out three things I did 19 years ago that I’ve totally forgotten about but nothing’s coming to mind.
J. K. how did you shape the character of Fletcher and did you stay in character throughout filming?
J. K.: [Laughs] I terrorised the entire crew the entire 19 days. No, we quickly fell into a rhythm of having fun and goofing around on the set in between takes. Damien would yell ‘Cut’ and Miles would reassert his masculinity which I had stripped him of during the previous take – or he would attempt to. It was pretty light and honestly, as far as creating the character goes I felt 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.
Damien, were there elements of biopics that you chose to stick to or veer from?
Damien: One thing that certainly a lot of biopics do that I was interested in was the idea of an origin story – the idea of seeing how someone becomes someone. There’s a whole tradition of that. Motorcyle Diaries is Che Guevara before he became Che Guevara, Shakespeare In Love… These kind of ‘becoming’ narratives. That’s interesting to me because there’s this big question of: ‘Where do these quote unquote great artists come from? What’s the actual process of becoming that?’ The Charlie Parker story is referenced a lot in this movie. Fletcher twists the story a bit and uses it to justify his methods but there’s also this question underlying it which is we don’t really know exactly how Charlie Parker went from in his teens being an undistinguished saxophone player who no-one in Kansas City at the time – including the really smart jazz people – thought would go anywhere special to suddenly in a couple of years literally, by the time he was 19, being hailed as the greatest musician on the planet. It was this just this immediate thing, it poses all these questions and it’s kind of like a Faust story. It’s the Robert Johnson myth as well – that he sold his soul to the devil in order to be great at the guitar. Less than looking at specific biopics, it was more that idea of looking at the biographies of some of these musicians, especially the missing pieces early in their life and trying to fill in what might have been that I was interested in.
How do you feel about the awards buzz about the film?
Damien: The one thing I’m very grateful for is that no matter what happens a movie about a jazz drummer actually can connect to people who aren’t in that world. It’s such a specific, esoteric world in many ways but my hope was always that it could connect. In large parts it thanks to Miles and J.K. who humanise it and also universalise it in a way that wasn’t apparent on the page.
How far would you push yourselves personally?
J. K.: That’s part of the central debate, that theme, and you don’t achieve greatness without pushing – whether you’re pushing yourself or pushing others. Having said that, the methodology is possibly questionable.
Damien, why do you focus on big band jazz in the movie?
Damien: The main reason why the movie is at least nominally about big band jazz – and you can argue that jazz itself has been marginalized in the culture but big band jazz is non-existent in culture now to a large extent – is because it was the era when drummers were celebrities in a weird way. Louie Belson was a showman, Gene Crooper, Joe Jones, Chick Webb, Buddy Rich – these people were if not the most spotlighted people of their group then certainly among them, of their various ensembles, so in a way you’re a sideman but also a frontman. I remember when I was learning to be a drummer there was something very romantic about that era, which I never lived through but watching old footage of those guys and the way they would make their drum sets, the gleaming drum heads, the slanted snares, the way the initials would be written on those huge floor toms that were bigger than rock bands’ floor toms or sorry, bass drums... There was a whole romanticism to it that existed then but now I think it doesn’t exist anymore, but it’s also something that doesn’t exist in small combo jazz either. Obviously many of the greatest drummers in jazz history were small combo players – many of the most important ones – but this movie is specifically about the big band world, which to me is its own kind of romantic era.
Miles and J. K., what are inspirations as actors?
J. K.: I’ve never thought of consciously being inspired by other actors, but certainly there are many actors I greatly admire. Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man for one and, for whatever reason, Willem Dafoe in Platoon jump into my head. But, and this goes back to the beginning of my theatre days and really to the beginning of my music days, I felt like when I was studying classical music in college it was about Brahms or Schubert or whoever I was singing. I’d sort of feel like a conduit to great creative artists. Whether they are composers or whether it’s Shakespeare or [laughs] Chazelle, it’s the creator that inspires me.
Miles: I don’t know for me when it clicked into something different than getting on stage in high school and making people laugh. I really enjoyed the entertainment aspect of it. I’d say something, people would clap and that was exciting for me, but there’s something about when I started taking classes in New York and going to the Lee Strasberg 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 Hoffman and all these guys. I love the history of acting and I think it’s such a beautiful craft. You absolutely get out of it what you put into it and what I’m inspired by is trying to be a part of something I have a great respect for and not disrespecting it.
Fletcher talks about wanting people to exceed his expectations. Was there any time during the making of the film when people exceeded your own expectations?
Miles: When I saw the movie it exceeded my expectations for it. It’s very rare, at least from my experience, that 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 you get when you first read it, and when I saw this movie for the first time I was kind of blown away by what Damien had done with it. As an actor, for the final product you really have little to do with it. You film for a couple of weeks, then people mess with it for like a year – or in Damien’s case two months – and they put it together and your opinion means nothing. They’re choosing what takes to use and picking angles, but the way Damien shot it – all the tension and suspense and all that stuff – as an actor you can’t act suspense and you can’t act tension, that’s all done in the edit, so I was truly blown away by Damien’s talent and that’s why I’m doing his next film, La La Land.
Miles, Damien says you’re closer to this character in real life than you think…
Miles: It’s probably a side of me that my buddies have never seen, but my girlfriend has kind of seen it this past year because she’s seen how much I’ve wanted this – to work on these films – and she sees that passion and drive from me. Most people have probably never seen that side to me so getting an opportunity and a script like this to show how it connects to you and to wear your heart on your sleeve. [Laughs] But I go out with girls, I go to the gym and stuff, I hang out with my friends…
Damien, there’s the line in the movie about no two words in the English language being more dangerous than ‘Good job’. Did someone actually say that to you?
Damien: No, it’s from my own sick mind. I grew up mostly in the US but partly in France and in France they would joke to me about how I guess in their mind their vision of America was people saying ‘Good job’ all the time. They had this vision I had never thought about and I guess it is true, but I guess what’s interesting to me about that scene is that there’s many ways to take the Charlie Parker myth. Some people point out, which is true, that most versions of that myth don’t involve the actual throwing of the symbol at his head, it’s just kind of put on the ground. Fletcher twists this myth around to totally justify his own behaviour and the fact he pulls from it this lesson that you should never say ‘Good job’, it’s not a lesson I necessarily
agree with but at the same time – and as with any character you write – you want to be able to see their point of view. As screwed up as Fletcher’s mindset is, the one thing I do think that makes him somewhat noble is that in a world of hypocrites he has a coherent world view. There’s an integrity to it. It might be very a perverted and despicable one but it’s one 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. His methods are horrible but at least there’s something to be said for that sort of blind passion.
Whiplash is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from 1st June. Check out the trailer below...