Damien Chazelle on directing, drumming and why the much-lauded movie, Whiplash, is almost autobiographical
Writer-director Damien Chazelle knew there were possibilities for an Oscar nomination, but he didn’t want to get too confident about a film he had made in 20 days with just over three million dollars. Fortunately, for him,Whiplash has come in for five Oscar nominations. The story is about a jazz student, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), and his strained relationship with an abusive orchestrator, Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons). The latter’s character has also been compared with the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. The 29-year-old director also mentions how musician Charlie Parker, the jazz saxophonist nicknamed ‘Bird,’ was one of the inspirations for the movie. As for his upcoming films, Chazelle has a contemporary musical, La La Land, starring Teller and Emma Watson as musicians waiting for their big break. More from him:
How did this project start?
I was living in Los Angeles, working on a script that wasn’t really becoming what I wanted it to be. Finally I gave up on it. It was a kind of low moment of frustration, not really knowing what I wanted to write—and then I just decided to write this script. It was basically the most autobiographical thing I had written. I was a jazz drummer in a competitive jazz orchestra with a teacher that had this kind of philosophy, and I had these very severe, still very strong memories of that. So I decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to push it even further, I’m just going to write it.’
Was it quite cathartic, considering it was inspired by your childhood?
I’ve had nightmares once a month since high school about this jazz ensemble, and I naively thought that writing this script would expel the nightmares. But that hasn’t happened.
So you were in high school when you played in an ensemble?
In my case it was high school, so I wanted to change the milieu, to up the stakes to a Julliard type place, and it also meant that there was more room for an even harder professor. I wanted to rub away any of the sympathetic qualities in my professor and really make someone who makes you question it, no matter how good the music might be.
How old were you when you played in the ensemble?
I was aged from 14 to 18 but in the movie, the characters are 18-22. In my case, I never considered playing professionally. It was really because of this teacher that I got obsessively into it, but it was really a phase. The high school we’re talking about was in Princeton, New Jersey.
Will the teacher recognise himself?
I don’t think he would. He was the best teacher I ever had; he was not at all a monster, like the character in the movie. He died shortly after I graduated high school. The reason we became really good is because we were scared of him.
Was it hard finding an actor able to play drums?
Most of the people in the band, other than Miles and the drummers he works with, are all musicians. The lucky thing with Miles is that even before I really knew anything about his musical experience, I saw him in Rabbit Hole, fell in love with him, and wanted him to do the movie.
How did you film the music?
You can’t really film sound, and so how do the images respond to sound? It’s just this great theoretical treasure chest to play around with.But ultimately for me it was just about making the music feel exciting, and not making it our grandfathers’ jazz that we feel plays in the corner while we’re sipping a martini; that it be like punk rock, that it be like war, that we shoot it like action sequences.
Whiplash is scheduled to release on February 20.
— Team Indulge