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Monday, October 27, 2014

Breaking Point: Q&A with "Whiplash" Director Damien Chazelle

Posted By on Mon, Oct 27, 2014 at 2:58 PM

click image Left to right: J.K. Simmons and Director Damien Chazelle - PHOTO BY DANIEL MCFADDEN, COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Photo by Daniel McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
  • Left to right: J.K. Simmons and Director Damien Chazelle
Mix red with yellow and you get orange. Mix vinegar with olive oil and you get balsamic dressing. Mix blood, sweat and tears and you get Whiplash  one of the year's most intense films and the underdog indie to keep an eye on come awards season. 

To call Whiplash an edge-of-your-seat thriller is an understatement because it implies that you'll still be in your seat by the time the end credits roll. If word of mouth is any indication, you'll either leap to your feet in admiration or run to the nearest exit for a much-needed gasp of fresh air after the 106-minute fever dream that is writer/director Damien Chazelle's film. 

However, the brief synopsis of the plot may not seem worthy of all the hype. A collegiate drummer (Miles Teller) at a top-notch music conservatory joins a competitive jazz ensemble and is pushed to the edge by his pitbull of an instructor (a sensational J.K. Simmons). Sounds like Dead Poets Society meets Chicago at best and yet Whiplash pulsates with its own beat so relentless you'd find it hard to believe that it's loosely based on Chazelle's own experience as a high school drummer. 

SF Weekly caught up with Damien Chazelle to disucss the pangs of art, the joys of film and all that jazz. 

Could you describe the moment you looked down at your drum set and realized you had the makings of a great thriller right in front of you?

It took a while actually. It didn’t occur to me while I was actually playing. I was just in the moment. It didn’t occur to me until 2011 and I hadn’t been playing drums for quite a few years. I don’t really know what the first kind of kernel was. I’d been trying to write something else for a while and it just wasn’t going anywhere. I was at a real low point with another project and so then I decided to write something fast and furious and angry and just pour myself into it and [decided] it’ll be the most personal thing I’ve ever written.

Did any other films stylistically inform the look and tone of Whiplash?

To me the whole movie is about the emotion of fear – the fear of music and the strain and the stress and the suffering that goes into creating music. The movie had to be the opposite of the sort of rosy picture of this world. Everything had to be dark and dirty and scary. I wanted to shoot it like a 70s movie and paint a portrait of New York as though it was the 70s. Also shooting these older interiors with no windows and not much light with very controlled color palettes and creating this claustrophobic, prison-like sort of world.

Whiplash definitely has a Taxi Driver feel to it. Was that a conscious reference?

Yeah, that was very conscious for sure — that kind of 70s fever dream. There was a lot of Scorsese, Friedkin, a lot of DePalma and a lot of stuff just kind of worked its way into the imagery. The Warriors as well in terms of a vision of New York. I’ve always wanted to make movies that are fever dreams.

To say that your actors go to edge in this film is an understatement. How much of that is a direct result of your direction?

It’s all me. They’re actually terrible actors. I feel like a lot of directing is casting. Miles was my idea. J.K. was [director] Jason Reitman’s idea. He’s one of the producers of the movie and obviously knows J.K. from his own films. At the end of the day you have those two guys and in a way a lot of your movie is done at that point. They just had this chemistry onscreen that just made everything work and made my job a little easier. I worked with Miles a lot on the drums and that was like a training aspect for him that we had to go through that certainly helped us bond and form a real working relationship. I’d done a short film with J.K. in order to help raise the money for this. By the time we were on set, I kind of had a rapport with both of these guys individually.

The stakes in this movie are incredibly high and remain so all throughout. How did you gauge whether or not you were going too far?

As I rewrote the script I realized that it just had to be about this relationship. To me at least there was no such thing as too far. At a certain point you have to capture the emotional reality of what it feels like to compete at that level and it’s just different than anything else. It’s a heightened state of emotion and anxiety. Everything feels like it’s at ten. The movie couldn’t start that way and so it became a matter of easing our way into that but I knew that I needed the movie to become more and more of a fever dream. It needed to work in the sense that we think we know the limit that the movie will go to and then it has to go beyond that limit. It has to keep going farther than you think it could go. That was the truest way to capture the emotional spirit of what it means to live everyday in a world that cutthroat and competitive. Everything feels like an unrelentingly intense movie.

Would you say that this movie is a commentary on the art world in particular or does its message lend itself to other areas of life?

My hope is that it’s about any competitive pursuit. It could be about sports, it could be about the military, it could be about Wall Street, it could be about the law, it could be about academia and any other art form. That to me is of the 70s, that you take movies that seem really specific and even inaccessible on the page about very specific subcultures, and you hope that through those specifics you access the universal.

How much should one suffer for their art?

I think everyone has to decide that out on their own. I think it’s less about suffering and more about the value of hard work. I think there’s this very bullshit notion that I think is really damaging that talent or genius is something that you’re born with and you can’t learn it. It’s not only a notion I disagree with but I think it’s a damaging notion because it tells people that it doesn’t really matter how hard you work because either you’ve got it or you don’t. Mozart was born Mozart. Charlie Parker was born Charlie Parker. I think that’s bullshit. I don’t think you have to suffer for your art. That’s just a romantic notion that I think is not always right. At the end of the day the only common thread that geniuses in any discipline have is that they work harder than anybody else and this notion that they just roll out of bed born with it is just utter horse shit.

Would you say your filmmaking comes out of joy, fear or something else entirely?

It’s probably equal parts both. There’s a lot of joy in it and that’s why you keep coming back for more but that’s surrounded by a lot of fear — fear of failure. I think fear is a motivator and it’s a side of the artistic pursuit that I don’t think movies focus on enough. It’s certainly an undeniable side of it.

There's this paradox that exists where artists are expected to create work out of a place of spontaneity and ease while maintaining precision and form. What advice would you give your high school self in hindsight?

In some ways jazz is the most precise of art forms and the loosest in the sense that it's all about improvisation but the musicianship required is kind of insane. To actually play with real jazz musicians is a different level of musicianship that almost has no equal in any other form of music in the world. It's a paradox that all jazz musicians live with and it's what makes it really hard. 

I'd tell my high school self that it's not as important as I make it out to be and the world will not stop spinning if I miss a beat. But again, you can't reason with people in that state because logic goes out the window and it is life or death. 

Whiplash is now playing at the Clay Theatre and the Century San Francisco Centre 9

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF, Jonathan at @jonramos17, and like us on Facebook.
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Jonathan Ramos

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