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Director Chazelle and Star Teller Got Bloody for Indie Spirit Nominee ‘Whiplash’

Director Chazelle and Star Teller Got Bloody for Indie Spirit Nominee 'Whiplash'

Whiplash” is turning into an Oscar dark horse contender. Certainly, J.K. Simmons leads the supporting actor pack. But like “Margin Call,” original screenplay could be in there as well. Or could the movie turn into this year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which nabbed four nominations: for Picture, Director, Actress and Screenplay? It could turn into a word-of-mouth hit, with year-end critics’ group support–it’s at 87% on Metacritic. And the rest may follow. 

Anne Thompson: I just watched this for the second time, after Sundance. Have you been getting strong reactions?

Miles Teller: We’ve received a couple of standing ovations, and it’s the first time I’ve ever experienced that for a movie. A standing ovation is usually seen as the highest level of praise you can give to a performer, so the first time was kind of weird and overwhelming.

Audience member: You earned it! [Audience claps]

Teller: Thank you. I think it’s the fact that Damien wrote a movie that ends with a climax. That’s such a rare treat.

You go out on something of a high. Damien, did you have a bad teacher? [Audience laughs]

Damien Chazelle: Bad is a subjective word. I had a hard teacher who scared the living daylights out of me. I was a drummer myself, so a lot of this experience was pulled from other experiences, but it was more the question that it posed. I thought back to how every day, when I was with this teacher, it felt like a living hell, but I became a really good drummer as a result. So that was the question in my mind: would I have wanted it a different way? Is that kind of behavior worth it? I used that as basic inspiration for the character of Fletcher, but I took Fletcher to somewhat different levels. [Audience laughs]

When you showed it on the opening night of Sundance, how anxious were you?

Chazelle: Oh, I was terrified. That’s the closest thing that reminds me of how I felt as a drummer: screening stuff. There’s something about opening night of Sundance. I remember when Sundance wanted us to be opening night. The producers, everyone, were nervous, because it’s “the kiss of death.” We wound up agreeing to do it, but I went in with a lot of trepidation. It’s the Eccles Theater — it’s a huge theater — and I’d never seen it with a real audience. Miles was there and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of Miles.

You’re sitting there, watching, and I could feel that it was playing well, but I’m such a pessimist and I kept assuming, “I’m going to lose them in the next scene. They have no idea. They think they like it now, but the walkouts are going to happen.” And it didn’t. So it was great, and, in retrospect, it was wonderful to start that way, because they actually got to enjoy the rest of the festival. I was there for the rest of it, for pretty much the whole time.

And then you sold the movie to Sony Pictures Classics, who actually believe in theatrical release.

Chazelle: Yeah. It was important, to me, that the movie be seen on the big screen. Obviously you have to be realistic in today’s climate. A lot of stuff is going to be seen in different platforms, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it was really part of the whole goal of this movie to make something, on the page, that seems kind of dry or esoteric — not very accessible for a lot of people. A drama about a music school, jazz drumming, and big-band jazz. But to make a case for that as true, big-screen cinema — to make a case for it as something that belonged on a big screen in a dark theater — that’s certainly the way that I love watching movies. It was very much the way that we tried to attack this. Even though it’s about a small subject, to make it, itself, feel very big and expansive.

You made it look beautiful. And what was it like, going to Cannes? You didn’t know it would go over there, necessarily.

Chazelle: Yeah. I was, again, nervous about that as well. That was kind of great, because there’s a certain symmetry to it: Miles went to Sundance, but J.K. was actually shooting during Sundance and wasn’t able to come. You were shooting during Cannes and J.K. came to Cannes, so they each kind of got their “festival premiere,” in a way. J.K.’s first time seeing the movie in full was at Cannes, stepping off a plane that morning, bleary-eyed. Everyone is so over-the-top at Cannes. You’re sort of told, “If they hate it, you’ll know. If they love it, you’ll know. Either way, you’ll know.” So to be with J.K. there, it was very moving. He’s going to kill me for saying this, but he teared up.

Regarding J.K. and the dynamic between you, what did you have to do to get that kind of intensity?

Teller: We shot the movie in 19 days, so we didn’t rehearse anything. In fact, I met J.K. at the table read. He doesn’t ever remember it happening, but that’s where I met him. Other than that, the first take is when I would see what J.K. was doing, and that’s when I would do my stuff. But we didn’t ever rehearse anything, and that’s how I would prefer to work, if it could happen, because I don’t want to know what the other actor is going to do. And, in-between takes, we were fine; we’d be joking around and stuff, just because it was a heavy and serious script. He’d be yelling at me. Then they’d call cut, and we were talking about baseball or Broadway. He’s really incredible.

Why was Miles the right guy for this role, and what did he have to be able to do to play it?

Chazelle: What’s so ironic about Miles being in this movie is that Miles had been playing drums until he was a teenager, and I did not know that until we had already sent you the script. In my mind, as a drummer myself, I naively thought: “This role requires such heavy lifting for an actor. I’m just going to cast the best actor in this age range we can find, and then I’ll teach them how to play drums.”

Teller: In the short film that was sent me, Johnny didn’t play the drums at all.

Chazelle: We did a short film beforehand to convince people to give us money, and that was the first studio-band rehearsal scene, so the chart he had to play was Whiplash. But I made up my mind early on: are you going to cast for the musicianship, or are you going to cast for the acting? I made the choice that, for Andrew and Fletcher, I would just cast the best actors I could find, and then I would surround them with musicians. Most of those people had never been onscreen before at all. They’re mostly just music students from the area or professional musicians. But Miles showed up with more experience on the drums than I thought he had. With Miles, it was just a matter of teaching him jazz. He had already known rock, but there was a whole other idiom he had to do; he knew his way around a kit. But I’ve loved him since “Rabbit Hole,” his first movie, so I’ve wanted him since then.

How much is matched-up, live, dubbing… explain that to me.

Teller: For me, Damien was very specific on what I’d have to play. So, for “Whiplash,” you have these 16 bars — make sure that goes down pat — and have these fills down. For “Caravan,” we had rehearsed that, and Caravan is a really fun song to play, because it’s such a force on the drums, and you feel like you’re carrying the music with you.

For the drum solo, same thing: Damien sent me the drum solo right off the bat and I listened to the whole thing. I was like, “Oh, my God, this is incredible; this is a virtuoso performance. Who’s going to play this?” And he was like, “You.” [Audience laughs] That was a pretty scary moment, because I think we had three weeks before we started shooting to rehearse jazz. I had been a drummer before, but that’s like knowing ballet your whole life and then being expected to breakdance. I had never used those skills in my whole life. So we did three weeks’ worth of lessons — four hours a day, a couple days a week.

Was he driving you hard? [Audience laughs]

Teller: Damien was my teacher, at first, and then the kid, Carl — the kid whose folder I lose — he’s actually a really, really good drummer, and so he became my teacher. I remember Damien coming to check in after I’d met with Nate one or two times, and Damien, the look on his face, you could just see it coming together. That pumped me up. Then we just got to it, but, on the day, when we were filming it, for the most part it’s just me, these musicians, J.K. conducting. The musicians are actually playing. Sometimes we’re playing with playback; other times we’re playing without playback.

As a drummer, you can’t fake the instrument. A trumpet, you could be doing this [mimes playing trumpet] and be blowing air; a person who plays the trumpet could still say, “Oh, those aren’t the right hand motions.” On drums, you have to actually hit them. You can’t fake it because you have to use a lot of force and physical movement there. I would’ve loved to play lightly sometimes, because I was really nervous — but, for the most part, I’m really playing and Dan’s really playing, and that’s why there’s not a whole lot of acting I had to do.

Did you get bloody in real life?

Teller: Yeah, I did. What’s funny is that, when I read the script — because Damien writes these crazy stage directions — but he writes about the blood coming from his hands, blisters cracking on the cymbals, “crash crash crash!” Damien writes pages of just description. That whole drum solo is written out pretty much word-for-word, and it’s pretty incredible to read because it does fill you with so much imagery. But I thought it would be absurd for a drummer to have his hands covered in blood, getting on the cymbal, and then after I started practicing for hours and hours and hours each day, I got my first bloody blister. I texted Damien.

Chazelle: You were really proud. [Audience laughs]

Teller: I was really getting into the character by making my hand bleed.

Did you have much of this storyboarded? How much did you change it in the editing process? The film is taut, anxiety-provoking, and tense. That’s editing.

Chazelle: Yeah, well, I had a great editor on the movie. He’d edited the short. I just love editing — I love sitting in the editing room, poring over images, and trying different combinations. When it came to how to manage the shoot, we had so little time and I had to prepare in advance. I was just hyper-prepared. I had a description and I just drew the whole movie out. A binder of 150 pages of storyboards. Kind of every frame, every edit, and anything that had music — because we had storyboards — I took those crude drawings, took them, put them into Final Cut Pro, and edited them to the music, so we could see a kind of static animation, a pre-vis, of what “Caravan” would feel like, what the drum solo would feel like. I remember my producers sort of ribbed me about that I would draw very precisely — like, beads of sweat coming down. [Audience laughs]

Basically, I was drawing out the things that were important to me and kept the rest in. It gave me and the DP, Sharone Meir, a tool to take on set, develop a shot list from that, and know — from every measure of a piece of music to every dialogue — where the camera would be, which… I like to work that way, but also it was just out of necessity, because literally there were so many images I wanted to get. Just the sheer number of shots we wanted to get in a day was so mammoth. Ironically, for a movie about making jazz, there was so little room for improvisation on the set. It was really just “executed.”

What you do for Miles is to let him react. You leave room for those silent takes. 

Chazelle: I tend to shoot a lot of that stuff, and then, in the editing room, it’s about picking and choosing. What was great about Miles is that I remember, first, we cut the movie, just as an assembly, to have the story mapped-out. The story was there, but Miles didn’t really have an arc. There was no real emotional heft to it. The first thing we did was do a pass entirely for Miles’ reactions. That is when the movie started taking shape: not Miles’ dialogue, that was there from the get-go, but just the reaction shots. That’s what tells you whether to be sad, happy, relieved, or scared. That’s the silent piece of the movie that you take out and the movie doesn’t work at all.

This movie is about performance anxiety. Have you had the experience of needing validation and not getting it, wanting to please someone too much?

Teller: Yeah, sure.  I mean, honestly, before the first take of a scene, I’m pretty nervous. I’m nervous before every single audition. Something would be wrong if I was not nervous. Because I need that, it allows me to hyper-focus. I try to slow things down, because things are coming to you at 1,000 miles an hour sometimes. But, sure, acting doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You need the director to have a set of eyes, because what I’m doing is not theater — he’s watching it from a monitor or a camera angle.

It’s not that you need to hear “good job” or, not “good job.” [Audience laughs] You don’t need to hear, “Oh, that was so good!” after every take, and, also, you don’t want a director who just says, “Oh, man, what are you doing?” Sometimes I’ve had directors like that and I’ve agreed with them. I think, “Yeah, that was really bad. Let’s try another one.” So it is a fine line. If you’re giving a lot on the set, I don’t need someone to coddle me, but it does feel nice when someone tells you you did really nice work.

Was there someone who encouraged you?

Teller: I had a high-school drama teacher who respected the students. Even though we were 16, 17 years old, she gave us some really challenging material. We did this one-act play my senior year: “The Boy Next Door.” We had to play characters who are mentally challenged. She just respected us as actors. But, I feel like I’ve always just been my own biggest critic — but, at the same time, the teachers I’ve had have been tougher, pushing me to want to please them and get that kind of approval from them.

The movie suggests that ambition can drive away friendship and love and family and all the other things that make us into balanced individuals.

Chazelle: That’s, in a way, something that, philosophically, Fletcher does not get about art: the idea that art is fundamentally about compassion; it’s about understanding other people. But with J.K. and a lot of music educators — at least in my experience — there’s such an emphasis on technique that it almost winds up being like a sport or military training. You’re training yourself and you’re kind of excising the stuff in your life that’s an elemental thing. But one really can’t exist without the other. Andrew goes on to be a great musician, but not a very happy or fulfilled one.

Teller: Obviously, he does feel like he needs this man to get where he wants. It’s not something he can achieve individually, whether it’s J.K. or somebody else very similar. He does need someone to push him. 

You’re on a bit of a roll. Talk about what is coming up for the two of you, career-wise.

Teller: Well, I’m doing Damien’s next film, because I didn’t want any other young actor to do it. I mean, the script, obviously, is so good. By the time this film comes out, every young actor is going to want to work with Damien, and I just want to lock him up. So we’re doing a movie together in March. It’s called “La La Land.” It stars Emma Watson and it’s a musical.

Then, in three weeks, I’m going up to Rhode Island to play Vinny Pazienza, who was a boxer in that ‘80s that got in a car accident. He broke this neck and they said he’d never walk again. He comes back a year later and wins the title. It’s all true. Martin Scorsese is producing it, and Ben Younger, who did “Pride” and “Boiler Room,” directed it. I’m meeting with accent/dialogue coaches; I’ve been doing boxing lessons since I was shooting “Fantastic Four” in April. I had a six-day working schedule and I found time to box. I’ve lost 20 pounds. That’s a lot of vegetables. [Audience laughs] I don’t even know what bread tastes like anymore. It’s exciting.

Who’s backing this musical?

Chazelle: It’s Lionsgate. But that project is a passion project I’ve been trying to get off the ground since I lived in L.A., in the past five or six years. I wrote the script about four years ago, and I worked with the same guy who did the music on “Whiplash.” We wrote it four years ago and we were just trying to convince someone to do an original, MGM-style musical, because I don’t think there are enough.

Music to my ears! [Applause] Let’s open it up for questions.

Audience member: Did you go Kickstarter to get your financing? How did you find your financing? Can you share the budget?

Chazelle: The budget was about $3 million. But, no, it was the kind of budget where we knew we needed at least that to do it the way I wanted to do it, but we didn’t need much more, so we did this short film first. We had the script, but, for some reason, “jazz drummer” isn’t, like, the word that opens all the doors in Hollywood. [Audience laughs] So we did this short with J.K. Simmons, who was gracious enough to do so without even the promise of a feature after it. It was a proof-of-concept to people that it wouldn’t be like watching paint dry.

That actually wound up taking a few months; we premiered the short at Sundance and had to wait a few months until getting the number we needed. But we found this company, Bold Films, a financier willing to pay a check. So we didn’t have to do the foreign-sales route, which was great. I got to cast who I wanted, and I was very lucky I got to make the movie I wanted to make. Jason Reitman was the producer on it, and he helped creatively protect me. So, yeah, I know how spoiled my experience was of just getting to do what I want.

Audience member: I’m curious about J.K.’s musical background. Does he really play the piano?

Chazelle: A little bit. It was another lucky break for me: he went to music school. His entrance into acting was actually music. He talked to me about how he initially dreamed of being Bernstein. He wanted to be a great conductor and composer, and so he went to music school and has a degree in classic choral singing and conducting. So his first acting was in musical theater, and it kind of segued that way. As soon as he read the script, as soon as I sat with him, he could relate it to his own experiences, and he already knew a lot of the business that he would have to do.

I didn’t have to teach him how to conduct — not that I would know how to [audience laughs] — but I didn’t have to find someone to teach him. It, again, I think helped everything on set. By the time we were on set — Miles with his drum training, J.K. with his background — everyone on set being an actual musician made my job a lot easier, to be honest. There was a lot less trickery I had to hide and employ. At times it would feel like we were at music school with a mean teacher.

What I love about J.K. is, though there are obviously words on the page, there’s a whole physical side to it that I really can’t take credit for. The wardrobe, the physical appearance, the way he moves his arms, the way he cuts people off — these repeated gestures. To me, that’s as important to the character as any piece of dialogue, and that’s all J.K.

Audience member: Was it written into the script that Miles would be hit?

Teller:
Well, it was written to where he doesn’t have to slap me, but, from where the camera is placed, it looks like he slapped me. But we did a couple takes of that and it didn’t look real, so they politely asked me, “Do you mind if J.K. slaps you?” To which I said, “I mean… yeah, I guess.” [Audience laughs] We didn’t have any options.

Chazelle: It was important for me that, with the character, I put in every horror story I’ve ever heard. Ultimately, the character is a monster, a bully, and that kind of abusive education is disturbingly prevalent, even today in music education. I remember talking to a dancer about a dance teacher who would come and punch people in the stomach when they didn’t have their posture proper. One of the composers on the movie, a piano teacher would whack his hands when he wasn’t playing properly.

So a lot of schools turn a blind eye to that stuff sometimes. It was important to me — because I want to ask certain moral questions in the movie — that you really see J.K. have behavior that’s both emotionally and physically violent, and that there’s an element to this that, after all the charm he’s able to pull on in the hallway and philosophizing he’s able to pull of that sounds really pretty, at the end of the day the guy’s a monster. I didn’t want to down-pedal that at all.

Audience member: First of all, I really enjoy that you tackle some really profound moral questions. While the teacher was clearly a monster, I was wondering if you wanted the takeaway to be that the end justifies the means.

Chazelle: To me that was the question. I’m less interested in delivering a firm message than starting a discussion, and if that’s a question that goes in people’s minds — do the ends justify the means? — then that’s sort of what I’d hoped. When writing it, you give people the way the teacher thinks or the way you can be lured in by that thinking. You give people a lot of razzle-dazzle, a kinetic rush of a drum solo, and we all feel elated by that. But hopefully, after a certain moment, you come down from that with a sour aftertaste.

That’s the point: there’s hopefully something you find a little troubling about the “victory” of the movie. To me, it’s another reason for J.K.’s character to think he’s right. Miles’ character, to me, is turning into a version of J.K. There’s a tragic aspect of his character, but it’s the Charlie Parker story: is it okay that Charlie Parker led a life of suffering if it yielded these solos and performances and recordings that we listen to these days? Is that something that, in the moral equation of things, is acceptable? As a humanist, I don’t think it is; as a lover of art, it’s a more difficult question for me.

Audience member: As a therapist, being abused is something that induces a real drive to get approval. It seemed that even the other players were stark frozen when he walked in to start rehearsal. That’s so very common in this field, where people seek out approval from their perpetrators.

Chazelle: Yeah. And, again, I hasten to add that, in my personal experience, the cases I had that inspired a lot of this were less abusive than what you see onscreen. But I remember myself as a very impressionable person, very easily awed by authority figures. This conductor was this immediately larger-than-life figure. And it was this fear that the conductor instilled in me that made me care more about their approval than anything else. It got really warped. By a few years into my experience with the band, we’d play a concert with 500 people, a thousand people. I wouldn’t care at all what those thousand people thought. It was just that one person on the stage. Literally everything got reduced into this one person. His opinion of my playing was all that mattered.

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