Editor Tom Cross, who has been nominated for ACE and BAFTA awards and is a strong contender for an Oscar nom on Thursday, knew instantly that "Whiplash" would be created in the editing room and therefore worked closely with Chazelle on honing a multi-layered editorial approach for this intense, psychological cat-and-mouse between Miles Teller’s ambitious drummer, Andrew, and J.K. Simmons’ abusive instructor, Fletcher, who puts him through hell to become the next Charlie Parker.
"Damien wanted it cut at right angles with one cut answering another cut," Cross continues. "He said the editing should feel as if Fletcher were cutting the film. And he also said the style of the film should be subjective and he referenced ‘Taxi Driver,’ where the editing style represents Andrew’s state of mind, nervous and false manic at times.
"Damien also wanted different cutting strategies: For instance, he wanted the music scenes to be like fight scenes: violent and brutal and ferocious. And his big reference for this was ‘Raging Bull’. He wanted to show the opposite of jazz as beautiful, gentle music in which the players are in harmony. He wanted the viewer to feel the physicality of practicing and playing, the life or death stakes that he remembered growing up as a competitive jazz drummer."
For the scenes with Fletcher: the cutting was hard and abrupt. Every time he raises his fists to stop the playing, it’s like pulling the emergency brake on a subway train. On the other hand, the director wanted the scenes with Andrew’s father (Paul Raiser), to be slower and more gentle. But the scenes with girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), are languid and romantic. "With Nicole, it’s like a fawn running along Omaha Beach on D-Day. She’s the true victim in the whole story. And the different editing styles reflect the world of Andrew."
Then there’s the anxiety of Andrew rushing to make a gig and getting into a car accident yet still having the determination to make it on time and play through the pain. Chazelle and Cross crucially studied "Bullitt" for this sequence.
But they developed a short-hand early on for the rapid 19-day shoot: first preparing the acclaimed 18-minute promo reel to lure investors that fortuitously won the Short Film Jury Prize at Sundance in 2013. Unfortunately, the short has led to confusion and controversy with the Academy determining that "Whiplash" be categorized as best adapted screenplay, and the WGA defining it as an original.
"I had a great template in the short while putting together the editor’s assembly: we used a lot covert tricks to squeeze every detail and hold the performances but there was still a lot of discovery in the editing room. For the big concert finale, I followed the animatic. But once it all came together and Damien looked at it, we realized that it only barely functioned, without any soul. We put our characters closer into the action. We focused on the right facial expressions and made sure that Fletcher and Andrew were looking more pointedly at each other.
"And we found that the sequence worked better if we explored more of their character arcs. Andrew was shown hijacking the song and starting in a place of anger at Fletcher and then becoming the next Buddy Rich. And for Fletcher, he starts out as befuddled and humiliated and angry, but is won over by Andrew’s playing and smiles at the realization that he’s found his Charlie Parker."
"We knew that his playing had to match that pre-recorded track. It was a matter of choosing the best takes to keep his drumming in sync. I didn’t have to use too many tricks for that. Ironically, there is a moment with the drum double playing with a closeup of drumsticks slowing down and speeding up on a snare drum where I had to do jump cuts to sync up the drum hits. The drum solo is so frenzied that we layered several tracks on top of one another to get the right effect so what you’re hearing is physically impossible."
But the result is an editorial case study for blending action and music to perfection.