It has been just about a full year since “Whiplash” debuted—or, rather, exploded—out of the Sundance Film Festival, where it seized both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. Now a PGA and WGA nominee, this electrifying folie à deux between a masochistic young jazz drummer and his sadistic mentor has had to sustain its momentum over a year, from Sundance to Cannes, Toronto and finally a quietly building platform release from Sony Pictures Classics.
What was once a stealth Oscar dark horse is now looking like a likely nominee for Picture, sure-bet J.K. Simmons and as we’ve just learned Adapted Screenplay despite being WGA-nominated for Original Screenplay (Deadline reports). Why did the Academy deem “Whiplash”‘s screenplay adapted? Because in order to get this film financed, the producers, along with 28-year-old second-time director Damien Chazelle, created an 18-minute “short,” which they screened at Sundance 2012 where it won a prize, putting confidence in the filmmakers to tell this tonally tricky story. According to coproducer Helen Estabrook, the “short” became the template for the first “chair-throwing” scene in “Whiplash,” where Miles Teller’s Andrew confronts the belly of the beast in Simmons’ Fletcher. The Academy rules deem features that grow out of shorts to be adapted.
Blumhouse’s Jason Blum, who co-produced with Jason Reitman and a long list of other co-producers, says Reitman also co-conceived this idea to do the short. “Jason had a lot of success with this [in the past],” Blum says. “Jason Reitman’s movies are tonally incredibly complicated, and he’s amazing with tone and before he proved himself, he had to come up with the same thing.” Thus the producers ran with it, and two years later they had the finished feature at Sundance.
I spoke with PGA-nominated producers Blum and Estabrook on the phone about the making of “Whiplash.”
Ryan Lattanzio: How did you get involved?
Jason Blum: Couper Samuelson [EVP of Blumhouse] identified this script and brought it to me. I was very much on the fence, but he sent it to Helen Estabrook and Jason Reitman, who were less on the fence. Cooper said, “What if Jason Reitman’s company produces this with you?” And I said, “If they’re in, I’m in.”
Why on the fence?
Blum: I thought it was very execution-dependent and I still think it is. Damien is an almost first-time director, and I think there are 99 other directors that, with the same script, would not have made the same movie. It’s tonally very tricky to get right and, in fact, Jason and Helen had the good idea to suggest to Damien that he do a scene from the movie, which is what the short was, to test the concept. As soon as we opened that short at Sundance, the script was on its way. There were a lot of ways for it to go wrong. It’s very pushed and very heightened.
How did you feel when you heard the news that the Academy officially deemed the screenplay adapted, rather than original?
Helen Estabrook: We were definitely surprised because we didn’t know anything about it. The assumption was that it was original, and that’s how we had been planning on it. I was frankly disappointed because I love the story of how we made this, and [the short film] because of wanting a script to get made. The kind of movie about a jazz drummer is not fairly obvious, so being able to make this scene and showcase Damien’s talent and J.K.’s talent, this is what you could get was a really exciting thing. That was it but mostly it was just a real surprise.
Did either of you have a hand in making changes to the script?
Estabrook: We talked a lot about the character of Nicole, obviously, because that’s the trickiest thing. On the page, you want to make a real first-person narrative, and it’s from Andrew’s perspective and the trickiness is that she becomes the side character in his life. We wanted to make sure that, while we were still making it from his POV, that their interactions felt real and that there was something there. From the early stages of talking about the script, it was such a two-hander between Andrew and Fletcher, that’s the meat of it. It was a trick to find the balance to make sure we were showing what might have been.
I actually thought that was one of the smartest moves in the script. Once Nicole arrives, you know that, predictably, she is going to be an obstacle to Andrew’s ambition. So, to get her out of the way very quickly, as charismatic as she was, was the right thing to do. What were the biggest challenges of the actual production?
Estabrook: Time, and money. [laughs]
Blum: We had a very short schedule. It was a 19-day shoot.
Estabrook: We had no time. Days were extremely long. We had only a few days to do the entire finale, but we were very lucky. It was exhausting and at times a bit frantic.
That final scene is impressively mounted, but it must have been a nightmare to achieve.
Blum: Damien had sent these amazing six-figure animatic storyboards. He had storyboarded it so much that he timed it out to the music, so we knew what he needed to shoot based on “Caravan,” the final song. Within that are so many shots, it’s such an intricate sequence, that it took a few days
How involved were you in the editing?
Estabrook: We were around and definitely talking about. The challenge again was dealing with the biggest conversation we were having: how much of Fletcher do we want to see? There’s a whole sequence that was cut where you see Fletcher at home, and behind the scenes. We wanted to make it a more first-person narrative from Andrew’s view so we didn’t lose the experience of Fletcher, and so we could still have the power of that relationship
What makes Damien Chazelle so brilliant?
Blum: One of Damien’s strengths, which is unusual for younger directors, is that he didn’t address all the notes we gave him but always wanted to hear the notes, and was good about letting the best idea win. He was unbelievably prepared. That was the only way we could have made the schedule work. That’s almost a cliche now. All we do is make low budget movies. In every meeting you have before you jump off the cliff with someone, everyone always talks about the preparation, and for whatever reason a lot of it goes by the wayside. But he was very disciplined and prepared and knew exactly what he was doing every day and what he wanted and what the shots were, that to me is the best thing.
Estabrook: He has a clarity of vision, and he has this incredible vocabulary in being able to communicate his ideas.
How did you land the opening night at Sundance?
Blum: Damien made a very compelling movie! [Laughs] It wasn’t like Sundance was an afterthought. [After screening the short] the hope was to come back with the movie. And we did what you’re never supposed to do, which is to rush the post-production for a festival, which we did. Luckily this time it worked out. We were really focused on getting the feature into Sundance. We showed them a super early cut and then we got the good news right before Thanksgiving.
Were you involved in pulling in Sony Pictures Classics?
Blum: We went to Sundance without a distributor, and definitely the goal of Sundance, or my goal, is to find a.) a distributor and b.) the best distributor, and there were a few interested parties. Not a ton, but a few, and Sony was one, and we were very pleased with them. They’ve really let the movie sell itself and creep up on people, and I think that’s been very effective because it really resonates with people when it seems like a discovery.
Did you know J.K. Simmons was nailing it, and creating what is already an iconic performance?
Estabrook: J.K.’s just phenomenal. It’s phenomenal to watch him work and be on set with him. He’s a consummate professional. You never know how these things turn out, but being around him and seeing what he was doing, it was pretty clear it was something special.