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Meet the 2014 Sundance Filmmakers #14: Damien Chazelle's 'Whiplash' Brings a Terrifying New Element to the Sound of Music

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 13, 2014 at 10:42AM

Countering the norms of the music genre, Damien Chazelle's latest film "Whiplash" drills famed drummer Charlie Parker into the minds of its viewers, and returns the favor by placing the viewers inside the mind of the severely ambitious Charlie, where the quest for greatness has never been depicted so brutally on-screen.
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Miles Teller in "Whiplash"
Miles Teller in "Whiplash"

Countering the norms of the music genre, Damien Chazelle's latest film "Whiplash" drills famed drummer Charlie Parker into the minds of its viewers, and returns the favor by placing the viewers inside the mind of the severely ambitious Charlie, where the quest for greatness has never been depicted so brutally on-screen.

What It's About: It's about a young drummer who, inspired and tormented by a ruthless instructor, begins to pursue perfection at any cost.

And So It's Really About: It's about what it takes to be great. A lot of movies about music involve musicians who are already fully-formed. But what does it take to get there? As a teenaged sax player, Charlie Parker was unexceptional, but at some point between his 18th and 19th birthdays, Parker went from average-kid-with-some-talent to full-fledged genius. He became "Bird". The instructor in "Whiplash" would explain that Charlie was inspired by a moment of humiliation --- a failed solo in front of a crowd --- and then practiced like mad. "Whiplash" is set in the jazz world, but it's not really about jazz; it’s about the pursuit of greatness in any competitive field, and about the terror and mania and suffering that can go into it that forces people to decide just how far they're willing to go.

Tell us briefly about yourself. What's your background? I'm a drummer myself --- I don't play much anymore, but it used to be my life. I spent a few years in a competitive jazz ensemble when I was a teen. It caused me a lot of sleepless nights, and inspired this movie.

What was your biggest challenge in completing this film? Trying to shoot a band rehearsal as though it were a hostage negotiation, or a jazz performance as though it were a car chase. We wanted these to feel like set-pieces in the old-school sense: you've got almost 20 minutes of screen-time in a single rehearsal room or on a single stage, and you've got to make it kinetic and scary. You want it to feel like these kids are on a battlefield, like it's life-or-death.

What camera did you shoot on? The Alexa.

What do you want the Sundance audience to take away from your film? I hope they feel like they've been inside our drummer’s shoes for 90 minutes --- like they've shared his obsessiveness, his fear, and hopefully his passion. I hope they feel like they've just watched a thriller about music.

What films have inspired you? 60's jazz docs like Jazz Dance. And --- though it's not a film --- the audio tapes of Buddy Rich drilling his big band. He's terrifying.

Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they're doing next. We'll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2014 festival. For profiles go HERE.


This article is related to: Meet the 2014 Sundance Filmmakers, Sundance Film Festival, Whiplash