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Interview: Director Damien Chazelle Talks ‘Whiplash,’ Musical Editing & His “MGM-Style” Musical ‘La La Land’

Interview: Director Damien Chazelle Talks ‘Whiplash,' Musical Editing & His “MGM-Style” Musical ‘La La Land’

Damien Chazelle

Few films this year will match the sheer intensity present in director Damien Chazelle’s second feature, “Whiplash.” It’s fusion of thunderous jazz arrangements, a warped mentor/apprentice dynamic with J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller and on-point editing by Tom Cross that leaves a lasting impressionone that’s fully sustained over the year since its Sundance premiere in January. At the festival, we called it “full of bravado and swagger, uncompromising where it needs to be, informed by great performances and patient with both its characters and the things that matter to them.”

The subject matter—artistic pursuit in the world of jazz drumming—meant an incredible amount to Chazelle, namely because it refused to release from his psyche. The director drew upon his high school jazz band experiences for the anxiety-ridden journey that Teller’s drummer character Andrew faces, going up against Simmons’ Dr. Fletcher, the abusive, demanding leader of an NYC conservatory jazz band who sees greatness in him.

The act of making “Whiplash” will soon see Chazelle into brighter territory. As discussed in our time with the director below, his next film, “La La Land,” is a contemporary musical in the vein of ‘40s and ‘50s MGM musicals, following a returning Teller and Emma Watson as Los Angeles dreamers hoping for a big break—he as a musician, she as an actress. Read on for Chazelle’s thoughts on that project and much more.

Watching the film, I underwent a sense memory attack when “Caravan” began; it was a tune that I practiced non-stop in high school jazz band myself. Yet other facets in the film were made fictional: the school, other jazz arrangements. Where did you draw the line with specificity in the film?
There were occasions where I bent to the character or pushed things for narrative reasons, but the core of it was really just stuff that I lived. There were so many specific things from high school jazz band that I remembered: the conductor searching out people who were out of tune, or stopping and starting me for hours in front of the band as they watched. It’s the most autobiographical stuff I’ve ever written, and until now I’ve never actually written stuff where I’m recollecting what happened and just writing it.

It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized you also wrote “Grand Piano”, and I just thought
Clearly this guy has some issues with music? [Laughs] Yeah.

And there you could couch the narrative in more of a genre spin but here it was more direct, although your style is very much present and so visually dynamic. I had nothing to do with the directing of “Grand Piano”, but [director Eugenio Mira] and I totally have the same philosophy. He prevized that entire movie; I literally saw the entire movie on a computer. We didn’t do that much for “Whiplash”, though I did do raw animatics for the musical numbers. But seeing Eugenio mapping out the filmmaking of that beat by beatit’s probably more my style, more my approach. I like movies where you feel like it was actually thought through.

If you look at “West Side Story” a lot of those numbers are actually pretty cutty, but the cuts are always musically motivated. The camera and the cutting are all acting in concert, and you see a lot of movies these days where you can tell they set up six cameras and just rolled it like a live concert. It’s so lazy. So I love where you feel like some thought was put into it beforehand.

With “Whiplash”, how long did it take before you looked back at those feelings and events in high school as something a bit traumatic, and also dramatically interesting?
It took about ten years, maybe a little less. It never occurred to me during high school or for the five years after that it was subject for a movie. I was interested in music and making movies about musicians, but my own experiences, and doing what it felt like for me to be a drummer? Nah, I wasn’t interested in that.

It wasn’t until I felt a certain amount of frustration with projects that weren’t happening here in LAI needed to figure out something that I could do for a budget, something that only I could make because I knew the world so well. So those pragmatic decisions guided me, and I think some of that rage worked its way into the “Whiplash” script. Also just the fact that ever since high school, every month, I’ve had recurring nightmares about being in band. You think they’re going to go away but they don’t. It’s crazyit’s been over ten years now since I’ve even been in band, and I have these dreams and I feel like I’m right back there. They’re so real—so vivid—and it’s terrifying.

Occasionally I’d have nightmares about soloing, which I was never the greatest at, so I’d have these dreams of the bandleader cueing me for a solo and nothing coming out.
They’re the worst. I always felt I was losing control of my body because I just couldn’t move it the way I wanted to. And the tempoit’s the reason that there’s so much emphasis on tempo and rushing and dragging in the movie. That was my albatross.

I was always pretty decent at fast stick work or doing stuff that seems impressive that’s not really; I was pretty tasteful and had good ideas musically. But I had a terrible sense of tempo, which is like being a blind painter. The conductor would just rip into me, and it lasted for years. It really makes you feel like a child, that 100% feeling of vulnerability. And yet, externally you feel that you’re becoming an adultit’s that weird thing. Miles is really good at capturing that sort of combo. He can be manly but also slightly babyish if his face turns the right way. When you look in his eyes there’s still the hint of this child. That was greatly important for the character of Andrew.

How is Miles’ physicality shifting now then, with him both training to be a boxer in “Bleed For This” and a pianist in “La La Land”?
Yeah, he’s definitely getting into roles that require more and more training. He had to become a jazz drumming virtuoso for this movie, and he has to become a drummer and play the piano for the next. We joke he’ll have to become Gene Kelly for “La La Land”, but more like Gene Kelly meets Thelonious Monk.

The great thing about him is that he breathes those challenges. I was pretty confident that he had what it took for this role in “Whiplash” beforehand. It’s funny, because when you first meet him he just seems like a jokester and a party boyyou’re like, “How did you play ‘Rabbit Hole’?” Then you get to know him just a tiny bit more and you see underneath there’s this whole other person with drive and focus. I think he’s more similar to the guy you see in “Whiplash” than people think.

You’ve tackled polar opposites tone-wise with your music-driven films, [Chazelle’s debut] “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” and “Whiplash”. Where on the spectrum are you falling with “La La Land”?
It’s gonna be this MGM-style film with big song and dance numbers. The models are “Singin’ In The Rain,” “The Star is Born,” “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” “Meet Me in St Louis,” etc., but also the French New Wave, Jacques Demy, “Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Definitely a completely different register than “Whiplash,” but hopefullyI like movies that go for broke, so hopefully it’ll have the same energy. The mood will be different, though.

You’re starting that next year?
Yeah, March-ish.

Are you going for the MGM-style pre-record for the musical numbers, or trying to capture them live?
Eh, it was good enough for Fred and Ginger it should be good enough for us. I think the problem is that people have forgotten how to pre-record. So you see a lot of musicals where you can really hear the pre-record; it sounds like someone pressing “play” on a CD, because they’ve designed the number as if it’s going out on the radio. But if you look at Fred and Ginger or Gene Kelly‘s stuff it’s much different. They recorded dialogue differently back then, studio controlled, all that stuff, and they did the singing differentlymuch more conversational, a little more distance and less goosed up. So everything feels more of a piece.

But for the kind of dance numbers that we’re going to do in this movie there’s no possibility—and no point—to do them live. In “Whiplash” there’s hardly anything that’s live and we managed something there. You just have to know how to do it properly. The thing about musicals isif you screw them up, there’s nothing worse, but if you do them right, there’s nothing better. They’re this huge risk/reward genre so you can really fall on your face, but if you get it right the sky’s the limit. It just lifts off the screen, and it’s why a lot of those old MGM movies still feel just as fresh today as they did back then. I guess I’m both scared and excited to do the next one.

“Whiplash” is now playing in limited release.

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