Off the charts: Damien Chazelle's 'Whiplash' quickens the pulse with tale of ambitious young drummer

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The questions concerning art, morality and the often fraught interplay between the two which Damien Chazelle poses in his film Whiplash “keep me up at night,” the writer-director admits. Art may frequently manifest as inutile objects, things that are “not curing cancer” or “feeding the poor,” and yet, does not the pleasure works of art engender make worthwhile the life sustained by utile means? Put more simply: Isn’t art the difference between merely surviving, and fully living?

Asks Chazelle, “Isn’t that also the difference between being a human and being an animal? So then, by that definition, art becomes the most central, humanity-defining thing that exists. So, you would say, it’s both human and justified to go to any lengths to create something, if it’s going to be beautiful. But obviously, there’re certain lengths we are not willing to go to, and I think, from a moral standpoint, shouldn’t be willing to go to.”

In Whiplash, a Sony Pictures Classics release, Chazelle attempts to measure the lengths an ambitious college drummer and his difficult instructor of the Full Metal Jacket school of motivational tutelage are willing to go in pursuit of artistic greatness. The film is based on the 29-year-old’s experiences drumming for a high-school jazz orchestra in Princeton, N.J. Though no Juilliard ensemble, Chazelle’s high-school band was known for having performed at two presidential inaugurations, and for its designation as the best program of its kind by Down Beat Magazine. The great prestige the body enjoyed was largely thanks to its leader, the conductor.

“I was a drummer in a jazz orchestra with a tough teacher, and the whole climate was so charged. As soon as you walked into the room, you could hear a pin drop… You feel your heart pounding in your chest,” Chazelle remembers. “So those kinds of emotions were what I wanted to capture. Usually, the movies that seek to capture those emotions are thriller or horror movies, or what have you, movies where the stakes are life and death. Here, the challenge was to create that same kind of level of tension and fear, but, with less obvious stakes, in the sense that at the end of the day it’s people playing music. A bomb is not going to explode if someone comes into a measure a hair early or plays a note off-key.”

Perhaps not, but a viewer of Whiplash could be forgiven for wincing in anticipation of such a weapon being utilized by the instructor who seems more than capable of the act, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher is the conductor of the best jazz band at the music conservatory Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is attending. When he chooses Neyman to be an alternate drummer in his ensemble, the aspiring Gene Krupa beams as if his selection marks the beginning of something wonderful, that elusive greatness, when in fact, it marks the end of what comfort, sociability and pleasure Neyman had hitherto enjoyed and taken for granted. Fletcher is a hard-ass with an emphasis on the animalistic aspect of the word. His manipulative tactics and verbal abuse that can prompt very physical consequences flirt with the inhuman. Neyman, determined to achieve his desired level of ability, suffers his teacher’s misconduct in the hopes of improving, and then proving him wrong. Lines are crossed, only to be redrawn further and then further still ahead. As Chazelle describes it, he attempted to “constantly keep the audience in this sense of, ‘How bad is this really going to get?’”

Editing was crucial. “There are certain kinds of movies where you want to just sit back and sort of gently allow things to unfold. But with a movie like this, you need the editing to be leading the charge a little bit. You need to be turning the screws. We just tried to make it the way Fletcher would edit the movie,” Chazelle laughs. “Try to make it a very unforgiving movie. Right when things couldn’t get any worse or more tense, we would just tighten the screws some more. And then tighten them some more.”

For inspiration, Chazelle and his team turned to several directors adept at pulling taut the strings of viewer anxiety. “The movies we were really looking at were Friedkin movies or Scorsese movies or Sidney Lumet movies, Peckinpah, Hitchcock, and less music movies, to be honest.” In particular, “there’s something like Raging Bull,” Scorsese’s classic film starring Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta. “Certainly that’s a movie about the pummeling and suffering, both emotional and physical that goes into that kind of a performance. It is a movie about a performer, fundamentally, and what that does to your life outside the ring or off the stage or wherever your arena is.”

Drumming’s analogous standing as the boxing of the music world informed Chazelle’s portrayal of the pain Neyman endures as he strives for optimal results. The character’s “self-flagellation took on those kind of obvious signifiers of hands bleeding and ears ringing, arms getting fucked up, sticks breaking,” he explains. “As with boxing, it gives you a wonderful canvas to paint on,” which is one reason why “I’m sort of surprised there aren’t more movies about drummers. It’s the most physical, the most obviously sort of physically quote unquote violent musical instrument there is. You’re hitting things for a living.”

He acknowledges the unwieldiness of the drum as an instrument, and the drummer’s nearly marginalized positioning at the back of the band, as factors that might discourage filmmakers from writing and directing drumming movies. Not to mention, the drums are “a harder instrument to fake.”

Luckily, Miles Teller had several years’ drumming experience, although the punishing sequences he was asked to perform did necessitate further training. “Miles I’d seen in Rabbit Hole, which I’d loved, and that’s when I was first writing the script and immediately wanted him in the movie,” says Chazelle. The filmmakers adjusted their schedule to accommodate Teller’s availability. “J.K., on the other hand, was actually the first person, other than the producers, the first person of any stripe to sign onto the project, before there was even a feature, back when we were doing a short film to raise money for the feature.”

This short, which was a scene from the full Whiplash script, screened at Sundance and the New York Film Festival last year. It garnered Sundance’s Short Film Jury Prize for U.S. Fiction, and helped Chazelle achieve his aim: secure backing for a feature. Jason Reitman signed on as one of the film’s producers, and Simmons agreed to reprise his role as Fletcher. (Miles Teller did not play Neyman in the short.) “I initially thought, oh, J.K., that’s a great idea for the role. Then I went very quickly from there to, well, I’m not going to make the movie without him. It has to be him.” The director could not be coerced into changing his mind, not even when better-known names were mentioned–Kevins Kline, Spacey and Costner, for instance.

Chazelle laughs at the memory. The trio of Kevins “was never suggested by producers. It was never suggested by people who wound up financing the movie. Those were other financiers who we did not go with. For those reasons.”

With his two leads cast to the satisfaction of those whose involvement in the film testified to their good taste, Chazelle was free to begin shooting his “visceral” battle royale of minds complexly linked.

“At the end of the day, everyone thinks they can drum to a certain extent. Or at least, that they have rhythm. As a result, and certainly this was my case, drummers tend to get the brunt of the rage of conductors… There’s always this conflict as well, because the conductor is the one who sets the tempo, yet the drummer is the one who has to maintain the tempo. Or sometimes the drummer will set the tempo, but then the conductor will have to visualize the tempo. Conductor and drummer are often stepping on each other’s toes, and it’s basically because both of them are leading the band.” In sum, “It’s perfect fodder for a kind of war of wills, a tête-à-tête, between two big egos.”

As Neyman and Fletcher go head-to-head with bruising results, the central theme of Whiplash sounds a refrain: At what cost greatness? “Did Billie Holiday have to have a tough life, did Robert Johnson have to have a tough life to sing ‘Sweet Home Chicago’? Maybe, maybe not. But if you think that at all informed the artistry, then you have to ask yourself again if that’s worth it.”

Does Chazelle believe it is? “I’m not sure,” he admits. A fine enough answer in its honesty, and yet, if pushed with a Fletcher-ian insistence on transgressing personal comfort, the director provides an even finer response. “If I had to answer, I would say, ideally, we live in a world where people can make choices, but hopefully choices that affect themselves and not others. So I do think there’s a line to be drawn, [between] having a culture of slavery to build a pyramid for you versus someone who sits in a room by themselves and just bleeds for their own art form… Self-flagellation as an artist, which, while horrible in many ways, I can’t help but, if it gets results, approve of, to some degree. It’s horrible to say, but you know what I mean? But [there is a] distinction between that and the abuse of others in the name of art.”

He continues, “I would say if I had to pick, I would approve of one and not the other. I think cruelty to oneself, at least there’s a certain amount of free choice in that. But cruelty to other people…at the end of the day, compassion is just as important as art. And ideally art should help engender compassion, and so you’re missing the point, I think, if you just go about making everyone’s life a living hell. But I don’t know. It’s really tough. There again, you would certainly be wiping a lot of great works of art from the Earth. So.”

Chazelle’s next project seems far less fraught: In the musical La La Land, a jazz pianist falls in love with an actress in L.A. The filmmaker will once again work with Teller, as well as with one of Hollywood’s most popular young stars, Emma Watson. After that project, Chazelle is in talks to direct a film that does not traffic in musical themes, as do each of the other features he has directed (including his first, the well-reviewed 2009 indie Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench). This would be a Universal Pictures biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

As his industry profile continues to rise, aided by mounting Oscar buzz for Simmons and even Whiplash itself, it is possible Chazelle may never again find himself in Whiplash’s freeing, nearly virgin territory. “It’s really hard if you tell yourself, we want to film the car chase to end all car chases. Well, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Film the boxing fight to end all boxing fights, or the war scene to end all war scenes. Again, it’s like, good luck. To film the best drum solo, it’s like, you have a few comps to work with, but the standards are so low that you can kind of get away with a lot."