Director Damien Chazelle discusses Whiplash, jazz drumming, the bubble of big band jazz, and his approach to depicting jazz on screen.
Director Damien Chazelle’s second feature, Whiplash, takes a look inside the world of big band jazz through the lens of a 19-year-old drummer and his relationship with his abusive teacher. The 29-year-old Chazelle bears an uncanny resemblance to the star of his film, Andrew, played by Miles Teller: dark haired, lanky, and excited to talk about his craft. Like Andrew, Chazelle also studied jazz drumming. Whereas Andrew dreams of becoming one of the great drummers, Chazelle wanted to make a film that was sort of an origin story about how an unpolished but dedicated kid could potentially go on to greatness.
After winning the US Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize when it premiered at Sundance in January, Whiplash was selected to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival where it continued to garner critical acclaim. I sat down with Chazelle while he was in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival, where the film also picked up the top audience award for a US Feature Film.
The Seventh Row (7R): When you were talking at an industry panel at the Toronto International Film Festival, you said that you find that movies about musicians and music tend to get a lot of things wrong that really bother you. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about what those things are and what you were trying to not do, or to do instead, in Whiplash.
Damien Chazelle (DC): The key thing for me was just sort of not seeing enough movies that focused on practice and focused on technique, I guess. There are a lot of movies about great musicians: you start with the assumption that they’re great, and you don’t really see how they got there. They’re already a genius, and no one understands them, and you’re kind of already in the world of ideas, and that space of music making where technique doesn’t really matter anymore.
But I think that, especially with music like big band jazz drumming, there’s such a mountain to climb in terms of sheer technique, in terms of really kind of physical things, before you can access the world of ideas, that I felt like I hadn’t seen.'There are a lot of movies about great musicians where you don't really see how they got to be great. You're already in the world of ideas, where technique doesn't really matter anymore.'Click To Tweet
Movies made it seem too easy. They took certain things for granted. Well, of course everyone can move their sticks with a certain dexterity, and everyone can keep perfect tempo, and everyone can sightread perfectly. All these kind of basic things were sort of taken for granted. So that was part of the point of making a movie about someone who’s not really there yet. He’s not a professional yet. He’s trying to get to that level, but he still has a lot to learn, just in terms of raw technical ability, and the film just really focused on that.
7R: A lot of the movie is all about him trying to perfect tempo. I would have thought of that as one of the very, very basic things that you’d have to learn to do. What made you focus on that?
DC: Because it is basic, because it’s taken for granted. Because it’s literally the rudiments of drumming. It’s one of the things that roots everything. You spend a lot of time, in my experience, transcribing Buddy Rich solos, analyzing the different kinds of sounds Max Roach gets out of his kit, and the ideas that Kenny Clarke had. You analyze the ideas that some of your favourite drummers had. And then you try to implement those tricks, but the foundation is missing. You’re not even, sort of, in the pocket. Of if you don’t want to be in the pocket, then you’re not doing it intentionally. You’re just flailing about. And teaching someone tempo is like this impossible thing to teach or to learn. I remember just trying everything I could to just sort of improve my inner clock.
In a big band setting, tempo is also where the conductor and the drummer kind of conflict. They sort of step on each other’s toes. Both are sort of tempo setters. So that kind of breeds conflict right away.
Those were some of the ideas I was going through, but it was just my own experience of being stopped and started for hours in front of the band, told that I was either rushing or dragging. And that just becoming such an albatross to me, such a thorn in my side, that it just drove me crazy. I got to the point where I could move my sticks pretty well; I had some nice ideas. I could do certain tasteful things, contribute in more seemingly artistic ways, but the raw clock was just not there.
7R: It’s interesting that he never decides he wants to go play in a combo, where the drummer would be the tempo setter, along with the bass player.
DC: It’s a specific kind of drumming that he’s kind of obsessed with, big band drumming. In a way, he’s as anachronistic as you can get. It’s sort of how I felt growing up. Just by being into jazz, he already feels like an anachronism. But he’s not even a kid who actually listens to a lot of contemporary jazz, necessarily. There’s lots of good contemporary big band music, but the hey day of big band music has kind of passed us by, with certain exceptions. So what does that do to you as a 19-year old spending most of your time not listening to the radio, spending most of your time listening to stuff basically from the 70s or earlier, and a lot of stuff from the 30s, a lot of Jo Jones and a lot of Count Basie – certain recordings that are so old that you can barely even hear the drums. And what does that do to you in terms of your relationship with the outside world?'In a way, he's as anachronistic as you can get. It's sort of how I felt growing up. Just by being into jazz, he already feels like an anachronism.'Click To Tweet
It creates a bubble, it creates something that can foster a kind of bubble mentality that, in this movie, is kind of destructive. But it also creates a singular passion that I think can be helpful. I wanted to make that bubble as intensive as possible for this kid. And I wanted to really make his passion as specific as possible and as marginalized in the world as possible. So then it just became about picking a passion that I had shared when I was younger, and that was specifically big band drumming. I played in combos, in bands with friends, but Andrew, I think, approaches the instrument a lot more like — he’ll play with musicians in the band but he won’t fraternize with them.
7R: I was just thinking that he’s actually quite isolated even though he’s in the jazz program. Do you think that’s something that’s partly related to playing jazz in a big band? In the sense that, as the drummer, you’re not necessarily as key as you would be in a smaller group.
DC: The irony is, because there’s more people in a big band than in a combo, I always felt more isolated in a big band than in a combo. There is more of a dialogue, an intimate dialogue, that happens in small combos. I think it’s also because of the role the conductor plays. When you have a big band, suddenly there’s an authority structure, at least in a school setting, where the conductor is not like Count Basie, who’s playing the piano and also somewhat leading the band. It’s not Buddy Rich who’s playing the drums and somewhat conducting the band, as well. Literally, there is a person who only conducts. So that creates this authority structure that immediately brings to mind stuff like authoritarian structures, brings to mind the army – things that have nothing to do with music, nothing to do with jazz.'When you have a big band, there is a person who only conducts. That creates this authority structure that immediately brings to mind stuff like the army - things that have nothing to do with music or jazz.'Click To Tweet
So you wind up focusing as much of your attention on this one person who’s your boss, as on the people around you. It becomes less of an organic dialogue where you’re really communicating with every musician in the moment, and more of a ‘let’s make sure we get the approval of this guy, of this man or this woman who’s at the head, who is barking at us.’ I think it creates a different kind of mentality that to me is interesting, just because we think of jazz as so loose, and as a music that has improvisation at its heart – things that seem to be the opposite of an authoritarian structure.'On film, I'd already seen that looseness people associate with jazz, and I wanted to push it as far as I could in the other direction - to show the most un-stereotypically jazz side of the jazz world.'Click To Tweet
I felt like I’d seen a lot of that looseness on film before, and I wanted to push it as far as I could in the other direction – show the most un-stereotypically jazz side of the jazz world that I could. That goes back to the emphasis on technique over ideas. This kind of raw, almost military, training that goes into creating players, who then ostensibly — ideally — will go on to have more fruitful musical dialogues with people, but they’re not at that stage right now.
7R: It’s one of the interesting things about what Fletcher demands of Andrew. To some degree, they’re not unreasonable expectations for someone who’s going to be a professional musician.
DC: The one talent, the one kind of admirable thing that Fletcher has, in my mind, is that he’s the one person who can go into a practice room and see a kid who, from any other kind of outer indicators, would not suggest future great musician – a kid who’s struggling with even the basics of technique and is just completely unformed. And he can see that, and see through all that shit, and see something inside that suggests this kid actually has what it takes. That’s the one kind of talent he has. He’s not actually a great musician himself. But he’s developed this talent to be able to spot that stuff out where no one else can see it. So I think, for whatever reason, he decides at the very beginning of the movie that Andrew is a worthy recruit, that Andrew has something underneath the stuff. And his job is going to be to just break that apart, to just kind of get there and pull it out. To hell with the costs. If it winds up causing casualties along the way, including Andrew, and it turns out Andrew wasn’t actually worth it to begin with, then that’s fine. In his warped scheme of things, that was all entirely worth it.
7R: Do you think he’s seeing just a determination and passion? Or a certain kind of creativity or musicality that transcends the bad technique that he’s still sort of stuck at?
DC: I think it’s more the former. I think Fletcher has – and this, in a sense, is a philosophy that I don’t think is this simple, but I certainly agree with aspects of it – the philosophy that you’re not born with talent. Talent comes through hard work. Mozart wasn’t born Mozart, but Mozart’s dad was the great music teacher of his era in the world. By the time he was 5, Mozart had played more hours at the piano than most 30-year-olds. And Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City and had played more sax by the time he was 19.'Fletcher doesn't believe you're born with talent. So if it's all hard work, then the key thing for him to find, beyond natural aptitude, is someone who's going to respond to that kind of hard work.'Click To Tweet
These kinds of things of breaking apart this myth of the born genius, the genius descended from the heavens. That, at the end of the day, it’s just hard work. So if all it is is hard work, in Fletcher’s mind, then the key thing to find, beyond natural aptitude, is to find someone who’s going to respond to that kind of work – someone who has that resilience, who has that kind of core, who is going to respond to even the most monstrous things that he throws at them. So I think that Fletcher has this angle, his philosophy on the art form, that in many ways, ironically, is not really what we’d think of as artistic. It’s much more about raw will. His theory is that, to be a genius, you have to want to be a genius. And if you want it badly enough, you’ll do it. It’s not something that you roll out of bed, and you’re suddenly Beethoven.
7R: Switching gears a little bit. I’m just wondering if you could talk a bit about how you were developing the aesthetic for the film. I think there are a lot of really interesting choices in sound design, like hearing Fletcher scanning down the page of music, and also just how you’re shooting Andrew playing the drums.
DC: It was definitely a movie I knew I wanted to live closeup, not just in imagery but also in sounds. I wanted it to feel like — when I was growing up, I used to have a lot of ear problems, a lot of sort of ear clogging, stuff like that. This happened a few times, but I remember really vividly once, when my ear had been clogged up for a few months, and I finally got my whole ear/sinus, whatever, flushed out. And suddenly I heard everything around me as though it was like those Dolby commercials, where suddenly everything was so much louder and more more tactile than I thought.
So it was that kind of heightened sense. I wanted the whole movie to feel like it was just living at a heightened sense of anxiety, emotion, whatever it is. A heightened state of being. That’s what it felt like in the room, to me, as a musician: hyper-aware of everything, hyper-aware of the spit puddles underneath the trombonist’s feet, hyper-aware of the blood in my hands, hyper-aware of how the conductor would look and what his fingers would be doing. It was all these little details. I knew I wanted the movie to live and sound like that. And that dictated a fast cutting style, to be able to zip us from one spot to another.'That's what it felt like in the room, to me, as a musician: hyper-aware of everything, of the spit puddles underneath the trombonist's feet, of how the conductor would look and what his fingers would be doing.'Click To Tweet
7R: At the beginning of the movie, a lot of what you’re shooting is from below. There’s the towering buildings in the city, and even the drum kit is this thing that you’re looking up at. Everything seems to be a big challenge for Andrew to conquer.
DC: It’s what New York felt like to me as a kid. I grew up in New Jersey. I’d go into New York as a kid. I would come out of Penn Station and just look up at the buildings, and it always felt scary to me. New York as a kid to me didn’t feel to me like the way it does now, which is fun and beautiful and all those things, exciting. It felt to me like this immediately terrifying jungle.
7R: What made you want to specifically draw attention to that at the beginning?
DC: It was trying to make a movie that felt very subjective, and put you in the mindset of a kid who’s already vulnerable in the beginning. In a way, he seems, on the surface, as the least capable person of handling Fletcher of anyone in the world. And, actually, he turns out to be the most capable of handling it. So that kind of arc interested me.
There was something interesting to me about how this is a kid who, he goes outside in New York, and New York itself seems so scary that he’d almost rather be locked in the prison-like cells of the rehearsal room or the practice room, even though what happens in there is not exactly pleasant. It reinforces the bubble that he’s in – this sense of the world against me. And by the end of the movie, Fletcher — as horrible as he is to Andrew — is the one part of the world that Andrew can actually relate to.
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An earlier version of this article misspelled Jo Jones (as Joe) and Kenny Clarke (as Clark). Thank you to Morgan Childs for pointing this out. The correction was made on March 2, 2015.