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.
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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.