Roll with the punches: Whiplash interview
Flying cymbals, jazz myths and Charlie Parker: director Damien Chazelle explains the inspiration behind Whiplash
Dubbed ‘Full Metal Juilliard’ at Sundance, Whiplash explores what happens when talent is tortured rather than nurtured. James Mottram chats to its director and stars
Since when did jazz become fashionable again? This season, you can see Alejandro González Iñárritu’s showbiz satire Birdman in cinemas, driven by a ceaseless percussive score by acclaimed jazz drummer Antonio Sánchez. John Hawkes is starring in the much buzzed-about indie Low Down, about the heroin-addict jazz pianist Joe Albany. And then there’s Whiplash, a hugely absorbing drama that claimed both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance.
Written and directed by 29-year-old Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is the story of an ambitious student, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), who gets selected to try out for the college orchestra at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York. But it’s his torturous relationship with the orchestra’s abusive orchestrator, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), which drives the film; comparisons have been made with the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket. ‘I love a character like that,’ grins Chazelle.
While the film got dubbed ‘Full Metal Juilliard’ in Sundance, it’s not as glib as that might sound. ‘I wanted to make a music movie that felt like a thriller,’ says Chazelle, ‘one that had all the intensity of a gangster movie or a war movie.’ It’s exactly what he’s done, via Simmons’ insult-hurling instructor, who even throws a cymbal at Andrew in one heated moment, a deliberate nod to the mythic story where the young future jazz legend Charlie Parker received the same treatment from a disgruntled musician.
For Simmons, the 59-year-old character actor who played Ellen Page’s pop in Juno, it wasn’t the first time he’d been such a ball-buster. There was his time on the HBO show Oz, as the feared inmate Vern Schillinger, and his Broadway stint as the Colonel in A Few Good Men. ‘The thing to find is where in their minds they’re acting out of love,’ says Simmons. ‘And it was clear to me, in Fletcher’s case, when I first read the script, that everything he does is motivated – and perverted – by his love for the music.’
Growing up in Rhode Island, Chazelle spent four years training to be a jazz drummer in his teens (and similarly endured a terrifying teacher). ‘My Dad is a big jazz fan, and that was the reason I first got into jazz,’ he explains. ‘What I love about jazz is that it’s full of legends, full of myths. It’s an oral history because it started in New Orleans and Kansas City, under the radar.’ It’s why he’s not even sure if the Charlie Parker-cymbal tale is true. ‘It’s an iconic image of jazz, and I find it ironic that this iconic image of jazz – for all jazz musicians – is a moment of humiliation. And that’s how you become Charlie Parker.’
If perfection is a big theme of Whiplash – the title referring to the Hank Levy tune Andrew is constantly trying to master – it’s something that resonated with Chazelle. ‘As a drummer, you’re always fighting for a level that you never quite attain,’ he says, in a statement that must resonate with any film director. He gave lessons to Teller, who practiced for months before the shoot (he performed all of the drum sequences on screen, with fifty percent of the sounds you hear coming from him).
As for Simmons, he simply relished being in his position of power with his younger co-star. ‘Well Miles is a total pussy,’ he says, eyeballing me. ‘He didn’t want to be slapped. He didn’t want me to spit in his face while I was screaming obscenities at him!’ Is he joking? Judging by the ferocity of Whiplash, it’s hard to say.
Whiplash is on general release from Fri 16 Jan.