MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Damien Chazelle on WHIPLASH

Artistry plus adrenaline proves the winning formula for Whiplash, the pulsating new musical drama and second feature from French-American writer-director Damien Chazelle. The Sony Pictures Classics release won both the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) and the Audience Award (Dramatic) when it premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, setting off a chain reaction of kudos that is reverberating months later, well into awards season. Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) stars as New York music student Andrew Neiman, an aspiring drummer who idolizes jazz great Buddy Rich. Neiman can’t believe his luck when his school’s legendary conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons of Juno and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy) begins grooming him for a spot in the conservatory’s renowned jazz ensemble. But talk about being careful what you wish for: almost immediately the brutal, megalomaniacal Fletcher appears hell-bent on showing Neiman that being the best means suffering the worst. What results from their ensuing and escalating struggle is a dark, twisting, heart-thumping thriller about what the inhumanly high costs of success. When he recently stopped in Chicago to talk up his film, it was reassuring to find that Chazelle in person was Fletcher’s polar opposite: relaxed, genial, and not at all scary.

Andrea Gronvall:  Your debut feature film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2010), was also about jazz, and also ended with a solo, but the tone, mood, and look were very different. That film harked back to the French New Wave, and, in a way, to the musicals of Jacques Demy, and also to cinéma vérité.

Damien Chazelle:  Yes, those were my influences. I’m surprised you saw that movie; so few people did.

AG:  A lot of critics admired it, including me. But I can’t remember the last time I saw a second feature that was so much more ambitious and technically assured than the director’s first. Whiplash dazzles on every level, from the screenplay to the lighting, to the camera moves, to the cutting—not to mention the riveting performances of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. And on top of everything, it’s film noir. Did you tell this story because you wanted to do a noir, or did noir simply suit the contours of the story you wanted to tell?

DC:  The latter. My decisions were largely pragmatic. When I began trying to get script ideas off the ground, I needed to write something that could be done on a small budget, and which I could direct, that would be a personal film, but would also appeal to a wider audience. So as my starting point I looked back to my own high school experiences as a drummer.

AG:  And how did you wind up making a movie about music that feels like a classic thriller?

DC:  Actually, it’s not so much like the classic movies from the Forties and Fifties as it is like the noir films of the Seventies.

AG:  Ah! Neo-noir.

DC:  Like in the films of [cinematographer] Gordon Willis, I wanted lots of green, brown, and gray shades, dark streets, top-lit shots. As soon as you decide on the overall mood, certain things fall into place, like having characters move in and out of the shadows. I’d say that the two biggest visual influences were The Godfather and Taxi Driver.

AG:  Certainly the ways in which a lot of the shots of Fletcher are lit make him look so sinister, almost Mephistophelean, like someone out of a Jacobean drama.

DC:  Jacobean–that’s a term I haven’t heard for a while. I enjoy the fury and the venom of Jacobean plays, and the almost larger-than-life villains.

AG:  How did you decide on J.K. Simmons for the role of Neiman’s mentor-nemesis?

DC:  Actually, it was [executive producer] Jason Reitman who got J.K.—who’s been in several of Jason’s films —on board for this. After my screenplay wound up in Jason’s hands and he signed on to produce, the first thing Jason asked me was, “What do you think of J.K.?”

AG:  Well, you couldn’t have cast a better actor for Fletcher, just like you couldn’t have cast anyone better to play Neiman than Miles Teller. From his very first film role, in Rabbit Hole (2010), it was clear he was exceptionally talented.

DC:  I agree. When I first saw him in Rabbit Hole I thought, I have to work with this guy.

AG:  Do you use storyboards?

DC:  These days, yes. When I was in school [at Harvard University], I shot 16mm documentaries, which influenced my first attempts at fictional films. Whiplash is more personal, with its emphasis on imagery – which I’m returning to now, going back to my earlier years growing up, when Alfred Hitchcock was almost like a god to me. When I was in school, putting that much stress on the craft of images was seen as selling out. But even if you look at the visuals in the work of John Cassavetes, they’re more controlled than you might remember.

AG:  We can’t leave without talking about the music in your movie. I like jazz well enough, but I’m nowhere near steeped in it. However, one of my film critic colleagues is also a very serious jazz aficionado, and his objection—not mine—to Whiplash is that he feels the movie misrepresents jazz: that in reality jazz is all about improvisation, not about the written charts that preoccupy your characters.

DC:  There has been an ongoing debate between different camps of jazz lovers [as to what defines jazz]. The sort of jazz performed in my film is not unlike the jazz I played when I was younger, jazz that was very much influenced by the big band era. There are elements in big band jazz that are borrowed from classical music: a large orchestra with a conductor, playing pre-designed, rehearsed, dense, complex arrangements. Big band jazz is more structured than the jazz played by small combos. When you are a student first learning the form, you have so much to keep track of–things like shifting time signatures, for instance–that improvisation is a luxury you can’t afford just yet.

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