After winning the Sundance Grand Jury and Audience Awards for Best Dramatic Film and playing to rapt crowds in Cannes and Toronto, Whiplash became the little film that could when J.K. Simmons landed the supporting actor Oscar.
Damien Chazelle’s second feature film paints the reality of a series of frenetic jazz drumming sessions where Simmon’s teacher and conductor bullies Miles Teller’s student into submission.
[ Read: Review of Whiplash ]
Although outstanding, with sweat oozing out of every pore, Teller was the one who missed out at awards time, in a crowded the best actor field. He's 27 but looks far younger, and plays 19 here. Teller was given his big break by Nicole Kidman, who personally chose him to play the hit-and-run teenage driver in Rabbit Hole when he was 22.
“She said that she saw me blush in an audition and I guess that was a big reason,” recalls Teller. “Nicole was fantastic. After we did Rabbit Hole she invited me to her house for Easter. She’s such a sweet, down-to-earth woman.”
Whiplash started its life as a short film Chazelle made starring Simmons as the drill-sergeant-like music teacher. It won the Short Film Jury Award in Sundance last year. Chazelle describes it as an investment tool to get his feature financed—and it worked.
Teller had learnt numerous musical instruments growing up and had played the drums and in high school bands. Nevertheless, he had to work solidly for months to develop specialist jazz drumming skills for the film.
Damien has said how the film is autobiographical. You are in many ways re-living the experience he went though. Can you talk about conversations you had with him about his experiences beyond the script?
I guess not too much other than, “Is this believable?” When he was talking about splattering blood on the cymbal and on the snare and all this stuff and that after the drumming my hands would be covered with blood, I’d go, “Is this shit real?” He’d go “Oh yeah”.
When I’d be drumming for long periods of time all my drum sticks would be covered in blood and after I started rehearsing and practising a lot I did start getting blisters. You know I was using a lot of band aids and there was a lot of blood. But Damien wrote a beautiful script and the actor’s job is to make it as personal to them as you can. I was very much in that world and I understood. I mean it was very simple: the guy just wanted to be the greatest drummer that ever lived. It was nice to play a character who had one goal in mind.
What was it like working with Miles?
We settled into this rhythm pretty quickly. We just behaved like a couple of douches, had a good time and kept it light, because there was enough drama when the cameras were rolling.
What has the response been from musicians? For general audiences you are a bad guy, whereas for musicians you don’t go far enough.
[Chuckles] Yeah, a lot of musicians had a guy like me in their background. The most gratifying thing to me is that Miles, Damien and myself all have musical backgrounds. The first thing we hear from musicians is that, “You guys were brilliant, you guys knew what you were doing and you really made a musical movie.” Obviously, the final step is the way it was assembled and Damien and the editor put it all together brilliantly.
How have you perceived reactions to the film?
You hear different things. Certain people seem to take it as a triumphant thing; other people take it as a total tragedy. I think it’s more a feel bad movie, more a tragedy. It’s an incredibly sad story about a person becoming a shell of themselves and bullying becoming a systemic thing. On the other hand, it’s very bracing and people seem to respond to that. They get a visceral, fun kick out of it. I think that’s really what the music does. It certainly is like what the music did to me growing up. I think even people who think they don’t like jazz, if you film it right, as with anything, if you put it on screen and force people to pay attention to it, I think the music is undeniable. When you play something like 'Caravan', you are playing one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, so that carries a lot of the weight.
Is J.K. Simmons’ teacher based on someone you knew?
Yeah, he’s based in large on a teacher I had as a drummer and then I composited him with people I studied with when I was learning to be a drummer. There’s nothing in that character that I didn’t take from my own experiences or jazz history or other people’s stories. There is enough mythology about these kinds of people in music but especially in jazz.
Can you talk about working with Miles Teller? You really brought something out in him that other directors haven’t.
I think he really wants to be doing meatier stuff. The first time I saw him was in Rabbit Hole and that to me is Miles, that’s just a spectacular, fully-formed performance that you don’t see from a kid that age. I think that he’s very funny, so he’s done a lot of comedies and he’s great at it. But his idols are people like Dustin Hoffman and chameleon actors from the ‘70s who didn’t look like your typical leading man and commanded the screen. He came at it from an angle. I think at an age where there are a lot of bland pretty boy actors, Miles has something real about him. He has a fascinating face: I love the scars, I love the eyes. We play a lot of this movie with close-ups on his face and you need someone who can carry that without saying a word. He doesn’t actually have that much dialogue in the movie. J.K. is the one talking. Miles is the one reacting and listening and that in a way can be even harder to play.
The film is really well edited. Is the editor, Tom Cross, a musician?
He’s not. That was a new thing to him. The one thing he and I share is that we are both movie geek junkies. He’s an utter obsessive about film history and knows every single editor who has ever edited anything. So in a way it was good because I came into the cutting room as a former musician, he came at it very strictly as an editor and that created a good dynamic.
Were there specific works that you looked at to get the right pace?
A lot of the great musicals, West Side Story and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and Cabaret and things like that. We kept talking about how the references for this should not be music movies, the references should be war movies or action movies or boxing movies like Raging Bull, and that if we could film a concert where people are staying in one place, not moving, but filmed as though it was a dance or a chase or a fight, then we would have done what we wanted to do.
What is your relation with Hank Levy’s 1972 piece, 'Whiplash'?
It was the bane of my existence; it’s a drummers’ nightmare. Both 'Whiplash' and Caravan were pieces that I played a lot growing up, and yeah, Whiplash was the first. That whole first rehearsal scene in the film was my first rehearsal scene. I showed up and the teacher pointed me out and said, “Oh, we’ve got the newbie here,” and everyone looked at me, then they played Whiplash. I didn’t know to read music at that point. I just saw this jumble of notes. Everyone thought I knew how to read music but I secretly didn’t so I had to teach myself how to very quickly.
Whiplash seems deceptively simple but it’s staggered. It’s just designed to fuck with you and make you scared and that’s what Hank Levy did really. That was that period in the ‘70s where they were really trying different things in big band jazz. That was interesting to me, that there are elements of jazz and elements of music that have that kind of hostility built into them that I hadn’t seen a movie about.
Can you still hear Whiplash and not feel the pain? And still watch the film and not feel the struggle of making it?
It’s funny, yeah, I can listen to Whiplash, enjoy it and watch the movie and well, not enjoy it, but not think about the pain of making it. The four-week period of shooting was just a four-week boot camp daze.
You are 29. That seems young for what you have accomplished.
It feels like I’ve been in the trenches for a really long time. But I guess it’s because I’ve been trying to do this since I was a little kid, from home movies all the way till now. It’s just been all I’ve ever wanted to do.
Do you write songs?
I don’t write music myself, I work closely with my composer, Justin Hurwitz, who I’ve known since college [Harvard]. We did Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench together in college and he did all the music for Whiplash and he is doing my next film. I am not a composer myself. I am a drummer, not a real musician.
Your next project La La Land is a musical starring Miles and Emma Watson. Do you feel a special pressure to top this movie?
Yeah, but it’s like you always feel pressured. This one that I am about to do, it does feel daunting, it does feel like it’s impossible to do right, but that’s a good thing. The movies I respond to are the movies that shouldn’t work, the movies that just kind of go for it and swing for the fences and even if they don’t work, at least they go for it and they belong on a big screen. Movies that fucking try something.
What are you trying with La La Land?
I’m trying to do our version of an American in Paris or Singin' in the Rain or a ‘50s, ‘60s CinemaScope, Technicolor musical but set today. Those were studio assisted movies, but there is no infrastructure that supports that anymore, that kind of talent. The one thing that gives me comfort is that there was no one who thought we could pull off the ending of Whiplash when they read it in the script. So what I’ve learned is that at the end of the day, you are only as good as the people you work with, as long as you get the right crew and the right cast and prepare well.
Tuesday 5 January, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Music, Drama
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist