Sundance Preview: Director Damien Chazelle on Whiplash

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All this week Paste is bringing you preview interviews with filmmakers who are taking their new films to Sundance. Damien Chazelle’s new film Whiplash stars Miles Tully and J.K. Simmons, and it’s been described as Full Metal Jacket at Julliard. We spoke with him about the film, Simmons’ inherent intimidatingness, what he’s looking forward to from the Sundance experience, and much more.

Paste Magazine: Thanks for giving us a few minutes of your time this afternoon I’m sure ever since you got told that the film was going to be at Sundance, probably every day has been insane for you, I’m expecting.
Damien Chazelle: A little bit, in fact we just finished the mix last night, so I’m finally breathing a little bit.

Paste: Well let’s dive right into that. Speaking of the mix, it’s something slightly important that you get right in a music movie like this. So tell me about the challenge for recording sound, mixing sound, and making sure you’ve got it right. I’m sure that the music sounding exactly right for the emotional arc of the story that you’re telling is really crucial.
Chazelle: Totally. No, it was also, I had kind of a specific sound in mind that I wanted. The music in the movie is jazz, but it’s big band jazz. I wanted it to sound kind of like big band jazz sounds where you’re out in the same room with the musicians. It’s just kind of a bigger and fuller and louder and sort of more intense.

Paste: Kind of more immediate?
Chazelle: Yeah, more immediate, more visceral. You kind of think of jazz orchestras as kind of background music, and I wanted to make it the first showcase of something really, something that could really score like a thriller almost. Something that is really visceral, immediate and exciting. Especially from the vantage point of a drummer. It’s kind of the hardest music to kind of get right as a drummer, and this kind of showcases that. So I knew I didn’t want something that sounded canned or pre-recorded.

We worked a lot on pre-production when we were first kind of laying some of the pre-record tracks and we needed to hear that. Just figuring out what kind of mics and room tone to have, and the engineer that we worked with was just great. It helped as we were discussing beforehand exactly what part of the movie each number would be and what venue and what kind of space we wanted – in a rehearsal room or concert hall or a practice room, etc. They were very specific about having kind of how to bring some perspective to it. How to basically make everything sound like it was literally happening on the spot. And it was also a weird mix because some of the music in the movie is actually played live during production, some of it is pre-recorded playbacks, some of it was stuff that was post done— some of it that we did in post to match the picture. So it’s kind of like a weird three part mix that we all sort of had to combine.

Paste: Did Miles play some of the music? I assume he would have had to play some of the music himself. Was he a drummer already? Did he learn for the movie?
Chazelle: He’s a drummer already, and he had been playing since he was a teenager, but he never really did any formal training and he never had a lesson. And he certainly didn’t know jazz or the specific techniques. There were specific techniques that he needed to know for this movie that were not in his repertoire. So he had to do a lot of training and a lot of certain lessons and a lot of practicing in the months before the shoot. And then we kind of structured the shoot in such a way that mirrored the character’s growth as a drummer, so we sort of started with stuff earlier in this movie and did with a lot of the big music set pieces so he could kind of grow into part. He sort of busted his ass to learn everything. He was great.

Paste: Fantastic. Well we should probably skip back to the beginning, since most of the readers will not have seen this film when they read this interview. So just tell me a little bit about it — the funniest description I’ve seen is that it’s Full Metal Jacket at Julliard. Is that accurate?
Chazelle: Yeah, I’ve heard that and I’ve heard Full Metal Jacket meets Shine, which is also funny.

Paste: Now I’ve got a great visual of Lee Emery yelling at Geoffrey Rush.
Chazelle: Yeah, exactly. So I mean, so I think, I don’t know how accurate that is, but I do know that the whole kind of idea behind the movie was this. I’m a drummer myself and I spent a few years in a jazz orchestra with a very scary conductor, and it was kind of a pressure cooker, kind of cutthroat environment and I remember just being in a formative few years for me that I remember something that had just started as being for pleasure or for a hobby for me, with music and drumming. And I became just in those years, it felt like life or death or going to war, but the stakes were all kind of fabricated, artificial. None of the conditions are actually, none of their lives here are on the line.

But at the upper echelon of musicians in general, I guess performers in general, you have to have this kind of live or die, cutthroat mentality. So I wanted to make a movie about that specifically hinged on the relationship between a musician and a conductor, or between a student and a teacher in a music conservatory. And sort of use that dynamic to explore bigger ideas of how if you want to push yourself far to be great, how far is too far, how much pushing across the line? Both of the player part and of the teacher part.

Paste: Now are you a drummer yourself ?
Chazelle: I don’t really play anymore, but I did and I do play drums. I certainly used to play a lot and for the few years that I was in the jazz ensemble, it was kind of my life. But film always came first and I think I’ve probably encountered similar issues in that line of work. But there’s something about performing, you’re so kind of exposed going up on stage in front of an audience. So there’s something kind of elemental and final about the kind of fears that come from that, and that has always been really interesting to me.

I had seen a lot of music movies that celebrated music or that showed the kind of joys from playing music, which is a big part of it of course, and not something that I would want to deny. But I hadn’t seen that many movies that really go deep enough into the fears of playing music, or the language that musicians can use to treat each other, or like the way that you can see it dehumanize and the way that it can feel like boot camp. And also the way that kind of cutthroat atmosphere can inspire better musicianship. It’s a weird thing, where especially in jazz you have to totally mention cutting sessions and people one-upping each other and people being super super tough on each other. And out of it emerge these genius musicians. So on one hand it seems like “Oh, this is the way to do it” but on the other hand, there’s a lot of cruelty and abuse involved. So it was sort of an interesting question to want to make a music movie out of that felt like a thriller, that felt like life or death.

Paste: Well if anyone can put the fear of God or somebody into you, it’s JK Simmons, my goodness. What a great actor. He’s an intimidating guy. At least on screen; maybe he’s a teddy bear in real life.
Chazelle: It’s funny, he really is more of a teddy bear in real life, and yet on set, he so fully inhabited his role, it’s just kind of — he himself would be so nice all the time but he would come on set with the wardrobe of the character and the shaved head of the character. And you know, the character is so ferocious that you can just feel that presence in a way as soon as he stepped in front of the camera. It was great. It was great for the actors. No one really had a problem with shitting their pants.

Paste: Yeah, no doubt. Tell me about where you were when you got the call and what your reaction was that you got into Sundance.
Chazelle: That’s a good memory. I was actually in the cutting room, we were still editing, at that point in the process I was basically living there and in this small windowless room with the screen so my editor was next to me and when the phone rang, normally the phone in the editing room never rang because people would normally just knock on the doors. And I figured it was someone else in the office instead with some kind of office question, and so I picked up and it turned out to be one of the programmers at Sundance. I had actually met her briefly at the previous festival when I was there with a short. So I remembered her and she told me they’d like to invite the film. And I hung up and told the editor right away because he was right there, and we both had a moment.

Paste: That’s awesome.
Chazelle: And basically, we got right back to work, since we weren’t quite done yet.

Paste: “Now we really have to get this right.”
Chazelle: Yeah, “Now we’re really fucked.”

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