New York Film Fest: Miles Teller on 'Whiplash' Jazz Demands, J.K. Simmons' Jabs and Downtown L.A.
"I had done a bunch of movies back-to-back, and I had three weeks off in between — blah, blah, blah, I'm very grateful to be working, I'm happy for the work"
Whiplash is jam-packed with high notes and drumroll-worthy moments, but Miles Teller has a favorite scene: "When J.K. Simmons slaps me in the face, because he hits like a girl!" he joked to The Hollywood Reporter on Sunday night at its New York Film Festival premiere. The particular moment, which has the arts professor testing the aspiring jazz drummer's abilities with tempo, is the audience's first introduction to the extent of Simmons' berating in the band room. It wasn't an emotional stretch for Simmons, who joked on the red carpet that he got so angry after "just driving to work and bottling up the road rage in L.A."
With Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard in attendance, Chazelle introduced the film alongside producers Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, Couper Samuelson, David Lancaster, Nicholas Britell and composer Justin Hurwitz. After a standing ovation from the audience inside Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, Chazelle, Teller and Simmons elaborated on the 19-day shoot during a post-screening Q&A (with Ethan Hawke stopping in for a listen).
Repeating some of his explanations from his chat with the press, the writer-director first recounted how the film was inspired by his high-school jazz band experience. "It was my life for a few years and I still have nightmares about it," he laughed, recalling with a bit of a bias, "conductors tend to have a special thing against drummers because it seems to be less demanding than instruments that actually play notes, and everyone thinks they can do it. ... And yet, the entire band falls apart without one, and a bad drummer sticks out like a sore thumb."
The inherently "violent" instrument, though restricting the actor's space to move, presented an attractive challenge in itself for Chazelle: "I wanted to make a movie about drums that felt as kinetic as a dance movie, a boxing movie or an action movie, really." He has always been a fan of Simmons and wanted to play his recent work "on its head a little bit, this sweet paternal figure that goes nuts."
Chazelle said he immediately eyed Teller for the protagonist after watching "a new actor arrived fully formed" in the 2010 film Rabbit Hole, and Teller joked that the director was actually offering the lead to other actors. In light of his recent interview misstep in which he said he took Divergent "for business reasons," the actor carefully clarified with pauses, "[My agent] gave me the script after I had done a bunch of movies back-to-back, and I had three weeks off in between — blah, blah, blah, I'm very grateful to be working, I'm happy for the work," he laughed. "A lot of it is, I don’t want somebody else to do this. Even if you're tired, I don’t want somebody else to get this opportunity."
Despite his ten years of rock-band drumming experience, "with jazz music, you might as well have been starting from scratch," explained Teller, due to the genre's rhythms and techniques. "I felt like I was never gonna get it because I didn't have that kind of dexterity with my left hand." Chazelle first walked Teller through the basics in the actor's basement, and then he had four-hour lessons multiple times a week. Still, the director recalled that upon hearing the audio for Andrew's final drum solo, Teller sent Chazelle a two-word email that read, "Holy f—."
What wasn't a concern for Teller? "Because I'm playing the drums, I'm not worried about my face, ever!" he laughed, reenacting his own strained facial expressions in the film. "I didn't know I was in a close up at all. I really was so unaware!"
Throughout the Q&A, Simmons and Teller traded teases, with Teller saying after one jab, "See what he did there? It never stops!" When asked if Teller was ever genuinely terrified of Simmons, he said, "Never, not for a second! ... In real life, I kind of tower over J.K. I'm 6'1", 175, in good shape! But no — honestly, if J.K. was in character the whole time, it would’ve been miserable, but there's nothing to be scared of! ... I got to know his face so well because it was just right here! Every wrinkle every crease. He gets a neck muscle popping out right on cue." And while shooting, Teller and Chazelle often joked that the greatest drummers hail from Creed, Nickelback, Puddle of Mudd, Staind and Blink 182.
The three also lightly shared what's on the cutting-room floor: unnecessary conversations, Simmons' subway rides and footage of what Teller described as "Fletcher just lifting weights, looking at himself in the mirror, drinking cabernet." Chazelle discovered that the heart of the film was in the relationship, not just a portrait of a drummer, so he cut out Simmons' solo moments because "we found it drained some of the mystery of the character. ... It became less about Fletcher's full character on his own and more about how Andrew, this very vulnerable character, views that person. It had to be subjective. ... It basically becomes about one guy becoming the other guy. Ultimately, they're flip sides of the same coin by the end, and we can decide if that's a good or bad thing."
And of shooting a New York City-set film in downtown L.A. (which Teller loathes passionately), "so much of the conversation was, 'Get that f—ing palm tree out of the frame!'" laughed Chazelle. "Downtown L.A. gives you stuff that looks like New York but is not, ... it's less what New York is now and a little bit of a child's nightmare view of a '70s-ish New York: it's darker, grimier and scarier."
On a more serious note, Simmons reiterated the central question of the film: "Is it worth sacrificing really a significant portion of your humanity to focus so intensely on this one thing?"
"Our experience so far at festivals is it inspires debate and discussion, and we don’t make that decision or everyone, I hope that's the case," said Chazelle, applying the question to other art forms. He recalled a thought he had while in Paris with Teller recently, that the city has its architecture and layout because thousands were evicted from their homes in the 19th century. "You walk through the boulevards of Paris and talk about how gorgeous the city is and the geometrically precision of how the city's laid out. ... The Paris we enjoy today is the product of almost a kind of human rights atrocity. As an artist but also a humanist, I find those things really difficult to grapple with. ... I wanted to make a movie that I just couldn't quite come to terms with it, and through making it, I could engage people in that discussion."
Despite countless conversations at film festivals all year, Chazelle still doesn't have a universal answer for that question. "It's hard to answer — well, ideally, you shouldn't have to put up with people treating you like shit. I wanted to purposely put onscreen a lot of the behavior I found troubling and disturbing in myself, but couple it with a goal that, on the surface, I find admirable: creating art," he told THR on the red carpet. "But when you put those two things together — the really horrible and on-the-surface admirable — that to me poses a question that ultimately each artist has to answer for themselves."
Whiplash hits theaters Oct. 10.