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Sundance: Opening Film 'Whiplash' Drums Up Warm Reception

Miles Teller Sundance Premiere Whiplash - P 2014
Alexandra Wyman/Invision for Paul + Williams/AP Images
Miles Teller

Miles Teller stars as an aspiring musician in the vibrant drama that premiered on Thursday.

PARK CITY – The 30th annual Sundance Film Festival started out with a bang -- a banging drum, that is.

Whiplash, a drama about an aspiring drummer (Miles Teller) who is berated by his art college professor (J.K. Simmons), received one of the warmest receptions for an opening film in recent memory. Joining the attendees in their praise were several domestic buyers, with sources telling THR that the film is a strong candidate for a splashy deal but will just need the right marketing campaign to succeed.

Damien Chazelle directed and wrote the script for Whiplash, which was on the 2012 blacklist. He had created a short based on the script, which premiered at Sundance in 2013, and won the short film jury award for best U.S. fiction. In under a year, he shot the feature film, which was produced by Bold Films, Blumhouse Productions and Jason Reitman's Right of Way Films.

"I think it's a great film to open up Sundance because we made it in 19 days, and they edited it in nine weeks, which is unheard of. So, it took a lot of grit and hard work to get us here," Teller told THR at the film's afterparty at Spur on Main Street after the screening at Eccles Theatre on Thursday. Co-stars, including Paul Reiser and Nate Lang, also attended the party, which featured a jazz band and several acquisitions executives.

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Sundance founder Robert Redford, who introduced the film, was greeted with warm applause and a standing ovation when he took the stage earlier that night. The All Is Lost actor -- who was snubbed of an Oscar nomination earlier that morning -- told the crowd that he had pitched the idea to roll a big cake onstage and pop out of it to celebrate the fest's 30th anniversary. "But that got shot down pretty fast," he said.

Whiplash played well to the admittedly enthusiastic crowd. One of the most striking aspects of the film is Teller's intensity and performance as the drummer. The Spectacular Now actor had been a drummer in high school, but spent hours training to learn the skills needed to pull off the part.

His character dreams of being a star jazz musician, but he's terrorized by his teacher, a story that struck a chord with both Chazelle and Teller.

"I played music for a long time," Teller said. "I never played in college, but going to art school, in theater, I had some pretty strict theater teachers. Not like J.K. Simmons, but teachers that demanded more of you, and didn't sugarcoat it."

Chazelle was still editing the film when he found out that it would be the opening night pic at the 2014 event. While introducing the film on Thursday, festival director John Cooper said the path from short film to feature was perhaps the shortest in the history of Sundance.

"I didn't really know what to expect," Chazelle said of serving as the film's opener. "I knew the theater, so I knew it was big -- that already scared me, but it was also a big honor."

E-mail: Rebecca.Ford@THR.com
Twitter: @Beccamford