New York Film Fest: J.K. Simmons, Damien Chazelle on Whether 'Whiplash' Torment Leads to Talent
"It's easy for someone to see this film at face value to see that he can't do, so he teaches and terrorizes, but it's much deeper than that"
"I was there to push people beyond what's expected of them," J.K. Simmons tells Miles Teller at one point in Whiplash, the film festival favorite that follows aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neyman who is berated by his performing arts professor, Terence Fletcher. But even if the result is extraordinary, is the talent worth the torment?
During a press and industry post-screening Q&A (coincidentally held at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre, just next door to Julliard) ahead of its New York Film Festival premiere, writer-director Damien Chazelle explained that the drama is inspired by his experiences as a high school jazz musician in a band let by a perfectionist who was "emotionally and psychologically oppressive," to the point that the would-be writer-director threw up each day before band practice. After he consulted with his friends who continued onto music school and knew of physically-abusive mentorships, his film asks the question of whether it's okay to use violence to coax out virtuosity.
"My motivation for being a good drummer was born out of fear, which in a way, seems so antithetical to what art should be," Chazelle recalled, saying he wrote the script "just to grapple with my personal experiences and whether they said anything broader about other art forms. ... It poses a lot of questions, especially in a music like jazz, which is renowned for its sense of freedom and being a 'f— you' to an authority."
"That was the great dichotomy in Fletcher that jumped out at me," Simmons added. "It's easy for someone to see this film at face value to see that he can't do, so he teaches and terrorizes, but it's much deeper than that. ... I think that in people of that ilk, [the tendency toward abuse] comes from a passion, a commitment to greatness and creating great art, and then it comes from a frustration that we're human beings and we don't achieve perfection. And some people handle that better than others."
The drama's two main musical numbers also come from Chazelle's drummer days. "'Whiplash' was always the song I hated the most because it's a sing designed to screw with drummers," he said, "and 'Caravan' is the song I loved playing the most — it was first conceived as a ballad, but the big band version always gave me the most sublime feeling." The film also features original compositions by Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec.
Chazelle picked the movie's music charts first, and then used it to storyboard and shoot "action sequences predesigned to music," he called them. "It was like doing a musical — you had every music beforehand, and then figure it out visually," he explained. "I knew I wanted this to be a movie that would live in close-ups a lot, so just sitting at the drum set and remembering what I saw: ... my hands bleeding, sticks breaking, drumheads being battered and looking like Cy Twombley and Jackson Pollock paintings."
The Sony Pictures Classics release was shot in 19 days. "At this point, we've spent more time on the road with the film than making it!" laughed Chazelle. "It's a weird thing to make a film in an aggressive burst of sleeplessness — we had such a crammed schedule that we never had time for second guesses. A movie like this probably benefits from [that]."
In response to questions from reporters (some of whom noted they cried during Teller's notable drum solo), Simmons said he views Fletcher as a borderline psychopath who is homophobic (but not a repressed homosexual). The actor, who came from a family of teachers and professors, studied music composition in college. "I thought I was gonna be Leonard Bernstein when I grew up," he said. "It was deeply moving to work with musicians of that caliber and relive that part of my youth, after taking so many left turns in my career and end up doing this. It was really fun to work with musicians like that and doing that every day at work — and/or screaming at people, which are two of my favorite things!"
He did brush up on his piano-playing for a short performance scene of "a simple little ballad" in a bar. Of his general preparation, he admitted he didn't do much but follow Chazelle's script (while adding a few most expletives), and channel the likes of Buddy Rich. "There were 'Full Metal Jacket goes to Julliard' jokes, and that’s certainly a valid comparison. … I certainly had teachers and coaches who were perfectionists, but there was nothing I was consciously drawing from. As I look back on it, a couple position coaches in high school football and one choir director — there were some elements that found themselves on the screen. ... All I did was read what Damien wrote — and look at Miles, who's such a slap-able little bastard."
Simmons also recalled that Teller, who was absent from the conversation, already had previous drumming experience while in a rock band and adopted more technique, especially sharpening abilities of playing with his left hand.
So in regards to abuse for achievement, does the end justify the means? Without endorsing the practice, Whiplash presents an argument for the sake of the narrative. "Since you end the movie with a moment of an artistic breakthough for Andrew, you have to make everything else as horrible as possible, otherwise you're answering the question already," said Chazelle. "You had to have something as horrible as Andrew's solo was great, otherwise there's not enough of an argument."
Whiplash hits theaters Oct. 10.