'Whiplash': Editing Miles Teller's Drumming, 'French Connection' Inspiration

Cutting his third feature, Tom Cross had no idea he's find himself in the Oscar race
Daniel McFadden

A year ago, Tom Cross — who started his career editing commercials in New York before moving to the indie film world — was readying his third feature for Sundance: Whiplash, a $3.1 million indie, shot in just 19 days, that was written and directed by Damien Chazelle. He had no idea that less than 12 months later, he'd be in the Academy Awards conversation.

Whiplash follows the relationship between an ambitious young drummer, Andrew, played by Miles Teller, and his demanding instructor Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons). The film's musical sequences are edited to pre-recorded music for the major scenes, including a dramatic finale that is set on stage at Carnegie Hall.

To do this, Teller had to transform into a world-class musician. “He did probably 99 percent of the drumming,” Cross reveals (similarly, he said Simmons played the piano in the film). “Miles was a pretty good drummer when he came in to do the movie, and they gave him lessons on jazz drums. ... There are also close ups of hand and some overheads that are a drum double.”

Read more 'Whiplash': Sundance Review

Editing involved picking the right clips to match the tracks, and some tricks in the cutting room. “Most of the time, Miles was very close in his drumming, to match sync. On occasion we had to help him a little with some editing manipulation,” Cross says.

For instance, there’s a portion of the final performance during which there’s an extreme close up of the drums sticks slowing down and then speeding up. “The sync [to the music] was close but not perfect. We couldn’t alter the soundtrack and couldn’t slow or speed up the music; that would have been immediately obvious. I needed to line the pictures up, manually, for every drum hit. The most precise way was with jump cuts and to take out frames. And this had to be imperceptible.”

Chazelle had big ambitions for the film. “He always said he wanted the music scenes to feel like the fight scenes in Raging Bull, meaning that instead of being gentle and melodic, to feel violent and brutal. He wanted Whiplash to be an action thriller first and music movie last," says Cross.

Watch more 'Whiplash' Trailer

[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]

Cross adds that the director wanted to create a big editorial set piece in the finale. “He wanted that moment where [Teller] makes the decision to walk back onto the stage [and continue to perform] to feel like the end of The Wild Bunch when they decide to go out in a blaze of glory — that he was throwing in the kitchen sink,” he says, adding that for the final performance, “[Chazelle] was well prepared and did storyboard and even crude animatics. I used that to put together the first assembly, but when we looked at the first cut, it functioned by didn’t have any soul."

"We realized we needed to really inject our characters in there and see their relationship — their looks at each other and the characters’ arc. It was important to move [Teller] from starting in a place of anger to a sublime place when he basically becomes the next Buddy Rich. [Simmons] starts in a place of anger and humiliation, and is slowly won over and happy he found his Charlie Parker. Without these character arcs you just had a music video and not a scene as deep and intense as it could be.”

In approaching that scene, they also referenced the car chase from The French Connection and the way that scene incorporated Gene Hackman’s character. “[Chazelle] wanted to look at the [Whiplash] finale in the same way."

For Cross’ next project, he’s reteaming with the writer/director on La La Land — "a love letter to the ‘50s and ‘60s MGM musicals.” But thanks to Whiplash, this time they have Lionsgate as a distributor, and presumably, a bigger budget and more time.

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com