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This story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the winter of 2013, just a few days after turning 28, Damien Chazelle slogged through the snow in Park City for his first visit to the Sundance Film Festival. He brought his 18-minute movie about a brilliant young jazz drummer and his shockingly abusive music teacher. It ended up winning the short film jury award.
Exactly one year later — a few days after turning 29 — Chazelle was back at Sundance with another movie about that same jazz student and teacher. Only this one was a full-length, 105- minute feature, and it opened the 2014 festival.
“It was a lot of stress,” remembers Chazelle. “I handle screenings and award ceremonies really badly. But this was always the goal — getting the feature to Sundance was what it was all about.”
Dark, tense, at times brutal — more psychological thriller than music conservatory set piece — Whiplash stars Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole, The Spectacular Now, Divergent) as the bullied prodigy and J.K. Simmons (Juno, Men, Women & Children) as the sadistic professor. It opened in October, expanding to 419 theaters and earning about $4.1 million worldwide so far. But it continues to expand wider as Oscar buzz grows louder. There even has been talk that Chazelle might have a shot at joining that most exclusive of Hollywood clubs — directors under the age of 30 who’ve been nominated for an Academy Award (John Singleton, nominated at 24, was the youngest, followed by Orson Welles, who was 26).
Simmons, Chazelle and Teller during the film’s shoot
It certainly doesn’t hurt Whiplash‘s audience appeal that the film happens to be largely autobiographical. Growing up in Princeton, N.J. (his mom and dad are college professors), Chazelle himself was a music prodigy, a jazz drummer in the hypercompetitive Princeton High School Band. And, like the protagonist in the film, he too suffered under an abusive instructor. He remembers sitting behind his drum kit, head down, cowering from the bullying, growing so frustrated he’d later punch his fist through his drum. ” ‘You’re rushing, you’re dragging, not my tempo!’ ” Chazelle remembers his teacher’s constant, insulting shouting. “Those are the words I heard most often throughout all of high school.”
He continued to play music in college at Harvard. But by then he had determined that he’d pursued music as far as he wanted to go, so he decided to major in film. He started shooting footage around Boston for an avant-garde jazz musical he had in his head, casting local musicians in the lead roles rather than actors. After he graduated in 2007, he took the student footage to Los Angeles, spliced it together as an 82-minute feature titled Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and sent it around the festivals, where it was well-received but ended up with only a small limited release in six theaters. But the film gave Chazelle enough of a boost to land him gigs as a scriptwriter in Hollywood — they just weren’t the sorts of scripts (The Last Exorcism Part II) he particularly wanted to write. “I was a writer for hire,” he says. “I wrote to pay the bills.”
A decade after high school, though, he still was haunted by nightmares of his trauma in the rehearsal room. And then it hit him. “The thought entered my mind to make a movie about how f—ing scared I was,” says Chazelle, who hasn’t kept in touch with his teacher. “I wanted to make a movie about a different side of music, about the fear and anguish of it.”
Simmons (L) as the terrifying teacher
He wrote a first draft in a few weeks, then continued tinkering with it for a year before sending it to his agents at Gersh. They spent six months shopping it around. But “nobody wanted to touch it,” says Chazelle. Nobody, that is, except filmmaker Jason Reitman, who fell in love with the story after being sent the script by Helen Estabrook (who heard about it from Couper Samuelson), Reitman’s producing partner at Right of Way Films. Reitman signed on to produce (along with Jason Blum‘s Blumhouse) but wasn’t at all sure how the film would get financed. “I was knocked out by the screenplay but also struck by the thought, ‘How do you make this movie?’ ” he says. “There is no road to the big screen for Full Metal Jacket set at Juilliard.”
The best way to woo financiers, figured Reitman, would be to give them a taste. He persuaded Chazelle to shoot a short based on scenes from his 85-page screenplay. “We needed to do something to show that it wasn’t just going to be a tiny little movie about a jazz drummer,” says Estabrook. “Damien really wanted to shoot it like a thriller and shoot it like a sports movie and shoot the crap out of it.”
He shot the crap out of it, all right, filming the 18 minutes that won the Sundance jury award in 2013. Suddenly, financing no longer was an issue for a feature; independent finance company Bold Films (which did Nightcrawler) stepped up with $3.3 million for the full-length film’s budget. And at least one of the castmembers was up for a repeat performance in the feature. Reitman had been the one who originally suggested Simmons for the short (Simmons, 59, had a role in Reitman’s past six films), and the actor had taken the part hoping it would develop into something bigger despite being somewhat taken aback by Chazelle’s youth (“My first reaction was, ‘Did this kid really write this script?’ ” he says).
Teller with Melissa Benoist, who plays his character’s love interest
From the start, Chazelle wanted to cast Teller as the bullied student — Chazelle watched Rabbit Hole obsessively while writing Whiplash — but at the time he was shooting the short, Teller was busy working on Divergent in Chicago (Chazelle cast Johnny Simmons, no relation to J.K., instead). Now that Whiplash was getting a bigger canvas, Chazelle took a second try at Teller. This time, he got him. “I loved the intensity of the script,” says the 27-year-old actor.
There was just one catch: Teller’s earliest opening to shoot the project was in September 2013, just a few months before Sundance’s submission deadline in November. If Chazelle cast Teller, he’d have 19 days to shoot the picture (all the budget allowed for), then only about a month in the editing room to assemble a cut in time to enter it at Sundance, which Chazelle was absolutely determined to do. It was going to require an insanely tight production and postproduction schedule. And there was one other thing: Teller didn’t really know how to drum, at least not well enough to portray a jazz prodigy. Chazelle went ahead and cast him anyway, then lugged his own Yamaha drum set to the basement of Teller’s home in Los Angeles and sat with him for private lessons. “It was basically to give him a kick in the pants,” says the director.
Chazelle on the set
When filming commenced in Santa Clarita, Calif., the cast and crew worked 18-hour days, rushing to finish on time. Chazelle had meticulously outlined every scene, hand-drawing 150 storyboards, to keep the production moving like clockwork, shooting as many as 100 setups a day. The pace was beyond feverish, with every set change turning into a mad dash. At one point, during the third week of production, Chazelle got in an accident that totaled his car and sent him to the hospital with a possible concussion. He was back on the set the next morning. “There was no room for error,” he says. “Every day was walking a tightrope between really getting something special and utter, crushing disaster.”
It wasn’t a disaster. After the film’s Jan. 16 Sundance premiere — in front of a packed house at Eccles Theatre — Sony Pictures Classics bought distribution rights for nearly $3 million. Chazelle, not surprisingly, is on a fast track of his own these days: He’ll be shooting another film with Teller, an MGM-like musical called La La Land, in the spring, and has a Neil Armstrong biopic lined up at Universal, along with a 1970s-set thriller at Fox.
He still occasionally drums. And he still sometimes thinks about his sadistic music teacher. If he’s really lucky, he might even get the chance to thank him in an Oscar speech.
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