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The Sundance Film Festival is a mecca for independent cinema and a pool of fresh filmmaking talent. But with nearly 200 films selected for exhibition, it can be a dizzying game of catch-up. So this year, The Hollywood Reporter decided to do a bit of prep work for you: Here’s the who/what/where/when/why on a film worth putting on your radar.
Damien Chazelle’s path to Dramatic Competition has been remarkably linear for a young writer/director. He wrote the script for Whiplash, which landed on the 2012 blacklist and the desks of Jason Blum and Jason Reitman. Chazell then turned a key scene from the script into a short, which Blum and Reitman produced with the hope of raising funds for the feature. The short won the top prize at Sundance in 2013, financing fell into place soon after, and he was in production by September.
Dubbed by its producing team “Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard,” Whiplash tells the story of Andrew (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old drummer with a healthy fear of failure, who is driven to the brink of insanity by his brutally savage music instructor (J.K. Simmons) at a prestigious New York music conservatory. In anticipation of Whiplash’s premiere on Sundance’s opening night (Jan. 16), The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Chazelle about becoming a Hollywood scriptwriter, what he learned from making the short and his real-life experience that inspired the film.
Background: Chazelle always knew he wanted to work in film, but when he went to Harvard, he wasn’t even aware they had a film program. After taking a few documentary classes, he was hooked and started shooting the jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. What started off as student short film led the young filmmaker to take time off from school and turn it into a feature. By the time he graduated, the film was complete and premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, where the Village Voice dubbed it “the kind of movie a young [John] Cassavetes might have made were he working for MGM’s Freed Unit.”
Big Break: Some would think Guy and Madeline, which was warmly received on the festival circuit and found its way onto a handful of prominent critics’ top ten lists, would qualify as a breakout, but not Chazelle. “Guy and Madeline put me on some people’s radar, but it didn’t really lead to anything that would pay the rent,” he says.
Chazelle moved to Hollywood and started writing genre and thriller scripts with the sole intention of making money as a writer. His break came when he sold The Claim (an unproduced kidnapping thriller) and Grand Piano (2014), which then led to regular writing gigs. Since that time, Chazelle’s work has been split into two distinct camps: writing genre films to pay the bills and writing smaller, more personal projects, like Whiplash, that he’d try to get made himself.
Origins of Whiplash: “In high school, I stumbled into this competitive jazz ensemble program that was led by a very charismatic, larger-than-life instructor,” Chazelle says. This experience was more than just the inspiration for the J.K. Simmons character in Whiplash, but was a profound experience that shaped the entire film.
“As an impressionable teenager in this environment, it just became my life, dominating everything, and this conductor scared the shit out of me. There’s a certain emotion I felt during those years that I hadn’t really seen in a lot of music movies. It’s the same type of emotion associated with stage fright, but it’s also the emotion you feel when a hobby becomes a source of anxiety, terror, panic. Music just seemed like life or death for me at the time. With Whiplash I just wanted to make a music movie as if it were a war movie, something where actual life-or-death stakes are at play.”
Biggest Challenge: Often when filmmakers shoot a short in an effort to secure investment for a feature, the short serves as a way to prove to investors that the director is capable of bringing the script to life. For Chazelle, making the short of Whiplash was also a way of proving to himself that he could do it.
“Whiplash was just a different type of filmmaking for me,” he explains. “In college and with Guy and Madeline, everything I was making was documentary-based — shooting myself with a 16mm camera on my shoulder and grabbing stuff as it happened. I’d always intended to make movies in a different type of way, but there was just a big question in my mind if I could do this other type of filmmaking.”
By the time Chazelle went to shoot the feature, he felt he had gotten his feet wet enough with the short that he felt comfortable graduating to larger music set pieces, beyond the scope of the short.
The Sundance Dream: For Chazelle the dream has already become a reality. “When I was at Sundance with the short last year, we were right in the middle of trying to cobble together the money for the feature. The whole dream at the time was not just to make the movie, but specifically making it and showing it at Sundance in competition.”
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