New York Film Fest: 'Whiplash' Continues to Drum Up Major Oscar Buzz

Miles Teller JK Simmons - H 2014
Scott Feinberg

It's not easy for a tiny indie to land a best picture Oscar nomination. Those that do are generally handled by savvy distributors which carefully nurture word-of-mouth buzz over the course of an awards season, largely by taking their contender from one film festival to another. That worked, in recent years, for Amour, An Education, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Tree of Life and Winter's Bone. And my sense is that it may work again this year for Whiplash, a powerful drama that is being handled by Sony Pictures Classics.

Following stops at Sundance, Cannes and Toronto, the film — which is about an ambitious young drummer (Miles Teller) at a Juilliard-like conservatory and his complicated relationship with one of its most revered but feared instructors (J.K. Simmons) — screened at the New York Film Festival on Sunday night, where its end credits were met with lengthy applause and its talent were introduced to a standing ovation at a post-screening Q&A.

Read more 'Whiplash': Sundance Review

This was no aberration: The film has received similar receptions at the other aforementioned fests — it won both the grand jury and audience awards at Sundance — and response to it at the NYFF press screening was described to me by SPC co-chief Michael Barker as better than any he can remember since Boogie Nights' 17 years ago.

Whiplash — one of the great double-meaning film titles — was written and directed by 29-year-old cineaste-turned-filmmaker named Damien Chazelle. A little over a decade ago, Chazelle was an ambitious drummer at a high school with a highly regarded music program in Princeton, N.J., when he first crossed paths with a teacher who simultaneously motivated and tortured him. "Drumming was my life," he recalled to me during a prescreening dinner at The Smith on Sunday night, and the teacher made him better while also tormenting him. "I still have nightmares about it," he confessed. Subsequently, Chazelle attended and graduated from Harvard and his teacher passed away, but, as his focus gravitated more toward filmmaking than music, he decided to revisit the story.

Chazelle wrote a feature-length script based on his experiences — changing the setting from a high school to a conservatory, but not much else — and decided to try to make a short film out of one scene "as sort of a proof of concept" for ultimately making the full-length version. He was able to raise $25,000 in financing and secure the participation of Simmons, who is best known as the good-guy dad in Jason Reitman's Juno (2007). The resulting film was accepted into last year's Sundance and New York festivals, where it was well received. (It won the jury award in the U.S. fiction category at the former.)

Reitman, meanwhile, was looking to do more producing of other filmmakers' projects, and signed on to help get the feature made. Consequently, Chazelle was able to turn around a finished product in a matter of just months. Simmons returned for the longer version (despite Chazelle receiving advice to consider three Kevins: Costner, Kline and Spacey), but the young actor who had played the student in the short was replaced by Miles Teller (whose big-screen debut in 2010's Rabbit Hole "blew away" Chazelle so much that he ignored suggestions that he reach out to Logan Lerman or Justin Bieber). The feature was shot over 19 days, mostly in downtown Los Angeles.

Whiplash, the feature, is built around two out-of-this-world performances given by actors whose scenes together are nothing short of electric.

The instructor portrayed by Simmons, Fletcher — a delicious blend of John Houseman's Kingsfield from The Paper Chase (1973) and Louis Gossett Jr.'s Foley from An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), two performances that won the best supporting actor Oscar for which Simmons is a surefire contender — is a loud-mouthed bully who probably became a teacher because he couldn't quite cut it as a performer, and who tells his student, "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good job.' "

(Fletcher offers a marked contrast to Seymour Bernstein, the subject of another 2014 NYFF entry, Ethan Hawke's Seymour: An Introduction. Bernstein is a soft-spoken gentleman who walked away from a flourishing career as a professional performer because he wanted more to life than it offered him, and who became a great teacher of young pianists.)

Teller, meanwhile, faced and met the imposing challenge of acting and drumming simultaneously and convincingly — he had 10 years of drumming experience going into the movie, but had to learn a lot of its complex numbers in a matter of weeks — which might be the reason why so few narrative features have ever focused on drummers. (One good one that did: 1959's The Gene Krupa Story, which stars Sal Mineo as the titular jazz and big-band musician.) Teller showed promise in not only Rabbit Hole, but also 2013's The Spectacular Now, but this is a major performance of a different caliber and one that puts him right in the thick of one of the most competitive best actor Oscar races in history.

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Whiplash makes for an exciting and emotional roller coaster of a trip to the movies — Tom Cross' rhythmic editing aids that cause — and it asks of viewers some very tough questions: What does it take to be one of the greats? Is doing that worth the price one must pay in the rest of one's life? What kind of a teacher is most effective? Does it depend on the pupil? And where is the line between tough-love and abuse — or, in today's parlance, "bullying"? The film is already engendering intense and passionate discussion and debate — one Academy member wrote to me to say, "Despite its excellent production values and acting, Whiplash fails because of its lack of humanity," but others expressed polar-opposite sentiments — and that can only be a good thing for a little movie like this one.

Between Whiplash and Birdman, it looks like drums may provide the soundtrack for the Oscar season ahead.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

(Photo below: 'Whiplash' writer-director Damien Chazelle poses with Sony Classics co-chief Michael Barker in front of Alice Tully Hall before his film's first public screening at the New York Film Festival)