Damien Chazelle was 29 years old when his directorial debut Whiplash hit cinemas, and now, at the grand old age of 30, he's already been nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar and looks set for a long and prosperous career, all thanks to the phenomenal success of his drummer 'n' drumming teacher two-hander. Speaking to Empire on the phone about the ins and outs of how it was made, Chazelle was more than happy to reveal a few screenwriting and shooting secrets, not all of them involving making Miles Teller cry.
Needless to say, this feature is full of spoilers, so if you haven't seen Whiplash, go watch Whiplash, then come straight back.
Whiplash is available from iTunes on Digital HD now and will be out on Blu-ray/DVD Monday, June 1.
The Family Dinner
"I’ve been at dinner tables like this one. But it was funny because that was one of the scenes in the script that doesn’t really directly advance the plot – it’s a long scene, right in the middle – and as with any scene with multiple people eating around a table, it’s tricky to shoot. So I remember there was some talk about whether we really needed the scene, because it would have saved us a lot of time and money to cut it.
As much as I couldn’t really make a direct reason for the scene, emotionally, for me, it was the movie, the heart of it. That's my own personal bias there, and not from my own family, who have all been really supportive... it's just that sense of not really being able to communicate how important something is for you to other people sometimes.
So we kept it in, and it ended up being the first scene shot on the first day of shooting. We sat right down and had it out. It was fun for Miles to bite off a big, juicy part of the character right away.
You never know what’s going to land or what’s going to resonate. There used to be a lot more insults flying back and forth between the brothers, and we chose the best ones, but then there’s the question of whether Andrew is too asshole-ish in this scene, and it really wasn’t until we first showed it to the public that we saw how much the audience seemed to be on Andrew’s side during it. It was a nice moment, but a bit of a surprise, as it was a question mark all the way up till then."
The Car Crash
"The car crash? You’re going through scenes in the order of our shoot! From dinner scene to car crash. It’s mainly because we wanted to start with the non-music stuff while Miles got his drumming up to speed. It was such a short schedule that we had to frontload a lot of the difficult logistic stuff right away.
The car crash shot itself is a hidden combination of three shots, one of which is a green screen. We shot a plate of the truck, and a car flipping over. I’d never done anything involving a stunt of that level. It’s a scary thing to do on your second day of shooting. Blowing up this car with this poor stunt guy in it, dropping it on its top, basically, with a camera fastened inside the car.
We’d originally planned for multiple takes of the crash, but on the first take the car ended up massively impacted, so we really couldn’t safely do any others. It was a one-take deal. And thankfully the stunt double was not hurt, and the shot was what we needed. It was a hair on the back of your neck moment.
It was a fun make-up job making Miles look as bad as he does after the wreck. We do have a fun photo of Miles covered in fake blood and his stunt double in the same outfit giving the thumbs up in front of the crumpled car."
"Were you rushing or were you dragging?" / "Not My Tempo"
"I did not see 'Were you rushing or were you dragging?' or 'Not my tempo' becoming this thing outside of the movie. I can’t even really take credit for it either, because they are exactly what my conductor said to me all the time when I was a drummer in high school. Those words are innocuous on their own, but when you hear them the way I hear them, those words become the words you most don’t want to hear. Your greatest fear.
My goal as a drummer was to avoid those words, so that scene was me definitely writing what I knew. I certainly hoped that in the context of the movie, those lines would take on the life that they had when I was drumming, but I could not have guessed just what a kind of a life they’d take on outside of the movie. Maybe it’s a nice, cathartic way of dealing with those 'boogie man' words..."
"Are you one of those single tear people?"
"It’s a bit of a challenge when you’ve written yourself into a corner in a script where you need your lead to produce a single tear at a certain moment. (Laughs) But again, when you have two actors as phenomenal as Miles and J.K., it ended up being a lot less hard than it would normally be.
We definitely did a few takes. Just because of the ridiculousness of our schedule, we couldn’t often take our time with takes, we had to be running and gunning all the time, but we took some more time with this one."
The Chair Swing
"The chair swing was a combination of a very wide shot with a stunt double in Miles’ place and then a closer shot of Miles with the chair chucked closer to frame. If anything, the harder part there was the edit, figuring out how to cut it for maximum impact. Also from a sound perspective, in the mix we felt it needed to be louder and louder. The actual sound of a folding chair hitting a wall wasn’t really doing the trick, so we needed some extra oomph to it. Editorially, I think there is a lot of hidden trickery going on there, so it seemed a lot scarier than it really was."
"Some of the slaps were real slaps. Some are lighter not-quite-slaps – more brushes, made to seem like they were harder. And some were completely fake, where he misses the cheek, but it’s shot at an angle. If I look at the sequence now, it’s all a bit of a mix, but there’s a moment where you see Miles’ cheek getting red and that’s not make-up – he’s definitely getting red from actually getting slapped, and slapped hard."
"Gut you like a pig"
"It’s 'If you deliberately sabotage my band I will fuck you like a pig' in the film, but in the trailer it’s 'gut you like a pig'. It was originally written as 'gut you like a pig' but J.K. subbed it with 'fuck' which I preferred. So yeah, it’s 'fuck you like a pig' in the movie, but when they were cutting the trailer they were trying to find scary, outrageous lines to give a taste of the film, and I know we had the 'gut' option in our back pocket."
"There used to be different versions of the break-up scene. Early on, it essentially had Andrew blowing her off, and it evolved into more of a break-up scene. We approached it as if he’d been practising this speech to a wall or something, then delivers it word by word to a human being in a real situation, and doesn’t really notice the difference.
I remember Jason Reitman, who is one of the producers of the movie, helped me figure out how that scene should play and what the general tack should be to handle it. That really is a scene I owe a lot to him for.
And this was the scene we used to audition actresses for the role of Nicole. Even though she doesn’t say much in the scene, I knew I wanted the camera to be on her a lot of the time, to see the actual human damage Andrew is blindly inflicting. That mixture of hurt and anger and strength and vulnerability and sympathy that you need in that scene for it to resonate, that’s what we were looking for, and Melissa Benoist, who ended up playing the role, absolutely killed the audition.
And in a way, that made it the easiest thing to shoot, because after the audition we all know exactly how to play it, and with it written pretty specifically, I know I could shoot it really quickly, so we just sat down and did it. Believe it or not, shooting this scene was the first time Melissa and Miles met. So it was like, 'Hi, nice to meet you! Now let’s break up!'"
"J.K. being so persuasive that you question your own beliefs was definitely half the fun. I wanted him to be as persuasive as possible. At that point, you’ve spent over an hour watching the character be just an absolute monster – we were trying to make the most unforgiveable bastard ever – and then having him deliver a piece of philosophy in such a compelling, charismatic and intelligent way, you could see people almost forget what a psycho he is. You needed to lure Andrew back in, too, to put the rug back under his feet, so he’s vulnerable for the finale in Carnegie Hall.
I’d written a version of that speech in earlier drafts of a short film script about a jazz musician that I never wound up doing. I was in college, and it was about this jazz musician bemoaning the state of musicianship today and telling the Charlie Parker story and all that sort of stuff. And writing this scene with Fletcher, that’s when it occurred to me that those same words would be perfect coming out of Fletcher’s mouth."
"Unlike a lot of things in the script, the ending was there from the beginning. I always had a rough sense of where the movie was heading. There was still some rejiggering in terms of what Andrew’s dad did, and at the end there used to be much more of a moment between them off stage, and that got pared down both in the writing and the edit. We did shoot more stuff of them off to the side of the stage that was very creatively edited out to turn it into a look between them instead of a whole scene.
So there was stuff like that which was fine-tuned but the overall gist of it was clear from the beginning. It had to end in this spectacular way: that Andrew may be triumphant, but if you look at it more closely, it's fucked up and tragic."