Starring J.K. Simmons as the overbearing music school teacher Dr. Terence Fletcher mentoring an aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller), Whiplash takes on the usually flowery musical-prodigy genre to reveal that you can’t just practice, practice, and practice to get to Carnegie Hall, so to speak. You have to endure a physically abusive mentor, and drum until your fingers literally bleed and then drum some more. It’s an exploration of the lengths some go to in order to obtain perfection, but it took a considerable amount of conviction and perseverance for Whiplash to get made in the first place. 30-year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle’s only prior film was the highly experimental jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which was originally just meant to be his thesis film for Harvard Film School. His script for Whiplash earned buzz in 2012, enough that he was able to make a short film version starring Simmons as a proof-of-concept. This was submitted to Sundance 2013 where it won the prize for best short film, which helped Chazelle secure financing to make a full-length version. J.K. Simmons returned, but the part of his student had to be re-cast with Miles Tellar. The result is a film which snuck up on some people, earning 5 Academy Awards nominations and ultimately 3 wins (Supporting Actor, Editing, Sound Mixing). People who see it often use words like “intense” and “inspiring” and “riveting,” with many able to look beyond the specifics of the music school setting and relate to times when they may have been pushed around by someone in the name of improvement. This is the brief story of how this “intense” but wonderful film got made.
1. How Did Blumouse Productions Become Involved? One of the oddest moments in the entirety of Whiplash comes before we’ve seen a single shot. Instead, it’s during the now-familiar parade of production company logos preceding the actual film. There’s Sierra/Affinity, Bold Films, Right of Way Films, Sony Pictures Classics…and Blumhouse Productions! What the what? How did the company that cranks out literally more low-budget horror films (e.g., Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge, Ouija) than Universal Studios knows what to do with end up attached to an awards contender? Well, that’s because much like all those older filmmakers who cut their teeth in the low-budget Roger Corman world Whiplash’s writer-director Damien Chazelle started his career as re-writer or writer-for-hire on low-budget horror movies. He did that to pay the bills, and used his spare time to write more personal screenplays he wanted to direct. He explained the rest to KCRW’s Kim Masters:
I had gotten to develop a relationship with Cooper Samuelson who works with Jason Blum at Blumhouse through a horror writing project I went up for and didn’t get. He ended up being one of the first people I sent the Whiplash script to. […] He called us up and said, “I like the script, but clearly this does not fit with our low-budget genre movie model.” Then he thought about it for a week or two and called us back, “You know I’ve been thinking about this, and I wonder if there’s a way we could make this work.” At that point everyone in Hollywood had passed. So, I was like, “Do whatever you want.” He was friendly with a producer at Jason Reitman’s company, and he thought that if maybe he could get them involved and get their stamp on it he could convince Blum. It wound up being this Reitman-Blum conglomerate that surprised all of us, and the first time Jason Reitman and Jason Blum met each other was in the cutting room when they came to see my cut of the short film.
2. What Scene Did They Use for the Short?
It was collectively the producers idea to pull out a scene set in one room and do that cheaply as a short because that seemed like the best way to convince people this weird jazz drumming movie was really going to play more like a thriller. The scene they picked for the 15-minute short is the first extended band rehearsal sequence where the main character is put through the ringer by Fletcher. You can see clips from the short in the above YouTube video from Sundance. In the full film, you don’t actually reach this scene until the thirty minute mark, Chazelle choosing to treat Fletcher like a horror movie monster which must first be teased and not be shown at full capacity until just the right moment. As such, when he straight-up assaults the kid on the drums it’s all the more effective.
3. How Did J.K. Simmons Come On Board?
After his busy character acting career to this point, you’d imagine that Simmons would be too big of an ask to star in a short which may or may not someday became a full-length film. So, how did he join the project that early on? 100% because of Jason Reitman whose cast him in every one of his films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up In the Air, Young Adult, Labor Day, and Men, Women & Children). According to Chazelle:
Reitman ended up making the call and saying, “Hey, there’s this script. The goal is to do it as a feature, but we have to do it as a short. What’d you say?” I certainly think it was J.K.’s trust in Jason that led to him agreeing to even meet with him. We gave him the script, and literally the next day the email came that he was interested.
4. What About Miles Teller?
Miles Teller, soon to be seen as Reed Richards in the new Fantastic Four, is one of those up-and-coming types who dabbles in indie dramas (The Spectacular Now) while at the same point starring in very commercial projects (Footloose, That Awkard Moment, Divergent). The world of Whiplash is told through his character’s eyes, and the film does not work if it’s just J.K. Simmons yelling a lot. However, Teller was not actually in the original Whiplash short, and he’s by his own admission a workaholic making pinning him down difficult. How did he end up in this film? According to Chazelle:
I was thinking of Miles Teller when I was writing the script because Rabbit Hole came out about that time, and I thought he was great. He was unavailable to do that short. So, we cast this young actor that I love named Johnny Simmons to play the part. He just utterly nailed the short. When it came time to do the feature I was able to maintain enough control that it came down to either Miles or Johnny. Neither of these were the kind of slam dunk of foreign box office appeal, but Miles was the better known name and he was an actual drummer.
5. Is That Really Miles Drumming? Miles Teller’s absolutely playing the drums throughout Whiplash; we just don’t always hear the sound his actual drumming produced. According to Chazelle:
Visually, it’s all Miles, minus a few inserts of hands where we used a double. In terms of audio, what you hear in the movie is probably a little more than half stuff we did to pre-records. Certainly, the big concert scene was done to pre-records of an L.A.-based drummer, but there’s big chunks where it’s just raw audio of Miles practicing or playing.
6. Why Jazz?
There’s an aspect of Whiplash, specifically the various jazz competitions the band attends, that sort of feels like the first time you took a deep dive into Glee and came out thinking, “There’s actually a thing called show choir? And they have regional and national competitions?” I thought professional jazz was just smoke-filled jazz clubs where people noodle on pianos and always seem to wear their hats just ever-so askew. So, why did Damien Chazelle want to take that rather cartoony image away from us?
My experience in jazz was as a young drummer with a very strict teacher, and a very kind of cutthroat jazz education program. The tenor of that program was competition, was hostility, stress, all those sorts of things that I wanted to put on the screen in this movie. It wasn’t the laid back after-hours jazz club […] It felt more like a military environment. In a way, you think it’s weird that that kind of atmosphere can exist in jazz, which you’d expect to be much more free and anarchic, but it’s always been part and parcel of the music.
My experiences in that jazz band were the inspiration for Whiplash, that’s true, but although my teacher terrified me and terrified everyone in the band he was not abusive monster. It was more that feeling of utter dread everyday going into band rehearsal that I found interesting to try to unpack for this movie, and then using him as an inspiration for this character.
For Simmons, it was his old high school football coaches:
That’s the sort of environment where that kind of behavior is closer to being appropriate or tolerable. I would literally get kicked in the ass. Grab your ankles because my cleats are going up your butt as far as I can drive them, and, no, you can’t have any water. Tape a salt pill. If you have to puke, puke through your facemask. Not that I particularly called back to that while filming. That’s only something I’ve really thought about in response to some of the questions at Q&A’s after screenings or people in the press.
8. Where Are The Women?
Quick. Count the number of women who have speaking parts in Whiplash. If you counted more than three you’re being generous. In fact, in the first band rehearsal scene Fletcher mocks the one female of the group as clearly just being there because she looks good. Simmons told Elvis Mitchell they did it that way because that’s simply how it really is:
Big band jazz is now as it always has been a largely male-dominated place. So, the comparisons to a boxing movie or a football movie or a military movie are all the more apt because of that. Damien has been called out at Q&A’s, “Where are all the women? This is 2014!” Well, go to a big band jazz show and tell me how many women you see.
9. Does The Film Condemn Fletcher’s Actions? Or Ultimately Celebrate Them? An Oscar voter told THR, “The funny thing about Whiplash is that while the rest of the world thinks that the J.K. Simmons character is an overbearing, horrible monster, there are many people in Hollywood who would model themselves on that character. As for the film itself, it’s a very traditional story, in some ways, about mentoring and excellence — that kind of movie has existed since [the 1933 film] 42nd Street. ‘You’re gonna go out there, and I’m gonna yell at you that you can do better, and you’re not gonna like me for it but then you will.’” But is that really what happens? Are we supposed to think that Simmons tactics were worthwhile because they did ultimately result in the main kid giving the performance of a lifetime? Here’s what Chazelle had to say about that:
[Competition] seems so antithetical to the spirit of art, yet you look at the music those kinds of environments produced and it’s hard not to argue that it didn’t in some way foster a greater sense of creativity or drive. In this movie, I wanted to see what happens if you push that all the way to the extreme. Put the most odious behavior you can imagine on screen, but in the service of “art” and see how we feel about that. It’s been really interesting because J.K. and I have done a bunch of screenings now, and getting a sense of people’s different reactions to the ending has been fascinating.
10. Oh, Yeah, They Also Lost Some Girlfriends Along the Way. Life Imitated Art.
One of the main accomplishments of Whiplash is to destroy our romanticized image of musicians and reveal that many of them are lonely souls whose musical instruments are their only real way of communicating. Teller’s character has no friends and almost comes off like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network when he pre-emptively breaks up with his girlfriend, the one person other than his father who actually likes him. He breaks up with her because he anticipates the time he’s going to need to devote to drumming will eventually tear them apart, and by the end when he attempts to reconcile with her she’s moved on. As it turns out, multiple people making Whiplash actually went into the film with significant others they no longer had when they left the film. According to Chazelle:
Myself and certain other people on the film I probably shouldn’t talk about, but there were certain significant others where things wound up getting messed up, not necessarily because of the shoot. What wound up happening was that because the shoot was so short the prep for it was so intense and the editing was so intense at the end of the day you end up living this movie. That’s what it was for about 6 months. It didn’t help our social lives.