Interview: Damien Chazelle

The pressure is never off for Damien Chazelle. He handles pressure well, though. When asked about how he deals with anxiety during a press stop for his debut film Whiplash during the Toronto International Film Festival, he jokes that he has been through worse and that filmmaking seems to come more easily to him than his previous professional love of jazz drumming.

Chazelle, who’s film took home both jury and audience awards at Sundance earlier this year, channelled a lot of his own personal frustrations as a musician into the story of Andrew (played by Miles Teller), a young man who attends a prestigious music conservatory in New York City to become one of the world’s greatest jazz drummers. Andrew’s talented, but his dreams of greatness are constantly cut down by concert band conductor Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), a militant, abusive instructor who thinks the greatest artists are formed through constant fire and barely an ounce of praise.

Of course by Chazelle’s own admission the film isn’t strictly autobiographical and a lot of the events have been heightened to make them cinematic, but he was more interested in getting the psychology of the characters and the feeling right rather than mounting a straight re-creation of all of his experiences.

We spoke to the filmmaker about his casting choices, making a feature out a short, nature versus nurture, and where his own experiences line up with the fiction of the film.

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So, I just talked to J.K. and Miles and they still seem to be in character…

Damien Chazelle: (laughs) Oh, jeez! I’m sorry. Now you know what it was like making the fucking movie!

And you’ve made this story more than once with J.K. when it was a short, so what was the moment when you decided to bring him back to work on the feature version, and when did you know it could be a feature and that there was more to the story?

DC: I’d always hoped it could always be a feature. It started out as a feature script. We made the short and presented the short as a way to raise the money for a feature. But the hardest part of the whole feature was reshooting the one scene that we did for the short. You’d think that would be the easiest because we’d know what we were doing, but it was this weird kind of thing where you have to readapt.

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But I mean, when you have actors like J.K. that makes everything so much easier. The scene in the movie is different from what it was in the short, but it’s its own equally valid scene. That was a weirdly tough thing. But at the end of the day, what that short did was allow us to get our feet wet and we could actually work out some of the mistakes. On the feature we had such little time that we didn’t have time for mistakes.

You’ve known about the jazz music world for a while now and the film feels pretty authentic in terms of the terminology and temperament involved. Have you been getting a lot of feedback from jazz fans and musicians now that the movie is getting out there?

DC: I have to a certain extent, but it’s still definitely something I worry about because it really was important to me to get everything right. The movie’s more broad contours will seem very extreme and like a very heightened sort of movie, but I guess the argument I’m trying to make is that’s what that kind of music feels like, you know, when you’re actually in the trenches and you’re trying to be great.

That was my experience anyway, and that was how I felt when I was a jazz drummer early on in that kind of a competitive ensemble where we would be doing concerts and competitions. I had a conductor who scared the hell out of me. That’s what it felt like, and I felt like I had seen a lot of movies about music and a lot of movies about jazz that were great, but they just showed different sides to the music. They either showed the joy of playing it, or maybe the more kind of intellectual or ethereal nature of it, or what have you. Or they started with a musician that was already great and they never got into the process of them getting there.

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I remember when I was a drummer, I watched Full Metal Jacket for the first time and thought, “Hey, there’s a movie about my experiences.” (laughs) To me that was more realistic than a music movie.

So you experienced that level of bad feedback that Fletcher gives back to his students?

DC: Yeah. I became twenty times the drummer I would have been, but at the same time I burned out. I’m very fascinated with the hours of practice and nature versus nurture debate and various different psychological and sociological points of view. I’m very into Malcolm Gladwell’s various theses and debunking the myths about people, whether it’s Charlie Parker or all of these people who we think are born fully formed as geniuses. I’m all for debunking that sort of mythology.

But the big sticking point, and the big debate, and where things start to take a turn is when you consider the argument that can be made when you look at Tiger Woods, or Serena Williams, or Mozart and you think that they have been pushed from an early age in a hard, hard way that they will turn out with greatness. The thing is that in most of those cases the stories line-up. The fact is that the stories of most child prodigies don’t carry though. But there’s a select few who do, so what separates those who do from those who don’t? Maybe it’s something within them that separates them rather than the environment that they’re in, who knows? Maybe the drive is within them.

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This movie starts off with someone who isn’t yet a great musician, but they want to and they want it badly enough to go after it and nothing is going to stop them from doing that.

There was a Fletcher for me, though.

Does this person know who they are?

DC: (pauses and awkwardly laughs) I’m not sure. It’s funny because people who I was in the band with came back to work on the short just playing some of the musicians, and I hadn’t really told them much before they arrived on set, and then they got there and they turned to me – and they didn’t even have the script because they were just background musicians – and they said, “Oh, is this about studio band? Are you making The Studio Band Movie?” (laughs) Then they got it.

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Do you think Fletcher is the kind of person who teaches this way because he doesn’t have it in him to be that great himself?

DC: I think that’s interesting. Yeah, I think he likes to play music, but early on something changed for him. I don’t think it’s that he didn’t try hard to make it as a musician. I think he’s a smart enough guy. I think he’s more the Salieri type. He’s a smart enough guy that he knows what he’s good at.

There’s a strange kind of entitlement that he has, though.

DC: Yeah. I think at a certain point he realizes that he’s never going to be Charlie Parker. He wants to be the person who finds the next Charlie Parker. He wants to be the person who throws the cymbal and causes Charlie Parker to go practice in the Ozarks for a year before coming back amazing.

Knowing that you’re interested in the psychology of these characters, where do you stand regarding the scene in the film where Fletcher tells Andrew that the two worst words in the English language are “good job?”

DC: I think it depends. It’s interesting for me to think about how that kind of advice affected me as a drummer and how it impacted me as a filmmaker. I think that’s where things get a little murky. I know as a filmmaker that I don’t need someone on set yelling at me or telling me that I suck to really want to be great. I have that passion within me that doesn’t need that kind of thing.

But as a drummer I started out drumming more as a hobby, and I was never sure how far I wanted to take it. I wanted to be good, but I was much more of a waffling kind of drummer. I think that’s why the conductor I had never said something like that. He was going to save those two words even though you crave them for a year or two years. That was incredibly effective for me as a drummer. Suddenly, drumming became my entire life for about four years.

I wanted Fletcher to say something. It’s not necessarily my philosophy, and I don’t think things are that simple. It depends on the art form and the artist. But one half of my family is French, and my family back in France always used to joke about me being from America, and they would always say that everyone in America says “good job.” They don’t do that in France. They don’t say “good job.” But they meant that positively because they thought we were nice. The French side of my family always thought that most of the French people they knew were assholes who never smiled or said “hi” to anyone. (laughs)

And yet, America is also the most punitive country there is. There’s a mentality where people like to think “Oh, you’re poor, so that must be YOUR problem.” It’s also that kind of country. To me, I was really just trying to say something about the country I live in through the story of Fletcher and Andrew in this weird kind of bipolar way. It’s a country that’s both incredibly coddling and yet utterly inhumane and how those two things bizarrely coexist.

So now with people praising the movie with standing ovations and awards at festivals, does that become awkward for you?

DC: Yeah, it’s… I don’t know. It’s tough because when you’re experiencing that it’s something else. I mean, every screening or festival I go into, I’m terrified because I’m a naturally negative guy and think the worst and that people are going to hate it. Then when you have the moment of relief where people seem to like it, you have that moment and then it’s over. You just move on to the next thing and you accrue this list of memories that it feels like you never fully lived and it becomes this string of things you wish you could go back to and actually enjoy instead of being a nervous wreck. (laughs) But it’s still nothing to complain about. I still love that I can feel the thankfulness that people can find ways to connect to a film about a jazz drummer.

What was it about J.K. that attracted you to casting him? It’s kind of a mash-up between the sage authority figure he sometimes gets cast as and a bit of the crazy psycho he used to get cast as. And what caught your eye about Miles?

DC: It was actually (producer) Jason Reitman’s idea to cast J.K. I was having a really hard time thinking of someone for that role, and Jason just suggested it. The reason I liked the idea of casting him was precisely because lately he had been doing a lot of nicer roles where he was playing nicer people. I really wanted my version of Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. “Oh, my God! The guy who played Ghandi is a fucking asshole!” (laughs) “What happened, Ghandi?” And that’s just so much more bracing when someone has been away from that kind of role for so long.

So J.K. was the perfect combination of someone who I knew could do it and who hadn’t done it in a long time. I think he had a lot of fun tapping back into it. I think he really wanted to tap back into the character he was in Oz, but at least this time he wasn’t a killer, neo-Nazi, rapist, and to somehow try to make Fletcher even scarier.

And I mean, at first it’s intimidating directing a veteran like J.K. and it’s your first film, but he makes up for it by just being the nicest possible guy when he’s not being a dick on screen. (laughs) The whole thing was intimidating. I had done some smaller things before, but this was my first time with a crew, with an AD, with a schedule, with actual trained actors. It was always new to me, and you just try to convince everyone that you deep down know what you’re doing. But you’re lucky when you have people like J.K. or Miles, and you at least know that if I have a nervous breakdown and collapse on set that they could probably still shoot the film.

As for Miles, I had seen Rabbit Hole around the time I first started writing the script, and it was just one of those moments where I remembered the first time seeing him on screen and I was scared for him. That’s such an easy role to fuck up and it’s a hard age range to cast for a role like that with that kind of sensitivity. I thought I was going to have to grade him on a curve when I first saw him, but then he opened his mouth and I just saw this incredible acting. The park bench scenes in that movie just blew me away, and I wanted to work with him ever since. I had wanted to work with him for a very long time.

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