“I was a disaster of a kid,” says Damien Chazelle, laughing.
He tells the story of his much younger self, a toddler who gleefully destroyed his father’s collection of records and cassette tapes. According to his parents, the only way to keep him out of trouble was to sit him down in front of a movie.
“My parents bought me videos, hoping they would distract me for a bit. I’d watch the whole thing without moving, and then tell them to rewind it, and watch the whole thing again,” he says. “It was amazing to them that a cartoon could actually shut me up and sit me down.”
Looking at the adult Chazelle, it’s hard to imagine his youthful alter ego. The 29-year old film writer and director is calm and quiet, as polite as he is articulate. And though his mischievous streak may have waned over the years, his affinity for film has not. Earlier this year, Chazelle received the Vanguard Award at the Sundance Festival Awards for Whiplash, a film he wrote and directed about a young drummer and his larger-than-life teacher at a prestigious music school. It was a culmination of nearly a decade in the film industry.
After graduating from college, Chazelle moved to Los Angeles without a job or a car, and began writing scripts for films (ones that he wasn’t particularly excited about) to pay the bills. In 2012, he shot a scene from his script for Whiplash and entered it into the Sundance Film Festival as a short. It won the 2013 Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction, helping secure the financing to create the winning feature. Aside from a brief interruption in his teens (more on that later), Chazelle has never wanted to do anything except create films, and judging by Whiplash’s critical reception, he’s going to be doing it for a long time.
About the Film
In Whiplash, we meet Andrew, a 19-year old jazz drummer starting out at a prominent music school. There he encounters Terence Fletcher, a teacher known for fits of rage, profanity-laced tirades, and otherwise driving his students to the brink, all in the name of musical greatness. Andrew suffers under Mr. Fletcher’s tutelage, but he also improves musically, and he’s forced to question how far he will go to be truly great. If it’s not clear from the description, Whiplash isn’t your typical art film. Chazelle doesn’t explore music as an outlet for expression; instead, he unflinchingly portrays the rigors of music that have largely been ignored by other films in the genre. His camera zooms in close on beads of anxiety-induced sweat. In one painful scene, Andrew’s fingers begin to crack and bleed from hours at the drum set.
“I wanted to get at the physical anguish of it—the bleeding hands, the trumpeters’ lips bleeding,” says Chazelle. “Violinists get back problems and singers get nodes–it’s something I hadn’t seen before in a music movie. You see it in sports movies all the time. We don’t really think of music as physical, but it is.”
Chazelle combined these visceral scenes with quick cuts, editing the film the way he imagined his characters would. Musicians are constantly thinking about tempo, changing their pace with lightning fast precision while being sure to leave time for improvisation. As a result, Whiplash feels like a bit like a thriller, and that’s no accident. In between his own projects, Chazelle worked as a writer on big budget science fiction and horror films, his primary task to keep viewers’ eyes on the screen. And despite the somewhat esoteric subject matter, Chazelle wanted his film to appeal to a wide audience–quick pacing and a plot-driven storyline helped with that.
“[These techniques] were very much at the base of the first movies, things like early silent films, old serials and old cliffhangers. Those are things that we tend to make fun of now, but I thought there was actually something kind of beautiful about it,” says Chazelle. “I don’t know, maybe I like to combine art with a little bit of hucksterism.”
But perhaps the main reason why Chazelle’s story resonates so strongly with audiences is because he has, in fact, lived it. From ages 14 to 18, Chazelle was a jazz drummer in a competitive high school band and Terence, the conductor in the film, is based on his former instructor. Between hours of practice, the pressure of competition, and the cult of personality built around his former conductor, the experience was, as Chazelle describes it, brutalizing. It made a significant impact on his teenaged psychology. Before entering the band, Chazelle had a cursory interest in music, but his primary interest was film. After joining, drumming suddenly occupied all of his time and headspace, but his will to play wasn’t motivated by desire. It was fear that kept him at the drums, and those years gave him nightmares that can still recur. Yet, they also gave him a reservoir of inspiration for Whiplash. Though the film feels heightened, it was important for Chazelle to capture the realities of professional artistry; between his own experiences, the experiences of his colleagues, and historical knowledge of jazz itself, Whiplash is a patchwork of truths from the lives of artists, aspiring and otherwise.
Once Chazelle aged out of the band, his focus slowly began to shift. He played in rock bands for a time, but as his instructor faded from immediate memory, so did his desire to play the drums. In its place, Chazelle re-discovered his love for film and came across the question that lies at the heart of Whiplash: should greatness be pursued at any cost? Having lived through his own version of the film, the answer for Chazelle is a resounding “no.” And after watching Andrew quake beneath Terence’s glacial stares, the answer will certainly come quickly to most viewers. And yet, Chazelle is still grateful for the experience.
“At what cost should greatness be pursued?” Filmmaker Damien Chazelle digs deep. #FilmUncovered
“I wouldn’t go back and change anything. It was formative and it defined who I am now,” he says. “It gave me a story to tell.”
As terrifying as it is thrilling, Whiplash is that story.