Damien Chazelle always knew he wanted to make films. But it was playing drums, which he started doing in the fifth grade, that helped him realize just how hard that was going to be. Chazelle also had a talent for music, and he worked his way into the Princeton High School Studio Band, Princeton High’s hyper-competitive jazz orchestra.1 There, he trained under the conductor who would soon become a mentor, a monster, and much later, a narrative engine.
He was good enough, in fact, that he won Best Solo Drums at the 2003 America’s Best High School Jazz Competition.
“That was my first-time experience of art being that cutthroat — the fear of failure in art and the fear of not being good enough,” says Chazelle, whose dazzling Whiplash, his first film with a budget, a crew, a schedule, a script, and trained actors, debuts Friday. “It was just a real pressure cooker of an ensemble and a program.”
Chazelle went from Princeton High to Harvard, where he studied film in a program cantilevered by theory and dogma rather than the vocational priorities of schools like NYU or USC. Harvard’s antagonistic approach to Hollywood had a profound effect on Chazelle, who came to believe that valuable American cinema more or less ended with the organic, emotional filmography of John Cassavetes. His first movie, 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, reflects his influences at the time: It’s a black-and-white homage to French New Wave, Cassavetes, and the grand MGM musicals of the ’40s, shot on 16-millimeter and featuring nonactors, spontaneous breaks into tap dance and jazz, and the barest of plots.
As a working director, Chazelle says his Harvard education was invaluable; instead of inheriting a scripture of American film, he developed his affections from the ground up, coming to now-idols like Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Michael Mann with fresh eyes. Some movies that he’s grown to adore, like Goodfellas and Citizen Kane, he initially viewed as “pop trash.”
Guy and Madeline was made with friends and without permits, and it took him two years to finish — for much of the time, 50 rolls of film sat in a Harvard basement, waiting for the money that would fund the editing. Most of the $60,000 production budget went to film costs and a 90-piece orchestra used for the score. But Guy and Madeline was rapturously received at Tribeca and by critics in New York and Boston, with Chazelle drawing comparisons to his hero Cassavetes. The young director went west, believing he had a launching pad for his career.
“Being in Hollywood at that point, I became more aware of the cognitive dissonance between what’s relevant in Hollywood and what’s not,” Chazelle says over lunch in downtown L.A. “It didn’t matter how many reviews or festivals I could patch onto the one-sheet of the movie: No agent would sign me, and it was very much still a product that no one really knew what to do with — [agents] couldn’t see what they could do with me based on [the movie].”
Five years later, Whiplash has drawn raves on the festival circuit. Grantland’s Wesley Morris wrote, “Chazelle wants us to love this movie, and we do. He gives you what you want from certain directors: everything he has,” and Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman wrote that, as the opener at Sundance, where it won the top audience and grand jury awards in the U.S. dramatic competition, it “didn’t just raise the bar — it electrified the spirits of everyone who saw it, including me.” Whiplash depicts the emotional and physical violence of the relationship between Miles Teller’s Andrew Neyman, a jazz drummer enrolled in the fictionalized Schaefer Conservatory, and J.K. Simmons’s Terrence Fletcher, his oppressive overseer of a conductor. Colored brown and blue and frenetic with dolly shots and angled perspectives, Whiplash is a movie about jazz shot like a movie about war — Chazelle says as much in his director’s statement. Nobody dies, nobody gets maimed, and yet the film is shocking in its brutality. It’s a startling, beautiful interrogation of the artistic process. But its director didn’t expect it to actually make people happy.
When Chazelle initially met roadblocks in L.A., his solution was to write the kind of scripts that he thought the industry wanted — scripts that would sell. It was better than tutoring. His produced writing credits include 2013’s The Last Exorcism Part II and 2014’s Grand Piano, which started as a spec about a gunman threatening an anxiety-ridden concert pianist that was made into a thriller starring Elijah Wood and John Cusack.2 But those scripts were for money — Whiplash was an antidote to his problems, and his first major effort since Guy and Madeline to write a movie that he’d not only want to direct but also see.
Chazelle says he likes the film, which was directed by the Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Mira, and he should — it’s a rewardingly unhinged bit of fun.
At first, Whiplash was met with a succession of nos. The elusive yes eventually came from producers Couper Samuelson and Helen Estabrook, who passed the script into the hands of Jason Reitman.
“It was Helen who spearheaded the idea of making a short-film version of this feature, which was so smart — obviously, it’s not an easy movie to get made,” Reitman says. “We were trying to make Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard, and that’s not something easy to get green-lit.”
For the part of Andrew, Chazelle always knew he wanted Teller, who had left an impression with his performance in the 2010 indie Rabbit Hole, but he couldn’t get him for the short, instead casting the actor Johnny Simmons (no relation to J.K.).
Chazelle hadn’t written the tyrannical Fletcher with an actor in mind, instead drawing from that memory of his own high school conductor. Reitman’s camp suggested J.K. Simmons, who’s been a part of every one of Reitman’s feature-length efforts. Chazelle was enamored of the idea of bringing Simmons, an actor known lately for his comedy, back to his ferocious work in Oz. And to play Fletcher, a beast who oscillates between steely goading and full-fledged berserker mania but still has to maintain at least some of the audience’s empathy, Simmons would have to go even beyond that.
“I read Whiplash and I wanted to do it,” Simmons says. “Damien and I set up a meeting to sit down and have lunch. When I read the script and saw the jazz music setting, and when I read the name of the filmmaker was Damien Chazelle, I immediately got this mental image of Antoine Fuqua. So we go to meet for lunch and I don’t know who I’m looking for and so I walk up to the restaurant and I’m looking around and this skinny little curly-headed kid from Jersey comes up and I go, ‘Hey, nice to meet you.’”
Chazelle’s loose-fitting button-downs and T-shirts and anarchic dark hair make him look even younger than he is, and on the frequent occasions when he wants to make a point, he talks very fast, with the momentum of a large rock rolling down a hill.
“Movies glorify behavior no matter what,” Chazelle says as we trace and retrace a route through the Venice canals a few weeks after our first meeting. He’s just returned from festivals in Toronto and Deauville, where Whiplash won the Grand Prize, and he heads to New York the next day. He looks tired. “It doesn’t matter what behavior you put onscreen: It glorifies it. Truffaut said that there’s no such thing as an antiwar movie, that as soon as you show war onscreen you’re making a pro-war movie, and I really believe that. The fact of the matter is, movies like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Full Metal Jacket do glorify behavior. That’s what movies do. So what?
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say art should be immoral or is by nature immoral,” Chazelle says, winding up again. “But it really gets tricky when you evaluate art based on the filmmaker’s relationship to the behavior that’s put onscreen.”
Then he backtracks.
“I guess I’m a little bit of a hypocrite, too, because I get really bothered by, for example, the fact that it’s kind of a fad now, and probably has been ever since Silence of the Lambs, to have movies where women are mutilated and raped and the whole thing revolves around that, and the fact that these movies are all made by men — I find that a little icky. I guess that’s me having a moral problem, my own kind of hypocrisy in that regard. I guess I should find out why I have a problem with that and I don’t have any problem at all with any Scorsese movie.”
There are two forms of violence in Whiplash. The first is between Fletcher and Andrew, and it’s the violence of abuse and exploitation. The second is between Andrew and his drum kit, and it’s the kind of violence, known well by artists, that demands always more than can be given. Part of the inspiration that Chazelle sought for the face-offs between his leads in Whiplash came from the mutually assured destruction of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master — to unleash a primal part of the actors, for them to become diametrically opposed. It’s the same sort of raw, animalistic brutality that causes viewers to cheer for the bad guys.
“The only thing I’d told [Simmons] before the short was, when he screams, I wanted him to become inhuman, just a fucking animal gargoyle beast, to go beyond human limits,” Chazelle says. “And he nodded and said, ‘OK,’ and he showed up and he did that.”
Simmons, who is 59, says that Chazelle always found the appropriate moments to share constructive and collaborative input. Coincidentally, Simmons studied conducting in college — when he suggested a black T-shirt tucked into black pants for Fletcher’s uniform, Chazelle jumped on it.
With the 18-minute short as a kind of audition, Chazelle was able to secure a reported budget of $3.3 million to make the feature, prepping heavily before a hectic 19-day shoot that faked New York in Los Angeles. Teller joined after the short, replacing Johnny Simmons. When he received the script for Whiplash, he signed on with little idea of Chazelle beyond his work in Guy and Madeline — he didn’t even watch the short, fearing it would inform his portrayal of Andrew.
“My choosing of the project was based purely on the script, so I knew he was an incredible writer,” Teller says. “After we shot the first scene, Damien was just so quick in moving on from setups. We really did just a couple takes of each one, and you could tell that he had already shot-listed the whole thing and knew exactly how he was going to shoot every scene. Right off the bat I knew we were either not getting enough or this guy knew exactly what he was doing, and it turned out to be the latter.”
And though Teller, best known for his turns as a charismatic high school alcoholic in 2013’s The Spectacular Now and the young-adult tentpole Divergent, had drumming experience, it wasn’t nearly good enough for the Buddy Rich–obsessed Andrew. Training with Nate Lang, who plays his rival in the film, Teller worked up to four hours a day for two months just to resemble a respectable jazz drummer. He performs in most of the musical scenes in the movie, his character playing until his hands bleed, but Teller’s possessed intensity goes beyond the physical act of drumming. The movie begins with the camera tracking in slowly on Teller at a kit, and Chazelle is constantly highlighting Andrew’s single-minded focus on the art and culture of jazz. Rather than play the character as a sort of idiot savant, Teller makes him seem astoundingly ordinary, to the point that, as he sheds every aspect of his life that isn’t jazz, you grow increasingly concerned that there will eventually be nothing left.
“Everybody in the film, whether it was the kid playing second trumpet or one of the grips or the sound mixer — everybody very quickly grew to accept and respect Damien and his overall knowledge and preparation for being the guy in charge,” Simmons said. “There was just a general feeling on the set that Damien had his shit together.”
In a reversal of the Whiplash pitch process, Chazelle now controls the board. He’s chosen to make his next project another one of his own scripts, La La Land, a “contemporary musical about L.A.” that will again feature Teller and his composer Justin Hurwitz, as well as Emma Watson in the female lead.
“When you look at Sinatra and Brando doing Guys and Dolls,” Teller says, “there’s something very cool and suave about it, and I think Damien handles music and movies extremely well.”
Ironically, there’s a case to be made — and Chazelle will make it — that he had to work harder to see La La Land realized than he did Whiplash; it predated the Whiplash script, and it’s a more technically ambitious and epic film — a “CinemaScope anamorphic 1950s-1960s musical” is how he describes it.
“To me, what a lot of people call old-fashioned I just think of as timeless,” Chazelle says. “I think the stuff we don’t think of as old-fashioned is the stuff that’s going to date your movie in 10 years. But there are certain things that endure, and a 90-piece orchestra playing a fucking thick, dense string arrangement against an image, whether it’s Tchaikovsky or it’s Nino Rota or [Ennio] Morricone or Michel Legrand in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg — that will always affect you. It’s affected people for a hundred years already, since the birth of cinema, and I see no reason why it won’t affect people a hundred years from now.”
At this point in his career, Chazelle has gone from being stymied by Hollywood to a position of, if not power, then at least agency. And he’s done it in a very short period of time. He has already achieved a level of success that few aspiring filmmakers ever do. Even most working directors would have a tough time selling financiers on a movie with the ambition and scope of La La Land. And, oh yeah: Chazelle is only 29 years old.
“I wish I could say differently, but I feel like I’m still just as neurotic and nervous and anxiety-prone and pessimistic as ever,” he says as we leave the canals and approach his home. “It’s kind of like, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to fall. I was afraid that Whiplash would prove that all I could do was student semi-documentaries, 16-millimeter movies, and by the same token I’m afraid that the new movie will prove that all I can do is Whiplash. I definitely don’t feel like, Ahh, I’ve arrived. I think it’s just that your sights get higher. Your ambitions get higher.”
Tracking through Chazelle’s house, I notice two red Netflix DVD sleeves sitting on a coffee table. They go well with the shelves and shelves of movies that take up an entire wall of his living room, Criterion Collection mixed in with blockbusters and the giants of American cinema. As we sit on a couch outside on the patio, a beautiful stone fireplace nearby, Chazelle considers the immediate future: He’s writing a thriller for Fox that he intends to direct and developing a Neil Armstrong biopic with Universal that would be written by someone else. It’s a new experience for him, thinking that far ahead.
“There’s definitely a lot of scripts and projects that maybe I should’ve done,” he says. “I was just fortunate that La La Land was already a thing before Whiplash was made. Literally the week after I came back from Sundance, we were sitting down with financiers. I haven’t had to have those discussions of, like, ‘What do you want to do next?’ ‘Well, I don’t know.’ Every discussion I’ve had with anyone about that always acknowledges that next means after La La Land. [But] it does make me want to figure out what the post–La La Land thing is before La La Land even starts shooting.”
At the moment, Chazelle’s uninterested in franchises.3 He’d make a $200 million movie if it were an original idea, which is something that, at this point, Christopher Nolan gets to do, and no one else.
Unless James Bond comes calling.
What he’d love to do is assemble a repertory of his own: actors, crew, his composer, and an editor — the romance of a film family intrigues him. He’s particularly fond of Teller, whom he calls the actor of his generation. Teller later echoes the statement to me, saying with regard to La La Land that he “wanted to snatch Damien up before the movie came out and every young actor wanted to work with him.”
What worries Chazelle now is a sophomore slump. He used to think that the great directors were gods floating above the clouds, impervious to criticism and disappointment. That, after The Rules of the Game was met with fury, Renoir shook it off and got back to work. Now, he realizes that the opposite might be true.
“You’re frightened to disappoint people,” he says. “You learn to know what it’s like to have something that people like, and it’s easy to take that for granted or, on the other hand, get addicted to it. I guess that’s a long way of saying that so many of my favorite movies were not appreciated when they were first released, and I would like to think that I’m the kind of person who would have the backbone to be able to deal with that. But in a weird way, when you have something that people do like at the moment, it makes you wonder if you do have that backbone.”
Chazelle believes that every movie should aspire to be the best movie of its kind ever made. Like his dictatorial conductor Fletcher, he says there’s no room for half-measures. There’s also no room for failure, or at least very little. There can be something like greatness in failing, he says, and some valor in the attempt.
It makes me think of what he said about Whiplash as we walked the canals. Chazelle says the movie, and the war between Fletcher and Andrew, is about the cost of art. The reason he was caught by surprise when festival audiences flipped for the film was because he thought he might be writing the origin story of a sad, lonely man, a kid corrupted by the pressures of what he believes is required to be great. Told multiple times over the course of Whiplash is an anecdote about how Jo Jones threw a cymbal at a teenage Charlie Parker, and it made Parker so furious that he became fixated on transcendence.
“For me, the crux of Whiplash is a moral question: If there’s a case, even one isolated case, that brutalizing someone yields great art, does that justify the behavior?”
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.