Whiplash's Damien Chazelle on His First Jazz Movie and Himself
Guy and Madelineon a Park Bench on video
Whiplash'sDamien Chazelle on His First Jazz Movie and Himself
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 2/28/15)
Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash.
By Danny Peary
I could write a book about how much I usually disagree with Academy Award selections—wait, I already did!—but I must say I was delighted that writer-direct Damien Chazelle’s riveting semiautobiographical Whiplash sneaked off with three Oscars (it was nominated five times).) The biggest one was for supporting actor J.K. Simmons as the smiling martinet jazz band leader who makes life miserable for but, perhaps inadventently, pushes defiant young drummer Miles Teller to greatness. I’m sure moviegoers are curious about the strikingly innovative 30-year-old Chazelle (who was a drummer at Princeton High with an “intense” music teacher)—among the rules he breaks, I love his camera placement in particular that gives Whiplash a surreal sensation. So I think it’s a good time to reprint this in-depth interview I did with him when his first feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, played at festivals in 2009. It too is about jazz and you surely will want to check it out.
The production notes’ synopsis: “Guy [Jason Palmer] and Madeline [Desiree Garcia] have been dating for three months. He’s an up-and-coming Boston jazz trumpeter, she an aimless introvert looking for work. The excitement of first love has faded, and shortly after the film opens Guy’s wandering eye is caught by a more outgoing woman. Her name is Elena [Sandha Khin]. She and Guy meet on a crowded subway car—a meeting that spells the end of Guy and Madeline’s romance.” Or does it? Guy will try to win her back, using his instrument—no, no, his trumpet! Chazelle said, “I wanted to make a movie about people who could only communicate through music. I may have used fantasy as a framework, but for me it’s all about real life.”
Danny Peary: I’m curious who responds to your movie. Do people say they like your movie because they can tell you love movies?
Damien Chazelle: It’s either “I can tell you love movies” or “I can tell you love music.” Or both. I guess the film brings to mind other films or pieces of music. The people who talk to me about it seem to have an appreciation for films, but I think there’s an entirely different sector. It’s hard for me to guess how people who aren’t familiar with what I’m drawing from–or ripping off–would think of my movie.
DP: I read that your film is an expansion of your thesis project at Harvard, but were you determined that your first feature had to be about your two passions, or were you just thinking that somewhere along the line you’d make a film that incorporated both?
DC: It was more the latter. There were a lot of movies I wanted to make and some will involve music as heavily as this one does. At the time I happened to be obsessed with musicals, particularly modest thirties and forties Hollywood musicals, but also the big, glossy Stanley Donen-Gene Kelly movies of the fifties. They all worked their way into my movie. I wanted to do my own take on that style of music. But even non-musicals wound their way into my first movie. I’ve been such a big movie watcher for awhile, so even if I wanted to avoid those influences I couldn’t.
DP: Of your influences on the film, start with John Cassavetes.
DC: The summer when I was first writing the script, I watched Shadows, Faces, Opening Night, and every one I could get my hands on, again and again. I’d watched Cassavetes films before but then I became obsessive about them, particularly Faces, because of their electricity and pulsating energy. They seemed to be totally improvised, although a lot of was carefully scripted. Movies like Shadows are jazzy movies—I don’t mean musically, but their sense of spontaneity. They were movies of that time, and I tried to make a movie about my time but within that idiom.
DP: When you make a film about jazz, do you feel you have to make a film with a jazzy, rhythmic style?
DC: I guess it’s a slippery slope. There are some jazz films that treat jazz like a sacred cow and don’t really get the anarchic energy of the music. The best jazz films are those where the music was new at the time or those where you sensed the filmmakers felt it was new– like how Ricky Leacock shot Jazz Dance or After Hours with Coleman Hawkins. Jam session shorts from the mid-fifties and early sixties. Or back in the early thirties when sound was being introduced to film. These movies that were shot at pivotal times in jazz history and you feel you’re watching a form define itself. That’s why I like old musicals because they were experimenting their way toward the finalized version of the form. Cassavetes was constantly reinventing himself, so every movie he made felt like an event.
DP: I would think Band of Outsiders by Jean-Luc Godard, in which characters burst into song, is a major influence on this film. You’re one of the few young people who watches Godard.
DC: I know. I adore Band of Outsiders. For my money the best musical number ever filmed is Anna Karina’s number in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, when she sings with the dead body in the room while making the guy breakfast. I kind of ripped it off in my movie. That’s the epitome of what a musical number can be—an effortless overflowing from mundane real life to movieland. Godard understood that better than anyone, so that’s why he’s my all-time favorite filmmaker. People who say they love Godard mean the Godard of the sixties but I love his later stuff too. He still makes great films and is the best director who ever lived to my mind.
DP: Godard’s alienation technique, where you know you’re watching a movie, obviously influenced your movie.
DC: What’s interesting is that while there is that alienation, his best movies are very emotional and humanist and beautiful. But some people can’t get past the formal blocks.
DP: Your film is in black-and-white but I was reminded of Jacques Demy’s musicals that are in lavish color.
DC: Except for Lola, which I love. I also love The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Umbrellas is totally different. It is a grand, sweeping musical about totally ordinary people who lead totally ordinary lives, and nothing really major happens on a melodramatic scale, and the romance doesn’t work out at the end. I cried the first time I saw it. I think it is one of the most overwhelming movies to me, although there’s not much of a plot and nothing we haven’t seen before on a narrative level, but Demy makes it new. It has a candy-colored look that I love, and obviously I was going for something different visually in my movie. But musically, that was the score I had my composer Justin Hurwitz listen to the most. Everything that Michel Legrand ever wrote. Score-wise that was the Holy Grail for me.
DP: You have a scene in which Madeleine walks through the streets singing. Were you thrown when Once came out with a similar scene?
DC: I’d been shooting for a year and a half when Once came out. I liked it but got worried that people would think I was taking from it. But Once is very different in that they kept it realistic through and through. I was sure I wanted to make a musical in the old sense of the term with the ridiculous notion that people burst into song with an orchestra out of nowhere accompanying them. When I’d walk around I’d see a location and think it would be perfect for a musical number.
DP: One of the really underrated musicals is Oliver, which has music integrated into dialogue.
DC: I love Oliver. I haven’t seen it since I was a kid, but I remember street venders singing. I also love Love Me Tonight, where we see different people singing “Isn’t It Romantic?” and the number even travels out of the city, traversing a whole world and you feel the exuberance.
DP: Most people growing up don’t watch those old movies anymore. So did you watch them by yourself?
DC: Some of them. A lot of them I was introduced to in class at Harvard or the school’s film archives or by renting as many DVDs as I could. When I was younger, I pored over as many movies as I could, especially in the summers that I didn’t have much else to do. I was an uninformed film fanatic until about high school, but I always knew I wanted to make movies and prized watching movies over any other activity. My parents liked movies, but I’d say in my immediate circle I am the anomaly.
DP: Was your father Bernard involved with music?
DC: Not professionally. He still plays guitar and writes music in his spare time, but he’s a mathematician. He teaches at Princeton and that’s where I grew up. In high school I became very immersed in music, in drumming in particular. Jazz drumming became a huge passion of mine and I spent a lot of time playing and listening to old records. At Harvard, I thought I was going to do English and then I discovered the film program they had there. It was a small, documentary-heavy film department. After three years I found this project and worked my way back to the music world through film.
DP: Were you a prize pupil or were you unknown?
DC: I was probably one of the unknowns. But the faculty was very supportive, especially Robb Moss, who was my adviser on the movie. As soon as I communicated my ideas for the film he became passionate about it and went way beyond what an adviser usually does in terms of giving his time and help. He also put me in touch with people who could help me and became a huge support system unto himself to give the project life.
DP: In planning out a career, many filmmakers decide that their first film will be a horror film. But did you think that you’d expand your musical short into your first feature film?
DC: Yeah. Even when I began making it as a thesis film, in the back of my head I wanted it to be my first feature film. I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d do that. There was no decisive moment when it switched from being a thesis film to a feature, but I kept working on it for a couple of months after graduating. It just took on a life of its own and started growing and I took off time from school. It became a 2½-year process as it reinvented itself as it went along. I had the simple idea to do a musical about real life and people, paying attention to the world around me and filming it as though it were a documentary. So I wrote a loose but conventional script, but none of the actors saw that script so we tried to recast the movie around them and their worlds. That led the film around detours and into certain areas I didn’t expect.
DP: After four years of making the film did you say that you wished you knew something four years before?
DC: There was nothing specific but I learned a lot during the making of the film, especially dealing with the actors. Everyone needed a different approach. It took some trial and error over a few months and a lot of shooting to figure out what approach worked best with each actor. Desiree Garcia never acted before but she responded like a professional actress. She liked a sense of control. She liked for me to describe what I perceived to be the emotional trajectory of her scenes. I talked to her in textual terms about what the scenes actually meant, and then she interpreted it on her own. Jason Palmer hadn’t acted before so approached acting as he did being a musician. He liked being given a situation and revolving it around his personality. Sandha Khin had done theater acting but not film acting, and wasn’t familiar with the kind of improvisation we were doing. It took a few shoots before everyone got it down. I shot some initial footage knowing it wouldn’t be in the final movie, but wanting to get the ball rolling. Once we got the ball rolling, things clicked and our shoots became progressively easier.
DP: What was the most memorable thing about the shoot?
DC: My favorite scene is the “Love in the Fall” number at the party and the footage of the first time we shot it was accidentally destroyed by the lab! That’s memorable. So we had to shoot the entire number all over again.
DP: Did your actors age in the four years?
DC: They did, but it was mostly haircuts that I had to negotiate. Desiree’s hair length changes dramatically but that could be attributed to the passage of time within the film. Luckily nothing was too noticeable and it didn’t affect continuity.
DP: I’m not sure you had dailies, but did the three actors look at footage?
DC: We shot off and on and haphazardly, I was editing as we were going, which helped us know what was missing, what emotions had to come across more clearly. I showed certain scenes to them, but for the most part I didn’t show them footage. I think if they’d asked I would have shown them. They had their own lives going on, whether it was Jason playing his trumpet or Desiree going after her PHd. So when we weren’t shooting, they weren’t thinking of the movie. We never had a strict shooting schedule, it was just people living their lives and I’d ask if they had a couple of hours free so I could film them. That’s how we did it over two years. The film never felt finished.
DP: I assume that you didn’t throw a rap party because your two lead actresses never met until the premiere at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.
DC: By the time filming was done my actresses had moved to the far corners of the world and Jason was on tour. I never realized they hadn’t met until they were in the same room and I thought, “Hey, I don’t think you’ve ever met.”
DP: Desiree Garcia did her PHd. on Hollywood musicals?
DC: Yeah, that’s how we clicked. We had a mutual friend who is a tap dance teacher in Boston. I’d been talking to her about trying to find dancers for the film and she said that I should meet Desiree because she was interested in that period of musicals and also dances. She put us together.
DP: Did you have an auditioning process?
DC: Sandha went through the most traditional auditioning. I auditioned her with the guy who plays the policeman and the girl who plays his daughter. That scene kind of came out of auditions. Desiree and Jason were spur of the moment. I saw them and they immediately fit my sense of who Guy and Madeline were. I did loose, improvised scenes with them that had nothing to do with the script. I wanted to see how they responded to a camera and to direction and to each other. Mainly it was to confirm my suspicions that they were right for the parts.
DP: In person I see that Sandha is much taller than Desiree but a lot of people told me that they thought Desiree and Sandha were the same actress.
DC: Yeah, I know. It’s funny that in person they look much different but on screen they have a similar look—which I knew and found interesting. Madeline ends up going out with a guy who looks like Guy. It’s not uncommon that you latch on to someone who resembles the person you are attracted to.
DP: Desiree and Sandha have the same lips. So does the policeman’s teenage daughter.
DC: I didn’t realize that. That’s interesting. Maybe that’s the kind of face I like on screen.
DP: I read in the production notes that you saw Jason play his trumpet at a club and immediately went up to him and offered him the role. If he didn’t work out were you prepared to get rid of him?
DC: When I first went up to him, I had the feeling he wasn’t going to email me back about my thesis movie. He was sort of reserved and shy and in his own head space. I almost felt like a sleaze pitching my movie to him. When he did email me I was so excited. I was prepared to replace Jason or Desiree if they didn’t click but it was mainly me hoping they’d respond to my movie because I knew from the get-go that I wanted them.
DP: You made a drastic decision changing your lead from a drummer to a trumpet player. You’re a drummer so was it originally more autobiographical?
DC: The basic love story wasn’t autobiographical but everything in-between—his musical background and life—was certainly drawn from my own experiences. But that was in the script stage and I always knew that it would change and the film would be about whoever played that role. That’s why it was so hard to find someone to play that role. Jason was the last person we cast. We spent almost have a year looking. I still would like to make a movie about a drummer.
DP: What was the difference between a drummer and trumpet player?
DC: The interesting thing about drummers, and what this script was originally about, was that they’re never frontmen, they’re sidemen. And there’s a totally different spin. You’re the guy in the shadows driving the whole thing forward. When Jason came on board, Guy became more the familiar romantic frontman musician, But he has a shyness that makes him a little less familiar, because he’s not a showman unless he’s on stage with a trumpet. So that I found interesting.
DP: When the chips are down and Guy tries to win back Madeline before the clock runs out, he plays the trumpet for her rather than talking to her.
DC: That scene wasn’t in the original script. It came about because of Jason.
DP: Otherwise in that scene, Guy would have to drag a full set of drums into Madeline’s apartment instead of just a trumpet That scene works as it is because your film seems to be about how these people communicate through music. But if that scene hadn’t come about unexpectedly, would your film still be about that?
DC: I think it would still be about that. But that scene we stumbled upon crystallizes that idea in a more precise way.
DP: Does Guy deserve to get Madeline back?
DC: He made a mistake and I think he deserves to get her back. Bu tactually… maybe she’d clearly be in the right not to go back with him. I don’t know. I think they’re right for each other, but I’m not sure it will last. In terms of the moment, they seem right for each other. I guess it depends on what the audience thinks. I’m not the one to ask.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: Finally, I was glad that Desiree still had LPs rather than CDs. That seemed fitting.
DC: Of course. This is a movie about LPs and 16mm, a camera over the shoulder and no lights or crew. It’s an old-fashioned movie.