Damien Chazelle x Miles Teller
Portrait by Michael Mundy
Editor: Clare Shearer
“I always wanted to make movies.
Basically, there’s nothing else I ever wanted to do.
So it just became a matter early on of figuring
—Damien Chazelle out how I was gonna do that.” — Damien Chazelle
Born in Rhode Island, Damien Chazelle is the writer and director of “Whiplash” (2014), which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Dramatic Audience Award and the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. It is the feature-length version of Chazelle’s short of the same name, which premiered at Sundance 2013 to acclaim. Chazelle wrote and directed his first feature film, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” (2010), while an undergraduate at Harvard, and is currently working on his upcoming film, “La La Land” (2015). He lives and works in LA.
Born in Pennsylvania and raised in rural Florida, Miles Teller began his film acting career in “Rabbit Hole” (2010) opposite Nicole Kidman. He continued his career, on a whim, in the stage musical “Footloose,” a role he eventually transferred to the film adaptation of “Footloose” (2011). Teller is known for his roles in “The Spectacular Now” (2013), “Divergent” (2014), and “21 & Over” (2013). He plays the lead role of Andrew, a driven young jazz drummer, in 2014’s “Whiplash.”
Sophomore effort from filmmaker Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash” is a full-length feature expanded from Chazelle’s 2013 short of the same name. A young jazz drummer (played by Miles Teller) with dreams of professional renown enrolls at a music conservatory where an intense, devoted instructor (J.K. Simmons) pushes him almost to the edge. The film received the Dramatic Audience Award and the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
La La Land
An upcoming feature film by writer and director Damien Chazelle, and starring Miles Teller, Emma Watson, and Daniel Lee. Set in Los Angeles, the musical comedy/drama follows a jazz pianist as he falls for an aspiring actress.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, J.K. Simmons was a Broadway actor and singer before a shift to film acting. He is known for his roles in “The Closer” (2005), “Spider-Man” (2002) and “Juno” (2007). He plays the Terence Fletcher, the ruthless jazz band instructor, in both the 2013 short “Whiplash” and the 2014 feature-length “Whiplash.”
Filmed in 19 days in Los Angeles and New York, “Whiplash” worked the cast and crew ragged as they rushed to wrap up in time for this year’s Sundance. This doesn’t show, in either writer and director Damien Chazelle’s sharp cinematography or the nuanced intensity of its lead actors. The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a jazz drummer in his first year at the country’s most prestigious music conservatory who is hell bent on greatness, and J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher, the volatile instructor whose pathological methods might just drive him there.
Not long into “Whiplash” you encounter its namesake – the sheet music placed in front of Andrew by Fletcher to test his worth. It becomes the score to Andrew’s late-night sessions, his hands bleeding onto the drum set, and Fletcher pushing him to play harder and faster until he reaches the edge of sanity. Both Chazelle and Teller were previously drummers themselves – the conflict of the film was inspired by a particularly brutal high school jazz teacher of Chazelle’s, and Teller plays all his own solos (which he did practice until his hands bled). This intimate knowledge of jazz drumming is not lost on the audience. Music is all at once the craft, the soundtrack, and the narrative – it is at the center of a struggle between Andrew and Fletcher, who believes that to be truly great, a musician must be knocked down.
It took Chazelle a few years to get Whiplash to screen, first by producing a short by the same name, which came away with the 2013 Sundance Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction. That made possible this year’s full-length feature, which won the Dramatic Audience Award and Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2014. Right now, it’s hard to say what, if anything, stands between both Chazelle and Teller and that same kind of elusive path to greatness.
In the midst of the chaotic release of “Whiplash,” which premiers October 10, I was able to three-way call the two, who banter candidly about recording childhood “masterpieces” in the living room, going on cold, and their forthcoming (also) musical film, “La La Land.”
Miles Teller: Damien, how did you get into filmmaking?
Damien Chazelle: I always wanted to make movies. Basically, there’s nothing else I ever wanted to do. So it just became a matter early on of figuring out how I was gonna do that. You and I were talking last night about some of my early masterpieces with my dad’s shitty camcorder, just making little movies with friends in my house.
MT: How old were you? What was the first thing you made?
DC: First, I was too young to know how to actually operate the camera, so I would just stage stuff and have my dad shoot it. My dad got sick of that really quickly. He never really liked it to begin with, and he started messing up the shots and at a certain point I realized, as a lot of actors actually often do, that I’d be better off getting behind the camera. So, I was in fourth or fifth grade is when I started actually getting behind the camera.
MT: (laughs) That’s when the real work started.
DC: (laughs) Yes, that’s when the real craft began. But the funny thing is I never wanted to do anything else.
Miles, you were obviously involved in sports, music, and a lot of stuff when you were younger. When is your first memory of actually going, “I wanna act?”
MT: Well my first introduction to it – I was in second grade and the local high school was doing a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
DC: I love that show.
MT: I love it too – “Close Every Door” when Johnny Osmond sings it, specifically is my favorite.
DC: It makes me cry.
MT: Are you mocking me?!
DC: No! I grew up listening to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat then going into New York to see it like three times.
MT: I feel like we’ve talked about this maybe, because I’ve said in interviews before that that song will also make me cry. I’m vulnerable.
DC: Then that just shows how alike you and I really are.
MT: Wow, what a watershed moment in this interview. (laughs)
“I don’t actually like to
I like to see what I’m gonna
do on the first take.
I don’t want to be aware
of what my instincts are. ”
— Miles Teller
So, yeah, I was in second grade and they just needed little kids for Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. I was, like, Kid in Red Shirt and I held a candle and basically sat on stage and that was fun. And the next year I did Oliver and I played one of Fagan’s pick-pocketers and got a little more taste of it cause we were actually singing and dancing and the kids are more directly involved in that show as far as the narrative is concerned.
From there, I remember there was a local, like, commercial casting cattle call and they said, “If you have cute kids bring em in,” so my mom brought me and my sister. She got a call back and I did not. And I was like “Alright, that’s it.” I think I was about eight.
I didn’t really get back involved in it until high school when my buddy convinced me to audition for Footloose with him. Up until that point, I was not preforming at all other than in music concerts and baseball games… He got the lead and I played Willard, and it was the first play that I ever really did.
Directed by Craig Brewer, “Footloose” is a film remake of the theatrical version starring Kenny Wormald, Julianne Hough, and Dennis Quaid. Miles Teller plays Willard in his first film acting role, after having played Willard in a 2011 theater production.
DC: Speaking of Footloose, what was that like having the experience of literally transposing from stage to screen? Did it make it easier? I remember in “Whiplash,” having to redo the short, for me and J.K. [Simmons] was actually, in a weird way, kind of tricky.
MT: I felt like I had such an advantage because I think it would be very difficult to do a remake if my only knowledge of Footloose was the original movie. It’s the same reason why I never watched your short film until after we were done, because I didn’t want to see anyone else play my part.
For me, Willard is fully fleshed out in the play – he actually has this whole relationship with his mother, he’s just a big momma’s boy and he’s got this song that’s called “Momma Says,” it’s like, “Momma says don’t use a toaster while standin’ in the shower, and Momma says never eat anything that’s bigger than your head.” It’s just these little nice Southern anecdotes. Willardisms.
So, I feel like it gave me such an advantage because I knew that character, having already played him before. I really did. When you’re rehearsing a character, even if it’s in highschool, if you’re rehearsing a character for months, you have somebody.
DC: One thing I thought was interesting – I think you mentioned this at a Q&A, somebody asked you how you prepared for this role in “Whiplash” and I wonder if its similar to playing Willard? Basically any role in a movie where there’s an additional skill set that you, as an actor, have to kind of indulge in, that’s part of the character’s makeup – whether it’s dancing, whether it’s drumming… you’re about to do a boxing movie.
I wanted to ask generally about you doing these sort of projects that involve music – as it pertains to “Whiplash”, also the movie [“La La Land”] we’re doing later together. In a way you’re saying that, even though it seems like extra work, it actually makes the acting almost easier because it gives you a kind of practical thing as a conduit to put yourself into and not be lost in self-awareness.
MT: I think you pretty much hit the nail right on the head there, Damien. (laughs)
DC: I say it better than you do.
MT: It’s one of those things where it adds layers to the rehearsal process – it gives you more to do, it gives the character some complexities, makes them more interesting.
I like the rehearsal process when it’s theater and you have weeks leading up to it… [For film] I don’t actually like to rehearse scenes when we’re doin em. I like to see what I’m gonna do on the first take. I don’t want to be aware of what my instincts are.
DC: You must have loved “Whiplash” then because we didn’t rehearse at all. (laughs)
MT: Damien, what are you most proud of in the movie? And what is something… cause
I imagine the work is never completely finished… is there still something little in the movie that you would only notice?
DC: One thing that’s nice – at a couple of these festival screenings here in New York, I’ve actually sat through the whole time… Even though normally I try to avoid that as much as possible. I just get nervous and spend my whole time watching the audience rather than watching the movie.
MT: Sometimes you gotta get high on your own supply.
DC: (laughs) So along those lines, the one nice thing is that the high’s been increasing.
I think when you’re in the midst of editing, you basically put on whatever thinking cap you need – so when I’m editing, every time I was looking at [the film] I was just seeing picture edits that were not working for me. And then as soon as we got into the mix stage, all I could see for a while was all the sound stuff that was just not working. I wind up obsessing about the thing I’m supposed to be working on at that time, and that will linger for awhile.
So, the first few festivals I still saw a lot of little mistakes that I made… but the last few times, and it helps actually having an audience there, I’ve been able to let it wash over me a little more. It’s in large part due to you and J.K. (both laugh) I hope that maybe at some point ten years from now, I’ll be able to actually watch it from a real distance. Just totally experience it anew.
MT: Yeah, I don’t think that’ll happen.
DC: Oh, thanks for your uh…
MT: No, cause I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch a movie completely objectively.
“Sounds like the title
of me when I lost my virginity.
Guessing in the Dark.”
— Miles Teller
DC: Well, you can never be completely objective. It’s so tough though, when you’re editing that’s the thing you’re always struggling against. When you’re sitting there editing, watching the same thing over and over again, you so quickly become inured to images…
I want that device they use in “Men in Black” where you wipe your memory. It would be such a handy tool if someone invented a temporary amnesia, so that when you’re editing you could momentarily wipe your memory clean, watch the movie, write down your thoughts, then get your memory back and edit based on those thoughts.
That’s why you do friends and family screenings. But at the end of the day you sometimes don’t know who to trust, you don’t know whose taste is aligned with yours, so the whole thing ends up being this long process of guessing in the dark, estimated guessing, trying to approximate…
MT: Sounds like the title of me when I lost my virginity. Guessing in the Dark.
DC: That sounds like a musical number. We should put that in “La La Land.”
MT: So where are we at right now in “La La Land?” What are you working on?
It’s one of these things for me that’s always tough because, as we’re promoting a film, I’m also in deep prep for this boxing film and then right after that it’s “La La Land,” so I’m just wondering where you’re at with that process – you said you’re kinda working on the music still.
DC: Yeah, it’s fun. We’re knee deep in music stuff but also just starting to put the actual team together – costume designer, production designer, DP, and we’re gonna start locations pretty soon. It’s exciting.
“Whiplash” is one of those movies where the whole thing happened pretty quickly – I wrote the script, and pretty quickly was gearing up for the short, and then as soon as the short was done, it was immediately gearing up for the movie. It felt like there was no break. Whereas this next one [“La La Land”], I’ve been working on this one since before “Whiplash” even existed, and its thanks to “Whiplash” that we’re beginning to do it.
A 2010 film by John Cameron Mitchell, adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his play “Rabbit Hole,” and starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, and Miles Teller. The storyline follows the disintegrating lives of a one-happy couple following their young son’s death in an accident.
Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, actor Dane Dehaan is known for his role of Jesse on the HBO series “In Treatment,” as well as his roles in “Chronicle” (2012), “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2012), “Kill Your Darlings” (2013), and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014). Dane currently resides in New York.
MT: You saw “Rabbit Hole” and you had me in mind for “La La Land.”
DC: No, no I saw “Rabbit Hole” but I somehow had Dane Dehaan in mind for everything…
MT: Well, he is a song and dance man.
DC: Miles likes to complain because he read somewhere that Dane Dehaan was offered “Whiplash.”
MT: I didn’t read somewhere – It just so happens that my agent’s assistant used to work for Dane and he was your guy… but we don’t have to talk about past girlfriends. Or not even girlfriends, it would’ve been a hookup, wouldn’t it have been Damien? You little slut.
MT: You just wanna get the movie made, man. I get it. It’s not about the art sometimes, you just wanna get it made. I get it. You’re a little director slut.
DC: (laughs) Well, thank you Miles. That sounds like a very appropriate note to end on.
MT: Oh, it doesn’t end here. You know what you did.
Film Stills by Daniel McFadden, “Whiplash”, 2014, courtesy of Sony Classics