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.