The first time I met Damien Chazelle was at a party at the Toronto Film Festival that had nothing to do with his movie, ‘Whiplash.’ I remember asking a publicist three separate times, “Are you sure?” before approaching him just to basically say, “I liked your movie.” The trepidation came from the fact that Chazelle just looks so young. At 29 (he’ll be 30 in January) he certainly is young, but when you meet Chazelle, he’s got a boyish personality that, if I were forced to guess at the time, would have put that number much lower.
Chazelle’s film, ‘Whiplash’—the story of a future jazz prodigy (Miles Teller) and his manipulative, sadistic conductor (J.K. Simmons, who seems to be the odds-on favorite to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) has had quite the journey this year. It premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and wound up taking home the top prize. After, it steadily built momentum from word of mouth on the festival circuit and now, having been in release for two months, it still seems to be operating on a word of mouth system. (I still get text messages from friends back in the Midwest asking, “Should I see ‘Whiplash’? I keep hearing it’s good.”)
Recently, I met Chazelle again on the 35th floor lounge at New York City’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. There was a loud, ever-present, pounding techno beat pulsating over the lounge’s audio system, which is a strange setting to have a conversation about a movie with a jazz backdrop. Chazelle is a little awkward, but these kind of situations are always awkward when a person isn’t used to them in a “here are two strangers, now go off and talk about something interesting” kind of way. But he’s also naturally funny and surprisingly direct—which, if you’ve seen ‘Whiplash,’ should not come as too big of a shock.
‘Whiplash’ premiered at Sundance, then won. Was winning on your mind?
Well, yeah, you hope.
You knew you had something good?
I didn’t know if anyone would like it, though. I had something that I liked … as much as you can ever; you always feel the mistakes and feel, “Oh, I should have done that.”
Even now, do you still think that?
I guess I liked it the last time I watched it. If I have to sit for an audience screening, I normally like it. But every now and then I’ll have to quality control a screener, so anytime I have to watch it alone for those kinds of things, I usually hate it. I see all the mistakes when I watch it alone.
You’ve mentioned that J.K. Simmons’ character, Terrence Fletcher, is based off of someone you actually knew. Does that person know this movie exists?
No. It was loosely based on a conductor I had who is dead.
Do you think he would have liked this or hated this?
He’d probably see it as a tribute to the spirit of his band. It’s funny some people see it as a condemnation of a certain kind of music education. And then other people see it as a celebration of it. It’s very funny, the polar opposite reactions.
Which one do you lean towards?
More condemnation. But, also, I didn’t want to make a didactic kind of film. It’s easy to show terrible people’s behavior on screen and we all just kind of nod and go, “Isn’t that terrible.” It’s more interesting when you can show terrible behavior in the interest of something good.
Miles Teller’s Andrew isn’t innocent in all of this either. He does some terrible things.
Those were the complaints I’d get back when I was trying to get the screenplay made. It was like, “There’s no one to root for. Everyone is despicable.”
How is this still a complaint in 2014? Hasn’t this been proven wrong many times?
You’d think people would have been on to that by now?
No. They’re not. The go-to reflex all over Hollywood is still likeability. I’ve always had a problem with it because I think I have a weird barometer in the sense that some of the characters I’ve cared about the most in movies are characters that are often thought of as despicable.
But you’re not alone with that sentiment.
Yeah, but I remember being shocked when I saw him listed on the list of All Time Great Movie Villains. I thought he was the hero! It’s like, he does what he has to do. I don’t know, I don’t mean to justify his behavior. I don’t think as Macbeth as the villain; I don’t think of King Lear as the villain; I don’t think of Hamlet as the villain; I don’t think of Travis Bickle as the villain. I don’t know, I’m compassionate for all of these people … I don’t like the idea the viewer can kind of sit there and go, “make me like this person.” People aren’t inherently sympathetic.
My name is on this movie, I want to make a good movie … but, also, I want to get J.K. Simmons a fucking Oscar nomination. The guy fucking deserves it.
Does it bother you when people tell you how to write your characters?
It’s funny how everyone is an expert. When you’re trying to paint a portrait of a very specific world, you’re trying to show what makes the world different. So, sometimes it means exaggerating certain kind of aspects, but I don’t think it’s that important or it’s that much of an issue as long as you get an emotional truth across.
When you said, “It’s funny how everyone is an expert,” you made an annoyed face. Who are you thinking of when you say that?
Oh, no one in particular. It just made me think of complaints that ‘Fargo’ got and Coen Brothers stuff got, like ‘A Serious Man.’
But these movies get complaints, until they don’t. No one complains about ‘Fargo’ anymore. It’s considered a classic.
Do you get less now?
Definitely. The script complaints were a different kind of ilk. But there are still complaints about misrepresenting the jazz world or whatever. I made a jazz movie before that was about a different side of the jazz world.
Which was ‘The Last Exorcism Part II.’
[Laughs] Yeah. Exactly.
Many people didn’t realize that it was about jazz.
[Laughing] That, to me, touches on the other aspect of the jazz world.
Not a lot of people caught the symbolism.
I’m glad you caught it. But, somewhere there’s something I wrote in there. I won’t go into that.
It’s about time J.K. Simmons got the accolades he’s getting now.
Oh, I know.
He’s fearless. There’s dialogue a lot of actors might get nervous saying.
We did the short together and I knew it from the short. I knew that even if I screwed up everything else, that there was really something special there in his performance. He was part of the package and we were going to financiers.
Were people telling you to get someone like Robert Downey Jr.?
People were telling me, “You’re not going to get the budget you want with him in the role.” Which actually wound up not being true; we wound up getting exactly the budget we wanted. I was like, “My name is on this movie, I want to make a good movie … but, also, I want to get J.K. Simmons a fucking Oscar nomination.” The guy fucking deserves it.
It’s nice that you actually say that.
I know, I’m really crass. No, I can say it because it’s him. Who knows what’s going to happen, but just purely symbolically as a guy who has been around for so long and has done so much great work, it’s a showy role. On the page, you kind of know it’s a showy role. Beyond the movie itself, it felt like an opportunity to give an actor I’ve loved for so long a showcase.
Marc Webb won’t cast J. Jonah Jameson in his Spider-Man movies because he’s such a big J.K. Simmons fan.
It’s great that there’s been this quiet fan base for him for years that’s building and building.
I have a theory on Simmons’ Terence Fletcher, and please don’t shake your head and say, “everyone’s an expert.”
Fletcher uses a lot of homophobic slurs when he’s degrading his students. For me, it forced me out of the “He’s tough but lovable” mindset. It made me think, “this guy is an asshole,” and I stopped waiting for his redemption.
That’s exactly right.
Once he says those things, he can’t really redeem himself.
Exactly. The entire thing falls apart at the moment he feels redeemable. There’s a difference between subjective assholeness and objective assholeness. Subjective assholeness, we see a lot in movies about “tough instructors”—they yell, they scream, they curse...
But, in the end...
In the end, yeah. It was really important to not let him off the hook. There’s a great quote, “There’s nothing I like less than an opinion that I hold dear being argued badly.” With Fletcher, I twisted that a little to like, “There’s maybe nothing worse than a philosophy that you normally would agree with, but put in the mouth of a fucking despicable human being.” Suddenly the human being and the philosophy become inseparable. Imagine Stalin pontificating about saving the rainforest.
I’m not a fan of George W. Bush, but then he donated more money to Africa than any other president. It’s like, “OK, fine, he did a good thing.”
It’s tough doing the “OK” thing. You almost just want to have pure hatred.
There’s a scene in ‘Whiplash’ where we think Fletcher is being let off the hook. I even remember rolling my eyes the first time I saw it, thinking, here we go. But that turns out to be a setup and now, watching again, that scene is perfectly manipulative. Did you worry the audience might reject that scene before the misdirection is revealed?
I really didn’t think about it. If I had known that more, I probably would have been more scared by it. I feel like I would have been more scared, I guess. I wanted to play the scene almost elegiacally … it’s like these two sick people kind of sitting at a table just pouring their miseries on the world. It needed to be Miles falling back in love with J.K. a bit.
Where do you think these two go after this movie ends? They had a moment at the end of the film, but I feel these two will always hate each other.
I think so. I think it’s definitely a fleeting thing. I think there’s a certain amount of damage that will always have been done. Fletcher will always think he won and Andrew will be a sad, empty shell of a person and will die in his 30s of a drug overdose. I have a very dark view of where it goes.
That should have been a postscript at the end of the movie, “And at 30, he dies of a drug overdose.”
That would be great, right before the credits, “Oh, by the way.” It’s a post credit thing, like the Marvel movies. It’s his funeral.
And Fletcher is there. He gives the eulogy.
“That ungrateful fucking brat.”
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.