Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, we dig into the commentary for Whiplash, featuring Damien Chazelle and J.K. Simmons.
This week, La La Land, the long-awaited second film by Damien Chazelle, had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and J.K. Simmons, it has since received massive amounts of praise as a spectacular modern musical and one of the more heartfelt movies of the year. Since not everyone can afford the airfare and festival passes necessary to watch La La Land right away, I thought today would be an excellent time for a look back at Chazelle’s first film, Whiplash. You know, keep the home fires warm ahead of the new film’s December release date.
As a former musician, I found Whiplash to be one of the most anxiety-inducing films of the last decade, a musical horror film for anyone who has ever hit a wrong note or flubbed a line in front of a crowd. The 2014 film stands as confirmation of the talents of J.K. Simmons on the grandest scale and as a Hollywood coming-out party for young star Miles Teller. As part of its original DVD release, Chazelle and Simmons sat down to talk about the process of bringing their Sundance-winning short film to the big screen.
Here’s what I heard on the Whiplash commentary track:
Commentators: Damian Chazelle (writer-director), J.K. Simmons (actor)
1. When Jason Reitman and Helen Estabrook came on board as producers for Chazelle’s script, the first name they suggested was J.K. Simmons for the role of Fletcher. Chazelle specifically credits Simmons’s prior work with Reitman ‐ more so even than his work on a show like Oz — as the reason why Simmons would be able to surprise audiences with his intensity.
2. Simmons claims that Chazelle had Miles Teller in mind for Andrew during the writing process, but he did not know that Teller had been playing the drums since he was 15. One of the key parts of the rehearsal process, then, was re-teaching Teller how to hold and use the sticks in the style of a jazz drummer, not as a rock-and-roll drummer.
3. Simmons loves the moment where Fletcher bursts into the university band rehearsal. “Damien did such a great job of establishing my character by other people’s response to me.” For some reason, Simmons is also greatly amused by the cutaways to Fletcher’s black dress shoes and points them out several times during the course of the commentary.
4. Teller is the only member of the film’s concert ensemble who was not played by a real musician. Most of the onscreen characters were played by local musicians and music students, most of whom had never been in a movie before. “These guys are actually blowing sounds in their instruments and they actually know what they’re playing,” Chazelle says. This helped create the feeling of actually being in a band room rather than a movie set (which is where the rehearsal scenes in Whiplash actually took place).
5. Simmons admits during the first rehearsal scene that he had also studied music in college, which gave both he and Teller the background necessary to “establish a little credibility with these guys, who really, really played.”
6. Originally, Chazelle had hoped to space out the scenes during production so that Simmons would not blow out his voice during Fletcher’s many screaming fits. Unfortunately, the logistics of shooting Whiplash on a movie set tanked this plan almost immediately. “I’m a trained actor, I used to sing, I have proper vocal technique,” Simmons explains, “but for this screaming, it just had to be so 100% balls out that there was no question of ‘technique’ or trying to do it correctly.”
7. When Andrew plays with the concert band for the first time, the two men relish the work by actor Nate Lang as the drummer asked to take a seat in favor of the young prodigy. “What I love is the face of Nate Lang behind him,” Chazelle says. “If you look at him, he’s just chewing scenery, but in this wonderful way. He was worried for a moment that Andrew actually was good, and was maybe gonna cost him his seat, and now he knows, oh, this is gonna be a delight to watch.”
8. Although the moment where Fletcher throws the cymbal at Andrew was one of the highlights of the theatrical trailer, Chazelle still enjoyed the opportunity to milk the scene for as much tension as possible in the movie. “It’s like your first act of violence in a violent movie,” the director explains, “it buys you the ability to play around with that threat.”
9. The first real confrontation between Fletcher and Andrew was unquestionably Simmons’s favorite part of the movie, due to the fact that he got to slap Teller in the face multiple times. Since this was the scene from the short as well, Simmons very cheerfully admits that he got to “smack a couple of different actors around.”
10. As Nicole (Melissa Benoist) and Andrew enjoy their first date, Chazelle talks about the challenges of working with color schemes on digital and his preference for actual film stock. “Unfortunately, I think the next 50 films you make,” Simmons sighs, “how many times do you think you’re going to work on film?” “I’m going to do it as much as I possibly can,” Chazelle replies. It turns out Chazelle would not need to wait that long: Chazelle was able to shoot La La Land entirely on film.
11. The scene where Andrew travels home to have dinner with his family is one that many people suggested Chazell should cut; not only would it require a lot of set-up on a small budget, it would also throw his actors directly into the deep end from day one. Instead, Chazelle was talked into moving this scene to the very beginning of the production schedule. The director describes this as something he learned from Sydney Lumet, who would always begin his films with a shot he would threaten to use in the final product to keep his cast and crew on their toes.
12. Throughout the commentary track, both Chazelle and Simmons are quick to point out reactions in the background or the way that Teller’s expression says everything you need to know about a scene. “I knew this movie was going to be a movie of faces,” Chazelle explains. “And especially for an audience who maybe isn’t that familiar with the music in the movie or the style of music or what actually the stakes are in a school like this, it’s the faces of those kids that tell you everything.”
12. Whiplash took only 19 days to shoot, and nearly a full day was dedicated to a scene in Fletcher’s office that was cut from the final movie. Still, Chazelle believes the scene ultimately helped Teller and Simmons develop their chemistry. “Even if it doesn’t wind up on the screen, it winds up in the characters.”
13. Benoist had no idea that the breakup scene between her and Andrew would be played out almost entirely on her face. “Miles is talking, talking, talking,” Simmons recalls, “and Damien has the camera on her, because that’s what matters.” Simmons offers it as a credit to Benoist’s dedication that she never took a second off, not even when it wasn’t her coverage.
14. Chazelle describes the scenes leading up to the Dunellen Competition as being very similar to a drug sequence. “Let’s build up the pitch inside this guy’s head until it becomes unbearable,” the director explains, “and then let’s keep going once it’s already unbearable.” Simmons, who has seen the film a handful of times in theaters at this point, describes the quick shot of the drumsticks in the car rental lobby as eliciting an audible gasp from most audiences.
15. According to Chazelle, the car accident scene ‐ which stands out as a pretty spectacular moment in an otherwise low-budget film ‐ is actually three separate shots composited together. The film hides a cut in Andrew throwing his phone into the passenger seat; the next shot is against a green screen where they have added the oncoming truck; when Andrew falls against the camera, the film cuts again to a stunt double in a car that was titled 90 degrees and dropped.
16. Chazelle points out that the bar scene between Fletcher and Andrew is the flip side of the family dinner from earlier in the movie. “This is finally the person who completely sees eye to eye with him and understands him.” Both Simmons and Chazelle refer to Andrew multiple times as a recovering addict throughout this sequence.
17. “I think from the very first moment that Fletcher sees Andrew playing the kit in the very first scene of the movie,” Simmons says, “he is maybe already plotting out the end of the movie in his mind.”
18. As his way of explaining what drives Andrew back to the drums in the movie’s finale, Simmons tells the story of a famous poet who once held a correspondence with an aspiring writer. The poet did his best to discourage the young writer from following in his career path. “If there is anything else in life that you could possibly do that you think might make you happy,” Simmons recalls, “do that, and only if there truly is not should be you a poet.” Chazelle agrees that Andrew would fall into this category.
19. In discussing the set design for the final scene, Simmons shares an anecdote from one of his other movies. “There was an FX guy on Terminator [Genisys] that had a t-shirt, on the back, that said, in increasingly large print: “More smoke. More smoke. More smoke! MORE SMOKE! … too much smoke.”
20. When Andrew interrupts Fletcher in the movie’s final moments, Simmons had always assumed that Teller’s character had simply jumped the gun on the next song in the set list since that’s what was in his copy of the script. According to Chazelle, however, the decision had been made in post-production to switch to a different, less-upbeat song, indicating that Andre was taking control of both tempo and song selection. “But I like that you think you had even more control,” Chazelle tells his actor.
21. People always come up to Simmons and ask if Fletcher had always planned to give Andrew his moment to shine in the final scene. “For me, it was win-win,” Simmons explains. Either Fletcher was able to shatter Andrew’s dreams of being a professional drummer once and for all, or Andrew was going to rise to the occasion and deliver a performance for the ages. In Simmons’s eyes, either outcome would have been perfectly acceptable for his character.
22. According to Chazelle, the ending for Whiplash probably subconsciously came from Death Proof, where after this prolonged action sequence, the movie suddenly just comes to an instant close. Chazelle asks Simmons if he’s seen the movie. “I haven’t seen anything,” is Simmons’s flat reply.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
- Chazelle: “Juno’s dad going fucking nuts.”
- Chazelle: “You turned him into this sort of evil Fred Astaire. Fred Astaire gone to seed.”
- Chazelle: “You’re not supposed to laugh at your own joke, J.K. God.”
- Chazelle: “This was me doing a lower-budget of Star Wars, and you’re Darth Vader.”
- Simmons: “Ahhhhh, the slapping of Miles.”
- Simmons: “I don’t have to play the fucking drums.”
- Simmons: “Whatever, he’s a fucking movie star and I’m just a dried up old character actor.”
- Simmons: “It felt so good to just scream at Miles.”
- Simmons: “God, I’m a handsome man. Ah, I could look at myself all day.”
While both Chazelle and Simmons seem more interested in taking shots at Miles Teller than actually talking about the movie they made together, there may be no bigger fans of Whiplash as a whole than the two men on the commentary track. Both director and actor seem more interested in praising the work of the supporting cast and onscreen musicians than poking holes in the movie as it goes along. There are very few regrets expressed in things that could have been changed or scenes they would have preferred to do differently; perhaps owing to Whiplash’s origins as a short film before a feature, the two men have already sank as much of themselves into the movie as they could possibly get, and their passion for the project is undeniable.
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