Whiplash and the Economy of Expansion

How writer-director Damien Chazelle expanded an award-winning short into an award-wining feature.

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is one of the better stories about the struggle to realize creative ambitions in recent Hollywood memory – and perhaps all-time – not just onscreen but behind the scenes as well. Chazelle always intended for his film to be a feature, but his first time out he couldn’t raise enough interest for funding, so had to settle for making a shorter, 18-minute encapsulation starring John Simmons as Andrew, the drumming student, and eventual Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons (no relation to John) as hardboiled instructor Fletcher. That short was submitted to and shown at the Sundance Film Festival, where it finally got the attention – and the cashola – it deserved. A year or so later, the feature was released and suddenly every film fan in the world knew it and Chazelle.

Knowing Whiplash was a feature turned into a short turned back into a feature sets it up as a very interesting model for adaptation, as well as an example of the limits and benefits of both short and feature-length stories on film. In the following video pieced together by Kees van Dijkhuisen Jr., we get to hear about the complicated process from the man himself, Chazelle. Audio clips from the two commentary tracks the writer-director made for Whiplash’s home release have been paired with images from both the short and the feature film to show when, where and how he chose to abbreviate his story, when to expand it, when to cut it short, and when to let it ride.

If you haven’t seen Whiplash the feature, you should not watch this video. If you haven’t seen Whiplash the short, that’s okay, you won’t spoil anything, but I’ve included it below van Dijkhuisen’s video for posterity’s sake. Be warned though, both these contain a little bit of foul language and some slightly-graphic imagery, so maybe don’t watch them at work.

Chazelle is obviously destined to be one of our truly great filmmakers, as at the age of 31 he’s already on the verge of his second Oscar nomination (his first was for writing Whiplash) and likely a couple more past that; La La Land seems a shoo-in for Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture noms, at least. With only a week to go until this latter film’s wide release, that makes this the perfect time and the perfect essay to acquaint yourself with the simmering and whimsical genius of Damien Chazelle, all while learning a thing or two about how to turn little stories into big films.