The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
If you've seen “Whiplash” you’ll know that it’s all about keeping the beat while being beaten down. Wednesday night, “Whiplash” writer/director Damien Chazelle, editor Tom Cross and composer Justin Hurwitz with moderator John August (writer for “Big Fish”) were at the Film Independent Directors Close-up talking about “The Rhythm of ‘Whiplash’” at the West Los Angeles Landmark Theatre.
The movie takes its title from a brutal piece of music composed by Hank Levy, “Whiplash 7/4 and 14/8” which was recorded by Don Ellis. You might have heard it before, but after you see this movie, you’ll better appreciate the demands of the musical piece.
In the movie, a student jazz drummer, 19-year-old Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), is a first-year student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory music school. Andrew is practicing in a dimly lit room when the teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), walks in, asks his name, and abruptly walks out, leaving Andrew discouraged. Yet Andrew is surprised when Fletcher offers him a seat as an alternate on his studio jazz band. This is the top studio jazz band in the nation.
If Fletcher seemed abrupt before, during Andrew’s first full rehearsal, Fletcher is demanding and within seconds viciously verbally abusive, launching into angry homophobic tirades. The band members who know better look down in dread. When Andrew gets his turn, Fletcher crosses the line into physical abuse, slapping him over and over again, to punctuate the beat—late or fast.
Fletcher justifies his methodology citing a legendary encounter between jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker and Jo Jones of the Count Basie Orchestra. According to Fletcher, as a young inexperienced musician, Parker was playing solo in a jam session with professionals that included Jo Jones. Parker played so badly, that Jones nearly decapitated him with a flying cymbal. That humiliation drove Parker to practice more aggressively until a year later, he came back having perfected his jazz style. Fletcher means to push his players toward perfection and is waiting for his Bird to hatch.
According to a recent New Yorker article by Richard Brody (13 October 2014) Fletcher’s telling of the story is hyperbole because what happened was “not attempted murder but rather musical snark.” Yet in the movie, Fletcher isn’t above lying to make his point or to make himself seem better. He pretends to be concerned about Andrew’s personal life, but uses the information gained as an emotional knife. He later tells the studio band that a former student died in a car crash, but we later learn (spoiler alert) the student actually committed suicide.
Chazelle told the audience at the sold-out event that “I was a drummer myself when I was younger with a borderline psychotic teacher.” He used those memories that had been “buried away” for a script because he wanted to do “something cheap.” The movie used a lot of interior scenes shot in Los Angeles at the Barclay, the Palace Theater and the Orpheum Theatre.
Chazelle also wanted to write about “a world I knew well” with a simplicity to the script. The movie is about a “single person driven to be good” and “a teacher who both hurts and helps.” His treatment was “like a straight ahead B-movie.” Unfortunately, he also found that “no one in Hollywood wanted to make a movie about a jazz musician.”
Yet Chazelle was able to raise enough money for an 18-minute short that went to Sundance in 2013 where it won the jury award for fiction. After Sundance, he was able to get the necessary funds for a modest budget.
The short wasn’t Chazelle’s first venture into movie making. During his second year at Harvard, he “made a little short film that wound up ballooning into a short feature.” He adds, “It was the perfect way to learn to make a movie. I only had enough money to shoot for a day.” Then he’d have to wait until he had more money. “Cans of film were stacking up in our basement.”
That movie also started with a band. In this case, Chazelle was playing in the same band as Hurwitz. They were roommates during their sophomore year and the movie they created together was a black-and-white romance called “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” about a shy jazz trumpet player looking for love. The movie won an Emerging Filmmaker Award honorable mention at the 2009 Denver International Film Festival and a Jury Special Prize at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema.
That experience was “a 180 from the making of ‘Whiplash.’” The short for “Whiplash” was made in an “insanely short amount of time.” The pace for filming was “like trying to write with a gun to my head.” Chazelle wrote the movie with Teller in mind after seeing him in “Rabbit Hole.”
For the short, Chazelle wanted to use the same editor to take it to a full-feature and Cross was the only editor he met with. Things just clicked. Cross, Hurwitz and Chazelle are already working on another project together. Chazelle commented, “I hope we do every movie all together.” They joked that they work together so well even if they decided to go into a different line of work, they go together. They’d even cement mix together.
Yet despite the camaraderie on “Whiplash,” Chazelle admitted that “The first day, I almost had a complete meltdown. I felt so out of my element.” Yet like any good three-act structure, things got better and by the third day there was a catharsis.
Even though the movie got its financing off of the short which was comprised of the first rehearsal scene, that wasn’t the first scene shot during production. Instead, Chazelle shot the meal scene where Andrew is eating dinner with his father and his relatives, including cousins about his age. This is the midway point of Andrew’s emotional journey. Even though it wasn’t a musical sequence, the editing had to be representative of the movie and “feel like words were weapons.”
“It’s the first time we see him away” from Fletcher and his school environment, but, Chazelle added, we see “He’s always been a little bit like Fletcher.” This was a scene that “everyone told me to cut.” Part of the question that “dogged” Chazelle was “Andrew’s like-ability.”
The doughy sweetness of Teller’s face adds a certain incongruity to Andrew’s friendless existence and his blunt assessment of his cousins and even his romantic situation.
The second day was (spoiler alert) the car crash scene. And Chazelle knew just how to shoot a car crash indie-style. Chazelle had actually been in a similar car crash. Chazelle had a camera in the car with Teller to film him actually driving. At one point in the car, when Teller moves to one side, he blocks one camera from the vantage point of another. Then Chazelle used a green screen and someone yelled, “Truck,” so Teller could react. Chazelle shot the truck in reverse, filming the truck close up to the car and then backing the truck up. The car being hung upside down and dropped was not meant to be a one-time deal, but ended up being so due to the damage to the car. Then Cross assembled all those pieces together.
Chazelle also said that as with most movies, a lot of scenes were cut. “I thought we needed more stuff to contextualize, more world building. Some of that was cut before we started shooting. I had to be 100 percent true to Andrew’s perspective.” There were shots of Simmons’ Fletcher at home alone, relaxing to the “serenity of jazz” which were meant to contrast with Andrew’s obsessive and bloody practice sessions. By cutting those, Chazelle felt he was “robbing some of his (Simmons’) performance.”
Shooting the scenes was part one, but then the movie had to be edited and the conflict between Andrew and Fletcher relied on intense editing.
Cross said that “Damien was extremely prepared” because everything was storyboarded. “I have a bible when I set about to do my first assembly.”
Although J.K. Simmons was in the short which was based on the first full rehearsal session for Andrew in the movie, Teller was not. With a different cast, even though Chazelle and Cross cut it very close to the short film and Cross got to “rip off himself,” the change in casting transformed the dynamics.
“It didn’t seem scary,” Cross admitted. So in the editing room, they did a lot of pushing and dragging. The first rehearsal scene sets up the rhythm of the entire movie.
Most of the people in the studio band are real musicians and not actors because Hurwitz didn’t want “fake playing” where actors are doing the wrong things for the soundtrack. With real musicians, no one had to tell the band how to tune up their instruments in preparation for a rehearsal. Chazelle and his casting director auditioned the musicians by sitting them down and yelling at them.
Simmons was convincing enough and many of the musicians had similar experiences that his performance likely dredged up. Chazelle said the solution was adding more reaction shots, Simmons became scarier because you could see a sense of dread and the feeling of anxiety in the musicians faces and body language.
Hurwitz said during the filming of the rehearsal sessions, there was a playback going on, but his challenge was to make the sound realistic in the studio. He wanted it to “sound like it was in a real space.” Recording the musicians separately, he would re-combine them but allow one musician to go further than the rest when Fletcher stops them.
Because this movie is about music in general and jazz specifically, Hurwitz created a soundscape that was “a hellish version of a big band.” Using the typical big band instruments (drums, saxophone, trumpets and trombones), he modified the sound by changing the rhythms and tempos “so they really were rubbing against each other” so you would “get an unsettled” sound. Some of the recordings were slowed down quite a bit for a nightmarish distortion.
The team was thinking “Taxi Driver” or the boxing scenes of “Raging Bull.” Hurwitz said you can “bury a melody in the score” and he was obsessed with melody. In this case, within the score there’s an overture or motif that is linked to Fletcher so “there’s a little bit of Fletcher in every cue.” It could be in the baseline; sometimes the melody was changed from a minor key to a major key. This is the kind of thing that makes you want to watch the movie while listening to commentary.
The first cut of the movie was 2 hours and 40 minutes. The finished version was 106 minutes or 1 hour and 46 minutes. Cross recalled when they cut too much, resulting in a cutty, choppy incomprehensible mess. With each change, Hurwitz had to re-score and edit the soundtrack and music. Some of these scenes will doubtlessly end up as DVD/Blu-ray extras.
Chazelle’s advice to fledgling directors is to “make it personal.” Don’t give up. Originally from the East Coast, he had “six years of ‘No’s” and remembers being “surrounded by friends who one by one got discouraged and then went back home.” Now Chazelle is making the rounds at numerous award shows.
His movie doesn’t fit into the typical student-mentor genre. Neither Andrew nor Fletcher are particularly likable. They are not people you want to be or probably want to know. You have to wonder: What makes people in the band come back? Is this Stockholm syndrome? The band members were also spectators when someone got trashed. These kind of teachers have “sick entertainment value.” And Simmons’ Fletcher was what he needed to be, said Hurwitz: “the shark in ‘Jaws.’”
In “Whiplash,” Simmons’ Fletcher isn’t just charismatic, he’s also a kindred spirit to Andrew. Hurwitz summed up the movie as, “This is really a fucked up love story between these two monsters.”
This is a love story without sex and it’s been an winning combination. J.K. Simmons won a Golden Globe and SAG awards for Best Supporting Actor. Simmons and Cross won BAFTA Film Awards and the movie also won for Best Sound.
The movie is nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards (Best Feature, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Supporting Male performance). Winners will be announced on February 21, 2015. The next day, Sunday, February 22, the movie will be in the running for five Oscars: Best Motion Picture, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Writing, Best Achievements in Editing and Best Achievement in Sound Mixing. Not bad for a movie that no one wanted to make until Sundance paved the way via a short film award.
Members of Film Independent and IFP vote on the Spirit Awards. Votes are cast between January 29 and February 17. Winners will be announced live on IFC, February 21 at 2 p.m.
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