Arts

How do you make a movie about jazz? Add plenty of blood

On paper, Whiplash sounds something like an intense version of Mr. Holland’s Opus: A young jazz drummer is challenged by a demanding band leader.

But Whiplash, the highly praised new film from 29-year-old Damien Chazelle, is actually bloodier than Christopher Nolan’s entire Dark Knight Trilogy. It won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — and picked up the nickname “Full Metal Jazz” along the way.

That's because "demanding" turns out to be a euphemism for "sociopathic," and the band leader, played by J.K. Simmons, gets seriously violent in his insane drive to push his drummer.

So why the gore along with the music? Before he made a movie, Damien Chazelle was a drummer studying jazz. But when he wrote a screenplay based on his experience, he discovered no one wanted to make a jazz movie.

So Chazelle raised $20,000 and shot a single scene to hook fundraisers. "Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head, Neiman?" Simmons asks his terrified student during the scene before beating home his point about timing — literally.

Chazelle had been making movies of various kinds his whole life, including a feature-length musical called "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" he filmed as a student. "I don't remember ever wanting to do anything else but make movies," he says.

But even so, he says that one-scene short felt like his first true movie. "It was my first time with, like, an actual crew," he says. "I freaked the hell out."

Chazelle recalls that he knew nothing about how to operate a real movie set: what to tell people to do, what the protocol was, how to stick to a schedule. "About halfway through the [first] day, I was thinking ... this was good to try, but I'm probably not cut out for this, and maybe I'll just be a writer."

But he brought a close college friend along to literally whisper encouragement in his ear at a key moment, and Chazelle says "that was probably the one thing that prevented me from totally having a meltdown.”

By the third day, Chazelle was in his element, and the short made a big splash at Sundance. He eventually got $3.3 million to make the full-length movie.

Meltdown averted. Now, the Chazelle's biggest problem is fielding offers: Whiplash has yet to arrive in theaters, but he’s already been tapped to direct another two movies. 

This story is from Sideshow, a new podcast from PRI's SoundWorks network hosted by Sean Rameswaram that looks at the intersection of culture and technology.

In Arts, Culture & MediaArts.

Tagged: Damien ChazelleJ.K. SimmonsmoviesmusicfilmJ.K. SimmonsSundance Film Festival.