Divide and Conquer: Damien Chazelle on Why You Should Make a Short First

“It’s a movie about a jazz drummer.”

Cue eyes glazing over.

By the time I got lucky enough to make Whiplash, I’d experienced this reaction quite a few times. I’d always known that this story—loosely inspired by my own experiences in a competitive jazz ensemble—wasn’t so easily pitchable—it was full of terror, passion and high drama. If only I could wring a pulse-grabbing logline out of it.

It also didn’t help that I hadn’t made a bunch of movies. I’d made one feature while I was a student, a low-key jazz musical called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and it didn’t really have anything to do with the tone of Whiplash. It was scruffy, shot on black-and-white 16mm, mostly improvised, quiet and muted. Not the calling card I needed, especially since I wanted Whiplash to play like a high-octane thriller.

My experience as a jazz drummer had felt that way to me. I had a conductor who scared the living daylights out of me. I had anxiety nightmares about missing beats, losing the tempo, coming in early or late. I’d skip meals, lose sleep, practice ’til my hands bled and my drum-heads broke. It was an all-or-nothing, no-holds-barred immersion into music at its most physical, its most psychologically and emotionally demanding. A lot of this was because I was an impressionable (and, I have to admit, wimpy) teenager at the time—but I wanted to capture what those years felt like to me. You see that perspective in war movies, in sports movies, in gangster movies, in any movie where physical violence is hovering just around the corner. Guy and Madeline was about the joy of making music. Whiplash needed to be about the terror and the pain.

I’d written my script in a fever in 2011, pissed off because another project of mine was at a dead end. I’d been paying the bills with writing-for-hire jobs in L.A. But instead of showing Whiplash to anyone, I put it in a drawer for a year. To be perfectly honest, I was a little embarrassed by it. There was a lot of me in it, and I didn’t know what people would think. The me that was in it was not a me I was particularly proud of.

Eventually I got over the hump—or just got too tired of living in L.A. without making a movie of my own—and gave the script to my agent. Her response somewhat shocked me—she really liked it.

The script was sent all over town. Everyone passed. Time and again I’d be asked to describe the project. “Well, it’s this movie about a jazz drummer.” That’s about how far the conversation would get.

“No, but actually it’s really more of a thriller,” I would sometimes be able to say. I’d get a nod, a distant glance—like the person I was talking to was wondering why we were still talking about this.

Then, I got lucky. A producer named Couper Samuelson read the script. He gave the script to a friend of his, Helen Estabrook, who was Jason Reitman’s producer. Before I knew it, four phenomenal producers—Couper, Jason Blum (with whom Couper worked), Helen Estabrook, and Jason Reitman—were on board.

You’d think that’d be all you need. But there was still one catch: “It’s a movie about a jazz drummer.”

Ultimately, it was those producers’ idea that we give financiers a taste of what Whiplash would actually look, sound and feel like on-screen. Their proposal was this: We’d choose a scene from the script, shoot it, cut it, and present it.

Now, I’ll be honest: I did not want to make a short. I’d written Whiplash as a feature, and that’s what I wanted to do. But, as it turned out, the producers’ idea was a brilliant one. Not only did it arouse interest in the project that hadn’t existed before, it also allowed me to get my feet wet, to fine-tune what I really wanted this movie to be.

There was a big scene at the end of the script’s first act, in which our main character, Andrew, experiences his first day in the top jazz orchestra of his music school. He comes in full of hope. The teacher, Fletcher, walks in, and he’s terrifying. He rips Andrew to shreds, then tells him to practice harder. End of scene.

It’s the moment that launches us into the meat of the movie: Andrew stripping himself to his core, both as a musician and as a human being, in order to meet his conductor’s challenge. It’s a single-location scene and it involves our two lead characters, some loud big-band jazz, and some screaming (and slapping. And chair-throwing). As a short film, it would be the perfect representative for the movie as a whole.

We put together a crew and shot the scene in three days. A fellow music fanatic and friend of Helen Estabrook’s, Nicholas Britell, financed the shoot. It was my first time shooting with a real crew, and I was far more nervous walking onto the set of this short than I was walking onto the set of the feature a year later. The number of people, the time constraints, the ticking clock—it was all new to me. I’d shot Guy and Madeline with a few friends off and on over the course of a year. Most of the shorts I’d made before that were vérité documentaries. The Whiplash short was a different beast entirely.

For one, I’d made a mistake. I’d picked a location that looked exactly like what my high school band-room had looked like: white walls, big windows, open and airy and sterile. I liked, on paper, the idea of blood-boiling rage and abject humiliation etched against such a harmless-looking backdrop. There was an asylum quality to the place as well, and echoes of Full Metal Jacket. Bright open light for very dark behavior.

Chazelle chose drab white walls for the studio in the short "Whiplash," instead of the impassioned reds in the feature

Chazelle chose drab white walls for the studio in the short “Whiplash,” instead of the impassioned reds in the feature

Sounded great. But it was the wrong approach. One, we’d seen it before. Two, physical realism does not always equal emotional realism. I was being true to the particulars of my own experience, but not to the emotional undercurrents of the scene. In the mind of our lead character—our impressionable young drummer, who dreams of being a jazz legend—the jazz orchestra he enters is a gleaming institution unto itself. Its rehearsal room is sacred ground. And, at the same time, it’s hell.

So, when I shot the feature, I made sure to find a location that could lend itself to those two things: grandeur and terror. This time I took inspiration not from my own band-room, but from the more hallowed conservatories and jazz clubs and concert halls of the world. Whereas in the short the location’s color palette had been one of whites and blues, here it was all about blacks and reds. No windows at all, so you couldn’t escape. But a burnished luster to the walls and doors and instruments, so you’d feel like you’d made it when you entered. A rehearsal room that could subtly change during the course of the movie: from the warm ambers and oranges of a fire-lit dining room or a tasteful old library, to the fiery reds and pools of shadow of the inner circle of hell.

This was a more important decision than just picking your average location: This was the central location of the movie, recurring in scene after scene, and as such the entire look of the film would have to stem from it. Suddenly, my look-book for the feature was filled with Caravaggio and Goya paintings, and stills from The Godfather, The Yards, Birth and The Social Network—none of which appeared in the look book for the short. It had become clear that this was going to be a movie about old buildings, about warm colors, about darkness—both visual and emotional. Without doing the short, I might never have realized that this was how I wanted to do the feature.

I learned other things during the short-to-feature process, like: Don’t become a slave to what you’ve done before. When making the feature, I wound up in the odd position of having to essentially “reshoot” the short. We had a few different actors, a different location; it was a different movie. I’d grown so used to what the short looked and felt like that it took me a moment to adjust to the new circumstances.

You’d think doing a scene you’d already done would make it easier, right? Wrong. This was the hardest scene of the entire film for me. It’s like falling in love with temp music during editing; your brain waves adjust to the patterns, and for a while anything that’s not exactly that pattern feels off, even when it’s good.

For example, there’s a moment where Fletcher slaps Andrew across the cheek over and over. I’d shot it one way in the short: head-on, as a two-shot. On the set of the feature, it wasn’t working. The two-shot felt flat. So we got side angles—Fletcher’s side, then Andrew’s. We cut it together in post. I was pissed: I’d convinced myself that the short’s two-shot was the only way to play the moment.

J.K. Simmons reprises his original role from the short as a ruthlessly demanding conductor

J.K. Simmons reprises his original role from the short as a ruthlessly demanding conductor

Guess what? I was wrong. As soon as I let go of my preconceptions, and watched the scene anew, I realized not that the slapping was as good as it had been before—but that it was better. I’d been blinded by my own temp-love.

That’s not to say I now think less of the short. I love both versions of the scene. They are equally valid interpretations of the same piece of writing, and in some cases the differences in execution are minute. But those little differences add up. The two scenes are wholly different beasts.

The short did exactly what we’d hoped it would do. We shot it in July 2012, edited it and submitted it to Sundance 2013 to help give it a platform. We closed financing on the feature the May after Sundance — thanks to Bold Films, who took a huge gamble: This was still a movie about a jazz drummer, and it had to sustain interest for not just 15 minutes, but 100. We shot the feature in 20 days in September 2013, wrapping the first week of October. Tom Cross (an absolutely brilliant editor who had cut the short, and whom I hope I can convince to cut every movie I ever make) edited the film in record time, in order to submit to Sundance 2014 in early November. We pix-locked shortly thereafter, mixed and colored in December, and took the film to Sundance in January 2014.

I was lucky to not get my own way: to send the script out even though I didn’t want anyone seeing those skeletons in the closet; to go diagonally and make the short even though I’d wanted to dive straight into the feature; to learn from my own mistakes, to learn to let go. The one big failure I still can’t wrap my mind around is this: I’d thought that by making this movie, I’d exorcise my demons and put an end once and for all to my recurring nightmare of finding myself on-stage as a drummer and losing the beat.

Well, guess what. I made the movie, and I still have the nightmare. MM

Whiplash opened in limited theaters on October 10, 2014, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s 2015 Complete Guide to Making Movies.

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