On Whiplash: ‘I wanted to make a movie about music that felt like a war movie’

Director Damien Chazelle draws on personal experience for this psychological drama about a brutally demanding music teacher, played by J K Simmons, and his driven protégé, Miles Teller.

From left, the actor J K Simmons who plays the music teacher Terence Fletcher, the director Damien Chazelle and the actor Miles Teller, right, who plays the ambitious drumming student Andrew Neiman in Whiplash. Daniel McFadden
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Whiplash, the story of a young jazz drummer and his bullying music teacher, has been a critics' darling since winning two top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival in January last year.

Since then, the film, which screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in the autumn, has won too many awards to list here. It is also in the running for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

It tells the story of promising drum student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) and his abuse at the hands of his tyrannical jazz teacher Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons, who has picked up a string of awards for his performance and is up for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar).

Director Damien Chazelle, himself a jazz drummer, said he wanted to dramatise what he had gone through to learn the art, which was “fear of missing a beat, fear of losing tempo. Most overwhelmingly, fear of my conductor.

“I wanted to make a movie about music that felt like a war movie, or a gangster movie – where instruments replaced weapons, where words felt as violent as guns,” he says.

From its opening scene, the film focuses relentlessly on the protégé-mentor relationship between student and teacher. Fletcher is a perfectionist who demands that his students give everything – and then some.

“We went to extremes of psychological and emotional torture and abuse,” says Simmons.

“We see a level of ambition ... in Andrew’s character ... and then we see my character ramp it up and ramp it up and get him to a level of obsession that is parallel to mine and then the fireworks continue from there.”

Teller says his character is just “a kid who at first doesn’t necessarily know what he wants to do.

“He is willing to sacrifice everything for [success]. Including a pretty girlfriend ... his relationship with his parents, with his dad, or with everybody really,” says Teller.

Chazelle says the film poses ethical questions about art and abuse of power.

“There is a moral question in the movie that I wanted to pose, which is: ‘If we accept that sometimes terrible means lead to good ends, do we accept that the ends justify the means?’ ” he asks.

Chazelle's next film is called La La Land.

"It's a musical comedy with Miles Teller – who has the main role in Whiplash," he says.

"I tried for a long time to persuade people to make this film, since 2010, and now it's going to be made thanks to Whiplash.

“When I was at university, I made a musical comedy as my end-of-course thesis, and I wanted to make another one. For me, to make a real musical comedy here in Hollywood is a dream.

"It takes place in Los Angeles. It's two artists who are trying to find their way and who fall in love. As in Whiplash, it's a story about the difficulty of finding a balance between life and art. It's very personal.

"In Whiplash there was a lot of me and my own experiences. It's the same thing in La La Land. I am very nostalgic for the golden age of cinema and musical comedies – Jacques Demy, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly ... it was the last generation who danced to jazz, just before rock. The 1930s to the 1960s is an era which means a lot to me, not only cinematically but musically."

Whiplash is out in cinemas on Thursday, February 19