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Listen: ‘Whiplash’ Filmmaker Damien Chazelle and Star J.K. Simmons on Art vs. Abuse

Whiplash director Damien Chazelle and actor J.K. Simmons at the Film Society. Photo by Godlis.

[Listen to the full on-stage conversation above.]

Born out of director-writer Damien Chazelle's own experience as a drummer in school, Whiplash is a fast-paced emotional ride behind the scenes of an aspiring musician and his very complicated and even abusive relationship with his mentor. In Whiplash, actor Miles Teller brilliantly plays Andrew, a promising drummer who enrolls at a prestigious yet cutthroat music conservatory. While playing his drums, he comes into contact with Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a ruthless perfectionist who goes full tilt when it comes to forming the perfect jazz band.

"A lot of this movie is almost autobiographical. Whiplash was always the song I hated the most because it's designed to screw with drummers," said Chazelle at the Walter Reade Theater for an on-stage interview along with J.K. Simmons, moderated by Amy Taubin. "I remember my hands with blisters and growing bloody and the sticks breaking. I remember seeing that close up and I knew the movie needed to live with that kind of language."

Whiplash was first a short, which Simmons also starred in. The film went to Sundance in 2013, winning a prize. More importantly, it also drummed up backing for a feature, which Chazelle directed over the year. The extended version had its World Premiere at Sundance, where it was awarded both the Audience and Grand Jury Prize Dramatic.

Simmons joked on stage about Chazelle's youthful age, admitting some initial trepidation at working with a relative newcomer, but heaped praise on the filmmaker for his abilities.

"We did the short in three days and took it to Sundance and made a bunch of noise and accomplished its purpose," said Simmons. "When I met Damien and saw he was [so young]—it was a leap of faith to go with a second time director. I certainly had concerns working with an adolescent and that he'd be able to do what a director needs to do. But from the beginning, his hand was brilliant both as director and in the editing room."

Both Teller (who was not present for the discussion at the Walter Reade Theater) and Simmons have won early praise for their respective roles. Simmons said he felt some sympathy for his character's motivations while acknowledging that his tactics were far from acceptable.

"Fletcher is certainly not a role model, but he is brilliant. My father taught high school then university. My sister is a professor. Teachers are an under-appreciated, under-valued, underpaid segment of society right there with nurses and firefighters. It's easy for someone to see this movie at face value and teaches and terrorizes, but I think it goes much deeper than that."

[Sony Pictures Classics will open Whiplash in regular release beginning this Friday.]

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