The one thing that makes me feel good anytime I read interviews with other writers is that I hear the same shit. That makes me feel a little less like a loser.
There are not exactly legions of teens obsessed with, or even aware of jazz drummers from the 1930s, but that didn’t stop Damien Chazelle from writing and directing Whiplash — a film about a 19-year-old who breathes each breath to be as great as the likes of legendary jazz timekeeper Chick Webb.
Narrow subject matter for a movie that won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year, but it works thanks to the universal struggle for greatness the film illuminates and because it’s infused with the inimitable truth of authenticity — Chazelle, now a year shy of 30, was himself a teenager entranced by jazz who spent his high school years as part of a competitive jazz band that changed his life.
“It was a weird high school experience because I spent most of my time in my basement practicing six hours a day,” he explains. “My idols were all drummers who had been dead for a long time — Joe Jones, Chick Webb, Buddy Rich, and Gene Krupa. I tried to model my drum set after them, to buy old drum heads and tilt my snare drum down so it would be more like a 1930s set. I was this 15 year-old kid totally living in the past.”
As if to honor the adage “write what you know” the film has struck a chord — in addition to the Sundance honors, it’s been critically hailed as a coming out for Chazelle. Both lead actors in the film — Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, the drummer, and J.K. Simmons (Juno, Growing Up Fisher) as his brutally driving band instructor Terence Fletcher, have gotten raves for their performances of Chazelle’s scene-driven script.
He spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the film, his endless struggle to be a disciplined writer, and how all of Hollywood said no to Whiplash before one person’s maybe led to its making.
I’ve read that the initial draft of this script came to you pretty quickly?
I find that if something’s pretty personal, I tend to write the first draft quickly, and then it’ll usually sort of suck, and I have to tinker with it for a while. But this one was even quicker than most. I wrote about 10 pages a day, and it was out in about two weeks. As you’d expect from that kind of speed, it wasn’t great. But the bones were there, and the emotion that I wanted to capture was there, so it really became a matter of tailoring it.
I had a handful of people who I show anything that early on to, and I remember one of the key pieces of advice I got was to make it more about the relationship between the student and the teacher. The initial draft was more just the main character, the life of a drummer. In fact, the first title was The Drummer. His teacher was more of a supporting character. Some of the feedback helped me realize that the real heart of the movie was actually that relationship.
You must have known on some level that this subject is a little on the obscure side. Is that why you kind of bulldozed through that first draft without giving yourself too get caught up in overthinking the commercial viability of the story?
It’s funny because it’s almost the opposite. There was a pragmatic side to my deciding to write this movie because I’d been trying to write bigger, more unwieldy scripts that weren’t going anywhere. It was almost this kind of frustration [to say], “Fuck it, I’m going to write something really, really small and specific. I’m just going to write something with two really juicy roles for two actors so I can cast people in it who will help get it made because they’re juicy roles. It’s all going to be interiors and long dialogue scenes. It’s going to be something I can shoot easily, a world I know like the back of my hand, and I’m going to write it like the thrillers that I’d been writing for hire, as a kind of hired hand for other people, but it’ll be personal and I’ll make it myself. And it’ll be really cheap.” So I wrote it thinking that, actually thinking that making the movie would be…
Yeah, or at least cheaper than it actually wound up being, not really thinking about the moving pieces of the music and the specifics.
At some point during the writing you must have also realized there’s a real universality to these themes in terms of creative aspiration — the line between sort of madness and greatness.
Yeah, totally. The hope was, like a lot of movies from the ‘70s that I love that focused on very specific subcultures, that this film would feel very specific yet universal. It was a hope that was dashed many times before I finally got it into the hands of people who were willing to make it.
So you got a lot of nos?
All of Hollywood said no. Finally, it all boiled down to one person I knew, Cooper Samuelson, who works at Blumhouse with Jason Blum, who read it. I remember even his first reaction was basically a version of no. It was like, “I like this, but this is not really a movie that we can make.” Then I got a call back from him a little bit later. He’d been mulling it over, and it just sort of stuck with him. He went the extra step of trying to work it into his own system while also giving it to Jason Reitman’s producer…and she liked it and got Reitman on board. Then suddenly it became real. But it was after a long time of a lot of nos finally boiling down to one person who I’d met earlier on as a writer who finally was just willing to say, “Well, let me see where this might lead,” without any real expectations.
Have you written a lot of scripts that are shelved or in some form somewhere on your computer?
Yeah, I’ve been writing scripts since forever, since early high school. I have shelves of very bad scripts that will probably never see the light of day. I moved to L.A. after graduating college and just sort of started doing some rewriting gigs to pay the bills. So by the time I wrote Whiplash I’d actually spent a few years writing very purposely commercial stuff. [This script] was like, “Let’s take the most uncommercial world possible and apply the same kind of salesmanship to the writing, making sure that, even if you hate jazz, you just have to turn the page.” And so it was kind of written very expressly with that in mind.
So the idea might be obscure, but by God it was going to be a page-turner?
Yeah, it was going to have to be a page-turner, and that was very much part of the agenda.
Were there moments of flow writing this script?
There were moments where it felt like it was cracking. Even in the difficult moments, it was always more of a pleasure writing this than writing a lot of the other stuff I’ve written because it was the most personal thing I’d written. In many sections of the movie I was literally writing word for word reminiscences of stuff that I’d experienced and characters who I literally knew personally. Parts of it felt like writing a memoir and other parts felt very much like I was still in the zone, cranking out a commercial thriller on spec. So it was this weird combo that kept me engaged throughout.
So they’re right when they say, “Write what you know?”
I always got taught that in classes and I fucking hated that expression. I do think insisting too much on writing what you know can result in a lot of really boring scripts, but I guess I definitely believe it too. I definitely do believe you can write what you know and still write a movie about colonists on Mars. You can find your own way and those are the best sorts of stories. But here I definitely will admit there was something kind of bracing and sort of surprising in a nice way about writing what I knew and literally transposing experiences that I’d had, but with a little bit of hindsight.
Give me a quick idea of what your writing routine is, if any exist, or does it vary?
I’m terrible. I always dream about having some kind of writing routine and just can’t ever stick to it. When I set out to write something, it usually takes me a few weeks of not writing it to be able to actually start writing it — just procrastinating and feeling like total shit at the end of a day when I haven’t written a word. That will just continue for many, many days. So I always feel like an abject failure by the time I actually start writing a script.
This sounds familiar.
Yeah, the one thing that makes me feel good anytime I read interviews with other writers is that I hear the same shit. That makes me feel a little less like a loser.
So you start writing when you can’t stand the shame anymore?
It’s even beyond that. It’s like I haven’t been able to stand the shame for two weeks and then I start writing. It’s just a terrible sort of thing. But here I definitely liked writing [these] scenes. When I feel like I have a very plotty [script], it can be a little bit of a drag, but the idea of just writing big scenes and letting them go is really fun. This was expressly written and designed as a movie of big scenes. There were going to be long set-piece-length sequences in here. It was structured to accommodate that. It was definitely fun getting into the meatier, longer sequences in the movie, just letting those fly.
Did you outline for this script?
I did. I usually always do at least something just for myself. So I did a very bare, sketchy outline just for myself to have some kind of a guiding path. But then I would let the scenes go on really long. The first draft was 130 pages or something — I always wind up with long first drafts. So then it became about how to make it as tight as possible while still allowing for these scenes. To me the scenes always had to have a moment where you think they were ending, but then you keep going. And it’s tough sometimes to earn those moments. So it became all about how do I structure the rest of the movie so that I earn the right to go longer in these key moments?
Do you think watching your work actualized by actors like this will change the way you write?
You definitely feel lucky when you have actors like that. J.K. Simmons is someone who — you hear this a lot about actors — but I truly think like he could make the phone book simultaneously scary and funny. That’s a writer’s dream. In terms of Miles, in a way he has an even harder role in that he has to play so much just on his face and not in dialogue. Working with them reminded me of stuff I knew before, but you learn over and over again: you need less than you think you need and a single look or a single turn of phrase can communicate so much more powerfully than a page of dialogue. I feel like I’ll probably always overwrite a little bit, but when you have good actors you realize how much you can rely on them.
© 2014 Writers Guild of America West