By Benjamin Zander
The opportunity to meet the director and writer of an Oscar-winning film is a rare one, unless you live in Hollywood — or go to the College.
On Monday, March 28, Damien Chazelle, the director and writer of the 2015 Academy Award best picture nominee “Whiplash,” came to the College for a screening of the film, as well as a question and answer session with students.
“Whiplash,” which stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, tells the story of a young jazz drummer and his experience as the new student in a class led by a tyrannical instructor who uses unorthodox and abusive methods of teaching. The film won three Oscars, including best supporting actor, best sound mixing and best editing, and received five nominations including best writing (adapted screenplay).
At the session following the screening, Chazelle spoke about his early career, when he would write and sell scripts to pay the bills.
“The only thing I could get people to pay me to write were sequels (or) horror movies,” Chazelle said.
But when he wasn’t writing to survive, Chazelle spent his spare time writing the kind of material that he enjoyed.
“This was just stuff I wanted to guard for the miraculous day in the future when I’d get to actually make it, and one of those things was ‘Whiplash,’” Chazelle said.
The path “Whiplash” took to get to the big screen was a bit circuitous. Before being made into a feature-length film, it was made into a short-film that premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
“The first iteration of (‘Whiplash’) was a feature-length script that I wrote and was basically the movie that you saw,” Chazelle said, “But no one in Hollywood really wanted to make it, or at least didn’t want to let me make it, so we made a short as a way of a sales tool.”
Chazelle attributes Hollywood’s hesitation to two factors.
“They didn’t trust me as a director because I hadn’t really done anything and I’m young,” Chazelle said. “And they didn’t trust the idea that a movie about jazz drumming, of all things, could be at all exciting.”
One thing that helped get the short off the ground was having well-known actor Simmons play the lead role as music teacher, Terrance Fletcher.
“One of the producers was friends with J.K. and had worked with him and said, ‘What do you think about J.K. Simmons? I might be able to get him to do a favor for us and do the short.’”
Chazelle laughed as he told students at the College that he was excited to have an actor that he could recognize.
Simmons went on to win the Academy Award for best actor in a supporting role for his performance in “Whiplash,” but Chazelle admitted that at first he didn’t think Simmons would be right for the role.
“He felt not scary enough to me, and I felt like I had seen him too many times as the insurance commercial guy,” Chazelle said. “He was J. Jonah Jameson, Juno’s dad. I thought he would turn everything into pure comedy.”
Chazelle’s mind changed the very first moment of shooting the short, when Simmons’s character started screaming.
“I thought, not only is he right for the role, but no one else can do this role,” Chazelle said. “It has to be him.”
Chazelle told students that he considers “Whiplash” to be the most personal thing he’s ever written. Back in high school, he, too, was in a jazz band taught by a tyrannical teacher.
“It was weirdly easy to write because it was either stuff that happened to me or stuff that happened to people I knew,” Chazelle said. “I was in a program where failure on stage, in front of an audience, was worse than death — like being in a battle and shooting your friend.”
After the question and answer session, Chazelle spent time taking selfies with students and answering their questions one-on-one.
Freshman communication studies major Tyler Law had the chance to tell Chazelle about a video-essay he had made about “Whiplash” for class, and much to the excitement of both parties, Chazelle told Law to send him the video.
“I was genuinely surprised he asked me to see it,” Law said. “I just hope he enjoys watching it as much as I enjoyed making it.”
Senior psychology and communication studies double major Adam Oppenheimer greatly appreciated the time he spent talking to Chazelle, as well.
“I got to talk with him one-on-one and he gave me great advice on getting started in the business,” Oppenheimer said. “Chazelle was a great guy who came across as humble and genuine and knowledgeable about filmmaking.”
Before making “Whiplash,” Chazelle had been trying to make a bigger movie, called “La La Land,” which, again, Hollywood was not interested in making. That all changed following the success of “Whiplash.”
“After ‘Whiplash’ came out, people who said no before suddenly went ‘Oh, sure, we want to make that now,’” Chazelle said. “It’s like becoming popular in high school — you don’t really change, it’s just that the reaction of the people around you changes.”
“La La Land,” which stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, hits theaters in December 2016.