The Language of Drums: Director Damien Chazelle and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich Discuss WHIPLASH

by Eat Drink Films

The successful commercial run of Whiplash  continues at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. Director Damien Chazelle’s first feature made its Bay Area debut at the Mill Valley Film Festival earlier this fall as part of the fest’s Artist in Residence series, presented by Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, who introduced the movie and conducted a Q&A with Chazelle afterward.

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Ulrich’s participation in the fest made sense for reasons beyond his affinity for Whiplash ‘s drumbeat-heartbeat. He seized the opportunity to declare his longtime love for the site of the screening—the Century Cinemas Theater in Corte Madera—and thank MVFF director Mark Fishkin, noting that Metallica: Through the Never had premiered at Mill Valley last year.

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Whiplash director Damien Chazelle and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich in conversation at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

“Everyone is going, ‘Well, you picked a movie about a drummer, uh, because you’re a drummer’,” Ulrich noted sarcastically during his introduction. “I’ll just say that I picked this movie because it’s a great fucking film, and it happens to be about a drummer. The greatest, most ambiguous stories can be related to any sort of topic, and what you’ll see here in this film, it’s about a relationship, it’s about drive, it’s about determination. This [movie] could be set anywhere that has a competitive edge.” After the closing credits, once the lights went back up, Ulrich returned to the stage to interview Chazelle:

Lars Ulrich: Whiplash sets the bar at a whole new level in terms of being in sync with the music—the authenticity. How many times do we go see music films and it’s clear that the person who is editing has no fucking clue what’s going on musically, often the drums dude‘s arms are not even moving and the beat continues? For some of us, it’s kind of a pet peeve. We’ve talked about how many different ways you can shoot a drum kit, and how many different ways you can shoot a drummer, the way the film is edited, the dynamics. What drove you to want to make a film that had this feel? What were the inspirations?

Damien Chazelle: I guess as a drummer—I’m always embarrassed to call myself a drummer when I’m next to you (laughter)—as a former wannabe drummer myself, it helps to write what you know. It’s the thing that writing teachers try to drill into you when you’re young, and I always resisted it. This was the most personal thing I’ve written. In a way I was just going back to experiences I’d had in high school in a competitive jazz band program. We’d tour and do competitions, and the music department was led by a really scary conductor. That kind of relationship—I remember feeling this gnawing dread every day before rehearsal. It would start in the morning and just slowly build until rehearsal started at 2 pm.

It was the emotion I wanted to capture first, before the particulars of the instrument—what does it feel like to be afraid as a musician, to be afraid to go on stage, to be afraid to do something that should just bring you joy? In doing a film about that emotion, it’s going to play like a thriller, because it’s a movie about fear.

So how do you make a drum set stand up in a thriller? As you say, there’s only so many ways you can shoot [a drum set]. So figuring out all how we can pace the movie and cut it, it became about how we could suggest movement and suggest kineticism out of a drum set. You’re not moving that much, you’re moving your limbs, but your body’s not hurtling through space. To try to communicate that sense of movement through camera movement and through cutting, right from the get-go, that was the gambit in our minds.

Lars Ulrich: You grew up as a drummer, did band stuff in high school. Fletcher is based on somebody in your life, right? Want to tell us a little about that?

Damien Chazelle: My sob story? He wasn’t quite what’s on screen, but in a way that’s what he felt like to me. I wanted to capture that feeling of being deeply afraid of someone.

It’s easy to paint movie villains when we’re afraid they might pull out a gun at any moment or they might literally murder you. This is a guy who creates that same climate of fear just by walking into a room, or by using words, or by how he leans over you. That’s how I felt as a drummer, and it was the challenge with the character—to make it feel like it’s life-or-death, even if it’s not actually life-or-death, at least for most of the movie. To give that sense of high stakes.

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Lars Ulrich: Do you know if the real Fletcher has seen your movie (laughter)?

Damien Chazelle: I don’t know, I keep that out of my mind (laughter).

I had band members who I was in the band with who helped me with the short and the movie—people I’ve kept in touch with who are still musicians. I wouldn’t tell them what the script was about, and then they’d see it and go, “You write what you know.” They recognized the flashback.

Lars Ulrich: So in other words, there’s no relationship with the guy anymore. It’s not like, “Here’s my movie. What do you think of it?” One never knows.

Damien Chazelle: The fun thing about doing a movie about music was being able to get people who just jumped at the chance to get this kind of music onscreen. Someone in the audience who I wanted to shout out is Tim Simonec. You can come up, Tim (applause).

Basically “Whiplash” and “Caravan” are pre-licensed tracks, but everything else you hear the band playing we had to do originally for the movie. Tim somehow stood in for Duke Ellington and Hank Levy and wrote all the big band show tunes in a couple of weeks.

Lars Ulrich: Tim, do you live in the 415?

Tim Simonec: No, in the 818.

Lars Ulrich: When you see Whiplash , what’s your experience of the film like?

Tim Simonec: My involvement was to get the musicians, to get that amazing [unidentified session] drummer to play like that. And also, because Damien wanted realism, we weren’t going to try and write music after we shot it. Damien gave me a lot of styles, and said, “We’re going to shoot the music to what you record with the big band.” He got actors who knew music and had played an instrument, so it looked like they were playing.

As you said, there’s a pet peeve, musicians go, “Oh my goodness, that’s not what we’re seeing.” Damien wanted the realism. I was glad to be involved, and I was involved at the beginning, which was a very unusual place.

I read the script, and we did the songs, but when I saw it all put together, it was exciting for me. I watched it twice today. I loved it.

Lars Ulrich: Speaking of the music and putting it together, we have to give a huge shout to Miles Teller, who plays Andrew. He’s exceptional as an actor, inhabiting the character, but he’s also done an insane job playing the drum parts.

Damien Chazelle: Basically, everything you see visually is played by him—99% of the images. There are a couple shots of hands that aren’t his, but it’s essentially all him, and we didn’t do any digital trickery. In terms of what you hear, I’d say about 30% to 40% is raw practice audio that he made. Towards the end, the solo that Tim is referring to—no, Miles is not literally the greatest drummer on the planet.

Tim Simonec: He learned quickly. We got the drummer who actually played most of what’s recorded to work with Miles very quickly for about three weeks before they started shooting.

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Lars Ulrich: Miles only prepped for three weeks?

Damien Chazelle: Miles had played since he was 15. He’d played in rock bands with friends, he just hadn’t had any formal training, and certainly no jazz training. It wasn’t like completely teaching him a new instrument, it was like teaching him a different language on the instrument.

Lars Ulrich: That’s insane.

Damien Chazelle: He’s a quick study.

Lars Ulrich: Miles has had a tendency to play the funny sidekick, but between The Spectacular Now and this film, I think he’s among the finest actors of his generation. That one shot when they’re leaving after the late rehearsal, with the green neon sign, he looks like and has the same kind of vulnerability that Sean Penn did in the early 80s when he was doing At Close Range and Bad Boys and The Falcon and the Snowman. I think you’ll be seeing a lot of Miles Teller in a varied material over the next couple of decades. He’s one of the actors of his generation that has the range.

Damien Chazelle: I’m doing my next movie with him, so I’m hitching my ride to what wagon. If you haven’t seen his very first movie Rabbit Hole

Lars Ulrich:—with Nicole Kidman—

Damien Chazelle: I recommend that one. He plays a supporting role, and he kind of steals every scene he’s in, but really subtly, quietly, without acting in the way you expect actors to act. He’s very nuanced.

Lars Ulrich: Since you’re a drummer yourself, were there times when you’d sit down behind the kit and say, “Miles, do this, try that”? What was it like directing an actor playing a character that’s loosely based on your own experience?

Damien Chazelle: It certainly helps in that you don’t have to turn to other authorities on the set. I didn’t have to turn to someone and say, “Is Miles holding the stick properly?”

Jumping off from what Tim was saying earlier, Miles worked with a drummer on his own, outside my purview, but then on set, I was the guy who was there molding him. He had already been so beautifully prepped by people who are actually good at teaching drums, which I’m not. But what I was at least able to do on set was finesse things here and there and get on the kit and show him quickly, “This is the posture.” It gave us something to bond over. A lot of times with actors the communication can be so nebulous. You’re talking about motivation or emotion or these broader things, and it actually helps to have a concrete piece of business, such as drum playing, that kind of unites you. That became our common language. I think we learned to really communicate as actor and director by talking about sticks and physical things.

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Lars Ulrich: The character that JK Simmons plays is so extreme. Did he remain in character, was he Fletcher the whole time during the shoot?

Damien Chazelle: That’s what you get from a pro like him, someone who’s been doing this for so long—he could just switch on and off. Anyone who’s met him thinks he’s a sweetheart. Even on set, we’d be doing very intense takes of him going after Miles, the heaviest stuff in the movie, and when we’d switch the camera off, he’d immediately be joking.

Lars Ulrich: It looks like he had to have been a musical quick study in the way that he’s counting off the songs.

Damien Chazelle: He went to music school. He got into acting through singing. He originally went to music school to be a singer and a composer, and that wound up segueing into musical theatre, and he went on to Broadway, then television. That was another lucky break for me. I didn’t have to teach him how to conduct or to read music. He knew those things.

Click here for Ryan Lattanzio and Dodos drummer Logan Kroeber’s Critics Corner reviews of Whiplash in Eat Drink Films.

Whiplash screens at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.

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