I saw Whiplash at Sundance. There were no fancy camera moves or VFX shots—truthfully, it’s a visually simple film and very intimate—but I left the theater with sweaty palms and my heart beating twice as fast as when I had arrived.
"This was music as warfare," Harvard-educated, newbie writer-director Damien Chazelle tells me about his film that wowed audiences in January. "It was a side of music and jazz that had not been adequately exposed. I grew up playing jazz, and it has always been a big part of my life. I don’t think there are many fiction films about jazz, and other than film, I think it’s the single most important art form of the 20th century. The idea of those two quintessentially 20th century art forms having a dialogue with each other was a fascinating proposition for me."
Because the story about drumming student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and his masochistic, psychopathic instructor (J.K. Simmons) is about Chazelle’s own experience as a jazz musician, and particularly as a jazz student, it was the most personal experience he could put on film, which is what he wanted.
"What was so unique about Damien’s plan was that he had very systematic, justified reasons for his concept and therefore camera movements," says cinematographer Sharone Meir over a coffee in East Los Angeles. "It was all built and sourced inside the story. That made my life a lot easier, understanding what he wanted. And this story is about a person’s relationship with himself more than it is about his relationship with anybody else. That’s really what made it different and interesting for me. I loved this script right away."
The script wasn’t one that came with many stylized notations, as some scripts can have. There was no "built-in look," as Meir describes it, although Chazelle had a very clear vision of what he wanted, storyboarding the entire film himself and working off of that to inform their shot list. Some of the visual references included The Godfather, The Social Network and Black Swan, as well as movies by James Gray, whom both director and DP admire.
"There are a lot of ways you can shoot the same script," offers Chazelle. "I had done a short film as a proof-of-concept for investors, and it was framed and edited very similarly to how it ended up in the feature, but the lighting and the color palette were very unique [to Sharone’s aesthetics]."
"A music school could have many different looks," agrees Meir. "The script didn’t call for any extreme look. It wasn’t a period piece or a futuristic thriller. It was a down-to-earth story about a 19-year-old."