TheWrap Screening Series: ‘Whiplash’ Drums Up Big Emotions (Video)

Director Damien Chazelle and star J.K. Simmons discuss tyrants, sexism in music and Miles Teller’s mad skills

Last Updated: December 4, 2014 @ 3:45 PM

“Whiplash” has been a crowd pleaser since it opened the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, headed for stops at Cannes and Toronto and finally made its way to TheWrap‘s Awards Screening Series front door.

Playing for a full house at Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles on Wednesday evening, the screening was followed by a Q&A with star J.K. Simmons and director Damien Chazelle, moderated by TheWrap’s Jeff Sneider.

A pulsing story of Miles Teller‘s gifted young jazz drummer terrorized by his brilliant-but-abusive teacher portrayed by Simmons, “Whiplash” elicited laughs, gasps and frequent applause throughout its 105-minute run time.

Chazelle revealed that the film’s premise was autobiographical and then some.

“I was a jazz drummer with a very hard teacher … What I look back on is that relationship between the person who is the biggest a–hole is the person whose approval you care about the most. It’s a weird, twisted, psychological phenomenon that you see everywhere from education to really overt forms of abuse,” he said. 

Simmons’ bad teacher isn’t just bad: He’s a violent, obscenity-spewing, chair-throwing, emotionally manipulative nightmare.

“It’s a conclusion I don’t disagree with,” Simmons said when asked if he viewed the character as a straight-up bad guy. “I never play anybody thinking, ‘Now I’m playing the villain.’ He’s got a point of view and an objective.”

Teller has received positive reviews for avoiding movie prodigy cliches, instead masking the character’s obsession beneath an awkward exterior. He also played his own drums.

“About 90 percent of what you see from Miles, especially in the conservatory and early scenes, is all him,” Chazelle said.

One audience member was quick to observe that those scenes, packed with plenty of musicians from the jazz ensemble, were almost exclusively played by men. Chazelle didn’t disappoint in his reason for the boys club.

“The studio band that J.K. leads [in the movie] is male only,” Chazelle said. “Not to say that I want to condemn the landscape of big band jazz right now, but I did want to try to shine a light on the less politically correct, less savory aspects of that world. It’s an intentionally sexist, at times homophobic world.

“We often think of music or art as the opposite of, say, locker room dynamics or military dynamics. We think of those places as where the regressive heathens go, and art is the land of progressive liberal mindsets,” the director continued. “When you look at some of these dynamics in schools when they’re around a culture of tyranny of a teacher … you find how similar those dynamics can be.”

Harmonious as those ideals can get, the crowd was much better off focusing on the beautiful music made by Teller, Simmons and sophomore director Chazelle.

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