Welcome to Sundance: Whiplash
"The two most harmful words in the English language are: Good Job."
Those are the words of wisdom that Terence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons), an overbearing jazz instructor at Shaffer Music Conservatory, one of the nation’s top music conservatories, tells his student Andrew (played by Miles Teller) as they sit across from one another inside a dark Manhattan jazz club in the film Whiplash. This single statement sums up Fletcher’s intense style of teaching, which oftentimes comes out as both physical and mental abuse towards his students. This is seen best in his interactions with Andrew, a young musician who wants one thing in life: to be remembered as one of the greatest jazz drummers to ever live.
From the opening scene of the film, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher is unique. Fletcher immediately sees potential inside Andrew, as he stumbles upon the student sweating behind a drum kit practicing by himself in an empty class room after everyone else has gone home, but he keeps this a secret in fear that even the smallest of praise might shatter any possibility of perfection. Instead, he allows Andrew to join his class where he quickly begins to grind down and break apart his potential prodigy. We watch as Andrew claws his way towards becoming the core drummer in Fletcher’s jazz ensemble, oftentimes practicing until his hands are cracked and bleeding. The young musician blocks himself off from anything that he sees as a potential distraction, including any possibility of romance or even friendship. Still, Andrew’s unwavering determination is constantly put to the test as he consistently receives a myriad of bullying motivations from Fletcher.
J.K Simmons plays the role of the cruel jazz instructor with the hair-trigger temper perfectly. As others have noted, Simmons’ performance mimics that of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket; both dish out quick-witted insults so well you’d think their tongues were military weapons. Even as the film’s audience at the Sundance Film Festival premiere sat cringing in their seats waiting for Fletcher to unleash his rage on his petrified pupils, the entire auditorium would nonetheless erupt in laughter as the cleverly dehumanizing words left Fletcher’s lips.
“I want you to scare us,” Chazelle told Simmons when they discussed how to portray Fletcher in the film. “Remember how you were in ‘Oz’? I want to make that guy look like ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus.’”
"And I was pretty scared," Teller told Milk Made. "J.K. Simmons is just a really phenomenal actor. So some days I would really be feeling that heat and that tension, and I’d be feeling it from J.K."
Chazelle chimed in about the reason J.K. was so vicious, "I’m not condoning the brutality. I wanted to make the brutality in the film as brutal as possible, so you’re not let off the hook in a way. If Fletcher in the movie was a little less, or a little softer, you would be going, ‘Well, the ends do justify the means.’ I wanted to make sure it wasn’t that easy for people.’
The director based the volatile relationship between Fletcher and Andrew off of his own life and the high school music teacher who made him hate how much he loved the drums.
“Drums had always been like a fun hobby for me, and for four years, when I was in that ensemble, it became just a source of constant dread,” the director told audiences during a Q&A of the film. “Just looking back, it was an interesting experience because I became a much better drummer than I know I ever would’ve, but I also didn’t enjoy it at all. And maybe for people who feel that music should be about joy and fun, it was missing the point. So those were certain questions that I was grasping with and I just wanted to write about it.”
"I wanted to make a movie about just how hard it is to rise up and actually achieve something. I think there’s a lot of movies about people who are fully formed characters, who have kind of come out of the shell already. So when thinking about making a movie about a musician, I wanted to make a movie about someone who might not seem like a great musician in the beginning, but who hopefully can become one by the end."
Chazelle found life for his character Andrew inside of Miles Teller. The actor, who also grew up playing drums, beautifully portrayed the anguish inside of Andrew’s determination. For four hours a day, three days a week for four weeks, Chazelle and Teller practiced the drums together to prepare Teller for his role. In the final cut of the film Teller looks like a true master of jazz drumming, but when asked if he had played all of the songs himself, the actor had a modest reply.
“Whatever Natalie Portman said about [her dancing in] Black Swan… like 80 percent? Sure, I’ll say that."
When Milk Made sat down with Miles, he gave us a bit more detail about his role as a drummer for the film.
"A lot of the times in the movie my character is exhausted and frustrated, so I would have to play to the point of exhaustion and frustration. I mean, I remember one particular day that I was playing forever and Damien didn’t yell, ‘Cut,’ so I just kept going until I finally had to stop cause I couldn’t go anymore and I was like ‘Dude, what are you doing? You got the shot, why didn’t you yell cut?’ and Damien was just like ‘Oh, well, I figured you’d stop when you couldn’t play anymore.’ That sort of stuff helped me bring out anger and frustration. I’m not a method actor by any means, but if you bang a thing long enough and you’re not getting what you need, your temper will flare up."
As the film progresses and the dynamic between the two main characters changes, the line between right and wrong becomes blurred. The audience, who may have seen Fletcher’s abuse on his students as nothing but sadistic ridicule, begin to see the character’s true motivation for pushing his pupils so hard: Without the relentless and uncompromising push from instructors, coaches and leaders, the world wouldn’t be filled with many masters of craft. In the end, it’s for each member of the audience to decide if it is really worth letting someone endure a special sort of hell in order to be able to create our next Michael Jordan, Beethoven or Buddy Rich.