Breaking: Damien Chazelle

The writer/director of the critical smash Whiplash taps into our fear (and love) of tyrannical mentors

BACKSTORY: A lifelong film fan whose passions for music and cinema intersect in stage fright dramas
FROM: Born in Providence, Rhode Island, raised in Princeton and Paris, based in Los Angeles
YOU MIGHT KNOW HIM FROM: His second feature film Whiplash, which stands nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay
NOW: Prepping throwback musical La La Land with Whiplash star Miles Teller

When Damien Chazelle followed his father’s love of jazz into his high school’s highly competitive music program, he found an intense conductor waiting to put his drive to the test. “I became obsessed with jazz out of fear of disappointing him,” Chazelle, 30, explains. Through exploring the tense dynamics of that music program with Whiplash, his breakout indie film, his past has become present again in many ways.

Chazelle’s first obsession, however, was film, starting with Disney animation, transitioning into Hitchcock and Spielberg, and leading to a degree from Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies program before moving to Los Angeles six years ago. His work as a writer-for-hire included selling the script for the terrifically clockwork thriller Grand Piano in 2011, which, he notes, “taps into that idea of stage fright and fear of performance” he experienced first-hand as a musician. Those same stressful memories seeded his semi-autobiographical screenplay about a demanding music conservatory. “It all started with, ‘What would happen if I put those experiences on the page?’”

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash / photo by James McFadden, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash / photo by James McFadden, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Whiplash happened. The explosive drama follows an ambitious drum student (Miles Teller) who is broken and subsequently rebuilt by a sadistic instructor named Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Chazelle crafted an instantly iconic villain (or is it hero?) in Fletcher, Simmons’s ferocious performance of whom earned the actor his first Oscar nomination after twenty years of memorable characters. “He was the first and only actor we ever sent the script to for that role,” says Chazelle. Simmons and Chazelle connected instantly; like Chazelle, Simmons also studied music for years. (Rather than abusive conductors, though, Simmons drew inspiration for Fletcher from his past football coaches.)

“It’s important to me to keep making stuff that feels original and personal. Personal, I think, is the key.”

“I’ve been able to meet a lot of people who have had Fletchers in their lives, not necessarily in music. For some people, he reminds them of a coach, or a teacher in a different field, or a boss at work, or even a parent,” says Chazelle. “That’s been the single most gratifying thing: seeing it connect with people who, on the page, would have nothing to connect to.”

Having exorcised his percussive demons, Chazelle is ready to reassure audiences of music’s magic with La La Land, once again starring Miles Teller as a young musician. “It’s a love letter to ’50s MGM musicals. Full-fledged song and dance. It’ll be a funny flip-side to Whiplash, much more about the joy and romance in music.”

Chazelle’s meteoric rise is an inspired example of how challenging life experiences can sublimate into rewarding art. “It’s important to me to keep making stuff that feels original and personal. Personal, I think, is the key.” As evidenced by Whiplash’s success and the emotional connection it’s made with audiences, “personal” was certainly the right key for Damien Chazelle to play in. FL

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