The19-Day Making of Whiplash
A full-length feature film can be shot in a span of 19 days. Impossible? Well, 28-year-old Harvard grad Damian Chazelle managed to do it. Thanks to a low budget and the tight schedule of one of the main stars of the film, Chazelle had just 19 days to shoot the 2014 Sundance opener Whiplash.
Here’s how he did it.
Don’t let concussions get in the way of filming.
Filming a movie in such a short span of time required meticulousness, focus, and unwavering dedication. When filming started in Santa Clarita, California, the pace was unforgiving in its speed. “There was no room for error,” Chazelle says.
The cast and crew of Whiplash worked for 18 hours daily, to make the most of each filming day possible in the budget. To make the filming go more smoothly, Chazelle had outlined every scene, hand-drawing 150 storyboards so production moves precisely and efficiently, like clockwork. Every set change was almost like a mad dash to set up props.
In the third week of production, Chazelle reportedly got in an accident, which sent him to the hospital with a possible concussion and completely wrecked his car. He showed up to work the next morning.
According to Chazelle, “Every day was walking a tightrope between really getting something special and utter, crushing disaster.”
After the nineteen-day filming period, Chazelle and his team had about a month to prepare the movie for entry into the Sundance Film Festival.
Coach the actors yourself.
Since Whiplash is a film about a brilliant drumming prodigy and his abusive music teacher, it was important that the actor playing the drummer knew how to play the drums. At least, he must know how to portray it convincingly. Unfortunately, Miles Teller didn’t know much about playing the drums.
What Chazelle did was to give Teller private lessons in the basement of Teller’s Los Angeles home. Chazelle and Teller even used Chazelle’s own Yamaha drum set. For a couple of months, Teller was trained in the art of jazz drumming. Given the short period of time, Teller didn’t become an expert, but he did become good enough to play the advanced songs in Whiplash in chunks, which were put together into songs later in editing.
Draw from your own experiences.
Whiplash is more than just a little autobiographical. Chazelle himself had been a musical prodigy as a jazz drummer in the Princeton High School Band, where competition was incredibly tough, to say the least. Like the protagonist in the film, Chazelle had an abusive instructor, too.
According to Chazelle, he remembers cowering from the verbal abuse from behind his drum kit, his head down. At one point, he got so frustrated that he punched his fist through one of his drums, a moment that Teller recreated on the film.
” ‘You’re rushing, you’re dragging, not my tempo!’ Those are the words I heard most often throughout all of high school,” Chazelle says.
He continued to play the drums when he started college in Harvard, but soon after he decided that he’d pursued music as far as he wanted to go, so Chazelle majored in film instead.
Even a decade after high school, though, Chazelle remained haunted by the trauma he received in the rehearsal room of his high school. Then he got the idea to make a film about it. “I wanted to make a movie about a different side of music, about the fear and anguish of it,” says Chazelle. Thus, Whiplash was born.
Don’t be shy about shopping your script around.
Chazelle wrote a first draft of the script in a few weeks and continued to work on it for a year before sending the screenplay to his agents, who spent six months shopping the script around. Eventually it ended up with filmmaker Jason Reitman, who signed up as a producer but wasn’t sure how the film would get the budget it needed.
Reitman figured the best way to get financiers is for Chazelle to shoot a short based on his screenplay. The 18-minute short Chazelle shot ended up winning the Sundance jury award in 2013. Chazelle got a $3.3 million budget for a full-length film.
Whiplash was released in October 2014 and was showed in 419 theaters, earning $4.1 million worldwide. It’s been getting a lot of Oscar buzz, and even ended up picking up 2 wins.