"Whiplash" accomplishes so much against such long odds — it's a $3-million indie shot in just 19 days that somehow makes jazz drumming utterly gripping — that it's tempting to write the October release off as pure magic. But a closer look at the movie's knockout finale is proof of the meticulous calculation and technique that crafted the sleeper hit that's earning Oscar buzz.
To be clear, the below dissects the ending of the film that pits promising young drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) against ferocious conservatory ensemble conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), so, naturally, spoilers ahead.
By film's end, Andrew and Fletcher have had a falling out. Fletcher pretends it's all water under the bridge and invites Andrew to sit in on a key performance that will have many important critics in the audience. But he's setting up his former student for a humiliating failure. After a rocky start, Andrew is on to him and turns the tables.
Fletcher looks at Andrew. Seems pleased: This will be fun ...
But Andrew doesn't look scared anymore.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle: Especially in indie cinema, you don't have set pieces — the shootout at the end of "The Wild Bunch" or the bank heist in "Rififi" or the car chase in "The French Connection" — they seem to be lacking, outside of giant superhero movies. We wanted this to be a great set piece.
Simmons: It was taking a leap of faith with a first-time director — Can this kid deliver? Can he deliver in the editing room because that's where the movie is made? I think the final sequence is as good an example as you can find of an extended sequence being created in the editing room.
Editor Tom Cross: Damien meticulously storyboarded this finale. He had a full animatic [a kind of video storyboard] put to music for it.
Chazelle: [laughs] It's definitely the kind of thing you'd expect more on a Spielberg set or something. When I say "animatic," what I really mean is I had these storyboards I drew with pencil and paper — I had 150 pages. I used my phone to scan them into my computer and chopped them into panels, dropped them into Final Cut Pro, put the song down on the timeline, and edited to the music.
We knew this was potentially a disaster in the making, so it was just about being as utterly and neurotically prepared as we could be.
But then, before Fletcher can even turn back around — let alone cue the band — Andrew launches into a double-time Latin.
Composer Justin Hurwitz: Miles' performance is amazing, how fast he learned to play that solo. He only had a few weeks.
Teller, who had some rock drumming experience: I'd absolutely never played any kind of jazz drumming. I'd never held a stick traditionally before.
Hurwitz: Damien sent him an MP3 of the solo. Miles is usually pretty gregarious via email; he writes these long, friendly emails. And he writes a two-word email back to Damien: "Holy ...."
Andrew's in control, pouring himself into his drums — and it's a sight to behold. Like a master dancer, movements so fast yet precise, brash yet elegant …
Director of photography Sharon Meir: In our very first meeting, Damien talked about how it has to be precise, but free-spirited all at the same time. The shots are not random. Those were not "spray and pray," a bazillion angles and stitch it together. They're all very carefully designed.
Chazelle: There were all these tricks, cool little camera moves we only wanted to use for the finale. So as much as the audio, it's the shot selection that clues you in that something special is going on.
Meir: The swish pans going back and forth between Fletcher and Andrew — those were hard to execute. The camera operator, Eric Fletcher — Damien was standing over his shoulder and tapping him to pan.
Cross: He wanted the viewer to feel the cuts. He would talk in terms of having "cuts at right angles to one another." We have a wide [shot] of the stage from the left side, and a complementary angle from the right side. You wouldn't think to cut those together, but he knew it would be jarring in just the right way.
The brass starts giving way to drum breaks. And Andrew makes each break a stunner …
Chazelle: There's something about the expressions on the trombonists' faces — the intensity with which they're blowing into their horns. That whole idea of jazz as not this laid-back, relaxed thing; jazz is this muscular, energetic, aggressive music.
Cross: Probably the biggest reference for that scene was "Raging Bull." He wanted it to feel like an action scene first and a music scene second; as visceral and savage as those boxing scenes.
Chazelle: Tom and I watched [an early cut] — "Well, this is a great music video. But it isn't really doing the trick." So we went back and did a new pass, entirely focused on facial expressions. That's when the scene started to come alive.
Cross: Damien referred to the car chase in "The French Connection." It had these great stunts and car photography, but it really hung on Gene Hackman's brilliant performance.
Simmons: So often, they go, "Now we're moving in for the close-up, so everybody get nervous and weird." Shine a key light in everybody's face and have a camera 6 inches from you and "Ready, go, be brilliant." We never had that feeling with Damien and Sharon and Elan [Yaari], the gaffer.
Chazelle: Sharon's idea was the lighting would change over the course of the performance. Sometimes it's in obvious ways, sometimes more subtle. Some stuff we did in color correction, like we zero in on Andrew's face and let the light go hotter and hotter so it looks like he's being burned alive by the sound.
Fletcher looks at Andrew. Andrew looks at Fletcher. And then — Fletcher turns to the band, raises his hand …
Cross: The final look between Fletcher and Andrew, before he cues the last note — Damien talked about the fleeting last smile at the end of "Bonnie and Clyde" and the shootout between the three men in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and the extreme close-ups of the eyes.
Teller: He had it framed on J.K.'s eyes, and when he smiles, you just see his cheeks creep up in the frame. I really dug that.
Meir: Right, someone with cheeks like J.K. Simmons can do that.