The Below The Line Screening Series presented a screening of Whiplash, a Sony Pictures Classics film, at Harmony Gold Wednesday, Nov. 19. A full house welcomed the film’s director Damien Chazelle, cinematographer Sharone Meir, composer Justin Hurwitz, editor Tom Cross, as well as sound editors and mixers Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins, and production sound mixer Thomas Curley, for a Q&A.
Whiplash tells the story of young jazz drummer and college student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), whose approach toward greatness, as well as obsession, is driven by the questionable methods of his college jazz ensemble conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).
“We figured out exactly what the soundscape of the movie was going to be, what the musical soundscape especially would be, and then it was about how that would dictate the shooting and cutting,” said Chazelle regarding the teams approach to making the film. Chazelle stressed the importance of the particular jazz standards present in the film, “Whiplash” and “Caravan,” both played by Chazelle during his own years as a jazz drummer and student. Both songs boast challenging tempos and intricate drumming. “I remember first sitting down with Tom, just with the script and some of the storyboards that I had done, and discussing that this needed to be a film that felt like one of the main characters could have cut it, either Fletcher or Andrew. It would feel precise and very focused on a certain kind of tempo, also a little manic, a little crazy. That essentially everything about the film language, especially the editing, had to feel like we were inside their heads.”
Immediately, the film’s editing provides a fast-paced, to-the-point, approach to story. Introductions and foreshadowing elements are appropriately brief, delivering the audience to the jazz ensemble rehearsal space quickly, supporting the team’s music-centered approach. “He (Chazelle) had storyboarded the entire movie beforehand. With the music scenes, in fact, he had taken these storyboards he had drawn himself and created animatics for all the big concert scenes,” said Cross. “I used that as a starting point. There are some scenes that are very close to what they were in the original boards.” Cross added that getting close to the boards provided a strong foundation, but, in order to avoid concert scenes feeling like music videos, changes were necessary to get scenes to their final design in the film.
The look of Whiplash, according to Meir, was inspired by The Godfather and shot digitally to achieve an old-fashioned look with modern relevance. “Jazz has an old connotation. To go straight forward with that approach would put the film into something that isn’t modern and alive,” said Meir. Chazelle explained further, “I like how digital works when you give each environment a color scape that is very specific to that environment… There were certain controlled color spaces where digital felt less flat.” The team, including a grip and electric team dubbed Meir’s army by Chazelle, achieved the look and all scenes in 19 days.
Hurwitz explained the film’s score as a combination of “standards and originals.” He composed a central melody, at one point played by Fletcher at a piano in the film, and modified it multiple times to fit certain tonal moments. A blend of the original compositions and jazz standards completed the film’s musical soundscape.
Part of the challenge presented to Mann and Wilkins was mixing pre-recorded music into rooms and live performances where reverb quality was a critical detail to consider. “We went out to production, where they were shooting, and we recorded the reverb at all the spaces… We set up equipment to record the sound of the rooms and took that back to the studio with us to apply those reverbs to the pre-recorded stuff so it would sit in the film better,” explained Mann. Mann also explained that “drum ADR” was necessary to fill in moments not captured by production sound, nor during pre-recording.
Both Teller and Simmons actually play instruments in the film. According to Curley, the “magic of post” is demonstrated through the mixing team’s blending of the production sound he captured with studio pre-recordings.
Whiplash first released at Sundance Film Festival in January 2014, where it won for Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize.