Guest Column – Creating a jazz legend in a month, by the director of Whiplash

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Currently in UK cinemas, Oscar-nominated film Whiplash explores the intense, devotional and abusive relationship between a jazz drummer and his band leader at one of America’s leading music schools. Writer and director Damien Chazelle has written Q an exclusive guest column explaining how he turned lead actor Miles Teller into a jazz drummer in just a month, to achievein as acclaimed physical performance in the process.

In addition to a tight budget and a tighter schedule, the biggest obstacle I knew I’d face when I started making Whiplash was turning my lead actor Miles Teller into a convincing jazz drummer in the four weeks we had before shooting started. I was already a little lucky because Miles had drumming experience. He’d been playing drums since he was 15. The problem was he’d been playing drums for a rock band and had never had any formal training, no lessons of any kind. While he knew his way around a drum kit, he wasn’t equipped to read the very demanding charts required for the movie.

I brought my own drum-set to Miles’s house and set it up in his basement. I started him playing and
paired him with another coach shortly thereafter to sort of take the baton. We just started working him.

What quickly became apparent was that the single biggest impediment was his grip, the way he held the sticks. Most drummers these days, especially rock drummers, use matched grip, so that both hands hold sticks the same way. Because the character in the movie is a student of big band jazz and older drummers like Jo Jones and Buddy Rich, I wanted him to hold his sticks using traditional grip – as it’s done in military, orchestral or marching band drumming.

It seems like a simple thing, but it changes your posture, how you sit at the drums, and your whole relationship to the kit. For the first couple of weeks, this change limited Miles as a drummer. All the fluidity he had as a rock drummer was suddenly gone. His movements were herky-jerky and he looked like a worse drummer than he actually was. I was a little concerned, but he kept working and working.

Eventually, I paired him with Nate Lang who plays Carl, the older drummer in the movie. Nate is also a professional drummer. I remember one day about two weeks into the lessons and about halfway through the training, I came in to the practice room. Suddenly, this big impediment had been lifted. Miles had finally broken through, mastered the traditional grip and could now move around the kit with grace, speed, and fluidity. He looked great.

From that moment, it was all easy. As soon as he mastered the new grip, Miles learned all the charts and rhythms and weird time signatures right away. He is such a good mimic, he could learn by
watching me play them or watching old videos of drummers like Buddy Rich. He became better and better every day. By the time we were shooting, there were things he could do on the kit that I honestly hadn’t expected. We were able to shoot some very complicated scenes and keep the camera on Miles the whole time because he so exceeded my expectations.
Damien Chazelle

For more head to Sonyclassics.com/whiplash.