Fourteen months ago, hardly anyone knew the name Damien Chazelle. The young writer/director, who recently turned 30, had poured himself into a movie based in part on his own life as a young drum prodigy for a demanding high-school music teacher. On Sunday night, Whiplash won three Academy Awards, including a statue for J.K. Simmons, who breathed menace into the role of the bully teacher for whom a “good job” was never good enough.
Neither leading or dragging, the Whiplash DVD and Blu-ray arrives right on time, two days following the film’s warm Oscar embrace. In an exclusive deleted scene from the Blu-ray, we finally get to witness a softer side of Simmons’s Terence Fletcher—one that had to be cut in order to maintain his aura of terror. “We decided this had to be Andrew’s movie,” Chazelle says in the commentary, referring to Miles Teller’s character. “It’s a scene I love on its own, but in the context of the movie, it shifted it the wrong way.”
Chazelle is already at work on his next movie, La-La Land, a contemporary-set homage to 1950s musicals like A Star is Born that will star Teller. The director spoke to EW before Sunday night’s ceremony to describe his past year and what he’s learned from a year in the spotlight. “The biggest surprise is the fact that we’re still talking about the movie [more than a year after its Sundance debut],” says Chazelle. “It’s all really bizarre. I’ll probably wake up [after the Oscars] and the whole thing will feel like it may as well have been a dream. I’m still in kind of a haze.”
Well, yes and no. If you have any doubts about Chazelle’s level-headedness and dedication to things that really matter, his most vivid memory of the Whiplash ride can only encourage those who believe he’s destined to be a filmmaker of substance for years to come.
EW: This past year must have been crazy and exciting, from Sundance to Cannes to the awards season. What have you learned about yourself and the industry?
DAMIEN CHAZELLE: I’ve certainly learned that the best thing about the whole awards-season circus—underneath all the hoopla and at times the phoniness—is just getting to meet people whose work you admire. I’ve been a movie junkie my whole life, so it’s been the biggest kind of kick and the most surreal thing to meet these people and find out that they’ve seen my movie. It’s like suddenly there’s this bridge between you and the movies that you grew up watching. It’s really sort of wonderful and surprising and it never gets old. I remember meeting Sam Raimi early in the year, shortly after Sundance, and I was on a panel with Laura Poitras, whose films I’ve loved. The whole thing is a mix of filmmakers who I’ve more recently encountered and filmmakers who I grew up stealing from, like the Richard Linklaters and the Paul Thomas Andersons of the world. It never stops being surreal.
Before things got surreal, before the film’s premiere at Sundance, was there any advice that actually turned out to be helpful?
The most recurring piece of advice I’ve always heard is just to enjoy it. That seems really simple but sometimes it’s very easy to get caught up in everything. There is a certain stress-inducing aspect to all of this. People start talking about things enough times and you start to want things that you didn’t even care about before. Especially living in L.A., it’s easy to get sucked into the thing. It’s been great to be reminded and learn how to just be in the moment and just enjoy the fact that people are talking about your movie.
I can’t imagine that ever becomes normal.
I remember in Sundance and in Cannes, I’d get real excited about a screening or something, and the Sony Classics guys would give me this sort of wizened look and go, “Pace yourself. It’s a long road. This is just the beginning. We’re going to be doing this up until March.” And to hear the words “Up till March,” back when you’re in January or May of the previous year, is kind of crazy. I almost would laugh at them. And it’s not that I didn’t share the same kind of ambitions or hopes for the movie, but actually giving voice to them almost seemed ridiculous. Like, you say them out loud and you realize how absurd they are.
You mentioned the hoopla and some of the phoniness that is part of this circus. Is that easy to recognize?
There’s always going to be some element of bullshit to some of this. But I haven’t seen as much of that as maybe I thought I would. I probably actually entered into this with more cynicism than I actually have now. I guess I’ve become less cynical. The more that you meet people, the more you can cut through the thicket of noise and actually just get to what I think it should be about—which is just artists talking to artists, people in the industry meeting other people in the industry, and celebrating films that in many cases would often struggle to get a moment in the spotlight. I do think that there still is something very gratifying and important about that. There’s always stuff that makes it a lot less pure of a process than any of us would hope it would be, but I do think that at the end of the day, it’s sort of the best thing we have as an industry to shine the light on things that would not normally get it.
How has the whole Whiplash experience—from Sundance to Blu-ray release—helped you prepare for your next film, La-La Land?
I’ve gained a certain amount of confidence, but on the other hand, you also gain a certain amount of trepidation. This was the first time that anything I had written or made was sort of amplified or discussed this much or analyzed and picked apart and put under a microscope. So I feel very lucky with how that process has gone, but it makes you even more aware of how it’s very easy to not be that lucky. So with the next movie, I’m going to almost try to put myself back in that head-in-the-sand kind of naive state of mind, where you try not to think at all how a movie’s going to be received or how it’s going to be analyzed and just try to make something that you want to see. Because it is easy to let this process sort of inform your own filmmaking because you’ve now been through the spiral. So I’m going to try and block that stuff out when I make the next one, as much as I can. But it’ll be hard.
Ed Burns once said that the best advice he ever got before Sundance was to arrive there with his next script in his back pocket, because a director would never be as hot again as he or she is during those 10 days in Utah when their film is a smash. Did you find that to be true?
Yeah. [Laughs] I was kind of lucky in the sense that La-La Land worked out that way even without my having planned for it. I had written it before we shot Whiplash, and for awhile, I thought I might even make La-La Land before Whiplash. It’s just a bigger scope project so it was harder to get off the ground without much previous directing experience. So Whiplash went first. But as soon as Whiplash was done shooting, I knew what I wanted my next movie to be. There was never a question. It was just about hitting the ground running right after Sundance and locking up the financing. We’re in sort of pre-prep, and the shoot itself is later in the year—fall. It’s set in contemporary L.A., but it’s very much an homage to that kind of Technicolor, Cinemascope, ’50s musical—A Star is Born, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, It’s Always Fair Weather. Miles is the lead, and we’re still casting the rest. Nothing else [in the cast] is certain. We’ve been scouting the past few months and choreographing and putting the final touches on the music.
In recent years, Sundance has become a place where not only do distributors come shopping for the next hidden-gem indie, but studios come scouting for the next director who can maybe bring something original to some major franchise—like Colin Trevorrow and Jurassic World. Are you tempted by the world of the big blockbuster?
It’s funny, because you start discussing projects and the sizes and stuff really range—but I sort of like the idea of working my way up a little more slowly. La-La Land is a bigger project that Whiplash but it’s not astronomically bigger. It sort of seems like a good next step. And maybe the one after that will be another step up. At the end of the day, the size doesn’t really matter as much as whether it’s a story that I’m interested in telling. But I do think sometimes there is a risk in the giant machinery of Hollywood studio movies that I kind of want to be careful about navigating.
You obviously have a gift for it, but what did making Whiplash teach you about working with actors?
When you’re lucky enough to cast the movie the way you want to cast it, when you’re lucky enough to work with actors of, say J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller’s caliber, you’re hiring them for a reason. You’re not hiring monkeys or robots to do your line reading, so I’d usually not try to over-direct the first take and just see how they would approach it on their own. And then you can make adjustments. But there were often surprises that I would find, ways of saying a line or approaching a line, that I wouldn’t have thought of. They were just constantly making the script better. So you try to get better and better at allowing for that collaboration, while you’re still the person with the full movie in your head. I was just incredibly spoiled, as such a newbie director with actors like that, who are both insightful and able to make your own stuff better, but also so gracious and not divas—the opposite of certain nightmare scenarios you often hear about from new directors with more experienced actors. So you definitely learn to know when to loosen the reins a bit and then, in turn, when to tighten them once again.
If you live to be 100, is there one moment from the whole Whiplash experience that you’ll never forget, one that stands out from all the rest?
It’s tough to say, but there was a moment with my editor in the cutting room, after we had sort of finished a first pass of the final 15 minutes of the movie. We literally worked straight from 9 a.m in the morning through 7 a.m. the next morning. It was light outside once again, and we were kind of stumbling out in a daze into the parking lot, completely sleep deprived. I think we’d both gotten sick. We still had no idea whether the movie itself would work or whether people would like it at all—but kind of knowing at that moment at least that there was something there that we could be proud of. Ultimately, all the most beautiful moments are like that. It’s not ever having to do with the outer world; it’s really just the actual process of filmmaking, whether it’s on set or in the cutting room and having those little moments of “Eureka!” where you’re just like, “Ahhhh, that feels good.” And you can actually be happy for a fleeting moment with what you’ve done. And then you go back to worrying.