TORONTO — Audiences accustomed to seeing teachers who are inspiring or benevolent in movies ranging from “Dead Poet’s Society” to “Mr. Holland’s Opus” will be jolted by the seething warrior J.K. Simmons plays in “Whiplash.” His Terence Fletcher, a music instructor who relentlessly drives ambitious young drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) until blood, sweat, and tears splatter the sheet music, is less teacher than drill sergeant. So it’s little surprise to learn that writer-director Damien Chazelle’s favorite movie is a Stanley Kubrick classic from 1987.
“ ‘Full Metal Jacket’ was the first time I was seeing my own experience on screen,” says Chazelle, 29, a jazz drummer in high school who “burned out” by the time he got to Harvard University. “I wasn’t in a war, obviously, or experienced in that level of bullying, but I never saw a music movie that captured that emotional terrain,” he says.
Andrew attends a fictional prestigious New York conservatory. But after “Whiplash” wowed at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals (it opens in Boston on Friday), some took to calling it “Full Metal Juilliard.”
Chazelle, interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, says some who read his script dismissed Fletcher’s sadism as over-the-top. “They were like, ‘No way would a teacher do that.’ But everything in the movie either happened to me or happened to a music student I know. And those people tell me [the movie] is tame.
“Most of the stuff in the rehearsal rooms is stuff I went through in high school. . . . I was trying to capture the physical element because not enough movies emphasize the physical toll that playing takes, and drumming is the most physical instrument. But the real terror of that world is the psychological battlefield, the one-upmanship, the competitiveness and how it metastasizes in this pressure cooker where there are no windows and you’re living in this bunker practicing day and night.”
Chazelle says the music program at his New Jersey high school was modeled after a college program and boasted the best jazz band in the country at the time. “We opened the JVC Jazz Festival as they do in the movie. I remember our conductor would say, ‘You think I’m scary? You have no idea. In college you’d be out like that!’ The more research I did on band leaders like Benny Goodman and Harry James and musicians like Buddy Rich and Miles Davis, and heard from friends who went off to music school or who were pursuing it professionally, the more I realized my experience was not anomalous but, in fact, was the norm.
“That’s not to say it’s ubiquitous — and it’s probably less so now because bullying is in the limelight — but it still exists. To deny it exists is to deny a large part of music, and jazz especially.”
It’s that relentless pursuit of perfection that drives both teacher and student to, if not madness, at least a frenzied, jaw-dropping drum solo. Teller, who does all his own drumming in the film, knew that the role would be punishing, physically and mentally.
“I didn’t know I was going to be playing a lot of this stuff. I assumed there would be a double. But when Damien told me I’d be playing [the jazz compositions] ‘Caravan’ and ‘Whiplash,’ that was pretty daunting because it’s high-level stuff even for someone who’s been playing a long time,” says Teller, 27, who along with veteran character actor Simmons is basking in awards-season buzz.
“Damien wrote a script that’s unapologetic. He goes there and he shows the dirty underbelly of people suffering for their art and what they go through to become great,” says Teller, who will re-team with Chazelle and Emma Watson for the movie musical “La La Land.”
Even though Teller has been playing drums since he was 15, and also picked up guitar along the way (because, he says, “I figured every guy should know how to play the guitar”), Chazelle trained him for weeks before the shoot. “I felt comfortable around drums, I knew the sounds, but I never held a stick [the way jazz drummers do],” Teller says. “It feels unnatural, the way you hold the stick to flick it around, and I felt so stupid. . . . It’s hard to teach timing. You have a sense for it or you don’t.”