Damien Chazelle on what is and isn’t ambiguous about Whiplash
The Dissolve: The film seems more ambiguous as it’s in progress—it feels like it could become a Full Metal Jacket situation, with revenge on a destructive bully, or an inspirational-teacher movie, or something else entirely. Were you thinking in terms of keeping people guessing about the ending?
Chazelle: Yeah, one thing I definitely wanted people to wonder is whether Andrew is going to basically kill himself drumming, like the old fairy tale of the dancer who dances herself to death, or [Edgar Allan Poe’s] “The Oval Portrait,” where the painter kills his subject by painting her. The idea of art being something that kills is weirdly fascinating to me. Especially toward the end, I definitely wanted to film Andrew in a way that looks like he’s this close to literally having a heart attack and keeling over. I wanted people to worry not just for his sanity, but for his physical well-being. There’s a physical side to this instrument, and a brutality that’s not just emotional, but corporeal.
At the same time, I like genre movies, and this fits pretty squarely into the sports-film genre. You’re building up to the big fight, or the big game. In this case, it’s the big performance. There are certain kinds of narrative rules in terms of how you do that, where you have to bring the character really low before you bring them high, and you have to do another microcosm of that within the big fight. Even if they’ve had their low point, you can’t just have them show up to the climax and immediately knock the guy out. You still need to have another mini low point. There are narrative rules that you don’t have to follow, but I actually thought since this is not a sports movie, they would be fun to follow. It gave me the leverage to wholeheartedly embrace some of those tropes.