If there's one thing Damien Chazelle knows how to do, it's an ending. In the heart-rending denouement of "La La Land" we're shown everything Ryan Gosling's Seb and Emma Stone's Mia could have been, before a subtle nod between the two signals a solemn, bittersweet acceptance of their actual circumstances. It's a finale full of false climaxes that explore every possibility to add that much more finality to the true ending.
Before that 2016 musical drama made us all cry, Chazelle had already proven his talent for an emotionally satisfying ending with his breakout 2014 effort, "Whiplash." Drawing on the filmmaker's own experiences of playing in a high school jazz band, the film tells the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a drum student at a prestigious New York music academy who will seemingly stop at nothing to become the next Buddy Rich. Throughout the film, he's berated and abused by his instructor, Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), who has a penchant for breaking his students down, drill sergeant-style, ostensibly in order to get the best out of them.
As with "La La Land," the events of the film all lead to an unforgettable ending. Fletcher, in an act of revenge against Neiman (who testified against him during an investigation into his abusive practices), tricks his former student into performing with his band at a Jazz Festival. Fletcher leads the band in songs that his former student doesn't know, humiliating him on-stage. Once that false climax is out of the way, Chazelle hits us with the real finale, with Neiman, seemingly defeated, interrupting his former instructor by playing jazz standard "Caravan," before launching into an intense drum solo, covered with a dizzying array of camera angles that required the director to stick to a meticulous plan in order to shoot.
Chazelle Had A Plan
The drum solo was a combination of Miles Teller's live drumming, pre-recorded drumming, and drumming ADR, occasionally layered on top of each other so that, at times, you're hearing something that editor Tom Cross once told IndieWire was "physically impossible." Realism aside, Damien Chazelle knew the shot selection needed to mirror the intensity of the solo, with Cross highlighting how the director "wanted the music scenes to be like fight scenes: violent and brutal."
With only 19 days to film the entire movie, Chazelle needed to be prepared, and created a detailed storyboard for the final solo, which he turned into an animatic — storyboard frames edited into a video timeline with a rough soundtrack. After shooting a master shot of the solo, the director had Teller and his doubles play various parts again to capture all the cutaways and closeups, using his storyboard as a guide. As he told Collider in 2014:
"I knew, 'Okay, Miles, we're going to do measures 16 to 18 right now. Okay, cut. Now we're going to go to the cymbal and do the coda of the song. Okay, now we're going to do the bridge twice through from this lower angle.' We played it out that way. I remember the real trick with the solo, both for J.K. and for Miles, was continuity, because we only had extras as audience members in the theater for 6 hours, so everything pointed in that direction had to be done at once."
You can't argue with the result, but it was a grueling process to shoot. As Teller recalled it, "We did 140 set-ups which is unbelievable, I mean 'Fantastic 4,' 'Insurgent,' you're doing like 10, 12 setups a day, and on that movie we did like 140 one day, which was insane."
Putting The Characters In The Edit
When it came time to edit the sequence together, Tom Cross, who also worked with Damien Chazelle on "La La Land" and "Babylon," had a big task ahead of him. In fact, the first attempt at cutting those meticulously planned shots together didn't quite work. As Cross told IndieWire, "For the big concert finale, I followed the animatic. But once it all came together and Damien looked at it, we realized that it only barely functioned, without any soul." The solution was to put more of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons' characters into the edit, focusing on "the right facial expressions" and mimicking the actual character arcs:
"Andrew was shown hijacking the song and starting in a place of anger at Fletcher and then becoming the next Buddy Rich. And for Fletcher, he starts out as befuddled and humiliated and angry, but is won over by Andrew's playing and smiles at the realization that he's found his Charlie Parker."
Thanks to Chazelle's vision for the sequence and his intentional camera work, he and Cross were able to perfect the final sequence in the edit bay. But it wasn't just that section that worked so well. Throughout the film, you get the sense that the director had a crystal clear vision for what he wanted to do, using specific techniques when needed, such as his sparse use of handheld shots for particularly tense moments, or reserving the warm yellow hues only for the drumming sequences. In reality, Chazelle clearly knows more than just how to end a film well, even if those finales really are some of his best work.
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The post How Damien Chazelle Cut Together Whiplash's Complicated Drum Solo Scene appeared first on /Film.