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On Farkas Stage, Alumni and Faust Talk 'Whiplash'

By Melissa C. Rodman, Crimson Staff Writer

Three College alumni spoke about the road to creating and producing the award-winning film “Whiplash” at panel introduced by University President Drew G. Faust on Wednesday.

The movie, which Faust called “astonishing,” touches upon the relationship between teaching and learning, the pursuit of perfection, and the role that mentor figures play in shaping the lives of young people.

Damien S. Chazelle ’07, a former Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator, wrote and directed the film about a prodigy-drummer (Miles Teller) and his violently overbearing teacher (J.K. Simmons). Helen C. Estabrook ’03 and Nicholas J. Britell ’03 served as producers.

Faust referenced the overwhelmingly positive reviews that “Whiplash” received when it premiered in October 2014 and said that the movie raises questions about academic relationships between teachers and their students who strive for excellence.

“How far is too far?” Faust asked, indicating potential questions that arise around the teacher-student relationship and how best to motivate students. “When do we come into our own...and at what costs?”

A couple clips from “Whiplash” punctuated the conversation among Chazelle, Estabrook, Britell, and moderator and VES Department Chair Robb Moss, who taught Chazelle as an undergraduate.

In response to Moss’s questions, Chazelle spoke about the road to creating “Whiplash,” which started as a shorter-length project that he took to a film festival. The short film, Chazelle said, became “this piece of currency” which he could use to show people in the industry his idea for a longer piece.

Estabrook said the team thus took a “look, here, let me show you 15 minutes” approach toward pitching the film that ultimately became “Whiplash.”

Working from a fully-formed work, however, posed several challenges for Chazelle and his team.

In one scene, in which Simmons’s character abusively criticizes an out-of-tune musician, Chazelle found himself trying to recreate the shorter version’s take when filming what became “Whiplash.”

“In my mind what existed was this polished [shorter version],” Chazelle said. “Suddenly you’re faced with raw materials.”

“You’re trying to forget the earlier scene, but you can’t,” he added.

“Whiplash” in its final form explored the “sweaty, sexy” musical genre that is jazz, a genre that over the years has become reduced to a genteel background soundtrack at cocktail parties and museum galleries, according to Chazelle. The skills of filmmaking that Chazelle learned in VES, which he described as a department where “you put a camera on your shoulder, and you see what you capture,” influenced the feel of the movie, he said.

“I wanted to feel that it had been shot and edited by the conductor [of a jazz band],” Chazelle said.

—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at melissa.rodman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

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