'Whiplash' Director Damien Chazelle Talks Being the Oscars' Underdog

If you asked director Damien Chazelle at Sundance 2014 if he could imagine himself getting fitted for a suit for the Oscars this weekend, he'd probably laugh it off. The Rhode Island native, who graduated with a degree from Harvard's Visual and Environmental studies program in 2007, moved to L.A. a few years ago, taking every writer-for-hire gig he could find. It wasn't until he linked up with Jason Reitman and J.K. Simmons to make the little indie film that could, Whiplash (available on Blu-ray Feb. 24), that success began to barrel his way.

What began as a short film about a jazz prodigy who struggles with his ruthless instructor, Whiplash is now a contender for Best Picture, and earned Chazelle an individual nod for Best Adapted Screenplay. Here, the 30-year-old writer-director speaks about the surrealness of prepping for the Academy Awards, working with Best Actor nominee J.K. Simmons, and his next film with Miles Teller, La La Land.

How did you react when you heard you were nominated?

Damien Chazelle: I was a little in a daze for the rest of the day. I remember watching the announcement early that morning and it took awhile to hit me. There was the initial surprise and satisfaction, but as the day went on it felt more surreal.

Obviously, you don’t think about this when you begin production, but did you ever imagine the film going this far?

Definitely not. I remember when we were first making the movie, it was a one-step-at-a-time thing. The main thing first was to just get the movie made. After that it was to get into Sundance. Then, once we were at Sundance, it was to play well there and sell the movie to a distributor. It just seemed really uncertain that anyone would connect to the movie and the subject matter.

It seems like you’re an overnight sensation, but you’ve actually been at this for awhile. Can you talk about all the work you’ve been putting in over the years?

I’ve been wanting to make this movie since I can remember. As a kid, I was just writing scripts and taking whatever film classes I could in college. I made a thesis film (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) in college that traveled the festival circuit, so that helped me move out to L.A., get a manager, and just start banging on the doors there for several years. I started doing some rewrites on thriller scripts, but all the while hoping that I would be able to get something off the ground for myself to make. It took another six years or so before I got the Whiplash script and it got into the hands of producers who were willing to take a gamble on it.

At any point, did the frustration ever made you consider giving up?

I don’t think I ever really considered giving up just ‘cause there was never any other option for me. I knew I was going to try to do this as long as I could, and hopefully outlast everyone else. [Laughs.] It was more about being completely indefatigable.

Was there someone in Hollywood who really championed you and helped you get off the ground?

Certainly my manager Gary Ungar was the first person to give me any attention and hustle for me. This was back in 2009. I remember when I first met Jason Reitman with the Whiplash script, he quickly became a mentor figure who guided me through the process and also protected me and made sure that when it came time to actually make Whiplash, I was able to make exactly the movie I wanted to make.

Reitman also helped you land J.K. Simmons. What was that like working with him?

Reitman not only helped me land Simmons, he was actually the first person to suggest him. I owe a lot to him on that front. J.K. was willing to take a gamble on this because of Reitman and because he responded to the material. Of course it’s intimidating to work with someone who’s been on as many sets as J.K.’s been on, but he was completely collaborative.

[J.K. and I] didn’t just do the film together, we did the short together to raise money for the feature, so we’ve been friends for awhile now. I just couldn’t be happier for him and the ride he’s on. My hope was that the movie would support his performance and that it would be seen by enough people so his performance could get the attention it deserves.

The success of this film reminds me of the trajectory of Beasts of the Southern Wild and Winter’s Bone. As an indie filmmaker, what do you think about this small festival hit getting this kind of widespread awards recognition?

You definitely sense yourself as the little guy at the table, but it’s incredible. I remember being inspired myself when smaller films, whether it’s Beasts or Winter’s Bone, wound up in the Oscars lineup. To see movies of this size compete with the big guns is great and I certainly feel fortunate to be a part of that narrative.

Why don’t you indie films get this kind of recognition often?

Like with everything, it’s about marketing money, it’s about expenditures. Actually, I think that there’s more opportunities for small indies during awards season now than there used to be. It’s a cutthroat climate, but it ebbs and flows, and it seems like this past year at Sundance was really strong. There’s always a lot of hope to be had, but it’s definitely tough to keep a small movie going through the waters for that long.

What film do you think was overlooked this year?

James Gray made a movie called The Immigrant this year and he’s one of the great American directors working today. That movie was stunning.

You’re working with Miles Teller again on your next feature, La La Land. Do you see yourself forming a Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart-like duo?

[Laughs.] I wish. I would love to keep doing as much stuff as possible with him. I’ve loved him since seeing his first movie Rabbit Hole. I remember wanting to work with him as soon as I saw that. I got lucky.

Can you talk a little bit about the plot of La La Land?

Yeah, it’s a Singing in the Rain-style musical set in contemporary Los Angeles that will be shooting in L.A. in the fall.

Is Emma Watson confirmed?

Nothing is set in stone besides Miles. We’re still finalizing the female lead.

So, what are you doing to prep for the Oscars?

I’ve got my suit messengered and it’s looking OK. It’s totally weird that people are dressing me now. It’s not what I’m used to, but it’s great. [Laughs.] It seems like it’s going to be a blur between now and the Oscars. There’s also the Spirit Awards, and the parties that night, and then Oscars. I’m mainly just hoping I don’t fall asleep.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]