What We Can Learn From ‘Whiplash’ the Short Film and Damien Chazelle’s Fearless Journey
American filmmaker Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed mulit-awards winner Whiplash has been on the roller coaster every filmmaker dreams of going through once in their life, but like many (if not all) storytellers, his Big Win is not a one night success.
From solid script to Oscars wins, here are a few steps Chazelle went through and that parallel decisions other undertook:
#1 – Writing a Solid Screenplay
That’s the hardest step. The one where many falls short and yet, that’s the step without which all other actions won’t matter much. Whiplash was on the 2012 Black List, which has now become the place to be to get noticed.
Despite that buzz, Chazelle and his team couldn’t get to find financing to shoot the actual feature, so they decided to shoot a short film instead.
#2 – Finding a Way to Showcase His Vision
In a similar fashion than what Justin Simien did with ‘Dear White People‘, Chazelle decided to keep riding the train instead of waiting for the big check that would let him shoot his feature.
He selected a scene from his screenplay that could stand on its own, contained a journey of sort for Andrew Neiman (the main character), showcased the dark side of the Music world Chazelle wanted to portray, and most importantly, showed how he wanted to direct it, and he presented it as a short film.
The movie takes place essentially in one room, was shot in three days with a budget of $23,000 and ended up winning the Short Film Jury Award at Sundance Film Festival in 2013.
This tactic of shooting a short film as a business card to get financing for a feature has been used many times in the past and it is a great way to show what you can do. (Needless to say, the tighter the script, the higher the chances to get results, that doesn’t change.)
#3 – Capitalizing on the Short to Reach the Finish Line
The Sundance win led to Chazelle getting $3.3 million to shoot his Feature Film, which he did in 19 days in September 2013, a particularly impressive number when you watch the unusually high number of close-ups and camera movements present for an indie film.
Another impressive fact was that the team managed to finish shooting and editing the film in time to present it again at Sundance in 2014, winning Best Film, which then sent the film spinning into the awards festivals, until its three wins at the Oscars in January 2015.
I believe all this was also possible because Chazelle first shot his short film and probably learned a lot from it, including who he wanted to keep working with. This is an argument cinematographer Robbie Ryan gave to explain why he still accepts to work on short film; it’s the safest and fastest way to know if you can be creative and do your best work within a team. A $23,000 mistake is more easily contained than a $3.3 millions one.
If you have seen both the feature film and the short, you have probably noticed that at first glance, the two scenes seem pretty similar. But when you start noticing all the changes, in writing, acting, lighting etc. and you add them up, you can see why this exact same scene is much more powerful in the feature film.
Ultimately, here is what I get out of Chazelle’s journey:
- A no today doesn’t mean you should stop, only that you need to find another way.
- Finding a way to showcase your vision, and that people are receptive to your vision are essential factors to help get money. (It doesn’t have to be with an award winning short film, but it has to be with something.)
- If the train is going full speed, don’t leave it to wait for others to join. Chazelle and his team went full blast with Whiplash, and yet, the story still took 3 years to unfold. (And that’s without counting how much time he spent with the idea of Whiplash in his head.) So good for them, for being relentless, and may this inspire us all to keep going!
Read more on Whiplash.
Note: The short film was available online for a very short amount of time and shared here but was taken down by the Studio. It’s interesting to me that the Studio would rather keep it locked -for we can only assume money reasons- when it’s obvious that it’s the cheapest and fastest spread marketing card they could use. All the biggest outlets have shared the short film, and tens of thousands of people have shown interest, but no. Interesting times we live in.