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Whiplash: What's Your Major Malfunction?

By Karel Segers

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Whiplash is one of the lowest grossing movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. This dumbfounded me (as did the fact that Birdman took the big prize). But hey, that’s my taste. I guess each has to decide for themselves on this.

The movie tells the story of Andrew Niemann, a young drummer who sees a chance to kickstart his career by playing in the prestigious jazz band at the Shaffer Music School. In an early scene with his love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist), Andrew shows that he knows exactly what he wants, in sharp contrast to his girl. She lacks ambition, and doesn’t really care about her future just yet. Andrew shows razor sharp focus. He goes to Shaffer because it is the best music school in the country. Andrew has big plans, and studio band instructor Fletcher will help him with those. Or so he believes.

DRILL SERGEANT FLETCHER

Fletcher’s true colours show when he abuses brass player Metz, telling him (falsely) that he was playing out of tune. The musician breaks down, and is sent away.

Helmer Damien Chazelle says he modelled Metz after "Gomer Pyle" from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick fans will agree that J.K. Simmons’ entire performance in this scene is reminiscent of Sgt. Hartmann in the same movie. Damien Chazelle included this line in the script: “I’m sorry, Tria, Neyman did want to give you a reach-around, he just couldn’t reach.” Now, “Reach-around” is a direct reference to a line improvised by Lee Ermey, and which Kubrick didn’t understand. The Urban Dictionary wasn’t around yet. So Ermey explained, and Kubrick decided to keep the line.

The mental torturing of Metz foreshadows what is about to happen to Andrew soon. This brings us to our instant-classic movie moment.

THE PRELUDE

Great scenes often build up their power from the opposite value, allowing for steadily increasing tension. This movie moment is preceded by a seemingly calm, brooding encounter in the hallway. Fletcher checks with Andrew, pretending to make sure he is okay. The atmosphere is almost amicable; Fletcher has the attitude of a caring father. Obviously, this aspect of their relationship is critical to the film, as Fletcher understands Andrew so much better than his own father. This is one of the reasons why Fletcher is able to abuse his power, and exert control over Andrew. Fletcher is a master manipulator, as transpires from what follows.

He goes on to subtly degrade Andrew’s parents. Then, as if he’s caring again - but really to prime Andrew’s ego for what’s to come - he insists “You’re here for a reason”.  It works. An unsuspecting Andrew enters the rehearsal room, beaming. But not for long.

RUSHING OR DRAGGING

J.K. Simmons embodies band leader Fletcher as a walking time bomb. We have seen him go off in a previous scene, so the tension is palpable. When he seemingly enjoys the first bars of Whiplash as the band plays, we don’t believe it. It takes exactly 37 seconds before all hell breaks loose.

The scene that follows is the exact equivalent of what happened to Metz earlier. Where Metz was tortured on whether he was playing ‘flat’ vs. ‘sharp’, Andrew suffers the rhythmical equivalent: ‘rushing’ or ‘dragging’. But Fletcher is not done just yet. Unlike Metz, Andrew is not sent away. Fletcher has indeed bigger plans with him.

About Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst, script editor and producer with experience in rights acquisition, script development and production. His screenwriting classes have trained writers in Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and his clients include international award-winning filmmakers as well as three Academy Award nominees. Karel is the founder of The Story Department and Logline.it!, and he ranks in the world's Top 10 of most influential people for screenwriting on Twitter.

 

Screenwriting Article by Karel Segers

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