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Film Editor Tom Cross Brings on "Whiplash"

By Laura Blum

Whiplash has never felt so good. You're bound to get it watching Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a musical war picture waged on the battlefield of Manhattan's elite Shaffer Conservatory. If drill sergeant Terrence Fletcher (Oscar-shoe-in J.K. Simmons) doesn't inflict a jolt while commanding his jazz band students, the moral dilemmas posed onscreen surely will. Either way it's a head trip, meant to leave you pondering the glories and casualites of artistic mastery long after the curtain drops on Tom Cross's virtuoso edits.

From the moment Fletcher tests freshman drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) with a fraught, "You know who I am?” he has him -- and us -- on edge. Fletcher may be the most sadistic instructor to come along since Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket but it takes two to face off. Andrew's drumming chops are only rivalled by his ambition to make it as the next Buddy Rich. Both mentor and student share a belief that imperfection is the enemy; what they'll do in its service drives their face-off in this high-stakes rhythmic thriller (as seen in photos 1 & 2).

And rhythm is key. “Not my tempo" is Fletcher's constant refrain while putting his young charges through rehearsal bootcamp (as seen in photo 3). Besides a steady stream of vituperations, perhaps the only sounding off he prefers is his Charlie Parker story: that the jazz great only became Bird because Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at his head during an off performance.

But even Fletcher would have to commend Cross's editing tempo. Using pacy cuts synched to the mood and music, the Angelino editor gives Whiplash a high-stakes urgency usually reserved for chase scenes. Cross spoke with about the film that has been accruing Oscar buzz since its Grand Prize-stealing Sundance premiere and screening at the 52nd New York Film Festival (as seen in photos 4 & 5).

thalo: Right off the bat you sync up the Manhattan architecture, street scenes and music, as if to the beat of a metronome. How did you take the cue from the rhythms of New York and jazz?

Tom Cross: Damien wanted to immediately set up that we were in New York City, in a place that's alive and that has its own rhythms. The people inhabiting this large world are a piece of the buildings themselves. So it was important to show traffic going by, to show bicyclists driving by intersections late at night, to show pedestrians walking past garbage cans and store fronts. The opening scene with all the buildings was originally a slow, brooding meditation on New York City. It was much more of a mood piece -- very somber, almost melancholy, like the end of Taxi Driver. But it wasn't really earned, and the style felt out of place. It lacked the energy that other parts of the film had. We realized that this fast pace and liveliness was the quirky style of our story. So we recut the beginning and changed the music. It was pretty much the same shots, just more of them. We set the metronome to clue in the audience that they were about to see something they'd have to keep up with.

th: Were the edits meant to set up the language of a jam session?

TC: Damien wanted shots to answer one another. The goal was to have a shot sing or shout out and have an opposing shot or building angle respond. If we had a shot of a building pointed in one direction, he wanted to counter that by showing a shot of a building pointed in another direction. It's similar to a dynamic that we would show later, which might be having one player playing an instrument and then showing another instrument countering that first instrument. So it was important to show the monolithic buildings jutting out in the street. It's something that filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein did. He was all about images colliding and answering one another.

th: Besides Taxi Driver and the work of Sergei Eisenstein, what films did you discuss during the making of Whiplash?

TC: Damien wanted Whiplash to feel like an action film first and a music film second. He wanted the practice and concert scenes to feel visceral and brutal and ferocious in the way that the fight scenes felt in Raging Bull. The band playing scenes are not gentle moments of music playing and images blending together. They're very staccato and violent. Transitions from one scene to another also show that. So a scene like the dinner conversation with the family, which is a volley of dialogue, ends with a smash cut to Andrew playing a song with a certain amount of aggression and intensity. For the finale of the film -- the Caravan number -- Damien always wanted the scene to play like a silent cinematic set piece in the tradition of the car chase in Bullitt or The French Connection or the final battle in The Wild Bunch. We looked at the scene silently to make sure it played purely visually.

th: Another genre that Whiplash brings to mind is a war picture. But there are also elements of romance, drama and even horror. What are the windfalls and drags of toggling among different movie conventions?

TC: Damien wanted the drum playing to feel like boxing scenes or a battle scene from a war movie. In terms of characters, he wanted the film to feel like a thriller. Because it's a movie about jazz music and it's not literally a sports movie or a war movie or a thriller, we could delve into certain tropes of the sports or war movie genre or the thriller and create an entirely new world with that, hopefully without the clichés.

th: Early on we get close-ups of popcorn and soda at the cinema concession counter that signal discord. How did zooming in help build the psychological tension and atmosphere of intimacy yet menace?

TC: The beginning of the movie was the road map for the audience. Damien knew that these extreme closeups and loving portrait shots of inanimate objects would play a large part in the style of the film, so it was important to introduce them out of the gate. Those close-ups at the movie concession counter are cut together somewhat quickly to hint at something, but it was also important to hold back and not have them present the violence that was going to come later. Those closeups were also intended as an extension of what was going on in Andrew's head. Damien wanted the story to be a very subjective one -- he wanted the audience to feel what Andrew was going through. Even when this character is not playing, he still has a metronome going on in his head. So something as mundane as ordering soda and getting popcorn still has a certain tempo in Andrew's world.

th: How were the cuts designed to give us whiplash?

TC: Damien wanted to create a rhythm and a pace through the quick cutting of close-ups of instruments, close-ups of drums, close-up of drumsticks and then close-ups of our characters. He wanted the cutting to be overt so the audience would feel the editing and the speed. He meticulously storyboarded the entire movie with that in mind. And for the music scenes, such as the climax of the movie, he even created an anamatic set to music.

th: In the spirit of jazz, where does improvization come in?

TC: When we got to editing band practice or concert scenes based on Damien's plan, we often found that we needed to riff on something or expand upon an idea. He wanted specific things to happen at specific points within the songs, and sometimes we had so many insert shots and so much coverage that we couldn't simply go from one quiet moment to another. We had to extend the music in places. We found it necessary to put a wedge in the timeline and pry open the running time so that we could accommodate all of these beautiful details that Damien wanted in. So at first the music told us how to cut the picture, but eventually the picture told us how to cut the music.

th: How did the music and character of Buddy Rich affect your choices?

TC: When I started getting ready to cut the feature, I went out and bought a bunch of Buddy Rich records, and I would play them in a loop in the editing room to put me in the right frame of mind. I also listened to Buddy Rich talking, including interviews and rantings that I found online. I wanted to feel what it was like to be one of Buddy Rich's players or to be in the room with someone so great.

th: In what ways did your playlist inform your cuts?

TC: During the music-playing scenes, the music absolutely informed the speed and the rhythm of the cuts and all the peaks and valleys of action. But that wasn't the case during the dialogue or non-music scenes. Those were governed by performance.

th: Even when Fletcher is sanguine, there's the ever-looming threat that he'll blow his fuse. How did you build that tension, and what helped convey the duality of his manipulative seduction and violent attack mode?

TC: We spent a lot of time trying to make Fletcher's character intimidating and scary. Those early scenes with Fletcher talking with Andrew in the hallway and getting intel about his family were harder to cut than the finale. But something that really helped us was the pace and how we showed the fear on the faces of the other musicians. In the beginning of those scenes, the pace was pretty slow and measured. As we get into the hallway where Fletcher is questioning Andrew, we play that straight and kind of gently. By the time we get to the scene when Fletcher is starting and stopping him playing, that's when we start amping up the pace and imposing a certain cutting rhythm so the audience starts to feel a little more tension. When Andrew gets slapped by Fletcher the first time, it was important to show that it was really jarring.

th: What changes did you make from Whiplash the short film?

TC: When it came to doing the feature version, I initially cut the scenes we just talked about exactly the way I'd cut them in the short. They didn't work at all. Part of it is that the actor playing Andrew in the short (Johnny Simmons) gave a different performance. He went from being almost cocky and self-assured to falling apart and becoming a crying, withering mess. Miles plays a lot of the scene more internally (as seen in photo 6).  When we looked at the first cut, it just hung there. There was no suspense. Fletcher wasn't scary. In the short film we stayed on a two-shot of Fletcher slapping Andrew. In the feature we wanted to take it to a whole other level, so we present the slap through these crash edits and fragment it with a lot of pieces colliding into one another.

th: Though we've already touched on Andrew's battle-of-wills finale, can you fill in the blanks about its challenges and inspirations?

TC: When we first assembled that last scene, it worked narratively, but it didn't play very well. It was fast and it had energy, but it didn't have soul. So we went back and looked for editing points where we felt we needed to see Fletcher and Andrew. We reminded ourselves that the true power of the scene really comes from the conflict and the relationship of these two characters. Damien would point to the iconic car chase from The French Connection. He'd talk about how so much of its power comes from Gene Hackman's emotional arc through, and how it wouldn't be the same without that. Our scene didn't have much value when we lost track of our our characters and where they were emotionally. We needed to see both of them in their emotional paths from the beginnning of the song to how they are by the end of the song. In Andrew's case we needed to see him going rogue and hijacking the band out of anger to him bringing himself to the edge of his life and then to that final place of sublime ability as he becomes the next Buddy Rich. For Fletcher, we needed to show him going from being shocked and humiliated and angry to being won over and then finally realizing that he just found his Charlie Parker.

th: Had Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) spoken when watching his son in this grande finale, what would that dialogue be, and how did your edit speak for him?

TC: Paul Reiser's look communicates pride and awe and wonder and love, yet a bit of fear. It comes at a point when Andrew is beginning to reach that sublime place of effortless but ferocious ability. To help the audience understand the milestone that was being passed, we cut to Reiser's reaction, which we just held on and held on and held on as he went through these amazing expressions and emotions.

Photo Credits:

Photo 1: Left to right: Miles Teller as Andrew and J.K. Simmons as Fletcher. Photo by Daniel McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Photo 2: Left to right: J.K. Simmons as Fletcher and Miles Teller as Andrew

Photo by Daniel McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Photo 3: J.K. Simmons as Fletcher. Photo by Daniel McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Photo 4: Photo of "Whiplash" editor Tom Cross by Holly Ramos.

Photo 5: Tom Cross's Avid with images of Miles Teller as Andrew. Photo by Tom Cross.

Photo 6:  Miles Teller as Andrew. Photo by Daniel McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics