The first buzz title unveiled at Sundance on opening night, rookie director Damien Chazelle's adrenaline-pumped performance anxiety nightmare "Whiplash," starring an incendiary J.K. Simmons as an abusive college music professor and Miles Teller as a young jazz drummer, has landed at Sony Pictures Classics after rave reviews and fierce bidding from other buyers. SPC acquired U.S. rights (reportedly for around $3 million, however) after Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group had already picked up many foreign territories before the festival.
Producer Jason Blum ("Paranormal Activity") had admired Chazelle's jazzy semi-autobiographical feature screenplay "Whiplash," and teamed with Right of Way producers Helen Estabrook and Couper Samuelson to create a three-scene short directly lifted from a sequence in the script. Chazelle's short won the 2013 U.S. Sundance Short Film Jury Prize. Less than a year later, with production and financing support from Bold Films, his "Whiplash" feature opened at Sundance.
"The Spectacular Now" star Teller, one of the more promising young actors working today, holds his own with Simmons, who calls up that one teacher who inspired dread and awe, who you desperately wanted to please and never could. The cast is comprised of real musicians. Simmons, 59, Teller, 26, and Chazelle, 28, had studied music, but Teller never studied jazz drumming and had to go into deep training in order to pull off sessions so intense and excruciating that they left his hands bleeding. What inspired him? "Well, J.K. Simmons is pretty terrifying," Teller said at the Sundance Q & A. Another professional drummer helped with some of the more demanding sequences and post-recording, but most of the drumming is Teller himself.
Sundance is always about talent discovery. Teller broke out with "The Spectacular Now" last year. And Chazelle is a gifted young director who is now on his way. And sometimes it's about future Oscar contenders. (Indie hit "Fruitvale" did not make the cut.) Some are already calling up Oscar talk for Simmons. (My review is here.)