The way momentum builds in the script for Whiplash is the perfect example of what I hope for every time I open a PDF. For the first 50-60 pages I was onboard with the story, but I was taking several notes about ways I thought the script could improve. And then… the script starts accelerating and it doesn’t quit until it gets all the way to remarkable.
I thought I would discuss the story points that didn’t work as well for me first, and then switch over to all the things that happen in the last 40 pages that knocked this reader to his mental floor. In a small way, I think this might resemble the feeling the script itself creates. We’ll start with an example from page 21:
INT. ANDREW’S DORMITORY – EARLY MORNING
Andrew’s asleep. His arm hits his night stand — WAKING him up.
His eyes open. He looks at his alarm clock. 5:17.
He busts out of bed, trips on the comforter, staggers up…
EXT. DORMITORY BUILDING / NEW YORK STREET – MOMENTS LATER
Dashes across the green…
My note here was about the likelihood of someone as driven as Andrew oversleeping. I felt the author manipulating events in order to cause confrontation between Andrew and Fletcher. Of course, the author anticipates my feelings by having this happen on the next page.
Can I help you?
Andrew spins around. A JANITOR has exited the adjacent room.
Uh… Dr. Fletcher… The Studio Band…?
Yeah? They meet at 9.
But I thought — he said 5am…
Building’s closed at 5am.
That one upset my expectations, made me even more wary of Fletcher [that he would treat Andrew this way] and made me erase my note about the likelihood of Andrew oversleeping. I still think the note’s valid, but the author makes up for it with his next story beat, so I’ll give him this one.
The next thing that bothered me was how the author uses Nicole. There is a heavy dose of her in the first 10 pages, I liked her, and the initial interaction between her and Andrew is an example of good writing. From page 5:
I might not be back.
They opened a new deli down the street,
so… This place is kind of depressing.
I know. It’s horrible. It’s really tragic.
So…you might want my number.
Right. Yeah. That’d be great.
The dialogue made me like them both. But then, we don’t see Nicole again until page 59:
EXT. SUBWAY STATION – NIGHT
Andrew nears the station, a take-out dinner under his arm, when–
Andrew turns. Startled. It’s NICOLE. The girl from the deli.
(needs to keep going)
I thought that was you.
Yeah… How are you?
Good. You — look a little stressed…
Oh. No. I’m not.
Ok… Well I’ll let you be — and actually,
now that I ran into you — if you still
wanted to do a concert, or show, or
something — I’m around this weekend.
Oh. Cool. Yeah, this weekend’s pretty busy.
I realize Nicole is a prop against which the author can make his point about the obsessive focus that is monopolizing Andrew, but I think this is a pretty typical way to make that point.
Nicole completes her “use” in the screenplay on pgs 97-98 with this:
(heart beating now, it’s been
Hey… It’s…it’s Andrew.
(silence on the other end)
Um… From…the deli…?
Look, I just wanted to say — I’m sorry if
I acted…if I was rude or…cold before.
And I’m — I thought I’d give you a call
because — it’s a crazy idea, maybe, but
we said we’d do a concert together, and
I’m actually going to be playing a concert
this weekend, it’s the JVC Jazz Festival —
and — and I’m playing the drums, and —
yeah, I don’t know, you could come, and
then we could, you know, get a drink
afterwards. Something like that…
Yeah… I — I don’t think I can.
I’m seeing someone now, so…
I’ve yet to read a perfect screenplay, and Nicole is a MINOR character… but, the script is blatant in considering her as nothing more than a cost of pursuing perfection. I would have given her a real role to play, or cut her part and gone for something more unique. [As a side note, I think I disagree with the idea that one can’t have meaningful relationships and also pursue perfection in the arts. This discussion will be more prominent when we sum up the review with a discussion of theme.]
The other scene that bothered me takes place on pages 51-58, but I’ll only pull out a small part to give its flavor:
Ah, but friends remember you. That’s the
No, none of us were Charlie Parker’s
friends. That’s the whole point.
Well there’s such a thing as feeling
loved and included.
I prefer to feel hated and cast out. It
gives me purpose.
Travis and Dustin have plenty of friends,
and I’d say they have plenty of purpose.
Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum are not
barometers by which I measure myself.
Oh — so, that’s what this is all about —
you think you’re better than us?
You catch on quick. You must be in Model UN.
Well I’ve got a reply for you, Andrew.
You think Carleton football’s a joke?
(Andrew only nods)
Come play with us.
Four words you will never hear from the NFL.
My issue with this long dinner scene is that it amounts to seven pages of thematic exposition. Andrew is forced to isolate himself from family, friends, the possibility of a girlfriend… in order to have a shot at greatness. I get it. I got it with the first couple of pages. If you write a dinner scene that is seven pages long, give yourself the task of rewriting it in three, or less. (1)
Now for the good stuff.
This character Fletcher is the greatest villain in a non-violent script since Salieri. I’m half convinced that this movie was inspired by Amadeus. From page 84:
INT. MOVIE THEATER – DAY
Andrew and Jim sit side by side in a darkened theater, while a
movie plays. “Amadeus”…
We linger on Andrew’s face. There’s a sadness in his eyes. He
looks tired, even after months, and resigned… Jim laughs at
a line in the movie. Glances over at his son, wants to see if
he’s enjoying himself. Hands him some popcorn. Beat…
As far as I can tell, there is no reason to get this father and son to a theatre playing Amadeus unless we are supposed to infer the author wants us to think that he means for Fletcher to be the greatest non-violent villain since Salieri.
But… is Fletcher the antagonist of this story? Or, is it [in Chazelle’s version of Amadeus] Andrew who gets to be the Bad Guy?
A straightforward reading would peg Fletcher as the antagonist and Andrew as the protagonist—and there would be nothing wrong with that reading. However, I like to look at things from the side, and I swear, I think the argument for Andrew as the antagonist is better. When we sum up the review, we will answer this question with as much finality as I can get from the script. To get your wheels turning for that upcoming discussion, I’ll also propose that NEITHER Andrew or Fletcher is the antagonist.
Let’s look at a set of vicious lines from Fletcher to set the stage for his nomination as antagonist. Beginning on page 33:
(claps; stops the band seconds later)
(about to clap again, when he eyes
Right hand should be at the snare, ok?
You need to set up the hit.
(Andrew moves his hand)
No, sorry, your right hand.
Then he claps. Andrew plays. Fletcher nods, as though now
satisfied, then slowly turns around. Puts his hand on a spare
chair. Looks like he’s about to sit down, when…
…like a flash of lightning he WHIPS up the chair and HURDLES
it straight at Andrew’s head.
(as though discussing the weather)
Why do you suppose I just threw a chair
at your head, Neyman?
I… I… I d–don’t kn–
Yes, you do.
I… The…the tempo…
Were you rushing or were you dragging?
I… I don’t… I don’t–
Fletcher BOUNDS up to him, almost RUNNING, veins set to BURST–
In four, damnit!
Fletcher SLAPS Andrew on his left cheek. Then–
(a third slap)
Was I rushing or was I dragging?
That is not even the worst example of what Fletcher does to terrorize Andrew. And for a long time, it seems easy to say that Fletcher is a terrible human [even if he isn’t the antagonist, he’s still a terrible human] and poor Andrew just got in his way. But then, in that remarkable third act, the pendulum swings. From page 77:
Fletcher stares at him. The look says it all: it’s over. But
Andrew keeps fighting. Another missed hit, then a missed timesignature
change, the beat falling apart beneath his feet. Total
chaos, and then, finally, the sign of death — Andrew STOPS.
Almost immediately, the rest of the band grinds to a halt. It’s
a horrible sound, like a car screeching, nails on a chalkboard.
Fletcher stands in place, eyes on Andrew. In fact, all eyes are
on Andrew. The theater is dead-silent. Disbelief everywhere.
Calmly, Fletcher approaches Andrew and whispers one last thing:
Then he turns around. Andrew start shaking, his eyes brimming
— and, suddenly, something takes over inside. Almost despite
himself, he RISES — and KICKS OVER THE DRUMS.
Cymbals CRASH to the wooden stage-floor like bombs. Andrew
CHARGES forward — and, just as Fletcher turns to him, TACKLES
the man to the ground…
You might think the author is just allowing Andrew to give expression to all the cruel treatment he has received from Fletcher. That would be a normal story beat, and it would have resulted in a decent script. However, as you’re reading, you find yourself not identifying with Andrew anymore. He has expressed himself in a way which LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE what Fletcher does. This shift in the script is desperately subtle, and it is the reason the script hurtles away from ordinarily good to outright extraordinary during its last act.
I know a script is great when I feel like I could write as many words about the script as there are words in the script. I could trace this shift from page one to Fade Out. That would make for a boring review, so I won’t give any more examples of The Shift—I’ll just recommend that you read this story for yourself. Seeing an author do something perfect is, after all, the whole reason we read screenplays. I’ll not spoil the experience for you.
We will finish up this review by trying to decide who the villain is. Doing this, will help determine the theme of Whiplash.
Argument for Fletcher:
1 He treats his students without respect and brutalizes them emotionally and physically.
2 He lies to his students in order to get them to perform better.
3 He manipulates situations to ensure his students fail. He then castigates those students for failing as though it were their fault.
4 He gives and withdraws his attention based on maximum detrimental psychological effect, not based on merit and demerit.
Argument for Andrew:
1 He gets Fletcher removed from his teaching job [although this is deserved].
2 He takes drugs in the pursuit of perfection.
3 He refuses to pursue normal human relationships.
4 When angered, he deliberately hurts the feelings of those who are closest to him.
5 He chooses Fletcher over his father.
Argument for Perfection:
1 Why are we humans allowed this idea? How do we extrapolate from a useful instance of a type to a perfect instance of a type?
2 Does perfection demand the forfeit of our humanity?
3 If it does demand that, is it worth it?
I’ll corral the suspense now by admitting… I’m going with perfection as the antagonist of this script. I propose that Fletcher and Andrew are Co-protagonist’s with the shared goal of creating a perfect instance of a type. The obstacle they must both overcome is their humanity. [Perfection, the script thinks, is a non-human achievement.] Fletcher is at an advanced state of being a non-human, and he TEACHES Andrew [a person with heavy non-human leanings] how to be a complete non-human. Once the student completes his apprenticeship, perfection results. Simply stated, the theme is:
Give up your humanity and you can achieve perfection.
Lord, how I hate that theme. Not only because it subverts my omnipresent humanism, but also because, dammit, it might be right.
Rating: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
1. As with all pronouncements, this one comes with a caveat emptor. I immediately think of my review of Inglorious Basterds, with its dual seven page dinner scenes, neither of which bothered me, and end up thinking—just make all your pages good and you will infallibly quiet this reader.