Whiplash (2014) + Pushing the Borders

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Screenwriter/Director: Damien Chapelle

Before I shout out this was “THE BEST MOVIE EVER!” I’ll whisper it instead: This was the BEST movie…ever! Whiplash is perfect. Yes, a PERFECT movie. It stands in its own league! Soaring in dialogue, scene pacing and plot twists. When a writer nails these elements, it’s nothing short of amazing. Kudos to screenwriter/director Damien Chapelle.

Theme Domination

Why it matters | Very few movies successfully pull off a compelling theme. But carrying out a strong theme can be the Willa Wonka golden ticket to hook audiences. Characters matter just as much but if the plot doesn’t melt harmoniously with bold theme, it falls through the cracks of our memory banks. Whiplash explored a theme most of us struggle with; the desire to be more than we are aka the journey to our own greatness.

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How Whiplash pulls it off  | Not surprisingly, earlier drafts of Whiplash show a few weaknesses that were remedied before the final cut. The original story split its attention on developing romance and family subplots. It spoon-fed weaker, transitional scenes about the main character’s life. Now, these scenes weren’t horrible; they just diluted the bigger plot, weakening its pace. But these “transitional” scenes are exactly what writers naturally spit out in early drafts. It holds up in some movies. But for the case of having a fantastically, rich theme on your hands, when a scene doesn’t move the story forward, it needs the axe. Whiplash, drilled its story down to what really mattered. No mushy, gushy stuff or scenes about nothing.

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Dropped in the middle of nowhere

How to drop in unexpected action | If you chop all your scenes down, what are you left with? Whiplash ended up with only a small batch of scenes. But those scenes felt like a continuous smash of “5 things you didn’t expect to happen next.” They began with simple scene objectives, inspiring decent conflict and satisfying the moment. But then that conflict transpired into maybe three or four more dilemmas. All taking place in the same scene. It was transformative. When we expected a scene to end, it dug deeper; pushing its characters out of hiding. Such unanticipated action can stun your audiences, leaving them not knowing what just hit them.

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The Villain Soulmate

Whiplash specifically follows drummer, Andrew Neiman, but the movie’s star player is band instructor, Terrance Fletcher. He’s Andrew’s sweet dream, and beautiful nightmare. He’s the only who can help Andrew get to the next level. But, instead of being a savior, Fletcher’s complexity and gray morals lend him to be Andrew’s perfect villain. Andrew realizes that he kinda needs Fletcher to be great. Fletcher, too, senses that Andrew will finally be the one to validate his neurotic obsession for victory. And that’s where their tug of war begins. With flawless manipulation, Fletcher successfully toys with Andrew’s drumming passion and disturbs his comfort of being “good enough.” They grow to need each other. They become soulmates.

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How to craft soulmate characters | Your villain’s #1 desire has to be about pushing the protagonist places he doesn’t want to go. Villains have to be stronger. Know more. And innately drive the protagonist straight into his limits.

For protagonists, villains are bittersweet, as they want or need what their enemy has. Sometimes it being something that threatens their very existence or identity. The villain/protagonist relationship is a layered one.

Villains aren’t always required to be the protagonist’s opposite. They just have to have the one up. Whether that thing be bravery, smarts, or guts. They just have to have or be something that threatens the protagonist’s needs or wants.

To create the best villain ever, create a character that is a direct reflection of everything the protagonist sees in himself.

Dialogue as a Mountain Bike Sport

What dialogue is made of | Just minutes into the movie and Whiplash surprises with its unique rhythm of verbal foreplay. Sassy, sarcastic, intimate. It was refreshing to see characters pressured and provoked to say all the naughty remarks usually restrained for social tact. Whiplash made a very smart choice in masking its insults as cooler talk. What was even more brilliant was its flawless execution of subtext. Every Whiplash scene carried punch. It was close to exhausting but really, just quite thrilling.

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Interesting characters = interesting dialogue | Andrew, the drummer, didn’t say much, but when he starts using his voice – boy, was it good. He only spoke up as his story intensified. No therapy sessions here. He just kept quiet and kept pushing… right until he was about boil over. Everything he said after that was insanely delicious. Because we knew he was speaking with purpose, and conviction. Shooting blanks can water down any script. Which makes the point: dialogue can only be as interesting as your character’s development.

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The Trial and Error of Your Character’s Destination

How to push your character against the grain of your plot | The theme of Whiplash held up so strong because it pushed pass expectations. There are several points where Andrew should just give up, rightfully so, but doesn’t. Like something in his universe wouldn’t let him. And in our own stories, that something has to be someone; we, the writers. Movies I’ve found myself enjoying more are ones that go pass a “good job” of delivering a solid plot. The ones that practically brew up another act (Act 2C, maybe?) and push the boundaries of a story just a bit more. The cost of doing this might be less subplot scenes with other characters. But when it’s the kind of story like Whiplash, it works. But what kind of story is Whiplash? It’s a heroes journey, more specifically, one of self-discovery.

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How to enhance the hero’s journey | Sometimes, in order to really explore a hero’s struggle, he has to be on his own. Andrew could’ve leaned on family and love interests to filter out his troubles but, instead we saw the action of him trying to overcome it all. Less talking led to more action. We were able to see Andrew’s deeper efforts to evolve. Here, I guess subplots can lead the protagonist away from actually doing what needs to be done. Rather than reflecting on it, the protagonist can engage in physical trial and error that reveals more to him about him than any conversation could.

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Layered characters, layered plot | Whiplash really exemplifies the need for writers to create multidimensional characters. Plots don’t hold up if characters are shallow.

Andrew makes an early declaration to be the greatest drummer of his time. Yet, his drills weren’t perfect. He wasn’t always on time for practice. He was unsure of his physical limits. And nobody was in his corner to root him on. And that complicated things. Which enriched the plot. Giving him more to overcome. That coupled with a soulmate antagonist and Whiplash gave us a damn good plot.

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Whiplash is the perfect movie because it unapologetically pushes pass expectations. It barely lets audiences get comfortable before it throws its first curveballs. And keeping audiences on the edge of their seats for an entire movie is no easy feat. Whiplash is a modest hero’s journey but a loud one. Enough to make you wonder wtf just happened, forcing you to snap your head back in disbelief and yup, you guessed it, get whiplash. Peep game!

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