Whiplash premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan 16, 2014 — just one day less than a year later, Whiplash picked up a surprise Best Picture nomination. A year ago, producer Helen Estabrook was just hoping that someone would buy writer and director Damien Chazelle’s movie about a prodigious jazz drummer (Miles Teller) who is under a constant state of mental and physical abuse from his conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, who also picked up an Oscar nomination today.)
We spoke to Estabrook by phone today after the nominations were announced and she takes us through what it’s like to wait through a list of alphabetically-read movie titles when your movie – that you’ve spent all your blood, sweat and tears for the past two years working on – starts with a “W.”
We all expected J.K. Simmons to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but Best Picture was not a sure thing at all.
[Laughs] It’s certainly not a sure deal! That’s an understatement.
How did you feel when Whiplash was announced?
I honestly can’t describe it. It was such an incredible thrill and honor. A year ago today I was packing for Sundance, hoping that someone would buy this movie so that maybe people would see it. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy.
The announcements are all in alphabetical order, so during the whole thing, were you like, “We still have a chance.”
My family was with me and I remember someone was like, “You should make movies that start with ‘A’ from now on.” And my aunt made the point that if you do something with a later letter, then you just have hope for a much longer time.
You’re not the first person to say that about movies starting with an earlier letter.
And this all started with a short film that was made in the hope that a feature length film could be made.
I think the really exciting thing is that this is something that everyone who worked on it worked on it because they loved it. Nobody was getting paid; no one was doing it for other reasons. So, to have this thing that we all cared so much about and have recognition in this way is really incredible.
How is Damien Chazelle holding up?
[Laughs] He’s doing well! We just had a lovely breakfast. He had some French toast. Everything is good. He’s the best. He’s truly the best. Everyone says the sort of cliché, “It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, “ but it is absolutely true in this case.
What kind of odds did you give yourself on a Best Picture nomination?
I’m a really superstitious person, so I was not allowing myself to think in any sort of way. I was just hoping that I would sleep.
Everyone seemed shocked that Whiplash would be in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, because it was only “adapted” from a short film that was made in hopes of making the longer movie.
Yeah, it was just a surprise; we had no idea. It was something that we found out very late on in the midst of the voting process. So, I think we were all sort of shocked more than anything.
And a whole new slate of competition.
Well, it’s not even about the competition so much as it is just trying to understand some things that could happen that you didn’t expect once you’re that late in the game. But you know, there’s also that point where you’re just like, “Is this really a problem? This is the greatest thing ever. We are having a conversation about where our Academy qualification is. Are you kidding me?” [Laughs] So it was mostly just a surprise and amusement at our own confusion.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.