Whiplash

Wow. Having just finished the masterpiece that was the last scene, I’m not quite sure where to begin. This screenplay is brilliant. It’s such a simple story; i.e. the story of a boy, with a dream, in an antagonistic, highly strung world, where we are instantly introduced to protagonist (Andrew) and the protagonist (Fletcher). This screenplay certainly raised a question about the story world, Shaffer Conservatory of Music, and whether a place, or a story world can be the true antagonist of the story, or whether it’s living, breathing form (Fletcher) is the true antagonist.

Here we have the most simple of story forms: a young man, who has dreamt all of his life to be the best there is, and by George does he put the work in. He is dedicated, disciplined, persistent, and yet, despite his best efforts, he is still not good enough, or at least he is told. He’s about to hand in his notice when, the inciting incident occurs on p.16, Fletcher lets him into his world, Studio Band. At first, Fletcher seems like the good guy, the mentor you wished you had, your fairy godmother. But this is only the start of a possessive, unhealthy, emotionally and physically abusive relationship.


The spark he gets from getting into Studio Band, gives him the confidence to ask out Nicole - the girl from the cinema he’s had a crush on for a while. This part of the screenplay I’m not entirely sold on, but I get it. It’s an example of character and Andrew’s demise into the dark world of striving for success, at all costs. Their first date sets out their differences through dialogue, and how, like most college students, are lost, and way-less - Andrew is an exception.


We first get the hint that Fletcher is playing games when he asks Andrew to be there for 6am, and when Andrew arrives, he realises that it was 9am. There’s no explanation or callback to that moment, other than an audience / reader indication that Fletcher isn’t so straight up as he makes himself out to be. It’s almost as if he can’t help himself.


The film’s title, Whiplash, is described in the exposition as ‘impossibly hard’ - mimicking the goal that our protagonist has set himself. A lot of this screenplay is exposition and it’s fantastic. A favourite line is during the Whiplash scene, ‘Fletcher paces back and forth, eyeing players as they play. He’s got fox’s ears, hawk’s eyes.’ The exposition carries a lot of the narrative in this screenplay and Damien Chazelle handles exposition so well. It’s not stagnant and moves quickly, in keeping with the pace of the drums, the narrative, it’s catchy and quick.


Fletcher is essentially the Gordon Ramsay of Shaffer Conservatory of Music, and his villainous side unravels as the narrative progresses. Fletcher’s seemingly split persona is difficult to keep up with and you’re never quite sure of his intentions. The scene on p.31 is where the tables have turned and we see Fletcher’s true colours as he throws a chair at Andrew’s head - previously mention when trying to turn a student into a master. I’m glad that Chazelle allows a glimpse into Fletcher’s life - it’s quiet, he’s alone and it’s obvious that Shaffer is the only thing he has going for him.

Andrew becomes the core drummer around the middle of act two, and as an audience / reader, we’re over the moon with his achievement because out of everyone, he deserves it. It’s a real triumph but also, in many ways, the beginning of the end. The journey of the relationship between student and master is so complicated, turbulent and chaotic. And just like that, it’s taken away from him in a heartbeat. Fletcher strikes again, playing games, taunting. He’s a true villain and a pro-antagonist.


One of my favourite scenes, yet most distressing scenes is where Chazelle writes this battle into the screenplay between the three drummers fighting for the same part - and in essence, their place in Studio Band, the highly sought after spot. It’s torturous and uncomfortable to read because it seems so abusive and destructive, and to be frank, the opposite of what you go to university or college for. But they pander to it. They are part of it. They are on this path of self-destruction to seeming success. Our protagonist ‘earns’ his spot, only to have it ripped away when the universe throws a spanner in the works with a bus-breakdown, followed by a car crash, a few broken bones and a lot of blood, sweat and tears.


The drive that the protagonist has to reach is goal is desperate, unwavering and psychotic. It’s a miracle that the scene in which Andrew attacks Fletcher on stage hasn’t happened earlier. It’s the perfect boiling point moment, the moment where the reader / audience secretly cheers, even though you also know that this is perhaps the end of the road for Andrew and his drumming career. And then you discover this reality as he is expelled from Shaffer, once and for all. A final nail in the coffin. As a screenwriter / storyteller, how do you bring the audience back from this?


Everything we’ve known throughout the screenplay, everything we’ve known about our story world and characters has disappeared. There is no drumming, there is no Fletcher, there is no Shaffer. Now what? It’s a brave move, and the pay-off in the final scene is some of the best screenwriting I’ve ever read. The final scene in this screenplay could be a short film in itself - I can’t fault it at all. From narrative to exposition to dialogue - it’s so intense, and you have absolutely no idea which way it’s going until it happens, and you can’t guess what happens next. It’s fantastic and a perfect resolution of the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher.


What did you think of this week’s Sunday Script Club read? Have you encountered an antagonist like Fletcher before?



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