WHIPLASH (2014) — Shooting a Table Scene

WHIPLASH (2014)

Directed by Damien Chazelle (La La Land). Starring Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now; Fantastic Four; Divergent), J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man, The Closer, Juno), and Paul Reiser (Aliens, Mad About You).

The break-up scene is a sit-down talking scene shot with subtle but very deliberate intentions.

Let’s watch:

To begin the scene, we see a single shot of him and an OTS (over-the-shoulder) of her. So it appears we’re seeing this scene through his POV. Which makes sense, given that he is the main character in the film.

However, what comes next shifts that POV. As he begins his rant, we start pushing in on her, cutting him out of the OTS, leaving a single shot of her. And then the next shot after that is an OTS of him, from her shoulder. We seem to have transition from his POV to hers.

Notice also that the OTS shot of her from his POV is not framed the same as the OTS we see next of him from her POV. Look at the two frames:

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In the first shot, their heads are more separated. This reflects what’s happening emotionally – Miles Teller’s character is keeping his distance from her — after all, he’s breaking up with her, and he’s doing it coldly.

But when we cut to the opposite OTS from the her POV, our new POV in which the scene will play out, we see the heads are closer together in the center of the frame. The camera is positioned more, as they say, “on axis” (closer to being right on the imaginary line that one could draw through both of their heads). He is affecting her more emotionally than she is affecting him.

OK. Moving on. Next, she asks him three questions.

Question one: and you’re not [currently great]? We see the single shot of her asking the question,

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Then a shot of him as he answers.

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Question two: would she stop him from being one of the greats? Same thing. Cut and cut.

Question three: She probes deeper. She wants definite answers. “You know I would stop you from doing that, you know that for a fact.” This time, when he responds “Yes,” we do not cut back to him. I thought this was a brilliant choice because it’s underscoring how this, this is the moment she knows she has lost him. We don’t see his face as he responds, i.e., she no longer feels his presence in her life. Or something like that. You get it.

And the rest of the scene plays out in her single shot and the OTS shot of him. We cut back to him later only because you kind of have to show his face one or two more times before the scene is over or else it’d be weird and call attention to itself. But in that moment of NOT cutting back to him, especially after having cut back to him answering the previous two questions (which is what makes the lack of a cut noticeable and affecting), is on point.

So from a filmmaker’s perspective, why show most of this scene from her POV, when it’s his movie? I would argue that, in order to understand his mindset, we almost NEED to see this scene from her POV, to really understand what his ambition and drive is doing to other people and how he is coming off to people in his life who care about him.

But why listen to me talk? Let’s hear it from the director himself: “Even though she doesn’t say much in the scene, I knew I wanted the camera to be on her a lot of the time, to see the actual human damage Andrew is blindly inflicting. That mixture of hurt and anger and strength and vulnerability and sympathy that you need in that scene for it to resonate, that’s what we were looking for, and Melissa Benoist, who ended up playing the role, absolutely killed the audition. And in a way, that made it the easiest thing to shoot, because after the audition we all know exactly how to play it, and with it written pretty specifically, I know I could shoot it really quickly, so we just sat down and did it. Believe it or not, shooting this scene was the first time Melissa and Miles met. So it was like, ‘Hi, nice to meet you! Now let’s break up!'””

Final thing: there’s no wide establishing “master” shot in the beginning or middle of the scene because we don’t need one. Unless there’s one before this YouTube clip starts. But within this clip, the wide shot is only used at the very end, once the tension is diffused and he watches her leave. Cutting to this shot during the scene would have taken us out of her POV and diffused the building confrontation.

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