Teller plays a jazz drummer determined to succeed, whether because of or in spite of an unforgiving instructor, played by J.K. Simmons at his most intimidating (and muscular). Attending the country's most prestigious music academy, Teller's character, Andrew, aspires to be one of the greats, playing until his hands bleed. Simmons is Fletcher, a teacher prone to belittling his students in an effort to unearth their determination and will to improve.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle said he told Simmons: "Just scare us."
The 28-year-old Chazelle, whose short film of the same title and subject won an award at Sundance last year, is also a drummer who drew from personal experiences for the story.
The original film "basically helped us get in the conversation with, like, financiers and people who might want to take a risk about a movie about a drummer," Chazelle said. "Without the short, I don't know if we would be here."
Teller described the film as "a pretty intense, dramatic almost, like, thriller environment for conservatory jazz music."
As for his co-star?
"J.K. Simmons is pretty terrifying," Teller said.
Paul Reiser co-stars as Teller's loving dad—one of two movies Reiser appears in at Sundance. The other is the dark comedy "Life After Beth."
Both "Life After Beth" and "Whiplash" are candidates in the festival's U.S. dramatic competition. Winners will be announced on Jan. 25.
Sony Pictures Worldwide announced it acquired international distribution rights to "Whiplash" just after its premiere.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy.