Composer Justin Hurwitz On The “Excitement” & “Pressure” He Felt Entering New Space With ‘First Man’

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Progressing to the upper echelon of film scoring with admirable speed, Justin Hurwitz had a predicament with First Man, setting out to craft music unlike any he’d composed before. Collaborating with director Damien Chazelle since his days at Harvard, Hurwitz had a whirlwind experience with his last project, the original musical La La Land, winning two Oscars, two Golden Globes, and a BAFTA Award, among other accolades. His score there marked only his third feature endeavor, and naturally, coming off an unprecedented year with that film, the stakes going forward seemed high.

For Hurwitz, starting out on First Man, there was indeed “a lot of excitement, but also a lot of pressure,” because each of his prior projects was rooted in the world of music, and in a sense, this new film couldn’t be more different. Depicting with stunning accuracy the experience of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the moon—both in his deepest, darkest personal moments, and his soaring highs—the drama needed a sound all its own, which forced Hurwitz to learn a couple of new tricks. “We talked from the beginning about it having an electronic side to it; I had never done any electronic music, or music production, really, so I was excited to jump in, but it was pretty nerve-wracking,” he admits. “I knew that it wasn’t just going to be orchestrated music. There was going to be manipulation of sound, manipulation of instruments, using synths and some instruments I didn’t really know anything about.”

One key to the score’s unique and appropriate otherworldliness—to its balance of “intimacy” and “grand spacey-ness,” was the theremin, suggested by Chazelle, an electronic instrument synonymous with classic sci-fi soundtracks from the likes of Bernard Herrmann. A traditional orchestra did play into the sound of First Man, in its moments of overwhelming achievement, while other out-of-the-box elements also factored in. To cultivate the sound Chazelle needed for his film, a sound that toed a fine, Hurwitz simply needed time—and time, he had. “I had a bunch of months while Damien was prepping and then shooting the movie to play around with all these things that I hadn’t used before, and I really needed that time,” the composer reflects. “Because once they started giving me picture, I had to just score the scenes. There was no time to be learning new things at that point.”

Worried with First Man that he might be “out of [his] depth a little,” Hurwitz need fear nothing now. Again winning the Golden Globe this year for Best Original Score, he tops the list as the front-runner to beat in that category, when the Oscars come around in Februrary.

How did you start out on First Man? For yourself and Damien, what was the early focus?

I think I’d read a really early draft of the script and then their pre-production draft before I started composing. After that, the most useful thing to me, and the biggest part of getting started, was just talking to Damien, hearing how he was feeling about the music, what he wanted the music to feel like, what he wanted it to convey. I got certain things from the script, but the whole movie tonally, that’s in Damien’s head. So, it was just talking with him about it, and hearing the words he comes up with about what he wants to score to be. He talked a lot at the beginning about the score having a certain amount of pain in it, and he described it as a cosmic pain, a pain that would almost transcend these earthly scenes, and follow him to the moon. So, we talked a lot about the moon scenes, and when Neil actually gets to the moon, and has this incredible experience, we wanted those moments to have all the experience he’s had along the way; all the pain, the loneliness.

Damien talked a lot about how the music needs to be very beautiful because everything Neil is seeing is very beautiful; he’s on this other heavenly body, looking at Earth, this blue marble, and it’s all very beautiful. But Neil is also is very, very alone in this moment. He’s the only person who’s ever had this experience; nobody in the history of humanity can relate to this experience that Neil is having, so he’s inherently just very alone. And he’s also alone because of all these losses he’s faced along the way. So, it’s been very much a story about loss, and also about all that determination it took to get to this place on the moon.

It must have been an interesting challenge, sonically, to take on a film that blends sounds of grief and pain with a more heroic mode.

Yeah, that’s actually a great point because not all the music in the movie is quiet and sad. There’s a lot of really big, loud, action-filled music, but even that music has an undercurrent of pain in it. Because while there is definitely triumph in the Apollo 11 lifting off, or closing in on the moon, the movie is so much with Neil and his experience that in this very exciting music, there has to also be a bit of loneliness. He says goodbye to his family before going off on the mission, and he doesn’t know if he’s ever going to see them again. It’s very difficult, the position he’s in, the position his family’s in, and what he’s feeling.

With the “Landing” cue, the motor of that is the motif that’s been used for the family throughout the movie. We thought we could take that motif that’s always represented the family and make it just a little darker and harsher, and use it to drive that landing sequence. And then right in the middle of the “Landing” cue, and the landing sequence, Damien cuts to this wide shot of the moon. It’s the first time we cut outside the capsule, and get to see the whole surface of the moon, and there, the orchestra explodes [with] the main theme of the movie, which has always been tied to Karen, the daughter that they had and lost. It’s the first time in the movie that we put together the family motif and the Karen melody—the melody that we use for Neil’s pain towards that loss—and it all comes together in that cue. Because it’s up-tempo and the orchestra’s driving, it has a lot of urgency and excitement to it, but what those pieces of music actually mean [is] family, and loss. We thought that was the time to finally bring them together, as we were arriving at the moon, because this is ostensibly what it was all about. Everything that got Neil here, that motivated him to this point, is the experiences with his family and his daughter.

Can you outline the range of instrumentation in your First Man score, and the qualities each instrument brought to it?

There’s a lot of harp that we use, particularly for the really intimate moments, and a lot of the domestic moments, [which were] shot in a documentary style. The harp is very delicate; it can play our melodies or our motifs, but really stay out of the way for the most part, and the harp decays very quickly. It can hit a note and then quickly disappear, which is really nice. It doesn’t add a weight under the scenes, which we thought worked nicely for the documentary-style scenes. The harp is also fragile-sounding. Neil is very steely and steady on the outside, but we thought inside, he’s of course got this vulnerability that the harp got at.

Another key instrument in the score is the theremin; it’s a synth, but you play it with your hands. You don’t touch it, but you have pitch on one side and volume on the other, and it’s a very expressive instrument. That’s something that I started appreciating, once I got one and started playing around with it, how emotive it can be, and how emotional it can sound. It almost has a wailing or crying quality, depending on how you play it. We found it was a way to play our melodies in situations where we wanted them to sing more, to feel more otherworldly, more overtly emotional. The theremin gave it a little bit of that flavor that we associate with science fiction of Neil’s time, but could also be the emotional heart of some of these cues.

We thought that was an interesting combination. Then, there was a full, 90-something-piece orchestra, and we used that for a lot of the bigger action cues, especially as we’re getting closer to, or on the Apollo 11 mission. We did a bit of manipulation with the orchestra—mainly with the strings, to get the strings to sound a little less traditional. We put them all through a rotor cabinet, which is a speaker cabinet, where a speaker spins around inside, giving the strings this whirling quality. Then, after the strings went through that, all the violins, violas, cellos, basses, they all got different types of tremolos, so they’re shaking and fluttering at different rates, [which] gives the strings this quality that we thought worked with the photography on this movie. Then, there were vintage, analog synths; a lot of parts were played on a modular synth, the old-school style of synth, where you have to patch it all together with cables.

First Man

That’s something that I didn’t know how to use at all, so I learned how to use it from YouTube tutorials, basically. Then, once I got one and started playing around with it, it started to make more sense. There’s a lot of synth parts, and they’re all played by hand, which we thought gave the score a handmade feel. Nothing is programmed; nothing is perfectly quantized, so there’s this imperfect, handmade feel that we thought matched the quality of all the machinery, and all the capsules, and contraptions that these guys were getting into. The last element was just a little bit of sound design in the score. I made sounds out of metal, fire and water, recording some of these very elemental sounds and putting them together, and compositing them into a couple types of ambience that I use throughout the cues, just to fill a bit of space, and add a bit of tactile ambience that fit. That, again, reminded me of the film stock they were shooting on, and the idea of the elements; some of the science and spacey-ness of this movie.

The way your career has unfolded thus far is pretty unusual, coming into the industry with a very close collaborator behind the camera, and winning major kudos with your first few films. How do you see your future as a composer? Do you plan to branch out and work with directors other than Damien?

I don’t exactly know what my long-term plans are as a composer. I’d love to do a musical again at some point, but I think in the immediate future, I’d love to do more dramatic film scores. I loved working on this score, and dramatic scores are what I was drawn to most as a kid, [which] I think got me thinking about film music in the first place.

I’ve never had a professional relationship or collaboration as fulfilling as the one I have with Damien, so I hope he’ll still have me back to do more scores for him. I haven’t worked with any other directors yet, but I haven’t really had the opportunity yet to look for the right person and situation. Because we did go pretty much straight from La La Land into First Man. Going forward, I’m definitely open to finding another collaborator; I just think it’s going to be hard for me because I do have such a close relationship with Damien. We’re so in sync in how we think of movies and music, and how they work together, and I feel so lucky to have met a filmmaker who thinks about music the way he does in his movies. Maybe I’ll find somebody else who I can get along with like that, but I don’t know yet if and when that relationship will come along. So, I’m just enjoying my relationship with Damien, and hope to make as many movies as I can with him.

Some composers take on multiple projects a year, but so far, you’ve always committed yourself entirely to one. Do you intend to preserve that kind of working method as you go forward?

I think going forward, I’d like to do more or less what we did here, where I’m on the project through all the phases of it, just because I feel like I need that time personally to do my best work. I need a certain amount of time to just sit at the piano, and search for the right themes, and then I need a certain amount of time to work with the picture, find the right cues, find the right spotting, and then orchestrate it. I need the time to feel confident that I’ve done everything I could to make it as good as I could, and I think that’s just my personality type, to be really committed and obsessed with a project. Damien’s really similar in his own work, and he appreciates that I want to work that way in his movies. We just love giving as much of ourselves as we can to a project.

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