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Damien Chazelle & Composer Justin Hurwitz Talk Stylistic Diversity, “Thoughtful Cacophony” Of ‘Babylon’ Score – The Process

Damien Chazelle and 'Babylon' composer Justin Hurwitz on The Process

For filmmaker Damien Chazelle, one of the most compelling aspects of Justin Hurwitz’s score to Babylon is the way it plays with “all colors of the spectrum,” seamlessly synthesizing a lifetime of musical influences on the part of the composer.

“I hear the guy who was writing rock songs…and sort of dance music for the band we were in, in college. I certainly hear classical; I certainly hear jazz,” Chazelle tells Hurwitz in today’s edition of The Process. “I also hear you pushing your own sensibilities more towards avant-garde than I’ve ever heard before, even [with] stuff that starts to verge on noise music or soundscapes.”

Hurwitz admits that in the early days of his work on the film, this confluence of styles wasn’t something he was consciously pursuing. But in the end, he of course also sees his score as one of many “colors.” One guiding idea behind it was to take the “jazz band horns and rhythm section” they’d long been working with and filter it through a “rock and roll writing style” for a project less “tonally grounded” than any they’d made before. His “really driving, riff-based pieces of music” culminated in an atmosphere of “crafted, thoughtful cacophony” befitting a piece on the cocaine-fueled debauchery of early Hollywood.

Babylon is the fifth feature collaboration for Chazelle and Hurwitz, on the heels of First Man, La La Land, Whiplash and their “senior thesis” of sorts, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. The original epic traces the rise and fall of assorted characters amidst the decadence and depravity of 1920s Los Angeles, as Tinseltown makes the transition from silent films to talkies. The trio at its center are Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a once beloved silent film star on the decline; the hard-partying, aspiring actress, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie); and Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who bonds with Nellie over his dreams of achieving Hollywood greatness during his journey from assistant to executive. 

Prior to their own stratospheric Hollywood climb, which has seen Chazelle become the youngest-ever Best Director Oscar winner with La La Land and Hurwitz thus far claiming two statuettes, the pair were Harvard peers who spent time together in a band and, as Hurwitz recalls, bonded over “philosophical ideas of work ethic and drive.” Indeed, the pair had sights themselves on taking over the town, “egging each other on” back then to forego the pleasures of campus life, in order to lay the foundation for the accomplishment of their dreams.

Hurwitz is back in the awards race this season, having last month landed both an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for his Babylon score. And to Chazelle, the continued successes of his collaborator are a natural byproduct of the qualities he saw in him from the very beginning. “I will always remember, and it’s kind of I guess similar to how you are today…You’re such a monomaniacal, work ethic-oriented, sort of obsessive personality. I think you take all these things as compliments, so I think it’s okay for me to say this, but I feel like that was part of why…it felt very organic that after the band, we eventually just started working together,” reflects Chazelle. “Beyond just my knowing at that point what you were capable of musically…I also knew that whatever you put your mind to, you were just going to do it relentlessly, and do it for as long as it took to reach utter perfection.”

Released by Paramount Pictures on December 23 and also currently Oscar nominated in the categories of Costume and Production Design, Babylon also stars Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Jean Smart, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde and more. Chazelle directed from his own script, with Marc Platt, Matthew Plouffe and Hamilton producing, and Michael Beugg, Maguire, Wyck Godfrey, Helen Estabrook and Adam Siegel serving as exec producers.

In his time on The Process, Babylon‘s composer reflects on becoming known as “jazz composer Justin Hurwitz” despite the fact that he only came to jazz by way of Chazelle; musical themes planted in Babylon‘s opening party sequence and finding ways to “twist” them; his regret about not going in a more profane direction he’d initially considered for the titling of Babylon‘s climactic end-sequence cue; musical odes to his grandfather Herman embedded in each of his scores; his Babylon music’s circus influences; and the “magic” that comes in relying as much as possible on the “living, breathing mechanism” of real instruments rather than their virtual counterparts.

Hurwitz also discusses getting his start at a composer at age 10 and beginning to contemplate film scoring in high school; his natural attraction to orchestral music and why film might be the best venue for it today; the people who were instrumental in expanding his musical knowledge and taste; rebelling during his time at Harvard against its “really uncool,” “old-school” and “snobby” rules as far as composition; being behind the curve in his music production knowledge as he headed out for L.A.; the evolution in his craft from Guy and Madeline through Babylon; and his drive to expand “the toolbox” on each film he makes with Chazelle.

Chazelle speaks on The Process to his natural gravitation toward jazz, Hurwitz’s penchant for classical, and how their areas of expertise collide to produce richer work; building toward the “total cacophony” of the “biggest musical meal” that was Babylon‘s end sequence; his enjoyment of the love theme penned for Manny and Nellie; instrumentalists who were key contributors in making this score special; and more.

View the full conversation above.

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