After winning his first pair of Oscars for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land—for Best Original Score and Best Original Song—Justin Hurwitz took a major creative leap. A close friend and the closest of the director’s collaborators since their time at Harvard University, the composer had worked with Chazelle to this point on three projects set squarely within the world of music, including Whiplash and the pair’s first low-budget effort, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. On stage at the Dolby Theatre in 2017 at a pivotal career juncture, Chazelle and Hurwitz were already on to their next project, which marked a major stylistic departure. That film, First Man, would take them to space, and an entirely new musical world, resulting in Hurwitz’s Golden Globe nomination today for Best Original Score.
Based on a book by James R. Hansen, Chazelle’s latest chronicles the exploits of American astronaut Neil Armstrong—the first person ever to set foot on the moon—and the many challenges, personal and professional, which he had to transcend to get there. Working on First Man with Chazelle, Hurwitz set out first to find his principal melodies, as he always does, spending countless hours at a piano in search of a sound that feels appropriate and true. Countless piano demos later, the composer began to zero in on his themes, which reflected the essential nature of Armstrong and his experience—the way in which he was forever caught between the extraordinary, singular nature of his experience, and a personal tragedy he couldn’t shake. “It’s exciting and glorious when this rocket lifts off, and it’s incredible when they finally land on the moon, and the music reflects all that excitement, and all that triumph and achievement,” Hurwitz reflects, “but there still is a bit of loss in that music.”
This week’s guest of the Production Value video series, the composer explains how he took this story’s emotional core and constructed a sonic world around it, fleshing out all the intricacies of the score. “The score had to sound different than what we’d done before. Having now a couple of melodies figured out, I just started playing around with instrumentation and software,” he shares. Featuring a 90-piece orchestra that lent itself to the creation of an overpowering sound, the score would notably feature the harp, elements of sound design, the modular synthesizer and the theremin—the last “emotional, expressive instrument” coming at Chazelle’s suggestion. Intimate, vulnerable and otherworldly, while drawing the mind to the canon of classic sci-fi, the theremin contained multitudes, the perfect encapsulation of the film’s lonely, aching heart.
Sitting down in the Universal Studios Lots’ Hitchcock Theater, where First Man was mixed, the composer further outlined the nature of his work with Chazelle, which requires him to mock up a number of musical ideas before a frame is shot. “I think we may do this because we’ve made musicals in the past, and you have to do it with musicals; you have to actually create a lot of demos and mock-ups before you shoot,” he says. “You don’t have to do that with this kind of movie, but I think we’re in the habit of it, and Damien really likes to know what some of those cues are going to be.”
At age 33, Hurwitz has flown higher than he might have ever imagined, placing his imprint on film history and the Academy’s hallowed ground. For the hard-working composer, music has become a way to connect. “I’ve seen the effect that the music has had on people. Certainly with La La Land, I saw how many people the music reached, how many people the music touched, and that is the best part of it for me,” he shares.
For more from our conversation with Hurwitz, take a look above.
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