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‘First Man’ Composer Justin Hurwitz Is the Real Obsessive Musician at the Heart of Damien Chazelle’s Films

Composer Justin Hurwitz won two Oscars for "La La Land," and he's devoted every day since to writing the majestic score for "First Man."

Justin Hurwitz - Awards Spotlight 2016-2017

Justin Hurwitz

Daniel Bergeron


Damien Chazelle has never made a film without his go-to composer (and former college roommate) Justin Hurwitz. Moreover, one could argue that Chazelle has never made a film that wasn’t in some way about Justin Hurwitz.

That idea continues to hold true with his solemn but starry-eyed historical Neil Armstrong biopic, an intimate epic that can hardly be contained by the IMAX screens on which it debuted last week. Another visceral story about a man who’s caught in the grip of his own ambition, “First Man” may not focus on an obsessive musician — which, at this point, is enough to qualify it as a major departure for its director — but Armstrong’s tortuous journey from the depths of grief to the surface of the Moon nevertheless underscores Chazelle’s signature affinity for characters who are consumed by a single idea, often at the expense of their own well-being. And while it’s natural to see these movies as the exaggerated self-portraits of a young auteur, cinema is a collaborative medium, and Chazelle’s most important collaborator — himself an obsessive musician — might be an even clearer embodiment of the filmmaker’s heroes.

Only 33 years old, and already with two Oscars to his name (Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “La La Land”), Hurwitz has fast established himself as one of the most brilliant and exciting composers in the movies today. At this rate, we could be talking about the next Hans Zimmer or Alexandre Desplat — the kind of generational virtuoso who could make a fortune writing music for the next Batman saga and/or leave his mark by forging bonds with several of the era’s most famous auteurs.

We that’s not Hurwitz, who’s not big on multitasking. His work is uncompromising and all-consuming. In much the same way as Andrew Neiman struggled to balance his drumming with his love life, “La La Land” protagonist Sebastian Wilder (“Seb” to his friends) couldn’t reconcile the purity of jazz with the commercialism of pop music, and Neil Armstrong had to walk on the Moon before he could stand the thought of doing anything else, Hurwitz is all about the mission at hand.

There’s a good reason why he and Chazelle were such fast friends, and why the two of them both felt they had to completely drop out of their college band in order to work on movies full-time. Likewise, there’s a good reason why “La La Land” was the first score that Hurwitz wrote after “Whiplash,” and why “First Man” is the only score he’s written since. That output is almost unheard of among Hollywood’s top composers (Zimmer works on roughly three films a year, while Desplat juggles far more), but it works for him.

“That’s just the way I am,” Hurwitz said in an interview during a rare moment of quiet at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “I’m very, very obsessive, and whatever I do I just give all of myself to it, even at the detriment of all the other things in my life.” When asked if he could wrap his head around the prolificacy of his peers, Hurwitz leaned back into the hotel lobby sofa and took a deep breath. “I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I admire how productive some people are. With my way of working, and how much time I think that I need, I don’t like feeling like there’s a deadline. That’s why I start on a movie when it’s in development or pre-production. I literally need months at the beginning of the process when I can just sit at the piano and search for the melodies.”

Hurwitz started thinking about “First Man” before he even began work on “La La Land” in 2014 — he finished the final mix on the film less than 72 hours before its world premiere at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. Even after all that time, he still only made it by the skin of his teeth. “There was no margin of error,” Hurwitz said, his eyes still bleary from those long nights in the studio and the festival travel that followed. “At one point, there was even talk of screening an unfinished mix and then going back after Venice and Telluride to get it right, but we ended up getting it done.”

The result, as audiences are now discovering, is one of the most complex, majestic, and emotionally lucid movie scores in recent memory. It’s also confirmation that “La La Land” was no flash in the pan, and that — going forward — Hurwitz’s music should be as much of an event as the Chazelle movies for which he composes them.

Of course, those two things are largely inextricable. While a number of filmmakers think of music as a garnish to be layered on top of the picture during post-production, Chazelle bakes sound directly into the bedrock of his stories, as though score and screenplay are conjoined twins that live or die on the strength of a single heartbeat. “That’s one of the reasons why I love working with Damien,” Hurwitz said, “because he wants music to be a voice in his movies, and that allows me to feel like I’m a storyteller, too.”

Armed with the mutual assumption that he and Chazelle are going to collaborate on each film, Hurwitz knew that he would have to rev up the engines as soon as “First Man” started to take shape. He began working on the movie full-time in March of 2017, just days after winning his first Oscar. From the start, the project was a bold new challenge. “Damien told me right off the bat that it had to sound totally different than anything we’d done before,” he said, and grinned. “Obviously, there was no jazz. The whole time the team was in Atlanta for prep and then shooting, I was back home just trying to compose the themes. We started like we always do, which is just me composing at a piano, and sending tons and tons and tons of demos to Damien. ‘How about this? How about this? Okay, how about this?’ And from Damien it’s ‘no, no, no, maybe, no, no, no…’ and so on until it’s ‘oh my God, I love that!’”

Of course, the director didn’t leave his right-hand man to just grope around in the dark. Well, not entirely. Chazelle and Hurwitz would talk at length, but only about the emotion of the story, and the insight the music would need to provide into the film’s taciturn protagonist. It was Hurwitz’s daunting task to find a sonic articulation of Armstrong’s humanity; to build a two-way bridge between Armstrong as a pioneering symbol of American exceptionalism, and Armstrong as a grieving friend and father who had to reach the stars in order to make peace with the loved ones he’d lost to the heavens. Music had always been used to convey their characters’ innermost feelings, but this story presented them with their most wounded and withdrawn hero to date — a historical figure, no less — and their first leading man who didn’t naturally express himself through song.

Hurwitz, who knew that Chazelle couldn’t start shooting until he had a main theme and a secondary riff, was guided by a single principle: “Armstrong’s grief needed to feel like something that transcended his earthly life.” That’s when Chazelle suggested the theremin. “We wanted to use some of the spacier elements, even in the more intimate earthbound cues,” Hurwitz said, “and the theremin is just a great intersection between technology and humanity.”

After hammering out the basic skeleton of the theme on piano (a sad but transcendent waltz that was later assigned to the harp), it was off to the races on the theremin. Hurwitz watched a lot of YouTube tutorials. “I studied a lot of videos about modular synths,” the composer remembered, “and how it works to patch together all the different cables. I got a bunch of metal delivered to my apartment and just started recording them. I also recorded other elements like water and fire, and then composited them into sound that I turned into an instrument and used it throughout the film. Damien probably had the Moon sequence in mind when he told me to check out the theremin, but you can hear it in almost every cue.”

The instrument’s aching warble is front and center in the moments following Armstrong’s one giant leap for mankind, but it also sobs in the background of the track that first establishes Armstrong’s marriage with his wife Janet, like an echo from deep within the hole in their hearts. “It sounds like the human voice, so you can really almost cry with it and wail with it,” Hurwitz said. “Everything is so flexible on the theremin, so you’re always sliding and bending into the notes. It’s human and not at the same time, so it’s no wonder the instrument has become emblematic of old sci-fi films.” But the theremin didn’t just help Hurwitz connect to the space odysseys of yore; it also allowed him to move away from them. “There were definitely certain tropes we wanted to avoid, a choir of angelic voices being chief among them,” he said. “The vocal element of the theremin allowed us to achieve a similar effect in a different way.”

If much of “First Man” consistently sounds different than what audiences might expect from a movie about the triumphs and tragedies of the space race, that’s not because Chazelle and Hurwitz were just trying to show off or mark their territory. On the contrary, both collaborators felt it essential that the music defy genre and narrative expectations in order to maintain focus on Armstrong’s emotional state in the midst of his spectacular journey.

“In many films,” Hurwitz said, “launching sequences and space sequences are triumphant and glorious, as they reflect on the accomplishment of it all. Damien wanted to acknowledge that feeling of achievement, but also to use it as a window into the grief beneath the surface.” When the Apollo 11 rocket takes off, it’s carried along by a huge orchestra, “but it’s resting on top of 100 tracks of synth,” Hurwitz said. “There’s so much angst and pain in the music because of everything Neil has gone through to that point, and because of everything he’s leaving behind and the fact that he may never see his family again. He’s doing this thing for the whole world, but he’s so alone in many ways.”

At times, it feels as though Hurwitz is Armstrong’s only companion. Nowhere in the film is his score more present than in the Moon-landing sequence, a breathless crescendo that epitomizes Chazelle’s synesthesia-like approach to cinematic sound; the score is so completely bonded with the image that it almost feels as if you’re watching the music. “Damien really wanted to drive that sequence with music,” Hurwitz said, “and that’s such a bold choice to let the score operate that way because a lot of filmmakers would probably favor sound design, or have the score be felt but not heard.” In a Chazelle/Hurwitz collaboration, the score is never felt but not heard.

“That cue is from a mock-up I did over a year ago,” Hurwitz said. “It was something Damien wanted crafted before he shot the movie. Maybe it’s because we came from making musicals, but he loves knowing what the music is going to be in advance.” The director storyboarded the sequence, and the music was played on the set. “Obviously, I tweaked the music over time, but Damien and [editor Tom Cross] cut the sequence around that cue,” Hurwitz said. “And then, as I went from a mock-up to proper orchestration, I had to move things around based on what they did with the picture. We tailor our parts of the film to each other’s, and that symbiosis is what I love about our process.”

However tired he might have been, Hurwitz seemed revitalized by discussing the holistic nature of the film’s post-production, and how it allowed for everyone to work together under one roof. Hurwitz’s office on the Universal lot shared a door with Chazelle’s editing suit. “They give me a scene, and I give them back music,” Hurwitz said. “We could really see everyone’s work and make sure that the whole team was in sync.” Case in point: Hurwitz’s close proximity to sound designer Lee Ai-ling allowed him to note the specific frequencies used in the Apollo 11 launch sequence, and make sure that his low-end sounds weren’t negated by those percussive noises.

Needless to say, that was a challenge that Hurwitz hadn’t encountered on smaller movies like “Whiplash”; the $60,000 budget for “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” Chazelle’s 2009 debut, might not even cover an afternoon with the 90-piece “First Man” orchestra who Hurwitz conducted himself. It was just another part of the process for someone who, in his own words, wants to “give myself totally, totally to the movie. I want to be there for the whole thing. Damien wants me to be there.”

If working exclusively with Chazelle means that Hurwitz will only get to deliver a new score every two years, that’s fine by him. “I like the pace,” he said. “It would be so hard for me to find the type of connection that I have with Damien, so I’m very apprehensive.” He’s not opposed to slowing down — in the right context. “Maybe I could try to get it down to once a year if I found another filmmaker, but ‘First Man’ took a year-and-a-half of full-time work and I wouldn’t want to give anything less effort than that,” he said. “The important thing for me is that I want to look back and feel like I gave it everything I have.”

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