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Interview: Justin Hurwitz learns the theremin and other "First Man" stories

by Nathaniel R

A lot of people who win two Oscars by the age of 32, with only three films under their belt (not that there's many of those people, mind you) might safely be said to have peaked early. If the Golden Globe nominated score for First Man is any indication however, Justin Hurwitz is still on a steady ascent into his power as a composer. The gifted 33 year-old has scored all four of Damien Chazelle's films. The first three were musicals in spirit or by nature. The fourth, First Man, is less of a departure than expected since the emotive score is crucial to the film's success. 

Chazelle and Hurwitz were college roommates and have been fiercely loyal since. While Chazelle was struggling to get his first films made, always with the plan for Hurwitz to score them, Hurwitz survived by breaking into sitcom writing "I don't take for granted how lucky I was to get to write comedy professionally," he says but the plan was always to be a composer "I am more passionate about music than anything else in the world."  

Our full interview, edited and condensed for clarity, follows... 

NATHANIEL: When did you first know you wanted to be a composer?

JUSTIN HURWITZ: I grew up playing piano, taking lessons since I was six. My parents gave me a synthesizer and a sequencer for my tenth birthday that lets you layer tracks, so I started composing then. I wasn't thinking about movies yet but it was around that same time that I started noticing film scores. The most impactful to me were the John Williams / Steven Spielberg films. Jurassic Park had a big impact on me. E.T. on VHS... I was so in love with that score. 

NATHANIEL: Touchstones for a lot of people!

JUSTIN HURWITZ: As I got into college I discovered composers like Nina Rota and Bernard Hermann and all sorts of others. 

Watching First Man, I thought 'god this most have been an overwhelming film to score,' but on the other hand after La La Land, maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps it was a piece of cake?

It was definitely not a piece of cake. In a lot of ways it was my most challenging score...

Why is that? 

The first conversation Damien and I had, he told me First Man had to sound completely different than anything we'd done. I knew I couldn't rely on the tools and techniqes I studied in college or that I used on our first few scores. I would need to learn electronic music, how to manipulate recordings, and use new instruments like vintage synths. I learned how to play the theremin. It was a little scary at the beginning. 

But was the process significantly different?

We started like we always start where I'm composing at the piano and figuring out the themes, doing mockups and demos. Damien likes a lot of demos before we begin. That was the same. Where it really got challenging was when we were scoring the actual picture. As we've done in the past, I got an office right next to the editing room where Damien and Tom Cross  are based. We share a door so we're always in each other's space. I'm giving them themes, they're giving me scenes, I fit the music to the scene. They tweak the scenes, give them back to me. 

In some ways that's how we did it on La La Land but there we'd had a clear idea of what the score needed. 

You'd have to! You can't change the score in post-production with a musical.

With First Man, though, we really didn't know what the scenes needed. So there was a lot of trial and error. 'Let's try the Karen melody on harp. Let's try the family motif on strings. Okay that's not right.' We went back and forth many times. There was such a delicate nature to the filmmaking. So much of the movie is grounded and intimate. We knew that certain scenes needed music but finding the right tone and even the right sound mix to not break the style of the scene was difficult.

I was talking to Tom Cross at an event recently and I was telling him how much I loved the intimacy of the picture, particularly the portrait of the marriage. That took me by surprise.

The irony is that some of the biggest cues in the movie were... well nothing is ever easy but they were easier. We knew that they could be big and bombastic. Especially once we get to the Apollo 11 mission. Damien wanted big orchestrations and on the moon he wanted lush emotional music. It was easier to execute those ideas than to figure out how to score the earth scenes.

We actually had a lot of music built before Damien shot the movie. He likes to have the music on set to reference himself or play for the actors. I think this process exists because we were making musicals where you have to make the music before you shoot the movie. He also likes to storyboard to the music. 

But on this movie it sounds like you had less decided in advance and more tweaking after the fact. 

Yes. The first scene Damien gave me in post-production was the sequence where Neil is packing up his bags to leave the house and go off on the main Apollo 11 mission. It's intercut with the head of NASA reading the statement that's prepared in the event that these men don't come back from the mission. It's funny that we started with this because Damien says 'none of our material is going to work for this.' It needed to climb and be dramatic and operatic. 

After the contingency statement scene the next type of scenes he gave me were the family scenes. We didn't have harp in mind when we started but it was through those scenes that we settled on the harp. It became clear that it had to be an instrument with a light touch. Anything that sustained like woodwinds or brass would feel too heavy and would tip the scenes toward melodrama.

The past five years of your career have been magical: Three critical hits, a giant box office success, Oscar love? Have you been able to take it in at all or has it all been a blur?

The First Man process is more of a blur! It was more condensed -- we had something close to half as much time in post-production and it was a very intense period. I was under a lot of pressure. I still feel a little like I'm recovering!

But, hey, now you can play the theremin!

There are great theremin players and I am not one of them. [Laughs] 

But I spent enough time with it that I can play it. With the movie done I've brought the theremin home. I've been playing it a little at home every day which is really fun. I'm playing scales and arpeggios and trying to improve my technique.

So we can expect another theremin score from you?

That would raise some eyebrows if I did two theremin scores in a row! [Laughs]

Whatever the movie needs, ultimately, but it's important for me to try new things. Every score I do, I'll learn one main new thing whether it's an instrument or a production technique. I'm really into the idea of expanding the toolbox every time. 

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Reader Comments (3)

His score for "First Man" is nothing short of brilliant.

December 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

Great interview! I have to read more thoroughly later, as I love Justin Hurwitz, and we seem to have had similar musical touchstones as kids and through college, etc. Very fascinated by his inspirations and process.

First Man is easily the best score in what has sadly been a weak year for the category imo. The First Man score is the only one I've gotten truly obsessed with, and I typically obsess over scores. It's so hypnotic and perfectly attuned to the themes and emotions in the film. Deserves the oscar 100%.

2015 is still the best recent score year I can remember, with Carol, Sicario, It Follows, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Macbeth probably as my top five.

December 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Keller

I would gladly interact with his toolbox!

By the way, saw La La Land this Xmas and it holds up (more than) well. City of Stars tops Shallow and the rest of eightysomething songs eligible this year.

December 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

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