First Man composer Justin Hurwitz talks about working with Damien Chazelle

adminOctober 18, 2018


The composer Justin Hurwitz won two Oscars for "La La Land", and is dedicated every day to write the majestic score of "First Man".

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Damien Chazelle has never made a film without his composer (and former roommate) Justin Hurwitz. Also, one could argue that Chazelle has never made a film that has not been in some way. about Justin hurwitz

That idea is still valid with his historic and solemn biopic by Neil Armstrong, an intimate epic that can hardly contain the IMAX screens on which he debuted last week. Another visceral story about a man who is caught up in his own ambition, "First Man" may not focus on an obsessive musician, which, at this point, is enough to qualify him as a great outlet for his director, but the tortuous armstrong Journey from the depths of pain to the surface of the Moon, however, underscores Chazelle's characteristic affinity for characters who are consumed by a single idea, often at the expense of their own well-being. And while it is natural to see these films as the exaggerated self-portraits of a young author, film is a means of collaboration, and Chazelle's most important collaborator, himself an obsessive musician, could be an even clearer personification of the heroes of the film. filmmaker.

With only 33 years, and already with two Oscar awards to his name (Best Original Score and Best Original Song for "La La Land"), Hurwitz has quickly become one of the brightest and most exciting composers of 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 make his mark by forging links with several of the most famous characters in the age. authors

We are not Hurwitz, who does not like multitasking. His work is intransigent and consumes everything. In the same way that Andrew Neiman struggled to balance his drums with his love life, the protagonist of "La La Land" Sebastian Wilder ("Seb" with his friends) could not reconcile the purity of jazz with the commercialism of pop music, and Neil Armstrong had to walk on the moon before he could bear the thought of doing something else, Hurwitz is about the mission in question.

Read more:Beyond Christopher Nolan: "First Man" redefines the VFX in the camera

There is a good reason why he and Chazelle were such quick friends, and because they both felt they had to leave their college band altogether to work in full-time movies. Similarly, there is a good reason why "La La Land" was the first score Hurwitz wrote after "Whiplash", and why "First Man" is the only score he has written since. That production is almost unknown among the main composers of Hollywood (Zimmer works on approximately three films a year, while Desplat juggles with much more), but it works for him.

"This is how 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 do it, even to the detriment of all the other things in my life." When asked if he could wrap his head around the prolificity of his companions, Hurwitz leaned back on the hotel lobby sofa and took a deep breath. "Honestly I do not know," he said. "I admire how productive some people are. With my way of working and how long I think I need, I do not like to feel that there is a deadline. That's why I start in a movie when it's in development or pre-production. I literally need months at the beginning of the process when I can sit at the piano and look for the melodies. "

Hurwitz began to think of "First Man" even before starting work on "La La Land" in 2014: he finished the final mix of the film less than 72 hours before its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival of 2018. Even after all that time, he only did it by the skin of his teeth. "There was no room for error," Hurwitz said, his eyes still clouded by the long nights in the studio and the festival trips that followed. "At one point, there was even talk of projecting an unfinished mix and then returning after Venice and Telluride to get it right, but we finished."

The result, as the public is discovering now, is one of the most complex, majestic and emotionally lucid film scores of recent memory. It is also a confirmation that "La La Land" was not a flash in the pan, and that, in the future, the music of Hurwitz should be as important an event as the Chazelle films for which he composes them.

Read more:Universal reacts to the disappointing box office of the "First Man" with optimism: "This is very a marathon, not a sprint"

Of course, those two things are largely inseparable. While several filmmakers think that music is a garrison to be placed on top of the image during postproduction, Chazelle bakes the sound directly at the base of her stories, as if the score and script were united twins living or they die by the force of a single heartbeat. "That's one of the reasons I love working with Damien," Hurwitz said, "because he wants music to be a voice in his films, and that allows me to feel like I'm also a storyteller."

Armed with the mutual assumption that he and Chazelle will collaborate on each film, Hurwitz knew he would have to accelerate the engines as soon as "First Man" began to take shape. He started working on the film full-time in March 2017, a few days after winning his first Oscar. From the beginning, the project was a bold new challenge. "Damien told me right away that it had to sound totally different to everything we had done before," he said, and smiled. "Obviously, there was no jazz. All the time the team was in Atlanta for the preparation and then the shot, I was at home trying to compose the songs. We start as we always do, which is just me composing a piano, and sending tons and tons and mounds from demos to damien. & # 39; How about this? How about this? Ok how about is"And since Damien is not, no, no, maybe, no, no, no …" and so on until it's "oh, my God, I love it!" # 39; "

Of course, the director did not let his right hand just grope in the dark. Well, not at all. Chazelle and Hurwitz would talk at length, but only about the emotion of the story and the idea that music should provide to the taciturn protagonist of the film. Hurwitz's difficult task was to find a sound articulation of Armstrong's humanity; to build a two-way bridge between Armstrong as a pioneer symbol of American exceptionalism, and Armstrong as a friend and grieving father who had to reach for the stars in order to make peace with loved ones he had lost in heaven. Music had always been used to convey the most intimate feelings of its characters, but this story presented its most wounded and retired hero to date, a historical figure, no less, and its first protagonist who did not naturally express himself through of the song.

Hurwitz, who knew that Chazelle could not start shooting until he had a main theme and a secondary riff, was guided by a single principle: "Armstrong's pain needed to feel like something that transcended his earthly life." It was then that Chazelle suggested the theremin. . "We wanted to use some of the space elements, even in the most intimate signals of the earth," Hurwitz said, "and the theremin is just a great intersection between technology and humanity."

After putting together the basic skeleton of the theme on the piano (a sad but transcendent waltz that was later assigned to the harp), he went to the races in the theremin. Hurwitz saw many YouTube tutorials. "I studied many videos on modular synthesizers," recalled the composer, "and how it works to join all the different cables, I received a lot of metal in my apartment and I just started recording, I also recorded other elements like water and fire, and then I composed them into a sound that I turned into an instrument and used it throughout the movie, probably, Damien had in mind the sequence of the Moon when he told me to check the theremin, but it can be heard in almost all the signals " .

Read more:Review of "First Man": the exciting biography of Neil Armstrong by Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling has what it needs: Venice

The painful thread of the instrument is at the front and center in the moments after Armstrong's great leap for humanity, but it also sobs at the bottom of the track that first establishes Armstrong's marriage with his wife Janet, as an echo from deeper in the hole in their hearts. . "It sounds like the human voice, so you can almost cry with her and grieve her," Hurwitz said. "Everything is so flexible in the theremin, so you are always sliding and bending towards the notes, it is human and not at the same time, so it is not surprising that the instrument has become an emblem of the old movies. of Science fiction ". But the theremin not only helped Hurwitz connect to the space odyssey of yesteryear; it also allowed him to get away from them. "There were definitely some tropes that we wanted to avoid, a chorus of angelic voices being the main ones," he said. "The vocal element of the theremin allowed us to achieve a similar effect in a different way."

If much of "First Man" sounds constantly different from what the public could expect from a movie about the triumphs and tragedies of the space race, it's not because Chazelle and Hurwitz were just trying to show or mark their territory. On the contrary, both collaborators felt that it was essential that the music challenge the expectations of the genre and the narrative in order to maintain the focus on the emotional state of Armstrong in the middle of his spectacular journey.

"In many films," Hurwitz said, "the launch sequences and the spatial sequences are triumphant and glorious, as they reflect the achievement of all this." Damien wanted to recognize that sense of accomplishment, but also to use it as a window to pain underneath. the surface ". When the Apollo 11 rocket takes off, it is carried by a large orchestra, "but it rests on 100 synthesizer tracks," Hurwitz said. "There is so much anguish and pain in the music for everything that Neil has gone through to that point, and for all that he is leaving behind and for the fact that he may never see his family again." He is doing this all over the world, but he is so alone in many ways. "

Sometimes, it seems that Hurwitz is Armstrong's only partner. Nowhere in the film is his score more present than in the sequence of landing on the Moon, a breathless crescendo that embodies the approach similar to Chazelle's synaesthesia to the cinematic sound; The score is so completely attached to the image that it almost feels like you're watching the music. "Damien really wanted to drive that sequence with music," Hurwitz said, "and that's such an audacious choice to allow the score to work that way because many filmmakers will probably prefer the sound design, or that the score sits but does not be heard. "In a collaboration of Chazelle / Hurwitz, the score is Never Sense but not heard.

"That sign is from a model I made more than a year ago," Hurwitz said. "It was something Damien wanted to be done by hand before filming the movie. Maybe it's because we come from making musicals, but he loves to know in advance what music will be. " The director wrote the sequence and the music was heard on the set. "Obviously, I modified the music over time, but Damien and [editor Tom Cross] It cuts the sequence around that signal, "Hurwitz said." And then, when I went from a model to an appropriate orchestration, I had to move things according to what they did with the image. "We adapted our parts of the film to the of each one, and that symbiosis is what I love about our process ".

Read more:Ryan Gosling addresses critics of "The First Man" annoyed because the film forgets the American flag that is being planted on the Moon

No matter how tired he may have been, Hurwitz seemed revitalized by discussing the holistic nature of the post-production of the film and how he allowed 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 the whole team was in sync." Case in point: Hurwitz's closeness to sound designer Lee Ai-ling allowed him to observe the specific frequencies used in the Apollo 11 launch sequence, and certain that his low-range sounds were not denied by those percussive noises.

Needless to say, that was a challenge that Hurwitz had not encountered in smaller films like "Whiplash"; the $ 60,000 budget for "Guy and Madeline on a park bench", Chazelle's debut in 2009, may not even cover an afternoon with the 90-piece "first man" orchestra that Hurwitz directed. It was just another part of the process for someone who, in his own words, wants to "give me 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 a new score every two years, it's fine for him. "I like the rhythm," he said. "It would be very difficult for me to find the type of connection I have with Damien, so I am very worried." It does not oppose deceleration, in the right context. "Maybe I could try to reduce it to once a year if I found another filmmaker, but & # 39; First Man & # 39; took a year and a half of full-time work and would not want to spend less effort than that," he said. " The important thing for me is that I want to look back and feel that I gave him everything I have. "

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