Spotlight on “First Man” Composer Justin Hurwitz

Spotlight on “First Man” Composer Justin Hurwitz

Following the success of his two previous films, Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), fans of Justin Hurwitz’s film scoring had high expectations for what he’d do next. These were met – and then some with the release of First Man in October. Both the film and the soundtrack are extremely powerful, moving examples of everything we go to the movies for. Subsequently, Justin’s wonderful score has appeared on many nominations and awards.

After watching this great featurette on the making of the score, check out our chat with Justin below. 

When did you and director Damien Chazelle first discuss this as a possible project?

I started hearing about the project years ago, while we were still trying to get La La Land off the ground. I think it was fall 2014. Damien was working with the screenwriter Josh Singer on it, and actually met with Ryan Gosling around that time to discuss playing Neil Armstrong, not to discuss La La Land. It just came up in conversation that Damien was also developing a musical, and Ryan sparked to it, and that project worked out first.

I didn’t really know any details about First Man until I read a draft of the script in December 2015, when the La La Land editing room broke for the holidays. Damien and I talked about the story, but didn’t get into any details about the music. The next draft I read was in March 2017, which is when pre-production was starting on First Man, so that’s when Damien and I really discussed what the music was going to be, and that’s when I sat down at the piano and started working.

In both Whiplash and La La Land, Damien was both writer and director. How did the addition of screenwriter Josh Singer change the dynamic?

When we were in post on La La Land, Josh would come into the editing room to work with Damien on the First Man script. I was working from an office next to the editing room, so that’s when I met Josh and got to know him. The fact that Damien didn’t write this script didn’t change my process with Damien, but having Josh around from that point through the end of making First Man was great. He’s an executive producer on the project too, so he spent some time in the First Man editing room, and came to the weekly screenings, and gave me everything from moral support to a few really smart notes on cues.

What music had you created before shooting began?

The first thing Damien always wants to figure out are the main themes, and we do that at the piano. So as soon as I read that later draft of the script in March 2017, he and I got talking about what we needed to feel from the score. He wanted a main theme that would convey loss, grief, loneliness, and a type of “cosmic pain.” By the end of May, we had our main theme melody.

Next, he wanted a piece of material for the family, something more bittersweet, a sort of triplets ostinato that we call “the riff.” Later on, once we got to post, we found that we needed a couple more pieces of thematic material, but those two are the main themes which we knew we’d hang most of the score on.

After they were figured out at the piano, we got talking about instrumentation. Damien suggested the theremin so I got one and started playing around with it. We talked about mixing orchestra and analog synths. We talked about ways to manipulate an orchestra, which led to the idea of putting all the strings through a Leslie rotor cabinet and then a tremolo pedal. We designed some of our own sounds/samples out of recordings of different substances and ambiences. There was a lot of experimentation in the months leading up to the shoot, and during the shoot, while they were in Atlanta and I stayed back in LA.

Beyond just experimenting to figure out what we liked, we looked at it as building a toolbox so we could hit the ground running once we had picture to score. We also wanted to create a lot of options for temp so that Damien and Tom Cross could have a lot of material to draw from in the editing room. So a lot of the pieces we created were “wild” cues meaning they weren’t designed for specific places and could be tried anywhere as temp.

Damien also wanted several sequences of the movie mocked up during pre-production. He likes to storyboard and create animatics to music, and the first cue he wanted created was The Landing. We talked about how it would be the first time in the movie that the two main themes would come together, how it would be driven by a relentless version of “the riff” and that the main theme melody would explode on the shot where we finally cut outside the craft to the wide of the moon.

Damien sees his movies in his head before he shoots them, so he’s able to give me pretty precise timings, how long each section needs to grow, when different instruments should enter, which shots will fall where. I always have to reconfigure the music to some extent once we get to post and have picture against the music, but Damien gets very close during prep when he’s doing his pre-vis animatics. I made mockups for The Landing, the Docking Waltz, and several other cues for the Apollo 11 mission, all during pre-production.

While it’s not always in your face, the Theremin gets a lot of screentime. That was Damien’s idea? Did you plan all along to actually play it in the soundtrack?

Yeah, Damien brought up the theremin. We talked about how it’s most associated with 50s and 60s sci-fi, but Damien wondered if it could be used in a really emotional way. As soon a we tried our main theme melody on it, we fell in love with how expressive the instrument can be. It seemed to have a quality reminiscent of a human voice, and could sound almost like singing, wailing, or crying. It felt like an intersection between technology and humanity. It conveyed the otherworldliness we were looking for but also seemed to get at Neil’s innermost heartbreak.

I didn’t plan on playing the theremin for the final score. I think I assumed we’d bring in a top professional like for all the other instruments. But after more than a year of using it in my demos, and recording the same pieces over and over and over again to get them right and also as picture changed (the blessing and curse of working with audio instead of midi is you have to redo it anytime anything changes), we just had performances we liked. For the record, I am far from being a professional level theremin player, but in a studio context where I can do as many takes as needed and comp together the best material, I was able to pull it off.

One of the most reworked aspects of the score was how we were producing and mixing the theremin. We went back and forth many times on a setting for the low pass filter, trying to decide how bright and electronic versus mellow and mild the theremin should sound. Same thing for where the theremin was sitting against the other instruments in the cues. We ended up making the theremin pretty mild throughout, and kept it mixed down into the cues, letting it come to the forefront and really sing only later in the film on the Apollo 11 mission and specifically on the moon, when Neil is cracking open and the emotions are finally pouring out.

Marcia Dickstein’s harp is wonderful. Did you study harp technique in writing her parts?

I didn’t study anything with the harp specifically for this score. The harp parts are pretty much all diatonic so there was nothing to figure out on the tuning front. There’s a harp part in Apollo 11 Launch which I realized as I was charting it that it was ridiculously fast, particularly when it came to back-to-back repeated notes, and I worried that I had written something for a DAW and not for a real player. But I charted it anyway and apologized to Marcia when we got to the cue, and told her it was ok if it wasn’t playable, but she pulled it off because she’s incredible.

Another good Marcia story is from when we were preparing La La Land Live-in-Concert. The score has two harps, for stereo effect and chromatic material, and it’s in the rider that orchestras need to use two harps, but some orchestras just can’t, so we had to prepare a single harp version as a backup.

There’s some chromatic stuff in Planetarium which I had looked at with an eye for enharmonic tuning solutions, and felt that it really just wasn’t possible on a single harp. During a short break, Marcia went through both parts with a pencil, and found a way with enharmonics and quick pedal changes to get the two parts into a single part. I think she had to drop a note or two, but it’s amazing and I really didn’t think it was possible.

Your early electronic instruments not only invoke classic sci-fi soundtracks but also the era when electronic technology was literally taking off. For the synth sounds was it mostly the Moog IIIc, the EMS VCS3, or something else? Have you long been a fan of this stuff or did you develop the interest in the course of creating this project?

Almost all of the synth parts are from the Moog IIIc. I used the EMS VCS3 for some “haywire” sounding material in a few of the tension cues. Beyond the fact that those synths were contemporary to the story, they have such incredible character.

First of all the tuning is always slightly out, or drifts over time, so that just makes them more human, like a real orchestra or player in an orchestra. Also because I had to play everything in by hand as opposed to programming and quantizing midi, there is a bumpy handmade quality that reminded me of the technology and machinery in the movie. The imperfectness reminded me of these rickety metal capsules with every rivet and switch put there by hand.

Lastly, because each time you return to a cue and have to re-patch the sound, you can never find the exact sound you had before, and it allowed stuff to feel like it was always evolving and changing in the score. There are a couple of instances where I think not being able to match a sound is a problem and it bugs me, but most of the time having sounds differ slightly is an asset, and something I embraced.

I can’t say I’m a longtime fan of modular synth music. I knew Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, and a little bit of Brian Eno’s music, but there are a lot of artists I still need to learn about.

I totally geek out on the synths, the Theremin, the Leslie, and the Echoplex. Do you have any stories about using the old gear, like seeking out pristine or crappy-sounding tapes for the Echoplex?

When I bought the Echoplex, the guy who sold it to me said that the tape was good but there’s one spot where a guitar or synth slammed too hard and you can hear a single chord faintly burned into the tape. I kept waiting to hear it, and imagined that it would show up serendipitously, at the perfect spot in some cue. I never ended up hearing it, but I like to think that it’s in the score somewhere.

One other funny thing is that the CV controller keyboard for the EMS VCS3 was broken and was sending what sounded like random CV. I worked around it, using the joystick and other parts of the synth, but for some of that “haywire” material I mentioned, I found that randomness from a keyboard actually worked perfectly.

While streaming the soundtrack, I start to forget how much of the film has no music. Many scenes look handheld, I believe are shot on film, and are very quiet with no music. This really heightens the sense of Armstrong’s isolation and loneliness. Did you experiment with music in these scenes, or know from the start that silence was going to play a significant role?

Damien and Tom played around with flying my wild temp music into different scenes, so by the time picture got to me, Damien knew where there should be music and where there shouldn’t be. I can’t think of any dry scenes where I had myself composed a cue at some point. We did go back and forth over and over on the spotting and instrumentation of the quiet cues.

The intimate, documentary-style scenes were in many ways the hardest to score, and required the most trial and error. We screened the movie at least once a week for friends and family, or the studio, or preview audiences, and those repeated iterative screenings were so helpful particularly in the intimate scenes, in figuring out where there should be music and what kind of touch it should have.

Where did Finale enter the picture?

I had a much more traditional workflow on this project, and kept things entirely in Logic until a couple of weeks before the sessions, when I started orchestrating in Finale. In the past, I’ve orchestrated first in Finale and then plugged the parts into the DAW to create the mockups, but now I feel comfortable working in the order that most people do.

When I’m sketching into Logic, I just try to think ahead, to play in the right divisi and voicings in the strings, to be aware of the available voices in the brass, and conscious of the voice leading across the whole orchestra, so I don’t create a headache for myself later.

Still there was one cue in this score, Apollo 11 Launch, where I kept getting the note “more, thicker” so I kept layering unrealistically in Logic, a bit out of frustration, just trying to get it sounding big enough as a mockup, knowing that I was creating a puzzle for myself later. It happens, but I try to avoid that situation.

What are your favorite musical moments in First Man?

I love the way The Armstrongs cue works with the family montage. The photography is incredible, the naturalism Damien got with them horsing around the house is incredible, and I love the bittersweet quality that the music adds. That’s an example of a cue that was first made wild falling into place there and working. I did some refinement on the cue to picture, but when Damien and Tom first gave me that sequence with the harp mockup set to it, I was so happy.

Another moment I really love is the chromatic, Wagnerian angst in the brass and winds towards the end of Apollo 11 Launch.

Unlike La La Land, you conducted the score as well this time. What was that like, and how did you prepare?

It was such a thrill conducting the First Man score. I’m still very new at it, but I’ve loosened up a lot over the past year and a half, having done a handful of the La La Land concerts around the world. The First Man sessions were the first time I’ve been on the podium where I felt like I was doing more than just beating time, where I felt a real connection between what I was doing and how they were playing it. It’s an incredible feeling. The LA musicians have been very generous and patient with me.

Because my orchestration went down to the wire, I didn’t get the scores until the day of the session. I had spent weeks marking up and practicing with my La La Land concert scores, and with the First Man scores I only had about an hour to mark them up, but I felt more comfortable than I’ve ever been. There was something about how the music didn’t exist yet that I found liberating when I was conducting. I have a long way to go, but the more I do it the better and more comfortable I’ll get.

How has your relationship with Mark Graham and company evolved over the years? Have you adapted anything you do based on their influence?

I use Mark as a resource and ask questions when I have them. Like on this score, I asked on the stage if my hairpins were excessive, and Mark suggested that I use “sim” which I probably should have known, but I didn’t. So, good to know for next time.

At an early session on this score, Joe Zimmerman suggested I use niente for clarity, and I wasn’t crazy about it because I don’t remember ever seeing it before, but then I got on the podium and realized that crescendos to and from niente would have made my life easier. So I made an n in my dynamic expressions in Finale, and used niente in the rest of the orchestrations when it applied.

One time on this score, I sent Mark a screenshot from Finale, and said “I know this is technically in range for the horns, but is it practical?” He called it “risky” so I reconfigured the brass and gave the line in question to the trumpets. So it’s stuff like that, where they have been a great resource.

Have any tips for aspiring film composers, Finale users, or Theremin fans?

This comes out of the last answer, but applies to all three of these areas, and probably most things in life: try to keep learning, always.

Do you and Damien discuss what’s next? Do you discuss multiple options? Can you share any hints?

I don’t know what I’m scoring next. Damien is currently writing his next movie, so that’s a ways off, and I don’t know yet if I’ll score something else before it.

Well, I didn’t get an exclusive sneak peek of what Damien and Justin’s next film will be, but it doesn’t really matter: I’m looking forward to it anyway. Thanks again to Justin for taking the time to share his experiences with us.

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