Spotlight on “Whiplash” Composer Justin Hurwitz


A recent Finale blog post listed several Academy Award-nominated films in which Finale played a role. Each year I create a similar list by querying friends at popular music preparation companies. Because of my informal data gathering process, some movies fly under my radar (especially if their budgets don’t allow for a high-profile music prep house). This year, Whiplash was one such film.

Whiplash, of course, was a “sleeper” film, made with a relatively small budget, yet garnering five Oscar nominations and three wins, for Actor in a Supporting Role (J.K. Simmons), Film Editing, and Sound Mixing.

I recently had the good fortune to connect with Justin Hurwitz, composer of the Whiplash score.

I’ve read that you and writer/director Damien Chazelle were Harvard classmates, and collaborated on Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. How did you become involved in Whiplash, and how did you and Damien communicate during its creation?

Ever since Damien wrote the script for Whiplash in 2011, I knew that I would eventually score it, but it took a couple of years before I actually started working on it. First, Damien made a short version of the film, which didn’t have any original music, just the titular Hank Levy piece, “Whiplash.” Once the feature version secured financing, I started working as the movie ramped up towards production.

In the original script, all of the jazz pieces throughout the story were standards — pieces Damien played as a high school jazz drummer. My job would be to write the score, i.e. the dramatic underscore, not unlike a composer does for a typical movie. But a little over a month before the jazz had to be pre-recorded, the producers determined that they couldn’t afford any licenses beyond “Whiplash” and “Caravan,” so all of the other jazz had to be original. It was a scramble to get all of the original jazz charts written and arranged. Damien sent me classic recordings to listen to as models for some of the charts.

When I’m composing or orchestrating, we’re communicating constantly by email. I do all of my composing on a real piano, and send piano demos as mp3 attachments. He’ll either say “no” or he’ll give a note. We work back and forth, back and forth, until he’s happy with something at the compositional level. Then, when I’m orchestrating, I send him the mp3s that come out of Finale, and it’s the same process of back-and-forth emails. We both kind of live in our Gmail inboxes.

“When I Wake,” the 30s jazz recording Andrew identifies while on a date in a pizza parlor, is actually a piece you created to evoke that era. Was this decision driven by the fact that licensing a classic tune would have been too expensive?

Yeah, exactly. The producers and music supervisor did an amazing job stretching the tiny budget they had. It just made more sense for this piece, and others, to be originals.

I think in the script it was an Artie Shaw tune playing on the radio. When I was composing things for Damien on the piano, I was writing to that era (late ‘30s) but also thinking about the scene. The scene is Andrew and Nicole’s first date, so even though the music is diegetic, it had to underscore the characters starting to fall for each other.

Can you share some specifics of how you made your jazz arrangements evoke certain eras?

A lot of it is about textures, and voicings, and other little things like choices of mutes. The most old-fashioned arrangement I did was “No Two Words” that plays at the end of the scene between Fletcher and Andrew in the bar. The lead trumpet part is full of shakes. The other trumpets and trombones use straight mutes, and I notated a bunch of scoops for the trombones. I love to write notes in the score to the players, like “sweet old time vibrato” in the clarinet parts. Then a producer, Nicholas Britell, ran some custom filters on the track to give it that crackly vinyl sound.

The “Overture” was really fun to chart. I took the tune which I had originally written for Fletcher to play at the piano, and arranged it in the style of a wild ‘60s-era Buddy Rich piece. It was all about the textures and voicings. Saxes running around in unison or wailing dissonantly on high notes a step apart. The crunch of the trombone voicings. The piano and electric bass in unison at times, when they aren’t comping. This piece has solo sections, and I always love being able to slash a bunch of bars to let a player go nuts.

There’s one scene where we hear Fletcher play, and it’s a departure: a quiet piano tune in a small combo. In it we recognize music heard throughout the film. Can you talk about that theme and how you went about manipulating it?

I first composed that tune as Fletcher’s song, and as you say, it was meant to be unlike the rest of the jazz in the movie. It’s tender, designed to betray Fletcher’s vulnerability. We planned for that to be the only time that tune appears in the movie, but then Damien and I started finding other places to use it. There was a scene that ended up getting cut where we see Fletcher at home, eating dinner alone, putting on a record, and getting teary eyed while he sits on the couch and listens to the music. We thought it would be a cute idea for that record to be an old fashioned big band arrangement of that same tune. Ultimately, that scene got cut, but I think it’s on the DVD.

Next, Damien suggested that I use the same tune to score the scene where Andrew meets with the lawyer and gets dismissed from Shaffer Conservatory (known as “Dismissed” on the soundtrack album). Damien wanted the score here to be poignant and introspective. I played around with a lot of ways to twist that melody, and found that moving it from minor to major, ironically, made it sadder in a way.

So that was the first use of that tune in the score (dramatic underscore). From there, I kept finding more modalities where it could slip into other score cues. The tune ended up finding its way into almost every cue. The score pretty much exclusively follows Andrew’s perspective, and helps us feel what Andrew’s feeling, so I liked the idea that each cue could also have a little bit of Fletcher in it.

The last use of that tune was the “Overture,” which plays at the beginning of the movie when Andrew walks through the city, and then again during the end credits. The plan originally was to use a plaintive arrangement of the tune, in the vein of the “Dismissed” cue, but then one of the film’s producers, Jason Reitman, asked if it could be fun and jazzy. Damien suggested that I arrange it in the style of something the Buddy Rich Big Band would play. I put it back in a minor key, and made it sexy, brash, and a bit Latin, really leaning on the ninths.

IMDB credits Dominik Hauser with musical preparation on Whiplash. Where did he take over?

There wasn’t enough money in the music budget for a full-fledged copyist, so I did most of the copying work for the score session. I was extracting and formatting the parts, using Finale of course, and handing Dominik PDFs to proofread and prepare for the recording session. He did a terrific job, and also saved the day by calculating the BPM of a click track when all of us were too dumb to figure out the math.

Do you use Linked Parts?

I do. It’s a great feature. Just the other day, I was recording background vocals, and used the Linked Parts feature to pull the SATB staves out of a score, and into one document.

How does Finale fit into your workflow – do you, for example, sketch on paper or in a DAW?

I don’t use a sequencer or sketch paper. I compose on the piano, and show everything to Damien either by emailing piano demos, or playing for him in person. Once he loves something at the compositional level, I orchestrate in Finale. I’m really old school and don’t use a MIDI keyboard. I input everything by hand (mouse), with my real piano by my side to hear a voicing or countermelody.

Whiplash didn’t require orchestration per se, but the other movies Damien and I have done, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and the movie we are currently working on, La La Land, are very orchestration-intensive. I don’t hand off any sketches, so I use Finale to get us from the piano demo to the final orchestral charts.

What was your first introduction to Finale?

At Harvard, our professors didn’t let us use any notation software. We had to write and orchestrate everything by hand. This is partly because Harvard is old-fashioned and stuffy, but my professors did have a point. Orchestrating by hand helps you connect with the music in a different way. You think more horizontally. You think about countermelody and counterpoint differently.

Later in college, one of my classmates tipped me off to this thing called Finale and it blew my mind how fast and simple it made everything. I haven’t written by hand in years, but I’m glad I have that background, because it definitely influences how I think about orchestration.

Have a Finale tip you can share?

In the Simple Entry menu, I like to change the keyboard shortcuts. I don’t like having to hit two buttons, like command+something. When possible, I’d rather just hit a letter or a number. A lot of keys on the keyboard either aren’t assigned as shortcuts, or are assigned to commands I rarely use, so I like to change stuff around so that the functions I use most often have the simplest shortcuts.

What do you like about Finale?

I love how realistic the playback sounds. Because I don’t use a sequencer, and because I show the orchestrations to Damien in Finale, it’s really important that what comes out of Finale sounds good. It’s not just the samples, but the way the notes are shaped to sound like they’re being played by humans. A sustained wind note, for example, has beautiful shape in Finale. It will grow and decay just right. A lot of times you don’t want to have to put a hairpin in the score, because it’s not called for; you just want the subtle shape that a human would naturally give to it, and Finale does that just right.

Also, the balance of the orchestra is spot on. The ensemble sounds like it’s in a real space, and the instruments blend together well. Sometimes we have to have people put my orchestrations into a sequencer, and it takes lots of finessing to get stuff sounding as human as it does in Finale. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Damien say, “Make it sound more like the Finale version.”

Obviously, there’s a lot to love about Finale in terms of how powerful and flexible it is from a notational standpoint, but for me, the playback quality is particularly important.

What are you working on now? What’s next?

I’m working on Damien’s next film, La La Land, a song and dance musical which we’re making for Lionsgate. I’m composing and orchestrating the songs and score. The movie shoots in the fall, so I’m working on the pre-recorded musical numbers. There are a bunch of songs and a couple of fantasy ballets, and there will be a fair amount of dramatic underscore after the movie has shot. It’s all lush, romantic, 90-piece orchestra – so I’m in orchestration heaven these days.

Thanks again to Justin for sharing his time.

Have you experienced “Whiplash” yet? Share your reaction with us by clicking on “Comments” below.

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