Exclusive: ‘First Man’ Composer Justin Hurwitz on Grief, the Moon Landing, and the Theremin

     January 12, 2019

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How do you combine overwhelming grief and wild ambition to result in a phenomenally melodic film score? Just ask Justin Hurwitz, the composer behind the Neil Armstrong drama First Man. This isn’t Hurwitz’s first collaboration with director Damien Chazelle, as the two were college roommates at Harvard and have been working together ever since. And while Hurwitz earned a pair of Oscars for his score and songwriting on Chazelle’s previous film, La La Land, the composer had his work cut out for him on their next project.

First Man aims to chronicle the story of how man first landed on the moon through the eyes of Neil Armstrong, a deeply quiet and stoic man who carried with him an immense sadness over the death of his daughter Karen shortly before joining the space program. This loss and grief is in many ways the backbone of First Man, conveyed through a tremendously nuanced performance by Ryan Gosling, but the film is also a propulsive story about one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Marrying these two concepts tonally was a challenge that not only Chazelle had to conquer, but Hurwitz as well.

Somehow, someway, Hurwitz captures the sorrow and sadness inside Armstrong with hushed melodies and marries them with the propulsive, almost bombastic themes that accompany the trial-and-error process of putting a man on the moon. As I’ve written previously it’s my favorite score of 2018, so when I was offered the chance to speak with Hurwitz about his First Man score I excitedly seized the opportunity.

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Photo by Suzanne Hanover/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

During our exclusive interview, Hurwitz went deep on the long, laborious process of finding the film’s themes (the main theme alone took him over 100 tries), his intense collaboration with Chazelle throughout, and how he set about scoring the climactic moon landing sequence. Hurwitz also went into detail about the unique instruments used to bring the First Man score to life, including how the Theremin and harp played key roles albeit in unique ways.

It’s a deep-dive interview about how one of the most memorable scores of the last few years was created. Check it out in full below.

It’s a really terrific piece of work, and I know that Damien was working on First Man before even La La Land was made. So I was kind of curious, when did you first hear about the project and what were those initial conversations like?

JUSTIN HURWITZ: I heard about it early on. In fact, I know the reason he first sat down with Ryan Gosling was to pitch him on this Neil Armstrong movie before Ryan knew anything about La La Land, and it was in the course of that conversation that Ryan heard that Damien was also developing a musical and he was interested in that.

So I knew way back then that Damien was developing the script with Josh Singer and he was getting with Ryan to talk about it. Then I didn’t think too much about it ’cause we were so busy making La La Land. Sort of the next instance of me being aware of it was Josh would come into the editing room while we were working on La La Land, and he would work with Damien on the script, so I would see Josh coming in. I got to know Josh a little bit and I would hear little bits and pieces about how it was coming along, but, again, I really wasn’t thinking about it too much. Damien would give me an early draft to read around that time, kind of half way through editing La La Land. We broke for the holidays. The editing room went down for the holidays, so he gave me the first script just to say, “By the way, this is what we’ve been working on. If you want to start having it percolate somewhere in the back of your mind.”

So I read that early draft but then again didn’t think too much about it. Talked a little with Damien about it but didn’t think too much about it ’cause we were busy finishing La La Land. Then it wasn’t until March of 2017 when Damien started like actually prepping First Man that I really got thinking about it and got working on it. I read another draft of the script that had progressed quite a bit. It was their pre-production draft at that point. So I read another draft and then started working on it with Damien at the time that he was doing his prep for location, costumes, cinematography and all that stuff.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Did he give you any kind of a guiding idea in terms of what he wanted it to sound like or was that kind of left up to you to kind of tool around and kind of work out what you thought would be fitting?

HURWITZ: No, he’s very specific in what he’s looking for. So the first conversation we had once we really got into it during pre-production, we always start with … Well, he always wants to know at the beginning what the melodies are gonna be, what the themes are gonna be. Themes are very important to him. It always starts with me sitting at the piano looking to the themes before we get into any instrumentation, any sound ideas. We just talk about themes and he throws words at me, words that kind of get at what he wants to feel from the music.

For this he wanted … the words he used were loss, pain, grief, loneliness. He wanted to feel all of that in the main theme of the film. So then my job is just to sit down at the piano and look for that, try to find that, and so I feel my way around the piano until I have something that feels right to me. I record at the piano, then when I send it to him and he always says no. Sometimes he’ll say why. It’s a little too this or it’s a little too that, and I’ll just keep going. We do this over and over and over again. It was a few hundred attempts at it before I found the right one that was the main theme of this movie. Then as soon as we found that then he wanted to know what’s the second theme. There’s a second theme in this movie that’s kind of like family piece. It’s more of a bittersweet kind of rift and he wanted to know what that was next.

So we do that, then after all that’s worked out at the piano then we got into what to do with the sounds, what are the sounds of the score? He didn’t know what he wanted exactly. He just knew it needed to sound different than anything we had done, so he said, “Why don’t you start learning and playing around with some electronic stuff” ’cause we never used any electronics before. So he suggested Theremin, so I got one of those and started playing around with it.

What’s that like, by the way? I got like physically giddy when I started hearing the Theremin in the score a little bit.

HURWITZ: Oh, so you knew what one was before?

I saw it at the IMAX press screening at TIFF. I was like, “Is that the Theremin?” and then it just continued on. I was like, “This is amazing.”

HURWITZ: Oh, cool, I’m glad you’re a fan of the Theremin. So, yeah, that was really fun to start playing around with and experimenting sort of what our melody could sound like on it, and part of the idea was could we use the Theremin in a really emotional way. We’re used to hearing a Theremin used in sci-fi movies and sort of B movies from the ’50s and ’60s. What if we used it in a really expressive melodic way?

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Image via Universal Pictures

So our melody just worked so well. It was so emotional on the Theremin. That was a nice discovery. Then I spent a few months also during pre-production and actually during the shoot while they were off in Atlanta shooting I had a few months back in L.A. just to play around with vintage synths, modular synths. I didn’t know anything about any of that stuff. So I watched some YouTube videos on modular synthesizers and then got one and started playing around with it, which was a lot of fun. Started playing around with some production ideas, figuring out some ways to process an orchestra and manipulate an orchestra. So that’s where we got the idea of putting all the strings through a Leslie rotor cabinet, which is a speaker cabinet where the speaker spins around inside. So all the strings in the movie were recorded separately one at a time, first violin, second violin, violas and cellos and bases. Then one at a time they were put through the Leslie rotor cabinet, which gives it this kind of swirling whirling quality.

Then after the cabinet they were all put through a tremolo pedal, so that gives it sort of another rate of kind of flutter. Then because every string instrument was done separately you have all these different rates, and I sort of programmed them all with slightly different rates of flutter. So all these tremolo rates were in conflict with each other, and it would create that sort of that sort of interesting shaking fluttering quality in the strings, so that was another idea we came up with.

It’s just a way to kind of get at … Well, first of all, it seemed to sort of fit with the style of the way the movie was shot in kind of a handheld way, like the sort of flutter and shake of the strings, sort of matches that a little bit, and then I also like that the fluttery strings seem to get at the nerves that Neil and people were feeling in the story. I think what was interesting to me is that Neil was so stoic and steely on the outside, but he definitely had quite a bit of nerves inside. I thought that the strings were kind of getting at that.

So that was a fun idea that we came up with. Then we just made some sounds of our own. I got a bunch of scrap metal delivered to my apartment, and I was recording sounds. I was shaking sheet metal to make these thunder sounds, which I would mix in very quietly into the cues to add a sort of like very subtle cosmic nature to them. I was making some ambiences out of pipes, and I was recording fire and water and air inside pipes and pitching it and making some sounds that I would then map over a keyboard and play in as a kind of ambient pad into a lot of the cues, which again, it had a sort of elemental and textural quality that I thought fit with the themes and the sort of cosmic nature of a lot of the story and the themes of the story.

It was just a lot of playing around. We started as early as we did so we would have a lot of time to play around and kind of build a toolbox of sounds and instruments and ideas, so that when we got to post, when he got back from Atlanta we had scenes and we could just sort of hit the ground running and score the scenes. We had a lot of the building blocks worked out by then.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Something I do find interesting about the score and something I really love about it is that it is very melodic. I mean, the world of film music is changing pretty rapidly these days. Obviously it contains multitudes but a lot of scores are blurring the line between score and sound design. People are kind of going anti-melodic and doing that. Is that something you’re conscious of as you’re kind of working? Because your scores are known for being more melodic, which I love.

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