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La La Land Composer Talks Oscar Win & Future Plans | EXCLUSIVE

La La Land took the movie-loving world by storm last year and somehow, a very classic musical about a jazz musician and a struggling actress became the most nominated movie heading into the 2017 Academy Awards. Despite the big snafu with the Best Picture Oscar, La La Land walked away with a few statues it sorely deserved. Specifically, composer and songwriter Justin Hurwitz walked away with two Oscars for his contributions to the movie. That is a lot of success for a guy who is barely in his 30s, but he is just getting started.

Justin Hurwitz decided to make an appearance at this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas to do a piano side Q&A and performance. I was lucky enough to chat with the Oscar-winner beforehand about everything from that whole Best Picture fiasco to what he hopes to accomplish next in his career. It is very clear when talking to him that he is very ambitious and is not going to be content even though he has had a lot of success early on. He is determined to get better at his craft and challenge himself.

A lot of the success that Justin Hurwitz has found early on in his career has to do with his ongoing relationship with director Damien Chazelle. The pair have worked together as composer and director respectively on three feature films so far, including Whiplash and La La Land. Both of which received a ton of awards season love. They also worked together on the low-budget musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which also was received very well but simply wasn’t seen on the level of those other two movies. But there is something very special that happens when these two work together. That much is clear.

That partnership is set to continue and as Justin Hurwitz tells it, there are no signs of it ever coming to an end. If Damien Chazelle is directing a movie you can bet that Justin Hurwitz will be along for the ride to contribute his musical talents. The pair already has their next collaboration lined up. First Man, a Neil Armstrong biopic, will reunite the duo with their La La Land star Ryan Gosling as the famous astronaut. This will be something very different than what we are accustomed to seeing, or in the case of Hurwitz hearing, from them. But that is something that excites the young Academy Award winner because he wants to show the world he is more than just a jazz guy.

Justin Hurwitz is undeniably talented and by most any metric, insanely successful. But he remains grounded and humble, yet very confident in his abilities. He is a fascinating guy to chat with, even when you mistakenly say that he won a single Oscar instead of correctly saying that he won two of them. Without further adieu, here is my chat with La La Land‘s Justin Hurwitz.

I personally have a love affair with music and movies as well, but when I went into journalism I quickly realized that I couldn’t really write about music. I assume music was kind of your first love as well?

Justin Hurwitz: Yeah. I started piano lessons when I was six, started composing when I was ten. Music was really my main extracurricular through middle school, high school, and then I decided to study it in college.

I know that’s where you met Damien (Chazelle) right? How has it been for you, for the better part of a decade kind of marrying your love of music and movies together? How has it been for you sort of fusing those two loves over this period of time?

Justin Hurwitz: It’s been great. Damien is an incredible collaborator. We’re just so in sync with what each other does. It’s never easy, I mean, it’s a lot of hard work. The work is hard. But having a collaborator who you are so much on the same page with makes things a lot easier because I know what he’s looking for, he knows what I do and sort of combining our crafts together. It works well.

Congratulations on the La La Land win by the way, but I have to ask, during that whole thing at the end (of the Oscars) how was that for you personally? Because you probably had that moment where you were like, ‘Oh my God!’ So how was that from your perspective?

Justin Hurwitz: I don’t know. It was fine. More confusing than anything else. Trying to figure out what was going on. The stage managers were running around grabbing everybody’s envelopes. I felt good. I had won that night and I was very happy that so many of the collaborators had won. Really, people who contributed so much to the movie got honored for what they did. Damien for Best Director, Linus (Sandgren) for Best Cinematography, Emma (Stone) for actress. The people who made the movie what it is. So many of them, the Wascos for Production Design, came away being honored. So I don’t know, it was fine.

That has to be a tremendous honor on your second big studio movie. The two movies, Whiplash and La La Land, they both deal with jazz largely but they’re insanely different movies. You executed both insanely well for your part. Were you able to do that just because of your personal tastes in music heading into that? Or is it just that you were able, as a creator, to sort of figure out what suited each thing best? Because it does fascinate me that those two things were so different, yet the music was so perfect for each thing.

Justin Hurwitz: Thank you. Yeah, I mean, whatever the project is I work very hard and Damien is so, so specific with what he wants that that makes my job easier because I get a lot of direction on what I do and I’m chasing a very singular vision, which is Damien’s vision. There were different challenges. Tonally very different movies. A very dark movie and then a very romantic movie. Both Damien and I are very detail oriented. We want every little thing to be right to the point where, on La La Land, there’s a lot of jazz on screen. So we recorded all of that ahead of time in the recording studio before the movie shot. It was recorded off of lead sheets mostly so that the jazz musicians could do what jazz musicians do, which is to have solos and make up a lot of the actual notes they’re playing. But we wanted everything to work well, work perfectly in the movie, so I transcribed every note that they played in the studio so that all of the onset musicians could have the exact solos, the exact drum parts, the exact bass parts. So that everything would look right and everything would look realistic. You know, because in a lot of movies you have people just sort of fake playing along and we wanted every finger movement, everything on every instrument to be exactly right. So I took all of that time to transcribe everything. That mostly worked but then afterwards in editing shots slide and things get cut up so then I kind of, in some shots I had to rewrite new solos that would fit when ended up in the final cut. So these are the kind of things that Damien and I do in any movie just to make sure that it’s right. There’s probably like five people that noticed that things were actually on.

But here’s what I can tell you, though. I’ve always been more of a fan of music but I am not a good musician. It is what it is. But even I in those movies notice that there is a clear authenticity. So even if I didn’t directly know that that’s what was happening, it was clear. Every little detail adds up to a big picture thing.

Justin Hurwitz: That’s how I feel about a lot of details. Not just those kinds of details, but the detail I put into the orchestrations of the score. There are times when people say to me, ‘Nobody is going to care about that! Nobody is going to notice that!’ But those little, just making things elegant or making things well crafted, even if people don’t specifically know that’s happening, it adds up to people just feeling that it’s a better experience. It’s a more authentic experience. So Damien and I are both very detail-oriented and very obsessed with getting things right. So these are the kinds of things we do on Whiplash and La La Land and I think on any movie we’re gonna do, to do it right.

One hundred pennies in a jar makes a dollar. Like you said, people may not notice that one specific thing but I think it’s good that you have the sense as a creator to fight against what people might think. Especially with movies. There’s never enough time. I respect that a lot that you’re like, ‘This is worth doing!’ That’s really cool.

Justin Hurwitz: Thank you.

Musicals, historically, are not my thing but because I loved Whiplash, which hit me like a brick wall, I had to see La La Land. I was fascinated because it was able to win me over despite the fact that I typically don’t like that kind of thing.

Justin Hurwitz: I’ve heard that a lot

It just beats you over the head with being so likable that you kind of have to like it. But even as someone who sort of understands movies, I’m always like, ‘How the hell does a musical get made?’ Because the script has to be written but Damien probably didn’t write all of those songs into the script specifically. So how does that process work? Does he just come to you with most of the dialogue and say, ‘Insert song here,’ and you have to come up with this brilliant number? How did that work?

Justin Hurwitz: His treatment and script did show exactly where the musical numbers would be and what those would kind of be about narratively or emotionally. His very first drafts, it started with, ‘We come down on a freeway. There’s a traffic jam. There are car radios. We push in on a car. A girl is humming. It turns into a song. People get out of their cars. People dance on their roofs. It’s a song about dreamers who came to LA.’ So there’s thematic, narrative information in there and in each of the songs he wrote sort of a mini, in little italics on the script, just a little mini treatment of what that song would be about and feel like to some degree. So then I was composing as soon as he started writing and I was going off of those moments in the script. Well, not quite yet in some cases because I was thinking in some cases just about melodies. I was like, ‘Let’s just find some great melodies and we’ll find somewhere to put them.’ But in other instances, I was actually targeting moments in the script. So from number to number, it depends but his script did have sort of prose versions of musical numbers.

That makes sense. That whole concept is baffling to me. Even though I know a lot about music and I know a lot and write a lot about movies I still try to allow myself to be fascinated by things and truly, maybe more than any other movie last year watching La La Land I was like, ‘How the hell does that even come together?’ It just seems like such an enormous undertaking.

Justin Hurwitz: Well, yeah. We were working on our different parts at the same time. Like I said, I was composing, he was writing. So when it was time to go to financiers and studios we could have a package of script and song demos, and some score demos as well. Like, the “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme,” the main theme of the movie, that was all figured out back in 2011. So when we were shopping the movie around trying to find Lionsgate, who stepped up and made it, but all of the other places we went with it who didn’t step up, we had, this is what we’re presenting; script, music. So it would feel a little more fleshed out than just, ‘Hey! We want to make a musical!’

It’s not like musicals are a hot-ticket item right now. Or, I will say, given the success of La La Land I can definitely see over the next couple of years a ton of musicals trickling out there.

Justin Hurwitz: That would be nice. But it was a huge uphill battle. Not to just make a musical, but a completely original musical not based on a Broadway show, not based on any IP or any song catalog.

Not a remake of a classic Hollywood musical

Justin Hurwitz: Exactly.

So you guys are writing this, and I think originally it was supposed to be Miles (Teller) and {Emma Watson for the roles. Did it sort of change at all once Ryan (Gosling) and Emma Stone came into the picture? Were you then able to be like, ‘Oh, okay! This is who this is for.’ Was that sort of the finishing detail for you?}

Justin Hurwitz: Most of the changes that happened happened in the script. That was just between Damien, Ryan and Emma, kind of fleshing out those characters, reworking the script with their input and involvement. Musically nothing really changed but lyrically things did change in a couple of cases for them. The lyric to “A Lovely Night,” which I didn’t write. The lyrics were written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. But they reworked that lyric particularly quite a bit for Ryan and Emma because yeah, Ryan and Emma are older than Emma Watson and Miles Teller and it just felt like more of a mature movie and more of a mature romance. So that song became a little more romantic, a little more mature because of Ryan and Emma and because of their input and because of what they felt was authentic to their characters. So that was a very specific example of a song actually changing to fit them.

So Ryan and Damien are working on that Neil Armstrong thing. There’s clearly not going to be any musical numbers in that movie but you and Damien have such a close relationship. Has there been any conversation about you maybe doing the score for that movie?

Justin Hurwitz: Yeah.

So you’re already on board for that?

Justin Hurwitz: Yeah, Yeah. I think Damien and I want to work together on any movie. That’s like any movie. It’s a dramatic score. It’s a dramatic underscore and I’m actually really excited to do some dramatic underscores now because I’ve done with Damien three jazz movies, two of them musicals and I think of myself a film composer more than anything else. So I’m excited to do what film composers normally do, which is just score dramatically, and it’ll be very different. It’ll be dark, it’ll be weird. I’m excited to do something very different.

You said you’re excited about doing something different. I know that movie is kind of early on in the process right now but are you already thinking about how you can sort of get yourself in the right headspace for that? Or do you have to wait for that to kind of flesh out a little more?

Justin Hurwitz: Yeah, I’m thinking a little bit. Damien and I have had some very initial conversations about tonally, sonically what it is, what it could be. Neither of us really knows yet. Mostly because it’s not a musical and because there’s no pre-recorded music like Whiplash and La La Land and Guy and Madeline. Most of my job won’t happen until post-production when there’s actually a picture to score but because Damien and I have an ongoing relationship, we like to start thinking about things, crafting things as early on as we can. So I think any movie we do together I’ll be thinking about melodic material before he makes the movie, just because we like to know what that is and because I like to have the time to really come up with it. Melodies are like the most frustrating, longest part of the process for me because I sit at the piano for weeks, months on end sometimes before I come up with the right melody ideas. You just never know when they’re gonna strike. Other parts of the process, orchestrating, for example, you just put in the time and you get it done but melodies you just don’t know. You just search and search and search for them. And I don’t want to be in post-production with eight weeks until the recording dates and I have to come up with a melody on top of score it dramatically. So we always start before the movie starts just trying to search for those melodies, trying to find them. So that’s the part of the process that I think we’ll always do, but in terms of really figuring out sonically and aesthetically what it is and as well as like, literally scoring the picture, that just won’t happen for like a year.

You don’t really know what to do until you see it.

Justin Hurwitz: Exactly.

So you won the Oscar, which I imagine must feel a bit strange because you’re like an Oscar winner now. Have you noticed, has there already been some kind of change where people are like, ‘Hey, this guy has won an Oscar.’

Justin Hurwitz: Two.

Oh, I’m sorry! Two Oscars! I’m so sorry. Yeah, you’ve won two Oscars. I am so sorry. I did not mean to diminish the accomplishments

Justin Hurwitz: Let the record show that I am holding up two fingers.

Let the record show that Justin Hurwitz has won two Oscars and not one. I am so sorry. Okay, so two Oscars. So have you noticed a change now with people sort of contacting you outside of your work with Damien?

Justin Hurwitz: No.

Really? Interesting.

Justin Hurwitz: No, not at all. It’s, I don’t know. I think because La La Land, I don’t know why. La La Land was so specific that I’m not sure a lot of people know what I can do yet or know that I can do things that aren’t jazzy, old-fashioned, lush, romantic music. At least between Whiplash and La La Land, those two indicate a very specific thing. So no, I haven’t really been offered much and that’s probably the reason I’m excited to do something very different next because I want to do something weird and dark and just very different and I want to show that I’m not just a musical guy. I’m not just a jazz guy. I wanna do that for myself. I wanna do that creatively do that because I have other things creatively I want to do. It’s not just for the career path. Until I get away from musicals and jazz movies, I think there’s only going to be so much interest in me as a film composer.

That makes sense. You want to display your range. Speaking to that a little bit, just kind of wrapping up, do you have some kind of dream project or some kind of thing where you’re like, ‘Man, I would love to do this kind of thing!’ Where, maybe you’d love to do a horror movie? Is there something that you think would just be fun?

Justin Hurwitz: No, not specifically. Like I said, I want to do something that is just darker, probably. And something that is just sonically very different, that’s maybe not orchestral, per se. I do, on the flipside of it, want to at some point, I still have an itch to do more musicals but not immediately. I think right now I just want to do something very different.

With the musical thing do you see strictly going to film or could you see writing a Broadway thing?

Justin Hurwitz: I would love to do a stage musical at some point.

First Man is currently set for release on October 12, 2018, which looks like it will be Justin Hurwitz‘ next project. If you haven’t seen La La Land yet, the movie is still playing in theaters. If you’d rather wait and watch in the comfort of your own home, Digital HD April 11 and 4K, Blu-ray and DVD on April 25th.

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