La La Land – Interview with Composer Justin Hurwitz

Justin Hurwitz Composer La La Land I
Justin Hurwitz won the award for Best Original Score at the 2017 Academy Awards for La La Land.

Composer Justin Hurwitz may have only a few scoring credits to his name, but he has already garnered worldwide acclaim for his work in the musical romance La La Land and dominated the award show circuit, including being nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Original Score and twice for Best Original Song. Hurwitz made an appearance at a special La La Land Q&A event in Cathedral City, California, where he shared insight on the process of crafting the film’s spectacular orchestrations and even performed pieces of his music on the piano. Borrowing Tape got a chance to glimpse into Justin Hurwitz’s musical vision and his techniques as a composer.

In the film, Sebastian wants to preserve classic jazz music, but he is approached by a friend of his who plays in a band that modifies the sound to appeal to future generations.
Did this concept of old versus new influence your compositions in any way?

The score of La La Land isn’t really jazz—it’s a dramatic underscore, so my job was to score the picture in a way that emotionally reflected the scenes. I didn’t have any particular genre or piece of music in mind when writing the score. I was just trying to write music that I thought was emotional and full of color and texture that worked with the cinematography and the performances. When I did write jazz music for the scenes in the jazz club, it was more traditional. We thought it was a fun idea to take all the song melodies and twist them into jazz, so if you notice in the scene where John Legend’s character, Keith, comes over to proposition Sebastian about joining the band, the jazz group in the background is playing a jazzed up version of “Another Day of Sun.”

There were a lot of Steinway pianos featured in La La Land. Is that your piano of choice?

Yes, absolutely. That’s what I have in my apartment and that’s what I try to play whenever I can. During filming, I went to a lot of piano warehouses in L.A. to find pianos. In the case of the ones we recorded on screen, I was using a lot of 1920’s Steinway Model M’s, and I just loved the pianos from that era. They have an achy sort of sound to them, a lot of character. I like it because you hear the same piano in music scores over and over again, like the same 9-foot concert grand piano, and it’s very boomy on the low strings. It’s gorgeous, but I wanted to stay a little more intimate and vulnerable, and that’s what the older, smaller pianos have.

La La Land’s score is very reminiscent of old Hollywood musicals yet there are many contemporary elements present as well.
What was your technique
for creating such a timeless sound?

There’s an old-fashioned approach generally with the fact that it’s a 90-piece orchestra all playing in a room together. We recorded it in kind of an old-school way, which means we just kind of had them play and recorded it. We didn’t do it like some people do these days, which is recording the different instruments separately. There’s so much humanity when you record altogether because you get all of these musicians feeding off of each other and there’s a magic that happens. In terms of the orchestrations, a lot of the instruments are in dialogue with each other and have their own distinct melodies. Every instrument from the horns to the strings have their own melodies so they can be expressive with their own parts and bring themselves into the score. I also tried to find textures that weren’t from any other movie. I didn’t want it to actually sound like it was recorded in the ‘50s, but I still wanted to have a foot in that door yet have it retain its own sound.

What came first: the music or the concept for certain scenes in La La Land?

The scenes. The director, Damien Chazelle, started writing the script and I was reading some of it pretty much since the beginning. He had a story, so I knew what it was going to be about and what kind of scenes there would be—like a big audition scene and number on a freeway. I had a direction, especially with the planetarium and epilogue sequences. Damien had already written out those scenes in the treatment, so I knew what the score had to feel like emotionally in some ways. It’s been a while since I just sat down and composed without collaborating in a movie. There’s a lot to be inspired by.

Did you have any classical musicals in mind when writing the score?

There were a  lot of inspirations. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort were both huge influences. Some of the MGM musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and An American in Paris, and Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers collaborations like Swing Time and Top Hat were also inspirations.

Were there any challenges when it came to working with actors without a classic musical background or vocal training?

We actually loved the idea of working with two actors who have really good voices but still sound authentic. It was all part of Damien’s concept where La La Land would be a musical, but it would be a really grounded life story in a way, so people would slip in and out of song, but it would still feel real. Emma Stone has this natural breathy quality to her voice and Audrey Hepburn’s “Moon River” was always one of her favorite models. Just a real person singing very sweetly. Ryan Gosling, similarly, has this authentic gravel to his voice. The way he talks is the way he sings, so that was something we were open for. In terms of music, the burden was on Ryan to learn the piano. He did, six days a week with a piano teacher for a couple of hours a day. There were no hand doubles or CG in the movie. The way those scenes were shot in the film were long takes, so you can’t just cheat by cutting shots to make it in sync. Ryan did it all.

What song do you remember most from your childhood?

It depends on what age, but I got really into Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musicals from the ‘90s. Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin…  All the songs from those musicals have been in my head for 20 years.

Do you have a favorite composer or piece of music?

I can’t really say I have one favorite. Growing up playing music on the piano, I loved Beethoven; he was my favorite composer to play. In terms of film composers, there are many I love: Nino Rota, John Williams, Michel Legrand (who did French musicals), Bernard Herman… and Charlie Chaplin was an incredible composer. He did his own scores with these gorgeous, unforgettable melodies. Overall, I’m a fan of a lot of composers.

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