'We never wanted anything to be fully happy or fully sad,' composer Justin Hurwitz tells EW. 'For our story, if we went too far in one of those directions it would tip into cheesy.'
Thirteen years ago, Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz became friends during their freshman orientation at Harvard. Initially, they were members of a band, with Hurwitz on keyboard and Chazelle, the future director of Whiplash, on drums (duh). But the band fell apart when the two young men turned their attention to films and filmmaking, which was a blessing for moviegoers.
With their third film, the miraculous modern romantic musical La La Land — you might have heard of it — Chazelle and Hurwitz have fully established themselves as the director-composer team of our time. And both are only in their early 30s.
The movie’s theatrical release on Dec. 9 finishes a journey that began six years ago, when Chazelle began writing the screenplay and Hurwitz started composing the music, but indeed began many years before then with both sharing their love for art, photography, dance, Los Angeles, and their joint favorite movie of all time, French director Jacque Demy’s exquisite The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, with its tearful music by Michel Legrand.
Hurwitz’s music has already won honors from the film critics organizations in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., with undoubtedly more laurels to come. La La Land is the agreed-upon frontrunner for a truckload of Oscar nominations — and it will be curious to see if writer-director Chazelle’s individual tally is lapped by Hurwitz, who composed not only the film’s score, but also collaborated with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul on several instantly hummable original songs. (Multiple tunes from the same movie can be nominated in the Best Song Oscar category.)
Hurwitz spoke exclusively to EW about two of La La Land‘s score tracks, which you can listen to below. His remarks have been bleached slightly here to remove even the appearance of spoilers: La La Land is not an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but it’s best to know as little as possible beforehand, short of what’s in the trailer.
“Mia and Sebastian’s Theme (Late for the Date)”
“We never wanted anything to be fully happy or fully sad,” Hurwitz says. “For our story, if we went too far in one of those directions, it would tip into cheesy. And that’s sort of a dirty word that Damien uses. And what he means really is that it’s too emotionally straightforward.”
The scene that this piece of music plays over takes place in a restaurant. The shiny-eyed struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) experiences a mental epiphany about her life while out on a date with her boyfriend (Finn Wittrock) and other buddies.
“I was actually on set, playing piano while that scene was shot,” Hurwitz says. “We wanted Emma’s character to be hearing this theme in her head as she’s acting the scene, so I was scoring it in real time. The actors were at the table in the restaurant, and I was on the other side of the set, watching Emma on a monitor, playing the theme and reacting to what she was doing, and she was reacting to the music. I was writing that cue as we were shooting it.”
When Chazelle called cut, Hurwitz fine-tuned and reshaped the theme. Later, the music grows into the largest crescendo of music in the entire movie. “It was a 95-piece orchestra,” Hurwitz says. “And the orchestration is just feathered in. It starts on piano and then you have violas and flutes come in and then more strings swelling up underneath it and then the orchestra explodes and it’s all 95 pieces. All the brass, all the wind instruments, all the strings. The timpani is exploding. It’s a very lush romantic cue.”
”You Love Jazz Now”
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s characters are sitting on a bench in the second half of the film — and we won’t say any more than that. “The scene is musically dry until about halfway through, when the score sneaks in on it,” Hurwitz says. “And when the cue begins, I was hinting at my melody from the early duet when they sing and dance for the first time. I was playing with that melody and I orchestrated it with quite a bit of counterpoint.”
He adds, “All the woodwinds are talking to each other. They’re all in dialogue, which introduces a certain kind of dissonance which helps the music feel emotionally complex. Every time we’re in a major key there’s a suspension that helps cut it. And likewise, when we’re in a minor key, there are colors which help it feel more buoyant. I really like the way this cue functions in the scene emotionally.”
In a movie wall-to-wall with music, this track is the one that Hurwitz is proudest of. “[‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’] was intended to be a classic movie score, like a classic love theme. But this cue in particular gets across my voice as an orchestrator. It has a lot of color and a lot of texture. I think it’s hopefully a sound that belongs to this movie.”