The 'La La Land' composer reunited with Damien Chazelle to score Ryan Gosling's trip to the moon

By Devan Coggan
October 04, 2018 at 01:00 PM EDT
Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures
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First Man is Damien Chazelle’s first film that isn’t explicitly about music. The Oscar-winning director’s three previous features — Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Whiplash, and La La Land — were either musicals or dramas about music, where melody and rhythm not only accompanied the action but drove the story forward. First Man is something different: an intimate drama starring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, chronicling his personal struggles with grief and his historic lunar landing.

But even though First Man doesn’t feature any drum rehearsals or tap dancing, Chazelle still treated music as a key part of the film, so much so that he reteamed with his longtime composer (and former college roommate), Justin Hurwitz, to start building the score before he even shot a single frame.

“He talked a lot about the score needing a sort of cosmic pain to it,” Hurwitz recalls. “It needed to be otherworldly, but also very emotional.”

EW has the exclusive debut of the first two tracks from the First Man score (below), the soundtrack to Armstrong’s journey to and from the moon. The first piece accompanies the actual moon landing, while the second is a quieter track that plays when Armstrong returns to Earth and reunites with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy).

“The movie goes back and forth between being very intimate and very grand,” Hurwitz says. “There are scenes with the launch or the landing on the moon itself where it’s very, very grand and big, and then there are these scenes on Earth where it’s just Neil by himself, or Neil with Janet, or Neil with his kids, and those scenes are very quiet, intimate, almost documentary-style scenes. Figuring out a way to score both sides of that movie but have it all feel like it was meant to be together, that was a challenge.”

For Hurwitz, a two-time Oscar winner for La La LandFirst Man represented a chance to try his hand at a more traditional, non-musical film score, while also experimenting with a unique sound. “Damien told me from the get-go that it had to sound different from anything we’d ever done,” he says. “It couldn’t sound like a traditional orchestra, and it couldn’t sound like jazz.” To give the film a ’60s sci-fi feel, Hurwitz used vintage synthesizers and learned how to play the theremin, an electronic instrument played by moving your hands through the air.

“What I love about a theremin is the interesting intersection between technology and humanity,” Hurwitz says. “It’s a piece of electronic equipment so it’s inherently technology, but you play it with your body and you play it with both arms. It almost feels like you’re dancing with it as you play it.”

“The Landing”

The centerpiece of Armstrong’s story is the moon landing, so Chazelle and Hurwitz wanted to create a piece that appropriately captured the anxiety and majesty of the mission. Throughout the entire film, Hurwitz used two main themes — a sort of repetitive, cycling riff and then a more sweeping melody — and “The Landing” marks the first time both themes combine.

“We actually started building that track before Damien even shot the movie,” Hurwitz explains. “He wanted a really fleshed-out mockup of that track because he wanted to really shoot that sequence and edit with the music in mind.”

“Quarantine”

The second track, “Quarantine,” comes near the end of the film, when Armstrong has returned to Earth and his wife. It repeats the same riff from “The Landing,” but this time it’s a much quieter, more intimate version performed on a harp. “It’s about Neil and Janet and their relationship, and everything they’ve lived through and where their relationship is at the end of the movie,” Hurwitz says.

It’s also the best example of the theremin and how it can sound both futuristic and deeply haunting. “It can be played in a way that is so emotional and that almost sounds like wailing or crying,” Hurwitz says. “Once we started playing around with the theremin, we found that it had this wailing quality that really served the kind of pain that Damien was looking for.”

The First Man soundtrack will be released Oct. 12.

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