HFPA in Conversation: Justin Hurwitz, From Classical Music To Grunge

by Kirpi Uimonen Ballesteros February 6, 2019
Composer Justin Hurwitz, Godlen Globe winner

rich fury/getty images

A three-time Golden Globe winner, composer Justin Hurwitz met journalist Ana Maria Bahiana at HFPA’s office in West Hollywood where he talked about his process of working with director Damien Chazelle.  They have done four movies – Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Whiplash, La La Land and First Man.

For First Man, Before they began working on the score, Chazelle sent Hurwitz some tracks by Nirvana. "It’s kind of funny that some of the inspirations we talked about at the beginning have nothing to do with film music and it would be hard to tell that they were inspirations but Damien mentioned grunge at the beginning of the process and he sent me some tracks by Nirvana and some other 90’s grunge,” Hurwitz explains and continues that the score sounds nothing like that.

Chazelle wanted to give him some inspiration in a more abstract way. “I think what he wanted me to draw from it was a certain type of angst and a certain type of pain.  And I don’t know if he couldn’t find quite the right example in classical music or in film scores but there was something in some of that grunge music that had a certain wailing, angsty, painful quality that he wanted.”

The creative duo met at Harvard.Damien and I met the first week of the first year of college and we started a band together.  We had fun in this band for about a year and then in sophomore year, second year, we became roommates and we started living together and over the course of this year we started losing interest in the band.”

They were living in one room, sharing the bedroom and the work area. “We were just sort of observing what the other was doing, like he was writing screenplays all the time and I was working on compositions or working on counterpoint exercises for my class.  And we were showing each other what we were doing.  I was reading his scripts when he wanted me to, I was showing him some of the music and we were just talking and commenting and then started dreaming up things that we wanted to work on together.”

Eventually, they quit the band and started focusing on movies. “I was studying music thinking about being a film composer and he was studying film and he wanted to be a film director.  But it just became clear to us sophomore year that there’s only so much time in the day and we wanted to work on films eventually so it was just time to start thinking and talking and working on films all the time.”

The first feature they made was Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. ”It was kind of a prototypical La La Land.  Damien introduced me to some classic movies and some classic musicals and those became huge inspirations and stuff we just kept talking about for years and kept referencing for years.”

Listen to the podcast and learn how he created the themes for the First Man; which composer has influenced him since his childhood; what are his favorite scores; whether he'd work with anybody else than Damien Chazelle; how do they work together; what were the challenges in La La Land; what kind of movie he would like to score next; what was the name of their band and what happened to it after they quit.