SALT LAKE CITY — Prestigious awards shows are familiar territory for “La La Land” composer Justin Hurwitz.
Although confusion abounded over whether “La La Land” had actually won an Oscar for best picture at the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, when it came to the music categories, the answer was clear: the glory was Hurwitz's. The composer's work on the musical film netted him Oscars for original song and original score — just a month after he'd earned Golden Globe Awards for those same categories.
Hurwitz is once again among the Golden Globe hopefuls, and Sunday, Jan. 6, will reveal if the composer wins the award for best original score — this time for his work on Damien Chazelle’s latest film “First Man.” But even though Chazelle’s tale of the Apollo 11 moon landing marks Hurwitz’s fourth feature-length project with his college friend, composing its score was a significant — and frightening — step out of his comfort zone.
“Before we even got started, (Chazelle) said it needs to sound different from what we’ve done,” Hurwitz told the Deseret News. “That was a little scary, but also really fun.”
The director's challenge led Hurwitz to experiment with electronic instruments and music — a pretty big step as he'd worked exclusively with jazz instruments for his previous collaborations with Chazelle.
For authenticity purposes, Hurwitz only used electronic instruments that pre-dated the ’69 moon landing, like the Moog synthesizer and a theremin. He also modified the sounds of traditional instruments, piping the sounds of orchestra strings through a special speaker to create a “swirling quality” to the music. Other times, the creative process led Hurwitz to more primitive techniques, like shaking sheet metal to mimic thunder noises.
“First Man” wasn't a musical film like “La La Land” or 2014’s “Whiplash,” and scoring the film led to an important discovery for Hurwitz: This was the work he'd wanted to do all along.
“I grew up loving film scores,” he said, adding that movies are an excellent medium for orchestral music. “I loved composing music way more than I loved playing music.”
As a child, Hurwitz found inspiration in the film scores of composers like John Williams, and later on, was influenced by the likes of Nino Rota (“Godfather 2”) and Ennio Morricone. He wanted to join the ranks of dramatic film composers.
“I … started composing when I was a kid,” he said. “It’s funny that it took until the fourth movie to do the kind of film scoring that I sort of figured I would do. I would love to do another musical at some point, but I’ve always thought I would be a film score composer first and foremost.”
But whether he’s working on a musical or a dramatic film like “First Man,” the most memorable part of the composing process for Hurwitz takes place on the recording stage.
“The part that always sticks with me is when we get the music in front of an orchestra. The music is nothing compared to what it is after the musicians play it,” Hurwitz said. “It takes on qualities that you never could have imagined, because every single one of those musicians is bringing so much humanity and so much experience and so much musicality to it.
“They’re bringing their whole lives and everything they’re feeling, everything they’ve lived through, everything they’ve felt. … To hear all of that come together is such a moving and thrilling experience,” the Oscar winner continued. “Those memories stick with me.”