To celebrate the release of the soundtrack to Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench, we sat down with Academy Award winner composer Justin Hurwitz to revisit his first collaboration with Damien Chazelle.
What is your musical formation? What lead you to film music?
I started playing piano when I was 6, and grew up studying standard classical repertoire. There were years where I enjoyed practicing, and years that I hated it. I started composing at age 10 when my parents bought me a synthesizer and a floppy disk sequencer. Composing was addictive in a way that practicing piano never was. I stopped composing in high school, but as I was finishing high school and heading off to college, I realized that there was nothing I ever enjoyed more than composing, and decided to study it in college. I think I gravitated towards film music because I’ve always loved movies and realized that films offer one of the best platforms to create evocative, or emotional, or interesting music.
How were you contacted to score Guy and Madeline?
Damien Chazelle and I started a rock band with a few of our classmates during the first week of freshman year of college. Damien and I chose to become roommates sophomore year. Damien was studying filmmaking and I was studying music, and living together, we started talking about making movies together. Halfway through junior year, Damien asked me if I’d be interested in scoring a musical film that would be his senior thesis. He promised that I’d get to write for an orchestra, which I’d never done before, and I immediately said yes. That film became GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH.
How did the collaboration with Damien Chazelle go? A few words on the creative process…
Working on GUY AND MADELINE, Damien and I developed a process that remains pretty much unchanged to this day. I always start at the piano, searching for the right melodies, and recording quick piano demos which I email to Damien. I go through hundreds of ideas and demos until we have the right melodies, that we both love, that we think are right for the movie, and memorable. Once we’re happy with something on the piano, my next step has always been to go straight to orchestrating using Finale software. The difference between now and then is that back then, Damien would listen to the midi renderings that Finale spits out and that’s all he would hear before the real orchestra would play it. Starting with LA LA LAND, I learned how to take the orchestrations and plug them into Logic to create more sophisticated mockups before the orchestra sessions. Whatever phase we’re in — piano demos, or orchestration — Damien is very specific, knows what he wants, and asks for revision after revision, draft after draft. It can be an exhausting and sometimes frustrating process, having to revise the work so many times, but I have complete faith that Damien’s direction makes the music better, and that when it’s all over, I will have done my best work.
What type of music did you aim at creating?
For GUY AND MADELINE, the score was very inspired by French New Wave composers like Michel Legrand, Georges Delerue, and Jean Constantin. The songs were more inspired by the American Songbook, or “jazz standards.” The goal with the score was often to be lush, romantic, and whimsical to juxtapose the grounded, documentary style filmmaking and sometimes-mundane aspects of the characters’ lives. The songs were just meant to be catchy and often old-fashioned.
How did the recording go?
We raised just enough money to book a single four hour session with the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra, and I ended up going to Bratislava for five days because the plane ticket was cheaper if I went a few days early. I spent those days badly jet lagged, walking around Bratislava at night, anxious for the session. The recording session came, and was some of the most exciting few hours of my life, because it was the first time I ever heard my orchestrations played by a real orchestra. As the orchestra played, I stood right at the window of the booth, bouncing on my toes and grinning. The engineers started laughing at me because I don’t think they’d ever seen somebody enjoy a recording session so much. Recording the entire score in a single four hour session meant that we got about three takes of every cue. On the first take, the 80-piece orchestra was sight-reading. By the second take they more or less had the hang of it, and after the third take often we had to just move on. Luckily they’re a good orchestra, and the cues came out well. I had to drop a couple of things I planned to record, like orchestral parts to layer on top of “Boy in the Park” (we had already recorded the big band in Boston). The cue “Haircut” is something we made on the fly after the session was over, because we didn’t have time to record the real cue I had planned.
I made many mistakes in my orchestrations. We had range problems, and breathing issues. There are gestures in some of the larger orchestrations that I didn’t give enough support, so the ideas don’t cut through and the result is mud. I didn’t know some basic, practical elements of film scoring like what tempo maps were, so the engineers had to program click tracks in the middle of the session. There’s a section of Overture that I had marked “rubato” in the score without really giving any thought to how we’d accomplish that. Having not programmed a shapely click track myself, the engineers had to just pick a slower but steady tempo for that section of the cue. As a result, that section doesn’t breathe like I had imagined. You live and learn. The Bratislava session was a real crash course. I had a great education when it came to music theory and composition, but my college didn’t have a film scoring program, so I’ve learned film scoring on the job. I continued learning on WHIPLASH, and LA LA LAND, and I’ll always be learning. G&M was a particularly steep part of the learning curve.
And the usual question: which role does music play in a film according to you?
Music can play a lot of different roles depending on the film and what the filmmaker is looking for. It can deepen drama and emotional, but not necessarily. At the very least, I think the music should add a flavor and character that makes the movie a richer experience, and the music should ideally sound like it belongs to the the movie and no other music.