La La Land was a sensational success, both in terms of the movie and also the soundtrack for which you won two Oscars. I got a real sense watching that film that it was a real labour of love, especially given yours and Damien’s shared enthusiasm for musicals.
Yeah, absolutely it was. It was a labour of love that took years to make. It kept stopping and starting. Damien had wanted to make it for years and had to keep putting it aside in favour of other things. It was also inspired by a movie that sparked an important connection between me and Damien, the Jacques Demy movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. After living with Damien as a roommate, he showed me this movie and I fell in love with it. Years later, movies like that acted as a huge influence on La La Land. It all really traces back to the things we were both talking about when we were 19.
Well let’s move things on to First Man, which as a movie dealing with outer-space uses silence and absence of sound to make an impact. That makes the presence of music all the more impactful. When it came to writing the score for this film, was it a case of you collaborating closely with the sound designers to work it all out?
So were were all working under one roof. There were these post-production offices where the sound designer Ai-Ling Lee was down the hall. I would see her and we would then talk about what we were working on and trade information that would prove helpful.
But for the most part, the silences that you’re talking about were directorial choices that Damien made, and it was more of a task between me and him as to where the music would be spotted. Those conversations also involved Tom Cross, the editor. For example, when Neil Armstrong first comes out of the hatch onto the moon, it’s pure silence, then he comes down the ladder and they introduce the breathing sounds, and then eventually the music comes in.
That was the kind of stuff I talked through with Damien. It would be built into their cut with the rough elements, and then I would work with Damien in my office in terms of plotting the cues just right. That was how it worked.
What was the core instrumentation that you used to give life to the film?
Well there’s the orchestra and within the orchestra, some of the elements are manipulated. All of the strings in the orchestra have gone through some vintage gear and equipment, like a rotor cabinet, which gives them this swirling, fluttering quality. So it’s an orchestra with some manipulation.
There’s also a lot of cues that are led by the harp. And then there’s a group of electronic elements – there’s the theremin, which is a famous electronic instrument. There are also a lot of tracks that come from a modular synth. We had a rule that all of the synths had to date from 1969 or earlier, so there are lots of tracks from a moog synth, which is another modular synth.
And then there are the original sounds I made over the course of a few months. Because Damien was off shooting in Atlanta, I had a few months to play around in LA before he got back, kind of making a toolbox of sounds. I was recording a lot of environmental things, which become layered into some of the cues.
The First Man score culminates in the extraordinary The Landing cue, which is my favourite individual score cue from 2018.In your role as a composer, is it important to earn that sense of cathartic, emotional release after having built the atmosphere so carefully beforehand?
Yeah, I think it is. We talked a lot about the larger shape of the score and what the larger architecture is. We talked about keeping most of the score very contained through most of the movie and then letting it finally blossom once we got to the Apollo 11 mission. At that point we release a lot of the weight of the orchestra that we had previously been holding back. Certain electronic elements that we’d also been holding back now come to the front.
So yeah, that was the cue where, after holding back, the brass and woodwinds become very prominent. It’s exactly what you’re talking about: it becomes all the more powerful and effective if we’re deploying certain aspects of the orchestra for the first time.
Many thanks to Justin Hurwitz for taking the time for this interview. First Man is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures.