For “La La Land” composer and songwriter Justin Hurwitz, it’s been a long, laborious ride from dreaming up the musical with his old college roommate Damien Chazelle over six years ago to becoming the toast of awards season.
His catchy score and songs have broken through, too, securing their own place in the spotlight and overshadowing the likes of Justin Timberlake and Lin Manuel-Miranda in the awards races.
In the past two months, Hurwitz has picked up a handful of critics’ awards, a BAFTA and two Golden Globe Awards for score and original song (“City of Stars”) and is nominated for three Oscars — score and two songs (“The Fools Who Dream” and “City of Stars”). He knows how unique this moment is, especially for a composer.
Hurwitz recently spoke to The Associated Press about his “La La Land” score, the unusual production process and how he was an inspiration for Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian.
AP: This wasn’t a typical director/composer relationship during production. Can you describe how?
Hurwitz: Normally, the composer doesn’t come in until later in the process when the picture is locked. We didn’t feel like temp music (temporary music, sometimes from another film) could work in this movie since the language of the music was so important in making it all flow together, so I had an office next to the editing room where Damien and (editor) Tom Cross were working for eight months. Every day they would give me scenes and I would give them the score and they would tweak the scenes to fit the score and I would tweak the score to fit the scenes. The picture and the score were evolving together. It was kind of an unusual process.
Then there were some really weird situations where I was playing the piano while they were shooting _ like the scene where Mia (Emma Stone) is at the restaurant with her boyfriend and his brother. I was on set playing the theme because we wanted her to react to it, but we also wanted the music to react to her. I was watching her in the monitor and playing it and scoring it while they were shooting it.
AP: What was the theory behind Emma Stone’s naturalistic singing style?
Hurwitz: What we were going for would be like Audrey Hepburn in “Moon River. Emma has a similarly breathy voice. It’s a lovely voice but it doesn’t have too much of that Broadway belt to it. She can, and she does in “Audition,” but when she’s singing there’s lightness and airiness to it that I think is really charming. That kind of voice makes someone feel like a real person a little more. We wanted to still have some reality and vulnerability and humanity in all of it.
AP: You’ve been working on this for over six years. Do you see yourself in the movie at all?
Hurwitz: Damien was modeling the Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) character somewhat on me. During pre-production, he sent the costume designer and the production designer to my apartment to take pictures and take a look at everything. I was using my piano as a table. I would eat on it and put all my mail on it and pretty much everything was on my piano. Ryan (Gosling) got wind of what they were planning and he said, “I think that’s just too sad. I think that’s too pathetic.” So they made his apartment not quite as austere.
AP: What was your apartment like?
Hurwitz: It was just a white room with a piano and a bed. An “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” poster on the wall was my only decoration. That’s where I first met (producers) Fred (Berger) and Jordan (Horowitz). Six years ago Damien brought them over to my apartment to hear some of the music and they were pretty weirded out when they walked in. They didn’t know what to think. They described it various ways, one of which was, “an insane asylum with a piano in it.” I’ve acquired more furniture now. Not much. I have a dining room table but no chairs.
AP: How has this whole awards run been for you?
Hurwitz: It’s been really fun and flattering. It’s been tiring at times — getting dressed up as much as I’ve had to get dressed up. These are not things that I do normally. I’m enjoying it, but I’m also aware that this won’t happen again for me, at least in this way, on this level. Composers don’t often get opportunities like this. This was such an incredible opportunity, not just to compose so much music for a movie, but to put so much of myself in the movie. Because of the relationship I have with Damien, I got to put my musical voice in such a pure way into his movie. That’s a rare opportunity. So yeah, I’ll do film scores going forward and maybe I’ll do more musicals, but I don’t know the next time that I’ll get to be so involved in a movie creatively.
AP: That’s very wistful!
Hurwitz: Basically my life is downhill from here. This is it.
AP: What’s next?
Hurwitz: I’m writing and producing “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It has nothing to do with music.