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‘First Man’ Composer Justin Hurwitz on Bringing “Painful” & “Triumphant” Moments to Life | In Studio


(upbeat instrumental music) – Hi, this is Mariah Gallow
from The Hollywood Reporter and I’m in-studio today
with Justin Hurwitz. Hi. We’re here to talk about First Man. You’re the composer of First Man. Tell me about the overall themes that brought you into your score. – The overall themes Damien wanted to explore, grief, loss, kind of a sort of pain. He wanted to also use those themes in different ways throughout the movie so we could use the same themes that scored some of his very
painful moments early on to also score these incredible
triumphant moments later on. You know, the launch
and getting to the moon, landing on the moon, all of that, but he wanted even those
moments of the movie to be kind of underpinned
with a little bit of the earlier losses because a lot of the story’s about Neil and Janet and their family overcoming a lot of difficulties, a lot of losses, at first, their daughter and then some very close friends
and colleagues of theirs. So these were the main feelings
Damien wanted to get at. – Right, and the movie really highlights the fragility of the space program. Just how fragile the men are
who are taking place in it and the fragility of
the spacecraft itself, so how did you kind of
translate that into song? – I would say the fragility that was, a lot of that was through instrumentation. We had our themes worked out, but we didn’t know exactly how to score a lot of the scenes until
we actually saw them and when we saw the
way that they were shot with that very sort of
handheld documentary style and saw how intimate the camera was, how close on people’s faces the camera was and how, really how
those scenes were played. Some instrument ideas sort of
just came to us, like harp. Harp has a very delicate nature and every note is kind of
sounds a little differently, every note, some notes kind of hide and some notes pop out and it just has this very sort of, human
and fragile quality to it. And so, that seemed to work really well against some of the scenes, particularly the family
scenes, the domestic scenes. And then later as the movie progresses, we start hearing more and more theremin, which is an electronic instrument which has this very, this very almost voice-like quality. It can sound like wailing or crying and it’s kind of in all the cues but we keep it buried under
the orchestra instruments for a while and it starts coming
more and more to the front later in the movie and
it’s sort of the sound of the really overt emotions of the movie. It’s kind of Neil’s most inner pain coming out, especially as he reaches the final mission and eventually gets to the moon. – Now, the theremin. It’s such an interesting
instrument for you to choose because it’s kind of a loaded instrument in that it has this history of being a sci-fi movie instrument from the 50s and the 60s. So, were you kind of playing into that or were you trying to kind of reinvent the use of the theremin in your score? – Well, we thought it’s cool to have some sci-fi flavors
because it’s sort of like these astronauts are going off on a sort of science fiction
mission of their own. They’re going off into
the complete unknown. They have no idea what
they’re going to find. If they’re ever going to come back, it’s a very sort of haunting kind of, you know, mission they’re on, but we wanted to use the
instrument differently than we’re used to hearing it. When Damien first suggested it, he said, can we use a theremin, but can we use it really emotionally? Can we use it really melodically, really lyrically, really emotionally? So it’s not there as just
for the sake of weirdness, for the sake of alienness. It’s there, it has those qualities in it, but can we use it to, what does our melody sound like on a, could our melody be
played really emotionally? And that was one thing I found that was so exciting was, not only could our melody be played on it but that the melody was
particularly expressive on it because the theremin is so, it reacts to your every little movement and you can just add its, it has a real sort of human quality to it. It’s very electronic, it
sounds very electronic but because it’s sort of responding to you and because you can add vibrato to it and because you can sort
of slide into the notes, it just has this very emotive quality and it can be
used really lyrically. – You’re kind of bringing it back to what it was originally invented to do, which was to be an orchestral instrument. That was the original
invention of the theremin. It was supposed to be in
every classical orchestra. So it feels like you kind of revived it. – Well, I don’t know. I mean, people have been playing it, have always been playing it and I’ve seen some incredible, I learned a lot about it
just from YouTube videos and I’ve seen some incredible performances of people using it with orchestras, sometimes as a stand-in for a vocal, sometimes replacing in an opera, or replacing the soprano
vocal or whatever. I’ve seen a lot of
interesting uses for it. Yeah, we didn’t know exactly
what we were going to find. Like I said, Damien suggested it and I wanted to start
messing around with it and it just seemed to work really well. And we had to be careful
with where it was sitting in the mixes to make sure
that for most of the movie, it could sort of sit in with the orchestra and almost be a voice of the orchestra. I do use it throughout, when we’re trying to use
it in the more subtle ways. I do use it as a little sort of counter-melody here and there, almost the way I give it lines that you might give to a clarinet, if there weren’t a
theremin in there to use. But then, towards the end of the movie, we really come to the front and really kind of sing and carry some of those cues. And like I said, that’s
particularly when we want the music to start blossoming and becoming more and more emotional and it’s really as we get towards the moon that we let the theremin
finally come to the front. – How long does it take for
a film score to leave you? Are you on to the next
project as soon as it’s locked or does it kind of stay
with you for a while? – I think it stays. It definitely does stay with me. I think about it and I hear it. I’ve only worked so far on Damien’s movies and we’re worked, since I’m
sort of working at his pace, we’ve had, it’s been a lot of, it’s been a lot of time after the movie. In other words, I don’t, I haven’t really jumped
directly into other scores yet because we finished the movie and we released the movie
and we kind of lived with it for a while and then he, as he gets into prepping the next movie, that’s when I get started. So it’s been a pace that’s
allowed me to kind of come to terms with the work, and think about it and I, yeah, I listen to the old
soundtracks sometimes. Not a lot, but I listen to them sometimes just to sort of remind myself what we did and I tend to focus on
the problems with things. Trying to become better at that. Always focusing on the negative. I mean, I’m certainly proud of the work, but I listen back to
a lot of my older work on La La Land or anything else and think, I wish I would’ve done that different. I wish I’d, I hear a lot of my own
poor choices and think. But it’s a learning experience too because then I try to make
better choices the next time. – Yeah, and you’ve won two
Oscars since La La Land so from that movie to First Man, what have you learned? Do you have any new perspective? – I mean there was a lot
to learn in this movie. There were a lot of new, it’s the first time we’ve ever done any kind of electronic
music so beyond the theremin there were synthesizers,
vintage module synths, there was actual kind
of musical sound design, there was like, creating
some sounds and sampling them and making an instrument of it. There was that sort of stuff
that we’d never done before so that was fun. Every time I orchestrate something, I learn what works and what doesn’t work and that’s just always going
to be a learning process. I’ve only gotten a few tries at it to orchestrate here with an orchestra, I realize what works
and what doesn’t work, so that I feel like I
take a step each time. This is the first time I conducted a score so that was, that was really fun but also, I’m in a very steep part of
the learning curve for that so there’s always something and I hope that every score we do that there can be some kind of real new ingredient or new
thing to learn or to try out, whether it won’t necessarily
be a new instrument each time but some, maybe it’ll be like
a different harmonic language, like a drastically different
melodic or harmonic language the next time, whatever it is, I’d like to keep really trying
something very different each time. – Is there anything you learned about Neil Armstrong through this? Like his life, like did any, were there any takeaways for you about this movie in general? – Well, I didn’t know anything about him other than the very basic
stuff that everybody knows, which is he was the first
person to go on the moon and so the rest of the
story was all new to me, and I had no idea what
his family life was like. Some of the things that, you know, dealing with the loss of a child and sort of the way he threw himself into his work after that sort of how strong and stoic Janet was and he was
and the whole family was and how much they sacrificed as a family for this historic thing. We really only know the end of it. We just know the glory of it, but everything that they sacrificed or were willing to
sacrifice along the way, that was all new to me and I just thought that
was really poignant. – Well, getting back to the theremin. Did you play all the theremin parts? – I did. I wasn’t planning on it
when I got the theremin. I was probably thinking that, well, in the end, it’ll be played
by a professional musician like all the other instruments, but over the course of working
on lots of demos early on and then making the cues
and I was playing the parts each time which, demo parts just kind of ended up being real parts. I would end up playing, every time we’d change a cue, I’d have to replay the theremin part. Well, I had to replay them a million times just to get it right in the first place because I’m far from a
professional level theremin player, so I’d play over and over and over again to try to get it right or
try to get pieces of it right and piece together the best parts and also, every time we change the cue, I would have to replay
it because it’s not, it’s not a midi instrument
like the other parts of the orchestra when
you’re sketching it in or composing, it’s, if you make a mistake or
if you change the minutes, it’s audio, so you have to re-record it. So over the course of
it, I finally got down some performances that
Damien was happy with and we liked and they just stuck. But I don’t think that was
my intention originally. I just wanted to sort
of mess around with it and see how it sounded. – (chuckles) Well, you have
brought a theremin today so would you mind showing me, demonstrating the theremin for me? – Sure. Okay.
– All right. – So, this is the theremin. You see, if I move, it reacts. (theremin playing)
This is volume. So the further you get away
from this, the louder it gets. And this is pitch, so,
(theremin playing) pitch goes up, pitch goes down. And you want to try to get it so there’s a little tuning thing here so that the lowest pitch you
want is towards your body. And then, you don’t really tune it ’cause like, the notes, it’s always kind of,
each time you turn it on, the notes are in a different place, somewhere in the middle. So that’s what makes it so hard is kind of figuring
out where the notes are and I think the really, really good pros probably tune it in a very similar way and know exactly where the notes are. For me, it’s just kind of
trial and error and each time. So, I just get the low end and then
(low theremin notes playing) try to figure out where the octave is. (theremin playing) Do you want to try? – Yeah. Sorry, my pregnant belly
is creating something. (theremin playing) Mine really sounds more
like a sci-fi movie. – So yeah, you’re basically doing it right. Up and down doesn’t do anything. It’s distance from it. – Distance, oh, okay. So this is the only up and down. It’s volume
– That’s up and down. (theremin playing) Yeah, and you can, if you want to make individual, you know, you can make individual notes by moving in front of it. Or you can make a note and move to a different
spot and make another note. And then you can add a vibrato
if you shake your right hand. (theremin playing) (laughing) Yeah. Find a note and then add a vibrato. (laughing) – Pretty cool. I give it back to the master. – I’m hardly a master. (theremin playing) Pitch is hard without a backing track without a, but yeah, if you do it enough times, you sort of feel where
the notes are finally and you try to sort of almost see in the middle where the notes are, so. – Amazing. Justin Hurwitz, thank you
so much for being here. – Thank you for having me.
– Movie is First Man. And you can check it out in theaters. (theremin playing)
(giggling)

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