Composer Justin Hurwitz on Creating La La Land‘s Gorgeous Score

The collaboration between writer/director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz has produced three of the most musically ambitious films of the last seven years. Their first, which began its life as a student film and ended up becoming a major calling card for both of them, was Guy and Madeline on a Park BenchThe original concept for the film, as Hurwitz explained it to us in 2014, was to make a sixteen millimeter black and white vérité style movie, "but juxtaposed with this big, lush 90-piece orchestral romantic score.” he said. “We didn’t have the resources for that kind of visual feast on screen, so the idea was to take a vérité doc style aesthetic, but put it with his big romantic score. We expected the film to be kind of a senior thesis, but then it got into Tribeca in 2009 and had a nice festival run, then a small theatrical release. We’ve been working together ever since.” Since then, the two collaborated on the Oscar-winning Whiplash (it was nominated for five Oscars, and won three, for best editing, sound mixing, and best supporting actor for J.K. Simmons), which was such a critical smash, it allowed the two to return to the film they'd been meaning to make for years—La La Land

Hurwitz met Chazelle back at Harvard, where they played in the same band. For years, they talked about making a contemporary musical around the jazz music they both loved. "This was much larger in scope than Whiplash, and I worked much longer on it. It’s been about two years full time since we came back to it," he says. "We started developing it before Whiplash for a different studio, and Damien was writing the script and I was composing the songs and the themes of the movie, we had a script and package, but then the project hit a wall."

This was when they began work in earnest on Whiplash, and by the time they showed that film at Sundance, just about everyone was interested in what they were going to do next.

"Luckily we had La La Land ready to go. So the producers who’d been developing it with us from the beginning took the package out and found Lionsgate. So we spent the last two years making it a bigger project in terms of scope and production value."

La La Land is centered on the relationship of two budding artists; a jazz pianist named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone). Capturing the trials and tribulations of a budding actress on screen is one thing, but figuring out a way to really bring the passion and love of a jazz musician to the screen required Hurwitz and Chazelle to get to know some of the greats working in Los Angeles. 

"There are two facets to the music in the movie; there’s a lot of jazz because Ryan’s character Sebastian is a jazz pianist, so he’s either playing piano himself, and that needs to be impressive, or he’s playing as a part of jazz combos, or he’s at a jazz club watching other groups play. All of those groups of musicians on screen had to be really, really amazing, so before we began shooting the movie shot we spent a bunch of time in a smaller studio recording jazz ensembles; the best jazz musicains ripping it up."

Once they began to assemble their team of musicians to work on the film, Hurwitz would find himself in a room with living legends, sometimes unaware.

"People would come to sessions and be like 'oh my god Gary Novack!' Someone told me they saw a photo of our brass section on Facebook and every single one of those guys is normally a first chair. The trumpet section, for example, every one of those guys is a first chair. This was a new experience, and I was constantly blown away by our players and what they were doing."

His jazz and rhythm players were also a who's who of top talent. Randy Kerber on piano, Peter Erskine on drums, Bob Sheppard on tenor sax, Wayne Bergeron on trumpet, Andy Martin on trombone, Kevin Axt on bass, Graham Dechter and Paul Jackson Jr. on guitars, and Wad Culbreath on vibes.

For the orchestra, Hurwitz worked with Peter Rotter, who helped him put together a 95 piece orchestra with some of the best players in L.A., including a 40 person choir. 

Working on the jazzy La La Land gave Hurwitz a lot more room to explore than the big band inspired Whiplash provided

"Whiplash was highly arranged because it was big band, but when you’re doing jazz combos or solo, a lot of it is conveyed through a lead sheet, meaning you put the lead line and the chord changes and other indications on the page, but you leave it up to the player, that’s just how jazz is done. To give these top top players a lead sheet and watch what they do with it is really thrilling. For the jazz there’s a lot of soloing and reinvention going on."

This doesn't mean there wasn't a ton of planning involved. In fact, Hurwitz wrote every note of the orchestra, marrying the symphonic, tightly controlled orchestral score to the looser, more improvised jazz that's played throughout the film.

"The orchestra isn't playing notes you don't expect, they’re just bringing a musicality and humanity and swagger to it that you don’t expect," Hurwitz says. "Working with the best players in L.A., who are the best in the world in a lot of cases, the music comes to life in a way that you wouldn’t expect. There are things that are new that didn’t exist in the mockup, like the trumpet may growl in a way that wasn’t programmed, or, the solo violinst might push and pull in a way that wasn’t quite what was programmed, it takes on this new level of musicality."

Hurwitz saw his first rough cut last December, after spending a few months in post. The collaboration between Hurwitz and Chazelle is such that the composer begins working on the score very, very early on in the process. Usually, a director and an editor work with temp music, a filler score before the composer comes in and works on the real thing in earnest. That wasn't possible here. Hurwitz scored the movie for about eight months during post production.

"Usually a composer doesn’t come in until a movie’s almost locked, but because this is a musical and the score’s so important, there’s jazz on screen, and then song and dance numbers, and the score itself is so important, the way it's interwoven with all the other music in the movie, how it functions dramatically and tonally, and how it works with the other music in the movie, we just didn’t feel like it could have temp music in it," he says. "So I had an office right next door to Damien and Tom since October of last year. I was getting scenes here and there, they’d send me a QuickTime and I’d score it."

As the editing process moves along, Hurwitz goes through many stages of his composition. He works on tone and melody while also providing feedback on individual cuts within the film. Then, as the film gets refined and the score became more locked in, he begins thinking about the smallest details and the film's sound mix.

"I’m thinking more about the orchestration, and once the orchestra’s been recorded, it's about mixing things, finding the areas in the orchestration that could come out more, could be more dramatic, you’re still trying to always keep the dramatic purpose in mind. What I mean by that is, you don't want more of an oboe just to hear more of an oboe, you have to also be thinking in terms of what’s dramatically needed. Also the sound effects, sound design, the dialogue, all of it— you have to think about the whole tapestry and how the music fits into it…mizing the movie is obviously not my job, but I appreciate that Damien wants me around and values my opinion."

As a musician and a composer, Hurwitz admits that he can't always be unbiased.

"Damien includes me on the dub stage and values my thoughts; can this be louder, can this be softer? Damien likes to joke that I’m just there to turn my own music up [Laughs]. He’s teasing me. It just depends on the situation, and everybody making the film has to have a filmmaker mindset. The question always was what the music is trying to accomplish narratively and dramatically."

If you go by critical reception, the music has accomplished a lot. In fact, with La La Land sitting at a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics pretty much unamious in calling the film stunning, ambitious, dazzling, and plenty of other euphoric adjectives. The fact that, again, this is a completely original musical, conceived of and created by two college pals, is frankly astonishing.

"The actual musical numbers are all original, and they’re all meant to sound original. The soundscape of the whole movie is slightly retro, but hopefully still feels modern and urgent at the same time," Hurwitz says.

This has been felt by festivalgoers and critics. The New York Times A.O. Scott writes, "It doesn't so much look back longingly at past masters like Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Stanley Donen and Jacques Demy (to name a few) as tap into their mojo, insisting on their modernity and its own classicism in the same gesture." While Rolling Stone's Peter Travers says, "La La does nothing less than jolt the movie musical to life for the 21st century. You leave exhilarated by Damien Chazelle's nonstop inventiveness, dazzled by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and thrilled how they made movies magic again."

Hurwitz makes clear that the music is not there to try and manipulate you into feeling you're watching a period piece. The film is modern and meant to be experienced as such, even if it's absolutely retro in the fact that it's an original musical in the first place.

"I wouldn’t say any of the musical numbers are trying to trick you into thinking they’re old, it's just that there's a lot of jazz in the movie that I wrote and arranged that is sort of passing itself off as older because the Sebastian character is an old soul who worships the players of the past. A lot of the stuff he plays is old school jazz, but it’s original, so I had to make music that sounds like it came from that era."

This can have the effect of giving the viewer the sense they're straddling eras, living in a world that's neither here nor there, but entirely enjoyable. 

"Another cool trick was we turned the actual musical numbers in the movie into jazz pieces, we sort of love the idea that the movie exists in this musical universe that is really kind of its own universe. There’s a little bit of older music, Sebastian is practicing Thelonious Monk at home, so there’s a little bit of that, but other than that one piece, all the other jazz is original, so we thought it would be fun to take the song and dance numbers and twist them into these jazz pieces.  A lot of people won’t notice, but it helps make the universe all it’s own thing, and it’ll help maybe drive some of the melodies home if you’re hearing them in the background and they sound vaguely familiar, because it was the song and dance number from twenty minutes ago in the movie. We thought it would be fun to twist the songs into jazz songs."

Fun indeed. In fact, revelatory. 

Featured image: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND. Photo Credit: Dale Robinette​


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.