Oscar Watch: Justin Hurwitz on Composing the Emotional Toll of Reaching For The Moon in First Man

Oscar and Golden Globe-winning composer Justin Hurwitz crafts scores that feature stirring and beautiful notes and chord progressions, but they are born from human experiences. Hurwitz mines melodies alongside his longtime creative partner, Damien Chazelle, who directs with music in mind. Their first three films together examined the human condition through musicians including a jazz trumpeter (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), a drum student (Whiplash), and a pianist (La La Land). The pair’s latest and most ambitious project to date captures the incredible pressure and emotions of carrying the hopes of a nation into space.

For encapsulating the vastness of a galaxy, First Man is a raw and intimate portrayal of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon. “It really started when I got talking to Damien and hear what he was looking for in the score,” Hurwitz explained. “He always throws some words at me that get at what he wants to feel in the score. “The words he was using were ‘pain,’ ‘grief,’ ‘loneliness,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘longing.’ When I got to the piano, I was looking for those sounds of pain and grief.”

Hurwitz began with two themes in mind stemming from the NASA endeavor and the death of Armstrong’s toddler daughter, Karen.

“We knew we wanted to use the music in many different ways throughout the movie, so there would be big sequences in the movie where there was action or the beauty of space,” Hurwitz said. “We knew the music would have to work under all those different kinds of scenes. [Damien] wanted it all underpinned with a sense of the loss that the family faced in their daughter. That is something that colored all the years that followed. It was something he was dealing with in an indirect way by throwing himself headfirst into these missions. That was the main thing we were looking for in the music from the beginning.”

Hurwitz and Chazelle are destined to join the list of legendary Hollywood collaborators like Hitchcock and Hermann or Spielberg and Williams. Hurwitz describes their process as working toward a shared vision.

“I have to sit down and start sinking my hands into the piano and noodling. It’s about listening and I just feel my way around the piano until something sounds and feels right to me,” Hurwitz explained. “Then I record it as a piano demo and I send it to [Damien] and then he almost always says, ‘No, not right. Keep going.’ And then I do that over and over again until we narrow in on what it needs to be.”

There are no shortcuts to writing the perfect score. What audiences ultimately hear may capture our hearts and imagination, but it is far from the first piece Hurwitz will compose. All other merits withstanding, a piece of music has to serve the story as fully as possible.

“We throw out hundreds,” Hurwitz said. “I think it was a few hundred different ideas at the piano before we settled on the main theme. Then there was a secondary theme, a family piece of material. That was after we found the main theme we looked for that second theme. The main theme took us three hundred or so tries.”

It may take some time to find the right answer, but the pair knows it when they hear the vision manifest. “[Damien] has seen and heard the whole movie in his head, so he knows exactly what it’s going to look like,” Hurwitz revealed. “He imagines what the score needs to sound like. It’s just a process of me trying to catch up with him. Once I finally come to the right melody, he gets very excited.”

After agreeing on themes, Hurwitz moved on to arrangement and instrumentation. The first track he tackled was ‘The Landing.’ The event is often remembered as a major accomplishment for the nation, but in the film is the climax of a very somber journey for the astronaut. Musically, it is the culmination of Armstrong’s private emotions on a grand scale.

“It is the first time in the score that the two themes come together,” Hurwitz explained. “We started putting those two pieces of material together and started finding instrumentation. What was going to play as driving and relentless and what was going to carry the melody and what we were going to use in the orchestra and then the sort of electronic gear and how we were going to grow that cue. We were like let’s throw it all together in that cue and from there, we can look earlier and figure out what those little pieces are by themselves. That’s why we started with that cue during prep.”

First Man emphasizes the aspirations and accomplishments of humanity on a galactic scale. Hurwitz was tasked with aurally bridging the unthinkable gap between man and the moon. He turned to a unique instrument and utilized it in an even more unique way to weave capture the experience from Armstrong’s perspective.

“The most important thing was getting at the emotional world of the movie and what Neil and Janet and the family were feeling,” Hurwitz said. “Particularly on the Apollo 11 mission getting at what Neil was feeling as he was taking off as the rocket was lifting off, as he was reaching the moon, as he was stepping on the moon, as he was having his time with the crater. It was trying to get at the emotional world there. When it comes to space sounds, I think that’s where instrumentation ideas played the largest role. Damien had suggested the theremin early on.”

Ironically, the theremin was invented by Soviet musician Léon Theremin in 1928. The instrument utilizes electric signals that can be played without physical contact. It has a distinct and otherworldly sound, think The Day the Earth Stood Still. In First Man, it does have a cosmic effect, but Hurwitz draws out it’s more human properties.

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures
RYAN GOSLING as Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

“It’s an instrument I think most of us associate with the 50s and 60s sci-fi,” he said. “We liked the idea of theremin because it is period specific. At the same time, part of the idea at the beginning with the theremin is can we use it in a really emotional way? We wanted to use the instrument really melodically and lyrically and find a way to play our themes on it so that they could become very emotional, very expressive so they could take on a very human quality. The theremin is a very electronic sound, but it could be played in a way that’s almost like a human voice singing or wailing or crying.”

Even before Armstrong takes the fateful leap, Hurwitz is incorporated the sound as the astronaut grapples with what lies beyond. From there, it becomes part of his personal and professional journey.

“Part of the story is about Neil searching for answers,” he explained. “Even when we’re at home, we wanted there to be a certain cosmic element to the music. It’s usually really simple and is often something as simple as a harp, but there are just some very light electronics and very light theremins and I used sheet metal to make thunder claps through some of the cues. It’s like an old school radio play or sci-fi technique to get at this cosmic feeling. It’s very quiet in most of these cues, but it infuses it with this cosmic yearning and cosmic searching that I think Neil is going through even in some of the simplest scenes.”

Featured Image: RYAN GOSLING as Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” On the heels of their six-time Academy Award®-winning smash, “La La Land,” Oscar®-winning director Damien Chazelle and Gosling reteam for Universal Pictures’ riveting story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the years 1961-1969. Photo Credit: Daniel McFadden


Kelle Long

Kelle has written about film and TV for The Credits since 2016. Follow her on Twitter @molaitdc for interviews with really cool film and TV artists and only occasional outbursts about Broadway, tennis, and country music. Please no talking or texting during the movie. Unless it is a musical, then sing along loudly.

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