Composer Justin Hurwitz is back in familiar territory following his Best Original Score win at last week’s Golden Globes. The Oscar winning composer is now three for three at Globes, winning the award for his scores to La La Land, First Man, and now Babylon.
During that same week, the Society of Composers & Lyricists (SCL) announced that Hurwitz and director Damien Chazelle will be the recipients of the 2023 Spirit of Collaboration Award at the fourth annual SCL Awards on February 15th.
The ceremony will highlight the duo’s evolution from their indie roots with Whiplash (2014) to the vast grandeur of Babylon (2022). It’s hard to imagine a better launch into the final leg of awards season, and Hurwitz is happy to look back at his tenure with Chazelle. “ We’ve know each other since we met the first week of freshman year in college,” says Hurwitz. “We’ve known each other more than half our lives.”
Seated between two keyboard at his studio, Hurwitz spoke to Awards Focus about the immense layering required for the Babylon score, his reverence for his late grandfather’s talent, and performing his latest score live at Delilah’s in Hollywood.
Awards Focus: When the SCL comes to you for their Spirit of Collaboration award, that must be quite a moment. You look at previous honorees like Thomas Newman and Sam Mendes, and that’s certainly good company to keep. Has this triggered any reflection for you and Damien Chazelle since Whiplash took the world by storm?
Justin Hurwitz: We’ve definitely made fewer movies than the others who have been honored with this award, but it’s very flattering that people see us as an important duo. I was lucky to find a filmmaker who considers music and cares about it as much as Damien does. I would be a fan of Damien’s films even if I didn’t work on them, so it’s a particular honor to have this collaboration.
AF: Sam Raimi gave Danny Elfman a good ribbing when he bestowed the lifetime achievement award on him at the SCL holiday dinner. Are you expecting any of that from Damien?
Hurwitz: He’ll get me a few times, I don’t doubt it. We’ve know each other since we met the first week of freshman year in college. We’ve known each other more than half our lives and there’s a familiarity there that people don’t get to see… we have a lot of ribbing behind the scenes.
AF: The score to Babylon has some incredibly memorable melodies, and that’s certainly a strength when it comes to breaking away from the competition in the score category.
Hurwitz: You have no idea how many melodies get thrown out, for every catchy melody we’ll throw out hundreds of bad ideas or good ideas that don’t make the cut. For the most part, it’s torture sitting at this piano on my left… searching for the right melodies. I’ll send the ideas to Damien and he’ll help me figure out what to throw out and what’s worth pursuing.
AF: A lot of pundits try to correlate the performance of the film at the box office to its awards viability. I don’t think that is or should be the case, but I’d love to know how you feel about the box office and Babylon, and the state of theatrical releases post pandemic?
Hurwitz: I do wish more people were seeing movies in a theater. It seems like a couple movies a year people go out and see, and then the rest they wait to stream. I try to see everything I can in a theater, there was a year where I saw eighty films in a theater.
It’s gotten harder to leave the house post pandemic, it seems, but there’s nothing like seeing a film in a theater. You’ll laugh harder at the comedic bits, and the dramatic moments hit in a different way with an audience.
AF: In terms of scene by scene analysis, you’ve got a band of musicians in the opening party scene playing your score. There are several instruments playing in the theater’s speakers that you couldn’t fit on screen within the band. How did you manage to pull that off visually?
Hurwitz: For the party, the music needed to be really wild and unhinged in that scene. It’s very rock and roll inspired in that it’s built around driving riffs that are usually played on guitar. We’re playing the riffs on unison horns to give it a muscular feel.
Going into the studio and recording this was hours and hours of layers upon layers. I knew it was going to be impossible to see all that on the screen. The first track of the film, “Welcome,” has three layers of Gary Novak on drums along with groups of African percussionists and Latin percussionists. There’s also someone playing a metal bucket at a different tempo to give the feeling that the whole piece is going off the rails. For all of this we only have two auxiliary percussionists on screen.
In “Voodoo Mama” there are layers and layers of wood hitting wood — wood boards, wood sticks — somebody on screen is playing a clapper board covering what’s probably actually 50 tracks of percussion in the mix.
AF: Another stand out scene was Manny rushing to get the new camera to the outdoor shoot as they’re losing the last bit of daylight. There’s so much going on there visually where multiple productions are filming. Can you describe the scoring process for that?
Hurwitz: When Manny is racing to get the camera you also have Margot’s character dancing on the bar top and really coming into her own as an actress. It was a really fun piece called “Herman’s hustle” which is not referencing anything in the film.
That track and “Herman’s habit” from La La Land is a reference to my grandfather, Herman, who was a great saxophone player. Neither of my parents are musicians, and I think my sister and I got our musicality from our grandfather.
We never got to know him because he died when I was one year old. I wanted to give him a nod with “Herman’s hustle,” which has baritone saxophone played in the style of dance music.
I found Leo Pellegrino on Youtube who does this style brilliantly and I recorded him remotely for the score. Then I had Peter Erskine, one of the best jazz drummers in the world, playing the snare and throwing in cowbells and woodblocks.
AF: In this film, it’s like seeing Margot Robbie for the first time again, she’s delivering this incredible performance that’s engrossing and so much of that is established in her dancing to the music you’ve written.
Hurwitz: Margot is so great in the film, as are Diego and Brad. The Nellie and Manny scenes are the heart of the film for me. It’s really messed up how toxic that relationship is and the last scene where they’re dancing at the cafe… it gets me every time.
AF: Out of all the things you’ve done promoting Babylon, what’s been the most enjoyable moment? I have to imagine the Delilah club concert is at the top of the list.
Hurwitz: Yeah, that night at Delilah’s was really fun. The performance had six or seven musicians in total and we had to make that configuration work given the fact that a majority of the instruments were missing from the studio score.
There was something very liberating about letting go and doing it live with that core group of musicians. It was about letting great musicians like saxophone player Jacob Scesney and trumpeter Keyon Harrold do their thing.
AF: So what’s the next collaboration for you and Damien? Are you ever going to break the monogamy of this relationship?
Hurwitz: (Laughs) I’ve already asked him and I don’t think he knows what he wants to do next. At some point, it will probably happen where I work with another filmmaker. I love doing concerts and in 2023 I’ll be doing some La La Land and Whiplash concerts.
I love giving our films a longer life through performance, it’s very important to me. Sharing what we’ve made with audiences and seeing what these movies and scores mean to people is an incredible experience. It reminds me why we work so hard on these movies.