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How ‘La La Land’ Composer Justin Hurwitz Used “Sleight Of Hand And Deception” To Create His Dynamic Score

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With his three Oscar nominations for La La Land—in the areas of Best Original Score and Best Original Song—composer Justin Hurwitz can count one for each film currently on his resume. In the span of just eight years, Hurwitz has collaborated with college peer and longtime friend Damien Chazelle on three music-based films and two audacious, original jazz musicals—projects in which the value of the composer’s contributions cannot be underestimated. While some may see a night-and-day difference between the low-budget Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and the ever more elaborate La La Land—with the gravitas that a big budget and proven star power can bring—for Hurwitz, the artistic process remains much the same.

While three Oscar noms is an impressive pull, Hurwitz’ La La lauds certainly don’t end there. With wins thus far at the Critics’ Choice Awards, the Globes, and now the BAFTAs, Hurwitz is among the most decorated below-the-line artists of the year. Before hopping on a plane to London for that last awards show, Hurwitz spoke with Deadline, revealing the tools he used to bring a bit of musical magic to Chazelle’s LA love story.

Your first film outing was a low-budget musical with similar jazz inspirations. Has your process changed much since this first film collaboration with Chazelle?

The process has not changed that much. It begins in the same way, with me at a piano, working for a very long time, trying to get melodies and thematic material approved by Damien, and that’s just a very long process, to find those melodies that we both really love.

I orchestrate, and I’ve done that from Guy and Madeline to now. I think the biggest difference between then and now is how many more partners and collaborators we have. When we were making Guy and Madeline, it was basically just me and Damien and a few of our classmates who were part of the crew, whose opinions we certainly valued. But there weren’t too many people who we had to run things by, or show things to, and now obviously making a studio movie, there are all of these layers of collaborators.

I would say the biggest difference is finding ways to pull in a lot of other opinions and preserve the vision, but also listen to and try to value the opinions of so many other partners.

What was the process in finding your main theme for the film?

If we’re talking about “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme,” I was just thinking about something that would be sort of an outpouring of Sebastian’s soul, and also kind of the heart of the love affair for both of them. They’re in similar places—they both want to be in love, they both want certain things professionally that they don’t have, and there’s a real yearning for both of them, especially towards the beginning of the story—and I was trying to find that yearning. It was a tricky tone to find, because it had to be sweet and pretty, but it also had to have some pain in it. But it couldn’t have too much pain; it couldn’t be too sad.

Like a lot of the music in the movie, Damien and I always felt that if something went too far towards happy or too far towards sad, it would get cheesy. We don’t like things that are too far in one direction, emotionally; we like things that have a foot in both worlds, and like life, are emotionally complex.

There are frequent shifts in key, time signature and other dynamics throughout the score. How did you navigate those transitions so seamlessly?

If I’m talking about why I do it emotionally, something like “City of Stars” or the main theme, those don’t have key changes in them per se, but they do dip back and forth between major and minor within the same key, for some of the reasons I just discussed—to have that sort of emotional complexity.

The way I do that is through basically just a series of cadences. I use a lot of sleight of hand and deception—you think it’s going to cadence one way, and it goes the other way. I like to do that a lot.

When we look at actual key changes, like the types I do in “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” or in other score cues, just on a technical level, I’m taking a harmony that we think we understand, and I’m interpreting it in a new way. I like music that has a real narrative quality to it; like any story, you don’t know exactly where it’s going to go, or how it’s going to get there. My music tends to be like that.

Take us through some of the instrumentation involved in the score. Was it xylophone I was hearing throughout much of the film?

No, it was mostly vibraphone that you were hearing. I used a lot of vibraphone, and a lot of woodwind trills. Some of the woodwind trills, they’re obvious; it just sounds like a flute trilling. Other ones are kind of buried in the orchestration, and they add this almost ghost-like quality—this kind of throaty, almost human voice-like vibrato quality. Sometimes I just bury them in the orchestration because I like to have that color and that texture there.

It brings a touch of magic to the score.

Yeah, exactly; magic is the perfect word—magic, and sometimes whimsy, depending on how they’re being used. I would say the flute trills towards the top of “Planetarium,” I think those are kind of whimsical. Whereas, some of the clarinet trills that I buried in the middle of orchestration, it adds a certain magic.

Then, I do a lot of string tremolos, especially in quieter dynamics— a lot of piano and pianissimo, tremolos on the strings, which again adds a similar magic. Just a little shimmer; I think a shimmer is the best way to describe it.

I think one of the main things I do in my orchestration is my use of counterpoint. If you look at cues like “Bogart and Bergman,” when they’re walking on the lot, or “You Love Jazz Now,” when they’re sitting on the park bench towards the end, figuring out what their future is together, all of the instruments are in counterpoint with each other. So the oboe, the bassoon, the English horn, every member of the woodwind family has their own melodic material, has their own melody or counter melody, and every member of the orchestra’s in dialogue with each other. It’s handing off melodic material to each other, and really speaking with each other.

What I love about that is, when there’s counterpoint like that, every member of the orchestra has something that is their own melody. Nobody’s just playing a note that’s part of a chord. Every member of the orchestra has something beautiful and melodic to play, so they can really express themselves. When you have all of the different members of the orchestra playing independent melodies, it adds up to this complex, but very human sort of texture.

How did you orchestrate jazz pieces for live performance, with brass or piano runs that are meant to feel improvisatory? Was there any actual improvisation involved?

There were two different phases, and two different types of music. All of the jazz combo stuff, we recorded that on a jazz combo, which were some of the same players in the orchestra, but some different players. The trumpet soloist who was in all the jazz combos was Wayne Bergeron, who’s insane—and Bob Sheppard on sax, Peter Erksine on drums, Randy Kerber on piano, Kevin Axt on bass, and Graham Dechter on guitar.

It was a great ensemble, and those were all recorded off of either lead sheets with certain structure and arrangement notes in them, or, in the case of some of the tunes, where they all had to catch certain hits and catch certain licks together, then there were slightly wider arrangements. But somewhere between a lead sheet and an orchestration, if you’re talking about the real jazz combo stuff.

For the score and the big songs, everything was orchestrated, so everything was on the page for all those players. The only parts of the ensemble that had some improvisatory elements were the rhythm section. Piano, bass, drums and guitar were playing off of lead sheets, with chord changes and everything, and other sort of rhythmic indications. And then everything else—all the brass, all the strings, all the winds—those were completely on the page. The mixture of jazz rhythm section with highly detailed orchestration is basically what those larger song arrangements and some of the score is.

In terms of what the brass players brought to it in those situations, where it was all orchestrated—a lot of nuance. Sometimes, I would put “Growl” on certain notes in the score, or “Scream,” which means something, but really what they do with it is often times surprising. What the lead trumpet does when it says “Scream” or “Growl,” you never know exactly what it’s going to be. That’s always very exciting.

And the piano in the score—other than the situations where it was a lead sheet—it was all written, and there were a lot of coloristic things in the score, where I wrote out light, coloristic arpeggios that Randy was to play.

Coloristic?

Yeah, there are some cues like the scene at the restaurant with “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme,” where as soon as she runs out the door, the orchestra explodes, and the piano is basically coloring. It was a lot of arpeggios there.

But getting back to the jazz, all the solos we recorded, those were off of lead sheets. So Randy Kerber had a lot more leeway—he was doing what jazz players do, which is making stuff up, and playing awesome stuff that you never could have imagined.

Supposedly, there was at least a piece or two that didn’t make it into the final cut. Do you hope these pieces will make it into a La La Land B-Side some day, or are they best left on the cutting room floor?
I don’t know if we’ll ever put them out. There was a title song called “La La Land” that was some people’s favorite song in the whole movie, and other people’s least favorite song. It was very divisive. We considered putting it in the middle of the movie at one time, and then that got nixed, and we considered putting it in the end credits. We got very close—within days of recording it—and pulled the plug on that. So I don’t know what will happen with that song—probably nothing, but who knows?
And then there was a whole second verse and second chorus of “Someone in the Crowd” that had the most insane shot in the entire movie. It was like “Another Day of Sun”—it was one of those connected shots where there was no cut until later in the song. It was just a beautiful scene, but it got cut for good reason, because audiences felt like they were losing the emotional thread of Mia. We were following the roommates for too long, so that got cut.
 I suppose we could put it out as a bonus track at some point. We never recorded that section of the song with a real orchestra—it would have to be MIDI, what we put out, but there are no plans for that at the moment.

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