It takes extraordinary bravery to travel into space, much less be the first person to walk on the moon. It also takes extraordinary talent to compose a score that captures the excitement of such a harrowing journey in a movie. But Justin Hurwitz’s music to First Man does just that. Every revelatory scene that leads up to the story of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s groundbreaking event is accompanied by an equally hypnotic sonic sequence that keeps you on the edge-of-your seat emotionally from beginning to end. It’s no wonder that audiences are spellbound at this retelling, which is directed by Hurwitz’s longtime collaborator, Damien Chazelle. Whether or not you remember the event yourself, or learned about it long after in school, it’s a story that never grows old, especially when recounted as it is in First Man.
BMI asked Hurwitz to come back down from the cloud he’s deservedly on after winning the 2019 Golden Globe for Best Original Score to answer a few questions about his part in the film. Here’s what he said:
The story of First Man depicts a pivotal moment in American history. Was that daunting to you as a composer trying to capture all that it meant and now means to our culture?
The story is big and historical, and intimate and personal all at the same time. Scoring both sides of that – the big and the small, the public and the private – was a challenge. For example, the Apollo 11 launch music needed to be triumphant, but Damien also wanted to feel a real sense of tragedy and heartbreak. Tragedy and heartbreak, because, while yes, this is the moment everybody has worked towards for years and everything is going right, so much has been lost along the way. Moreover, Neil is giving himself over to this mission and this huge piece of machinery, and doesn’t know if he’s ever going to see his family again. Janet and the boys don’t know if they’ll ever see their husband and father again. That’s heartbreaking. Likewise, when we get to the moon, there had to be a sense of arrival and accomplishment and serenity – the feeling of Neil and the rest of the world exhaling – but the music also had to get at Neil’s loneliness. We felt like more than anything, we had to be scoring Neil’s interior emotional world, because as much as the story is a mission movie, it’s also a very personal drama.
How do you approach a true story as opposed to a musical like La La Land?
I’m not sure the approach is that different. The first step is always finding the themes/melodies, and the second step is figuring out the sound. For La La Land, the melodies were about yearning and dreaming, and the sound was a mixture of orchestra and a jazz rhythm section. For First Man, the main theme was about grief and pain, and the sound was a mixture of harp, orchestra, and electronics. They end up being different because the characters are different, what the characters are going through and feeling is different, and the worlds of the movies are very different. But I think we have so far approached the scores in a similar way.
What musical ideas, if any, came immediately? What most influenced the direction you took?
Nothing came immediately. There’s always a lot of searching at the beginning of our process. By the time I sat down at the piano to look for the themes, I had read a couple drafts of the script, and talked to Damien about what he wanted to feel from the music. He talked about “grief” and “loneliness” and a “a type of cosmic pain.” After we had settled on that main theme melody, Damien asked for a second piece, a more bittersweet family theme. It was a couple of months of work at the piano until we had those two main themes. Then when we started talking about sounds, Damien immediately mentioned the theremin. Other sonic ideas took some time to find. While he was prepping and shooting in Atlanta, I stayed back in LA and played around, building what we thought of as a “toolbox” to use in later scoring the actual movie. I made and sampled some pitched ambiences, made some thunder sounds out of sheet metal to add a cosmic flavor to cues, and experimented with different plugins to process strings which we would later recreate in the analog world using a Leslie rotor cabinet. A lot of my decisions and ideas during this period were informed when I started seeing the dailies from Atlanta. When I saw the colors and grit in Linus’s photography, and the intimacy of the camera, and the way Ryan and Claire were playing the scenes, I got a lot of ideas. Then of course, a lot of ideas didn’t come until we could watch the whole movie or scenes of the movie cut together. We got the idea of using harp when we watched some of the really intimate domestic scenes cut together, and found that we needed an instrument with a fragility to match the performances. Then a week before scoring, we decided that the movie was short one theme, and came up with the “work” theme that underscores a lot of the NASA scenes. There were ideas and discoveries every step of the way.
Which scenes in First Man were the most challenging or rewarding for you to score?
The quiet, intimate scenes were the hardest to score. The larger set pieces like The Landing, the Docking Waltz, and several of the Apollo 11 cues had been mockups we were developing since pre-production to storyboards and animatics, and we felt confident in how those pieces of music were working, but the quiet documentary-style scenes at home we didn’t begin to tackle until we could watch the scenes in the context of the movie, and it took a lot of trial and error to spot cues that would add the emotion they needed to without pulling us out of the scenes. We revised those cues over and over again, changing the spotting and instrumentation. For most of post-production, we screened the movie at least once a week for friends and family, the studio, and preview audiences, and tried to learn what was working and wasn’t working in the music, mainly by listening to how people felt about the characters, and whether they were moved or not by different parts of the story. Hearing from people that they cared about Neil and Janet and their daughter Karen, and that the movie really affected them, is very rewarding.
You’ve worked with director Damien Chazelle several times, including on La La Land. Ryan Gosling, who played the lead in La La Land, also stars in First Man. What is it about the relationship between director and composer, and composer and actor, that makes it all work?
I think it’s true for any group of collaborators, the most important thing is that everybody is trying to make the same movie. Shared sensibilities is important, but none of it would work if we didn’t have a director in Damien who always has such a complete and thorough vision for his movie.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know. Damien is about halfway through writing his next movie, and he just caught me up to speed a couple of weeks ago about what it is, and what kind of music it will need. Given that he’s writing, and a ways away from even being in prep on it, I potentially have time to score another movie in the meantime, but I don’t have a project.