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Almost two decades ago during his freshman year at Harvard, Justin Hurwitz wanted to form a rock band and heard of an incredible drummer named Damien Chazelle. “Somebody gave me Damien’s phone number,” Hurwitz recalls, “and I called him up cold and asked, ‘Do you want to be in a band?’ And we started a band with three other classmates.”
A year later, Hurwitz and Chazelle decided they had another passion they wanted to pursue: film. They began working on what would eventually become their first movie, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.
But their former bandmates, D.A. Wallach and Maxwell Drummey, were at work too — garnering interest from the likes of Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, who ultimately signed them to a record deal as indie-rock duo Chester French. “I was beside myself. I was like, ‘What have I done?’ Like, I quit this band. This was our shot. This was our chance. And it felt terrible,” says Hurwitz. “We were seniors, and our former bandmates were getting flown around by these moguls. Kanye and Pharrell brought them out, and they’re being offered these big deals. And Damien and I were working on a student film. This is before it got into any film festivals, and we had no idea if or when the film stuff was ever going to work out for us.”
Clearly, Hurwitz and Chazelle made the right decision: Hurwitz won two Academy Awards for his work on 2016’s La La Land, and Chazelle became the youngest person to ever win the best director Oscar, at 32.
The duo’s credits also include Whiplash, First Man and most recently Babylon, which features more than two hours of original music and is Hurwitz’s most ambitious project to date. The score has been shortlisted for an Oscar and earned Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award noms.
“My big takeaways when I first read the script in 2019 was: ‘My God, what an entertaining script, and holy shit, that’s going to be a lot of music,'” says Hurwitz. He spoke with THR about finding extraordinary musicians to create the sound for Babylon, channeling his late grandfather in music and fulfilling his rock-star ambitions.
What made you gravitate more toward film music in college instead of being in the band?
My family would go to the symphony a few times a year and I loved orchestral music. Once I started getting the dream of writing for an orchestra, films just seemed like the obvious medium for that. I love what film music can do and what it can be, and how emotional it can be, and how it can stick with people. John Williams’ scores really stuck with me growing up — the way that scores can become inextricable from a movie, like how the Jurassic Park theme just becomes Jurassic Park. That movie and that theme, you can’t separate them. They’re one and the same. It’s so powerful what film music could do.
Do you still want to be a rock star?
Not a rock star, but I love performing our music live for people. I love being in front of a crowd, which is why I love the concerts that I do, and I’m going to do more of them next year. I’ve heard so many stories of families bringing their kids and hearing that this is the first time their kids have seen a live orchestra. That’s so incredibly meaningful to me because parents aren’t taking their kids these days to see Mahler or Beethoven. Film music is how the new generations are being introduced to orchestra music. To get to be that gateway drug to orchestra music for the younger generation is unbelievably meaningful to me.
How was composing for Babylon different from films like La La Land and First Man?
I wanted to search for really interesting musicians, which I’ve never done before. I wanted some very specific voices, so I went on YouTube and I started looking for trumpeters, and I found this trumpeter Sean Jones. I was like, “Oh my God, I think that’s the trumpet sound. That’s the sound of Sidney [Palmer, played in the film by Jovan Adepo].”
We ended up with a few musicians who were really, really special. Dontae Winslow ended up becoming a huge part of this score. He played some of the really, really important pieces on the score. And Ludovic Louis, who came from Paris, also became a really important trumpet sound of the score.
And then sax-wise, I found, again on YouTube, this guy Leo Pellegrino. I started searching YouTube for, “Who plays dance music on a sax?” There were these viral videos from 10 or 15 years ago of this guy busking in the New York subway, playing baritone sax and literally dancing while he plays and kicking his legs. It was Leo and this drummer, and they became this band called Too Many Zooz.
They played on Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
Oh, OK! I think I’ve heard that before. And then the third really important musician is this guy Jacob Scesney, also a sax player, who played different kinds of solo stuff. He played all the really wild, unhinged solos in pieces like “Welcome” and “Voodoo Mama.” At one point he put his alto and his tenor in his mouth at the same time and he was blowing into both saxes. I had never seen that before.
Will you continue to look for more musicians on YouTube?
Totally. It depends on the score. I found musicians in Philadelphia and Baltimore and all these other places, so it just depends on the style of the music.
When did you first fall in love with music? Was anyone in your family musically inclined?
My parents are not musicians. In fact, my dad is the least musical person I’ve ever met in my life. But his dad was a great, great saxophone player named Herman, which is why I keep naming these tracks “Herman.” There was a track in La La Land called “Herman’s Habit” and I named a track in Babylon “Herman’s Hustle.” I never knew my grandfather. He died when I was 1 year old, but I’ve heard my whole life about what a great musician he was and how similar he was to me, in terms of personality.
When I was 10, I got a synthesizer and a sequencer so I could create my own music and I could layer tracks, and I found that addictive. I would just go to my bedroom and do it for hours and hours. I recognized at the time that this is something I really love — and that this is something I should consider doing forever.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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