La La Land Composer Justin Hurwitz Talks Dallas' Live-to-Picture Concert

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance in La La Land, a tribute to Hollywood musicals of the past.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance in La La Land, a tribute to Hollywood musicals of the past.
courtesy Lionsgate
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Last year’s smash hit La La Land wasn’t just a big winner at the box office, grossing $445 million worldwide on a production budget of only $30 million. It swept awards shows as well, setting a record for the Golden Globes with seven wins, and tying with Titanic (1997) and All About Eve (1950) for the most Academy Award nominations (14), of which it won six.

Two of those Oscars, for best original score and best original song, went to Justin Hurwitz, the film’s composer. He spent years creating memorable tracks like “City of Stars,” which took home the honor for best song.

After leaving the big screen, Hurwitz’s legendary tunes are getting the live symphonic treatment — timed to the movie — in orchestra chambers around the world. “La La Land in Concert” will be in Dallas on Sept. 1 and 2. The Friday showing is sold out.

We caught up with Hurwitz about scoring the film, his partnership with Damien Chazelle (his longtime collaborator who wrote and directed La La Land and the pair's previous Oscar-winning collaboration, Whiplash), and what’s next for the duo.

I'm really curious, first off, how this tour came about?
It's something Damien and I talked about maybe five years ago before we even made the movie, just as like a sort-of pipe dream: "If we get to make this movie one day, how cool would it be to do the music live-to-picture?" It never came up again, but then we were at the film festival premiere in Toronto, and the president of the studio said, "Hey, we've got to do this at the Hollywood Bowl." And I said, "That's an incredible idea. We've already talked about it; let's start putting it together."

Some people — my agency and another producer at these shows — joined efforts and put together the technical people, and we got it going. I started working on the music side to transition this material into this [live] version. We started it off at the Hollywood Bowl, which was the dream, and now we're so happy to be sending it to really top orchestras around the country and around the world, so other people can have the same experience seeing it live.

I read that you were really nervous to do the Hollywood Bowl show.
Yeah, I was conducting that show, and it's just such a huge, huge venue and a huge audience. I had conducted a bit but not a ton in my life. This was such a high-stakes event. When you're conducting a film score and when you're recording music, you get to do takes until you have it right, and you get to record many versions of it.

When you're doing a live-to-picture thing, it's kind of a live-wire act. The movie just keeps going; the movie doesn't stop. You have to keep up with it and stay in synch with it. It's a little frightening, but I think it's really exciting too for the audience to realize that it's all happening live like that and to sort of — maybe they're nervous for everybody but they're appreciating when it comes off really well.

Being able to watch the pianist be in synch with the really incredibly difficult jazz on screen and watch all those other musicians being in synch with the songs, it's a really exciting thing to see.

That sounds like it comes together beautifully. How do you think the performance went?
The performance was great at the Hollywood Bowl. I was really happy to work with the two-thirds of that orchestra who were the players on the original score. It was almost exactly a year after I had recorded the score that's in the movie. It was really nice to get to have a reunion with them, play the music again and even fix a couple little things that I regretted from the movie version. It was a really great experience.

I created a little bit of new music for the show, too, which is in the touring version of the show that you're going to get in Dallas. I was really excited to get to do that as well. I don't know if you've read about the overture and the entracte?

No, I haven't. Please tell me.
Back in the script, in Damien's screenplay, it started by saying the movie begins with an overture — a couple minutes of instrumental music that was based on the main theme of the movie — the “Mia & Sebastian Theme.” We had always planned on starting the movie with an overture based on that theme and having very basic visual material until the overture ended, and then after it ends, we end up on the freeway with "Another Day of Sun."

As we were editing the movie, it became apparent that there was too much music at the front of the movie between the overture and "Another Day of Sun" — it was like eight minutes of music before you even meet the main characters. We felt like people were getting antsy ... so we cut the overture. It was very hard for me because I loved that music, and it was literally the first music I made for the movie like six or seven years ago.

When we were putting together the live show, we thought, “This is a concert, there are different expectations. They've probably already seen the movie and are less anxious about the story getting going; let's put the overture back." So the version you guys are going to see has the overture in it. It sets the tone for the movie and announces the beginning of the show and carries us into "Another Day of Sun," which is what we always thought it would be.

I wrote another new piece of music before the Hollywood Bowl show called an entracte that carries us from the intermission into the second half of the movie. It's a little over a minute and a half of music that lands us right cleanly into the second half of the movie. It weaves together all the themes from the first half of the movie. It's an exercise in: "How can I take all the ideas and melodies in this movie and weave them into a new piece?"

Are you performing during the show?
I'm not coming to Dallas, no. I wish I could, but I'm going to be back in LA, working.

That's OK, we'll forgive you for that.
[Hurwitz laughs.]

When you're scoring the music for the film, did you write all of the orchestral pieces?
Yes, I orchestrate it all. Which is not always how it works with film composers. Sometimes film composers use orchestrators, but I do like to orchestrate everything myself. I love writing for orchestra and all the instruments; I love finding those textures and those colors.

I really tried to study it as much as I could when I was in school and learn how to do that and study other people's scoring. I still spend some time reading through great scores that I love from late romantic composers or from other film composers. I continue to love to learn about the orchestra.

You've probably heard this a lot: People cried at the end of this film, including me. I know you and Damien collaborate really closely. Can you offer some insight into how y'all decided Mia and Sebastian were not going to end up together?
First of all, I love that you said "y'all" — that's very Texas.

That was Damien's decision because he wrote it, and he came up with the concept narratively. I think we both, from the very beginning, wanted to do a very bittersweet musical. It comes from our taste in music — we love music that's neither fully happy nor fully sad. We like music that strikes that balance and finds that poignancy. There are also certain musicals and certain movies that we love, that tell a love story in this kind of way. The people don't always end up together, but it's still a really beautiful story.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was a favorite movie for both of us going back to college. It's a French musical from the '60s. It's a really romantic, jazzy musical where the couple does not end up together at the end — spoiler alert. We just love that. We'd been talking about that for years and years leading up to this. Talking about how to do our version of that kind of idea — a really honest love story that doesn't necessarily have a happy ending, but it has a realistic ending. Maybe things don't work out, but people move on and they take things away from their relationships, and they grow and they learn from each other. We wanted to do that kind of thing.

I think that's why I cried. Because it was so authentic, true to life and well done.
Thank you.

Hurwitz (right) works with Ryan Gosling on the set of La La Land.
Hurwitz (right) works with Ryan Gosling on the set of La La Land.
Wikimedia Commons

I read so many places that you did 1,900 demos for La La Land. When you wrote tracks like "City of Stars," can you trace it back to a thought process or a single moment or something you were feeling?
I know exactly where I was when I finally cracked each of those melodies. Those were all piano demos, so that was years ago at the earlier stages when I was just sitting at the piano for days and weeks and months on end, just trying to find the melodies for the movie and talking to Damien a lot about how it needed to feel and reading his drafts of the script.

So much of what was influencing me was the script and thinking about what those characters were going through and the yearning. The two big melodies were "Mia & Sebastian's Theme" and "City of Stars." "Mia & Sebastian's Theme" needed to be really romantic — Sebastian is bearing his soul and looking for love, but he's not entirely fulfilled.

I was visiting my parents in Wisconsin, composing on their piano. I had a bunch of ideas but not the right ones. Then I got back to LA, and the first day I was back, I finally cracked "Mia & Sebastian's Theme," which was summer of 2011. These all happened different summers; "City of Stars" was summer of 2014. I was in Wisconsin for that one, sitting at the piano thinking about the yearning those characters were supposed to be feeling. "City of Stars" was meant to be "Mia's Song" — she's walking through the city thinking about this guy she met ... pining for love but being very frustrated about all of these dreams that haven't worked out in the past.

I've read a lot about your and Damien's relationship, which sounds really special and unique — the fact that you guys met in college at Harvard and already knew what you were destined to do, and y'all carried it through to working together now. Can you describe that relationship and what it's like now?
It's a very close relationship. It's changed over the years; we used to be roommates in college and then we were roommates in LA for the first couple years. We haven't been roommates in many years. We don't see each other as much on a day-to-day basis unless we're actually making something, but we're constantly talking and emailing.

When we are making something, we're spending very, very long hours together. I think the foundation of it is this very intense trust and respect for what the other person does. I obviously have so much trust in him as a filmmaker and love what he does. It goes the other way too, and it feels really great; sometimes a film composer can feel like they're coming in at the end of the process, and their work is maybe not as respected or as integral part of the process, depending on who the filmmaker is, but Damien includes me from the very beginning.

For example, I've been working since this past March on the score for his new movie [First Man, about Neil Armstrong], which doesn't even shoot until October, and I don't get to see the picture until February, but he wanted me in the process as early as possible because we want to figure it out together. He wants to give me the time and the access to be able to do my best work. It feels great as a composer not feeling like I'm coming in and trying to figure it out as part of the postproduction process. We are partners from the very beginning.

How do you make a long-term relationship like that work?
I think it's about mutual respect and finding solutions that everybody is really happy about. I never want to feel like I've made music that I don't love just because Damien made me do it, and Damien doesn't want to feel like he made me do something I don't want. It's about pushing to find new solutions until we're both thrilled with it.

Can you tell me about First Man?
It's still pretty early to talk about it, but I can say that the music will sound very much unlike what I've done. It's not jazzy in any way. There will be a lot of electronics and other things in it that I'm spending a lot of my time right now learning. I'm excited to do something a lot different and weirder than I've done before.

La La Land in concert with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1, and Saturday, Sept. 2, Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St., $109 and up, mydso.com

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