“First Man” is Damien Chazelle’s first movie that is not about music or a musician, but music still plays a huge part of the Neil Armstrong biopic, thanks to Justin Hurwitz’s score. Chazelle turned to his Harvard roommate and frequent collaborator well before production began.
“He likes to figure out as much music as possible before he shoots,” Hurwitz said at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Composers panel, moderated by this author (watch the exclusive video above). “It’s good for me too because I like to figure out what the themes are. That’s the hardest and the most frustrating part for me, just searching for right themes. He loves themes. He’s very into a melodic sensibility. Maybe he’ll make a movie at some point that doesn’t have a melodic score, but so far he’s really wanted that.”
Hurwitz, who won Best Original Score and Best Original Song (“City of Stars”) Oscars for “La La Land” (2016) and has only scored Chazelle’s films, got to work on the cues Chazelle wanted: a main melody that conveyed the loss Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) had suffered with the deaths of his daughter and colleagues, and a triplets ostinato riff. “We talked a little bit about how they would operate separately and then they would come together for the landing cue, and that was one of the main cues he wanted before he shot the movie,” Hurwitz said.
By post-production, though, they realized they needed more than two pieces of material that they could rework in the film. “The first week of editing, the first picture [Chazelle] gave me … he said, ‘So we just started cutting the scene and none of our themes work. We tried both of them; they don’t work. It needs to be something different,” Hurwitz shared. “That’s an exciting part of the process, too, because you do all this planning and you get picture and that’s when the job really starts happening. You realize what you really need.”
What the score also needed was a different kind of space sound. At Chazelle’s suggestion, Hurwitz utilized a theremin, an electronic instrument that doesn’t require physical contact to be played and has commonly been used for campy space music. Hurwitz taught himself to play the theremin and found that the mournful wails it creates fit perfectly with Armstrong’s private story of grief and pain behind his public story of being the first man to walk on the moon.
“What I discovered when I started playing it was how expressive it could be and how it can give everything a vibrato, and you’re always sliding into notes,” he said. “It has this very expressive, human-like quality. It’s responding to every little motion. … It’s kind of this weird intersection between technology and humanity.”
Hurwitz folded the theremin into the main theme, slowly building up to the grand finale sequence. “We save it to play the real outfront melody until the Apollo 11 mission in the last half hour of the movie,” he said. “And then we let it really kind of sing.”
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