Justin Hurwitz interview: ‘Babylon’ composer
When Justin Hurwitz first got the 180-page script for Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” he was both overwhelmed and enthralled. “It was probably the most entertaining script I’ve ever read. But I was also like holy shit, there’s gonna be a lot of music in this movie,” Hurwitz tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview.
If he only knew: Hurwitz spent the next three years writing hours of music for “Babylon,” a movie with so many themes and instrumentations that its score album, out December 9 via Interscope, has 48 total tracks.
“The first thing we did was basically just start marking up the script,” Hurwitz says. He and Chazelle have worked together for years, from Chazelle’s debut film “Guy and Madeline on a Park Beach” to their blockbuster collaboration on “La La Land.” That film won six Oscars, including Best Director for Chazelle, as well as Best Original Song and Best Score for Hurwitz.
“There was a lot of play between source music and score and to map that all out and figure out where it was not so obvious to me based on the script really required me to just ask Damien a lot of questions,” Hurwitz says. “Because the whole movie’s in his head, and he knows where the camera will be years before he makes the movie.”
“Babylon” is an explicit and epic comedy-drama set in Hollywood during the transition between silent movies and sound. The film has multiple characters and perspectives, but largely follows three main figures: Manny (newcomer Diego Calva), a young go-getter who wants to break into the motion picture business; Nellie (Margot Robbie), an aspiring actress with eyes on becoming the world’s biggest star; and Jack (Brad Pitt), a Hollywood icon faced with his own coming irrelevance. When it came to the film’s music, Hurwitz wanted to make sure the instrumentations were based on jazz music that would be appropriate for the time period but avoided replicating the 1920s jazz sound.
“It’s just so familiar and so quaint and this movie is the opposite of quaint – it’s unhinged,” he says. “We said, what if we use that instrumentation, more or less couple of trumpets, couple of saxes – what could we do with it? One idea we had was to push it towards rock-and-roll – to think about the kind of riffs you have in rock-and-roll that could be played on a really distorted guitar…. Then the other idea was modern dance music. How could we be influenced by modern dance music? So right off the bat, as soon as I started putting any arrangements together, I started thinking about a real driving kick-drum 808 – some dance high-hat stuff and the sort of structure of modern dance music with risers and then bass drops. These moments of anticipation just explode into these pounding driving sections that get you wanting to move. So rock-and-roll dance music, but very often transposed onto the instrumentation of a band that would be believable on a bandstand at the time.”
It’s safe to say Hurwitz never had to juggle so many instrumentations as he did on “Babylon,” but one sequence in particular – the film’s striking finale which blends together not just the three hours of movie that came before it but also the musical themes as well – pushed him to the limit. “This was never how the movie was supposed to end, the movie had a completely different ending,” Hurwitz reveals. It was a good thing too since the composer was up against deadlines for the score that he wasn’t going to hit when Chazelle decided to put a different bow on his latest work.
“In some sense, it’s almost like what I did in ‘La La Land’ with the epilogue there, but it’s a very different strategy because that movie went through one [theme] after another kind of elegantly,” he says. “This was intended to make a cacophony… it was trying to be both crafted and an entire mess at the same time.”
The result is a sequence that has already been a conversation starter for those who have seen “Babylon” at early screenings. Hurwitz estimates writing the track, called “Finale” on the soundtrack release, took about a month of additional time. “I hope it kind of serves the sequence which has taken us back through the movie as well as showing us some history,” Hurwitz says.
“Babylon” is out in theaters on December 23.