Why ‘Babylon’ Composer Justin Hurwitz Included Circus Instruments and Broken Pianos in Film Score

“I was sitting here just blowing into kazoos to make fun sounds,” says the two-time Oscar-winner about his unusual tools for creating wild, memorable music

Jovan Adepo in "Babylon" (Paramount Pictures)

Justin Hurwitz met Damien Chazelle when both were freshmen in college. Nearly 20 years later, their composer-filmmaker synergy is perhaps the most dynamic in current movies. In Chazelle’s films (“Whiplash,” “La La Land,” “First Man”), Hurwitz’s music is so intuitively synched to the storytelling that the visuals become more alive and happier (or sometimes, sadder), as his gorgeously repetitive riffs mix with each other and linger in our minds. 

Hurwitz won a Best Score Oscar for Chazelle’s “La La Land” in 2017, along with another statuette for Best Original Song. He’s back at the ceremony again this year for his mighty, moody, idiosyncratic, intoxicating music for Chazelle’s extravagant 1920s Hollywood epic, “Babylon.”

Hurwitz, 38, chatted to TheWrap from his home studio, with a piano to his left and a keyboard to his right.

Composer Justin Hurwitz, “Babylon”
Composer Justin Hurwitz, photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap

As Damien Chazelle was filming the party scene that opens “Babylon,” your soundtrack was being pumped into the room. Had you written the whole score before the camera rolled?

Not the whole score. We recorded and mixed about an hour of music before filming. And then in post-production I wrote and recorded about another hour of music, which is what a film composer normally does. But for a movie like this, where you have sequences that need to be shot to music, then you have to create that music beforehand. We did that with “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” too.

The music must be a great asset for the actors and for the production team, to have it during filming. 

For sure. And in between takes, too, to keep the energy going at that party. Because during the takes they were blasting the music, but we actually made a playlist just for music to play in between the takes. So if they needed like 15 minutes to reset the camera, Steve Morrow, the sound guy, was basically just DJ-ing. He was putting OutKast and fun stuff on the sound system just to keep the energy going in the room.

There is a robust, screaming quality to your score. 

Well, from the script, I could tell what a wild, unhinged ride the movie would be. And Damien would even write notes into the script, like, “Fast jazz carries us from this to that,” so I had a sense of how much pulse the movie needed. I was writing elements of the music to be intentionally at the wrong tempo. One of my scores has a part in it that says “metal bucket,” so I’d have the band going at one tempo and then somebody at a completely different tempo would come in, hitting a metal bucket.

“Voodoo Mama” from Babylon Motion Picture Soundtrack (Interscope Records)

Yeah, I’m not too surprised that there are unexpected, crazy instruments are in the music. 

Oh yeah. I was recording lots of shouting and vocalizations, just to add that sound that Damien was going for. And we used actual circus instruments too, like a calliope and an accordion and even one of those wind-up toy monkeys with the little cymbals. And I recorded a lot of kazoos and slide whistles and party horns for some of these tracks, right here at my desk. I was sitting here just blowing into kazoos to make fun sounds. 

But as always with your work, there is also great melancholy in the music. How did you achieve it for this score?

That came in post-production as I was scoring to the finished picture. At that point, I could watch the Manny (Diego Calva) and Nellie (Margot Robbie) scenes and I could sense the romantic beats. “Manny and Nellie’s Theme” was the hardest piece of material to crack. In the end, it’s actually three pianos blended together.

One of them was a really beautiful, mellow Steinway, like a mid-sized grand piano. The second piano was a little Spinet piano that’s been treated with tacks in the hammers, which gives it this twang, and it had been de-tuned a bit. And then the third piano was a very out-of-tune and broken upright piano.

When we mixed the three pianos together, we got the sweetness from the Steinway and we got different amounts of out-of-tune from the other two pianos. And because there were three pianos, the sound was kind of messy and the three pianos playing over each other created a fragile, broken quality that felt like Manny and Nellie’s relationship. 

“Manny and Nellie Theme” from Babylon Motion Picture Soundtrack (Interscope Records)

It’s so great how those small, deliberate mistakes, like having the score purposefully out-of-tune, gives such fuel to the story. Do you think imperfections in the music gives us insight into the characters?

Absolutely. The irony is that it took an unbelievable amount of tracking and editing to create that right amount of chaos. So in some ways we’re letting it be rough around the edges but in other ways we’re trying to actually create mistakes.

For the most part, I try to embrace the sort of handmade quality that you get from an authentic musical performance in front of a microphone. I try not to make it too glossy. We like it to be a little loose and realistic and to have humanity in it. And if you get real musicians to record, they’re bringing a huge amount of humanity to the music. 

If you try to fix it and make it too perfect, it’s going to sound like computer music. But if you let it be human, then it has the humanity in it. There have been times, over the years, making our scores, where you can hear people moving around in their chairs or you can hear people turn the pages of the music or you’ll hear little creaks in the room. And oftentimes, sound mixers want to cut those sounds out, you know, to make it perfect.

But those sounds add so much to the music’s quality.

Oh, I know. When we were using the three pianos, you hear in the clunk of the sustained pedal or you hear the hammers in the piano. You hear me in the room sometimes. A lot of times it’s the sound of musicians in a room that we’re hoping for. So we try to leave as much of that as we can, to make it as real and human as possible.

Your music is also so rich with melodies, so that we get the music in our head and notice when the themes mix with each other. Can you explain how you develop the melodies?

We start by making sure we have melodies that hopefully people are going to remember. And I go through so many iterations, sitting here at my piano, just coming up with piano demo for Damien. I rely on him very much to filter my ideas – to filter my bad ideas from my good ideas from my great ideas.

And so we search until Damien says, “Ah, that’s the theme, that’s the melody.” He’s listening for the one that feels right for the movie but also the one that stick with people. Then once we have melodies that we feel are strong, then we like to repeat them, but in really thoughtful and purposeful ways. So melodies will belong to different characters and then we will bring them back to tie things together.

“Wild Child” from Babylon Motion Picture Soundtrack (Interscope Records)

How do you tie them together?

We love to really twist and disguise melodies, like on a subconscious level. For example, there’s “Voodoo Mama,” which is the big dance number for Nellie at the opening party. And we bring back the riff from “Voodoo Mama” a bunch of different times, but in much more disguised ways. There’s a piece on the soundtrack called “Wild Child,” which drives a montage of Nellie’s career taking off. That whole piece of music is being underpinned by a slowed-down version of the “Voodoo Mama” riff. It’s just tucked in there and people probably don’t hear it unless they’re listening for it, but it’s driving that entire piece.

And then in the final scene of “Babylon,” we put every single piece of music in the entire movie together. We bring every single melody back and put them over each other and put them together.

Oh, that makes sense.

We love to do that.

“Finale” from Babylon Motion Picture Soundtrack (Interscope Records)

Can you talk about some of the music that inspired you while writing the score?

There are a few pieces that are definitely inspired by classical music. One cue is inspired by Schubert’s chamber pieces and another is an homage to Wagner. There’s the Hearst Party cue, which is its own melody, but it’s definitely inspired by Ravel’s “Bolero.” That same quality of building repetitive insanity, the insanity building and building until it explodes into mayhem at the end.

And a lot of tracks were inspired by rock and roll stuff: AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, the Kinks. Any of that classic rock that was really driven by really strong, catchy riffs. But whereas in a rock song, you would have the riffs on electric guitar, in our music we give it to horns. Either the entire horn section playing the riff together, or sometimes all three saxophones playing the riff together. So it has this real muscular feel that you don’t have in 1920s jazz.

Have you heard if the “Babylon” score is being played in dance clubs?

I haven’t heard about that yet, but I would love people to try remixes with the “Babylon” music. I think it’s already hinting at club music. There were a lot of modern dance influences in the score, things that were structurally inspired by EDM (Electronic Dance Music). EDM has those synth risers, that sound that rises, and we do that all the time but with our horns. So we’ll have saxophones or trumpets just rising, rising, rising, building that anticipation.

So if anybody wants to amp it up with some real synth and strong stronger percussion and beats and whatever, I’d encourage people to go for that.

I listen all the time to “The Landing,” your absolutely breathtaking track played during the moon landing scene in “First Man.” Does it give you a sense of pride that people really respond to your music, even outside of the films. 

Oh, for sure. With “The Landing,” my favorite comments are when people are like, “I listen to this when I’m parallel parking” or “I listen as my plane is landing.”

But, yeah, I mean, my first job is to score the movie. That is my job. But I love when any music can have a life outside the movie. When I see a kid playing one of my pieces at a recital or when I hear people say, “This score got me through a hard time, it got me through high school, it got me through a break-up,” I mean, that is why we do what we do. If music can become a part of somebody’s life and create meaning for them, that’s the most gratifying part of doing what I do.

A version of this story will appear in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.