How To Compose Music For A Movie About Music NPR's Robert Siegel talks to film composer Justin Hurwitz, 29, about his first major movie score, for the movie Whiplash. Hurwitz talks about using music to heighten tension.
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How To Compose Music For A Movie About Music

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How To Compose Music For A Movie About Music

How To Compose Music For A Movie About Music

How To Compose Music For A Movie About Music

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NPR's Robert Siegel talks to film composer Justin Hurwitz, 29, about his first major movie score, for the movie Whiplash. Hurwitz talks about using music to heighten tension.


All week this week, we've been exploring the process of composing for film. It's a series we're calling Scoring the Screen.


SIEGEL: One question we are asking film composers is - what makes for the ideal film score? Yesterday, Thomas Newman, a movie veteran who's scored everything from "Finding Nemo" to "The Shawshank Redemption," told us he loved the "Wizard Of Oz" score for being fresh and original. Other composers have named scores from Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin movies. But we were curious what film scores have stayed with you, our listeners. So we sent producer Rachel Rood to the movies in Washington D.C. to find out.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: "Harry Potter." Whenever I hear it I get really excited.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Everybody has some sort of memory of, like, "Star Wars."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: "Jurassic Park."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Humming "Jurassic Park" theme song).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I also really like the Transformers one.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Oh, it's when they're landing from space and then they start hitting Earth.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The easy one is "Mission Impossible," which everyone remembers. (Humming "Mission Impossible" theme song).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I am a huge fan Trent Reznor's "Social Network" score.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It fits the movie very well. It's very dark. No lyrics, all instrumental, it's like odd sounds you can't really describe.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I wrote a lot of papers in college to, like, "The Lord Of The Rings" and "Pirates Of The Caribbean" soundtracks, which are, like, epic and make you feel like you can, like, do anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Bernard Herrmann's score to "North By Northwest," the Hitchcock movie.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: The drive, the force - it tells the entire story all within three-and-a-half minutes.

SIEGEL: We heard there from Chuck Schneiderhan, Rachel Miller, Greg Brown, Francisco Lazaro, Utah Chen, Reggie James and Allie Landarin. And now we hear from film composer Justin Hurwitz, who wrote the music for the movie "Whiplash." He's 29 years old, and this is his first major film. "Whiplash" is about being a young artist, in this case, a drummer with a lot of ambition played by Miles Teller. And it's also about a jazz band teacher from hell played by J. K. Simmons.


J.K. SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) 5, 6 and...


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head, Neiman?

MILES TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Start counting.

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) 1, 2, 3, 4 - 1, 2, 3, 4 - 1, 2, 3, 4.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Rushing or dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) Rushing.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) So you do know the difference.

SIEGEL: "Whiplash" is on several critics best-of-the-year lists. It was directed by Damien Chazelle. And, when he needed a composer to write the music for his jazz drama, he turned to his friend Justin Hurwitz, who's been composing since he was very young.

JUSTIN HURWITZ: When I was 10, my parents got me a synthesizer and a sequencer - took, like, a floppy disk and I would spend hours before bedtime, you know, laying down little tunes.

SIEGEL: "Whiplash" opens with an homage to the big band era, an original composition by Hurwitz.


SIEGEL: This is fascinating, Justin, because I didn't notice that the melody and that overture (humming). We go back to your piano demo from the beginning of this project, that you send to the film maker, to Damien Chazelle, your friend. And there it is.


SIEGEL: And then, in the movie, there's a scene in which the teacher, Fletcher is playing in a club, it's the only time when we see him being a musician as opposed to being a bandleader-teacher. And the song he plays.


SIEGEL: As I heard it in the movie theater, it all sounded completely of a piece. It didn't even occur to me that this was the same theme the from the overture and elsewhere in the movie.

HURWITZ: Thank you. Yeah, I mean, that's the goal - is to sort of create score that's thematically economical, that uses the themes in as many ways as possible, and really sort of disguised them.


SIEGEL: So you get the assignment to write the score for a movie that's all about music, some of which has already been written.


SIEGEL: How do you approach that assignment?

HURWITZ: Well, yeah, there was a couple of key jazz tunes that were in the movie already that were pieces that the director, Damien Chazelle, had played in high school in his jazz band, sort of the pieces that kind of terrified him as a jazz drummer himself.


HURWITZ: So we knew that it couldn't be a big band score, and we knew it couldn't be an orchestral score because that wouldn't fit the vibe of the movie. An idea I had was to basically build a score using some of the techniques of electronic scoring, but using 100 percent real instruments. In fact, only the instruments in a big band jazz lineup. So I recorded all of the instruments separately, like, you know, one note at a time - a trumpet note, a saxophone note, a trombone note. Everything was isolated so I could sort of manipulate them and layer them and slow them down to give this sort of - sort of a hellish version of a big band sound. I wanted everything to be very unsettling. You know, I didn't want it ever to groove. I didn't want the bass and drums ever to just hit a groove and, you know, so you could tap your foot to it.


SIEGEL: Does writing film scores satisfy your ambitions at this stage? Or, you know, would you be tempted just to compose for orchestra?

HURWITZ: Yeah. I mean, I could see myself at one point wanting to compose a piece of just pure concert music. But, you know, what I've always wanted to do - what I've wanted to do for a long time is compose film music. I think a lot of the best music being composed today is for films. It's probably the best platform we have for a composer to sort of get their music heard. It's true that it's part of another medium. It doesn't stand on its own like, you know, a symphony. But I think it's kind of, like, the opera of our day. You know, it's sort of populist orchestral music. It's the way to, you know, have a lot of people enjoy it and hear it, and that's exciting to me. So, yeah, I love being a film composer. And that's what I plan on doing for a while.


SIEGEL: Justin Hurwitz, thank you very much for talking with us about composing and about the score that you've composed for the film "Whiplash."

HURWITZ: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow we hear from filmmaker John Carpenter, who writes, directs and composes for horror movies.

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