Filmmaker Damien Chazelle and the composer of the music for all his films, Justin Hurwitz, were roommates at Harvard University in the mid-2000s. The two 38-year-old artists have been inseparable ever since.
Their friendship was not, however, born of a “love at first sight”, said Friday during a fascinating master class the Franco-American director, who is also president of the competition jury of this 80th Mostra. of Venice.
Hurwitz was looking for a drummer for the rock band he wanted to start at Harvard. “I heard about a jazz musician who had won all kinds of awards in high school and contacted Damien,” he says. “I thought it was good,” Chazelle adds, “but I got to rehearsal and there was already another drummer. I understood it was an audition!
“It wasn’t really an audition!” It is a coincidence that, for the drums, there were two candidates…
– Seems to me…
“You had a drum battle and you won!”
“The other drummer became our lead singer, so maybe he won…”
The group, in the name of Chester French, no longer exists, but the friendship and complicity of Hurwitz and Chazelle remain. They have since collaborated to create some of the most impactful film scores of the past decade, from Whiplash to Babylon to La La Land.
“During our second year of college, we became roommates,” says Hurwitz. You scripted in your corner, and I composed in mine.
“It became an exchange program,” Chazelle says.
It was at this time that Damien Chazelle made his first feature film, a musical film entitled Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench (2009), the plot of which, composed by Hurwitz, clearly foreshadowed that of La La Land. The roommates shared a love for the music of Fellini’s films by Nino Rota and that of Michel Legrand for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jacques Demy.
“When I first saw Les Umbrellas de Cherbourg, it was an absolute crush,” says Damien Chazelle. I had seen Hollywood musicals before, but found them boring. It pissed me off when characters started singing suddenly, for no reason. But being so moved by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has completely changed the way I look at this avant-garde genre. »
I was listening to Chazelle describe his relationship to musicals and I thought of my late friend Marc-André Lussier – often my roommate at the Cannes Film Festival – who loved them. I would have liked to explain to him, too, why musical films exasperate me in general, although I love Jacques Demy’s film. The musical was our biggest bone of contention when reviewing movies together.
Supported by extracts, the master class organized by the jeweler Cartier, one of the main sponsors of the Mostra, made it possible to redo the musical thread of the filmography set with pearls by Damien Chazelle. Starting with Whiplash (2014) and its denunciation of the psychological harassment of a student (Miles Teller) by a tyrannical teacher (J.K. Simmons).
“Miles is really playing. He is what we hear. There’s no drum track added in post-production,” Chazelle explained of a scene where the character played by Miles Teller has his hands bleeding from rehearsing the same song. “I haven’t seen her for a long time. I’m not sure I’d shoot it the same way today. »
Hurwitz and Chazelle have had the same creative process since they were 19 or 20, they say. “Unlike the relationship between other producers and composers, our musical creation is shared,” says Chazelle. My inspiration comes first from music. I make a list of songs before writing or I listen to what Justin sends me. Then, I give him basic indications and I adjust my scenario to what he proposes. It’s a ping-pong match, from the start of the script to the editing. »
First Man, premiered at Venice in 2018, features a scene where Ryan Gosling walks on the moon to the sound of a theremin, an instrument of which Neil Armstrong (played by Gosling) was an admirer. “The mood of the film was inspired by a theremin melody that Justin sent me. You dream of such inspiration when you are a filmmaker. For the next year and a half, I tried to recreate the feeling I had felt when I discovered that minute of Justin’s music. »
Executives at the studio that produced First Man disagreed and even tried to fire Hurwitz. “They had a vendetta against the theremin!” laughs Chazelle.
For La La Land, which won two Oscars for Justin Hurwitz, the composer did not have a final screenplay to draw inspiration from, but rather a hand-drawn storyboard by Chazelle. Their only fights, they say, come during mixing. “Our biggest quibble was over a trumpet note in La La Land,” Hurwitz said. We always end up getting along. What is great in our collaboration. »
For the extravagant Babylon, Hurwitz composed bombastic, Wagner-like orchestrations reminiscent of Old Hollywood. “It’s music that encapsulates what I was trying to say about cinema, especially at that time,” explains Damien Chazelle. Cinema obeys the whims of reality. This is what distinguishes it from other arts. Cinema is like a train that constantly threatens to run off the tracks, but which occasionally, almost by accident, despite the elements raging, is touched by the grace of the sublime. »
On this, Marc-André and I were in complete agreement.