How do you score the story of humankind’s greatest adventure?
That was the challenge facing composer Justin Hurwitz and director Damien Chazelle in their first collaboration after winning Oscars for the 2016 musical “La La Land.” Titled “First Man,” the new film stars Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, in July 1969.
“First Man” makes bold choices in its musical design to slip the bonds of Earth. The use of a massive orchestra — 94 pieces — comes as little surprise, but Hurwitz also incorporated such unusual instruments as the electronic theremin and the Moog synthesizer, as well as vintage sound-altering machines including Leslie speakers and an Echoplex.
Hurwitz and Chazelle started discussing “First Man” in March 2017, several months before shooting began. “There was at least a year of us questioning just what the soundscape would be, and what kind of melodies or sounds would be featured,” Chazelle says.
Based primarily on the script from Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The Post”), Hurwitz began creating piano demos for the director until they decided on one that would become the main theme. “It had to have a sense of loneliness but also beauty,” says Hurwitz. “Like when he gets to the moon — you’re on this barren surface; it’s all very beautiful, but it’s very, very lonely.”
The addition of such 1960s inventions as the Moog synthesizer (Hurwitz uses Moog’s IIIc model, newly built based on authentic ’60s designs and documentation) and an original Echoplex machine (a tape-delay device used by Jerry Goldsmith in scores like “Planet of the Apes”) add period flavor.
The biggest surprise is Hurwitz’s use of the theremin, whose eerie, otherworldly sounds became associated with 1950s sci-fi (notably in Bernard Herrmann’s score for “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” later as parody in Howard Shore’s music for “Ed Wood”).
“At its heart,” says Chazelle, “this was a story about grief, about someone who lost a lot of people he loved, and what those losses did to him. There was something about the theremin that seemed to convey that grief that spanned across the cosmos. It obviously makes you think of space, but it also has those qualities of the human voice — a sort of wailing — that could feel very mournful to me.”
The director also liked the instrument’s association with low-budget sci-fi pictures of the ’50s and early ’60s because Armstrong and his NASA colleagues were, in their race to the moon, “basically doing real-life science fiction,” Chazelle says. “Those were the sounds and images we had in our minds of the moon, and space in general.”
Hurwitz not only acquired a theremin but learned how to play it, and his performances are in the final score. “We wanted it to sound electronic but not harsh or abrasive,” he says. “I’ve tried to make it, in most places, pretty mild, and to blend with the orchestra.”
Then he added an American Moog and a British EMS VCS3, which were futuristic-sounding in 1969. “Just as Damien shot it on film, so it has that old-school grain; these analog synths give you that grittiness that help it feel appropriate to the era,” he says.
“These men were being blasted into the sky in these shaky handmade metal boxes,” notes Hurwitz. “There was nothing glossy about any of the technology they were using. Likewise, there’s nothing glossy about these synths. It’s just handmade, and that’s also reflected in the way I play everything.”
Hurwitz conducted a large string orchestra but then rerecorded it being played back through a Leslie rotor cabinet on the huge Sony soundstage “to create this sort of whirling Doppler effect,” he explains. “Then we add a tremolo effect. The score feels very unsteady.” Later, he added brass, woodwinds, percussion and a substantial part for harp.
The composer moved into a studio at Universal in February so that he could work closely with Chazelle and editor Tom Cross, supplying musical demos. “The movie found itself as the music found itself, so they were inextricably linked,” says Chazelle. “It’s the way I like to work, and I love that Justin likes to work that way as well.
“Justin lives for that kind of experimentation,” adds the director. “He likes to push himself. He wants to do something that’s new and different, that plays with the form in some way, while at the same time create something that’s going to affect you emotionally as a viewer.”