EXCLUSIVE: 'La La Land' Composer on How Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone Influenced the Award-Winning Music

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Composer Justin Hurwitz has no problem talking about the making of La La Land, which is great considering that he’ll be doing it all awards season now that the movie musical had the strongest limited theatrical opening of the year and garnered seven Golden Globe nominations, setting the course for increasingly likely Academy Award wins in February.

“I can talk about the movie all day long,” Hurwitz says happily to ET over the phone, less than a day after the Critics’ Choice Awards, where La La Land took home eight awards, including Best Director for Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) and two for the composer.

In a brief conversation with ET, Hurwitz talks about the effect the cast had on the songs’ lyrics and what it was like to see the music realized on screen. 

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ET: You’ve talked quite a bit about the creation of the film’s music, but I was curious if there was an “a-ha” moment while writing?

Justin Hurwitz: I don't think there was an “a-ha” moment for the whole thing in general. There were those little moments along the way, for certain scenes. The biggest relief, and well, I guess “a-ha” moment, was when I finally came upon the main theme of the movie. That was the first piece of material that Damien wanted me tackling and it took a very long time to find it. It's so important for the movie. It's so important emotionally for the movie. I would send Damien piano demo after piano demo and some of those were really bad and some of those were really good, but not quite good enough or not quite right. But when I finally came up with what is now the theme, Damien flipped for it. I could see immediately that it was the one. That was about six years ago and it never changed. 

The music was written long before the movie was cast. Did you ever worry about who was cast in the role, like Miles Teller or Ryan Gosling? 

Yeah, the music was written before the casting, but the lyrics were changing. The lyrics were written after the music for the songs and the lyrics were still changing toward the end. There were a couple of instances where the casting actually informed the lyrics, like when Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone came aboard. The lyrics for the duet they sing up on the hill ("A Lovely Night") changed quite a bit with their feedback, partly because they were older than Miles and Emma Watson and that sort of affected the tone of the lyrics. They had really good ideas for what it should feel like: they wanted it a little bit more romantic and little less based in insults, which is what the original lyric was. And it was a great original lyric, it's very funny. I think Ryan and Emma steered that one a little bit. And then Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the lyricists, rewrote it and made it great.

I know you did some shopping around to find the right lyricists. What was it about Benj and Justin -- the pair co-wrote the music and lyrics for Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen -- that you connected with? 

Well, they just immediately got what we wanted to do. We had scheduled a session to hear a lyric they'd written on spec for the movie. They sang their lyrics for "City of Stars” based on the piano demo I had sent them and it was a revelation.

Something Damien was looking for in particular was a certain balance between poetry and literalism and I think they instinctively got that. There's a certain amount of poetry to "City of Stars" but it's also specific to the narrative and the story and this movie. That's a tricky balance. You don't want the songs to be so specific that you can't listen to them outside of the movie. You don't want people singing about what's right then and there. That's not what Damien wanted for this musical. They had to be broad enough that there would be some sort of thematic relevance outside the movie and that people could potentially listen to it outside the movie and that it would mean something to them. But it also had to work with the story and the characters and where it is in the movie. Benj and Justin nailed that from the very first lyric they wrote. 

I read that “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is your favorite number, in large part due to Emma’s performance on screen. Were there any other songs’ onscreen transformations that surprised you?

Yeah, particularly with something like “Audition,” which was sang live on set, or the “City of Stars” duet, which was also live on set. It's a new experience for me shooting because you haven't seen it performed that way and it takes on a whole new life and shape.

There were other songs that were, on a musical level, demoed and locked in before we shot it. But obviously, you get to the freeway and you have all these cars and dancers, it comes alive in a new way. I remember before we even got to the freeway, coming out to the parking lot where the production offices were, where Damien and the choreographer were rehearsing the number in the parking lot. I remember getting goosebumps when I saw that. That was the first physical realization of any of the numbers. And after spending so much time at my piano and spending so much time orchestrating these mock-ups -- to see it come alive like that, with so many people contributing to it, that was a really special moment. 

The New York Times wrote that La La Land makes musicals matter again. I was curious how you felt about the movie musical genre.

I love musicals. It's one of my favorite genres. Many of my favorite movies are musicals. I hope more totally original musicals will get made. If our movie has an effect on the industry, that would be great and flattering. Just as a fan of musicals and as a consumer, I would just want to watch new musicals. 

Is it too early to talk about La La Land on Broadway? 

I don't know. I'm sure there will be conversations about that. I'm not sure how I feel about it yet. That's something, where I'll obviously discuss it with Damien and I'll probably seek and value the advice of one of our producers, Marc Platt, because he's had an amazing career both in film and on Broadway. We'll talk about it. I'm not sure how I feel about it yet. 

The 74th Golden Globes, hosted Jimmy Fallon, will be handed out live on Sunday, Jan. 8, starting at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.