Babylon Composer Justin Hurwitz On Crafting Controlled Cacophony [Exclusive Interview]

I was looking through your filmography in preparation for this, and I noticed that you have a bunch of credits as a writer, which caught me by surprise. I was totally unaware of that part of your career. I watched all of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for the first time at the start of the pandemic. Can you tell me any stories about your experience on that show?

Yeah, so that’s a really weird thing I’ve done. I wrote for a comedy magazine in college. And when I first moved out to L.A., I was waiting for Damien to make movies that I could score. We had been working on that “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” but it was really just a student film, so neither of us were making a living from it. So we were both doing other things to make our living. Damien was writing screenplays for other people, genre movies. And what I ended up falling into was, because I had written for a comedy magazine, I was contributing to some sitcoms. First, it was uncredited. I would just send joke ideas, because I had met some of the people who had written for the same magazine in college and were now writing for shows. So asking them, “Can I contribute?”

So I was sending off jokes and ideas and started off getting paid, but no credit on some of these shows. And then some of these TV sitcom producers were very nice and gave me the opportunity to actually co-write a script with them or contribute in a bigger way. So my first few years in L.A., that is what I was doing and that’s how I was making my living before “Whiplash” got off the ground. Once Damien’s movies — once there was a movie for me to score, that’s all I wanted to do, because that’s what I had studied. I had studied film scoring. It’s what I wanted to do. It’s, by far, what I’m most passionate about, what I’m better at than writing jokes and stuff. But writing for some sitcoms was definitely a fun and interesting way for me to keep myself busy until I could do music full-time.

But “Curb” specifically is famous having a structure, but there’s a lot of improv within it. That seems different than just pitching a few jokes on a typical sitcom. “Curb” seems unique.

Well, I got in pitching story ideas, basically. Couple of sentences, few sentences, for a Larry story or a Susie story or whatever. I did that for one year. I did that for season 8. And then for season 9, they brought me on as a proper writer-producer where I got to really flesh out all the stories on the whiteboard with Larry and Jeff Schaffer. That just worked out perfectly, because the show was on hiatus for six years, and we made “Whiplash,” we made “La La Land,” and it was literally our last week on the dub stage of mixing “La La Land,” and I got the call that “Curb” was coming back and they said, “Are you available?” and I was because there was a little window between “La La Land” and when I had to get going on “First Man,” so I got to get involved in a bigger way.

I’d never really thought about this, but you just saying that a minute ago made me realize: People always ask me, the writing and the music, what are the similarities? And I always say, “There are none. They’re just different sides of your brain. Music is its own thing.” And I’m usually being very earnest and very emotional and serious about it. And then the writing on “Curb” and all that, it’s just whenever something awkward happens in my life or I put my foot in my mouth or something, I have a dark idea, a cynical idea, that’s an outlet for it. I’ll just email them the idea and it’s an outlet for it. So I usually say there is no connection. There’re just totally different parts of your brain.

But you saying that actually made me realize that I guess there is a structural similarity in the way that “Curb” is written, the way that “Seinfeld” was written back in the day — same people — where the stories would all collide at the end. They would all come together in this very satisfying collision. And I guess we do that, our film scores do that. Everything comes together in the epilogue of “La La Land.” All of our themes come together in the landing of “First Man.” All of our themes come together in the finale of “Babylon.” Very different techniques to how we bring it together in each of those film scores, but everything does collide in the end. And I’ve never really thought about this, but I suppose the things I’ve written for in a very different way, narratively with comedy storylines, they all kind of collide. So maybe deep down there is some kinship between those things.

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