Damien Chazelle is one of the most skilled and illustrious directors working in the industry today. You may know him and his composer Justin Hurwitz from their previous films together – La La Land, Whiplash, First Man – but you have yet to see their most ambitious, boisterous, and cacophonous film yet: Babylon. It was an absolute honor for Dodge to get a pre-release screening of the film and a Q&A with Hurwitz before its wide theatrical release on December 23rd.
What do you think a two-time Academy Award-winning film composer does in their free time? Playing in a band makes sense, but what else? Going to concerts? Going to film screenings with a live orchestra playing? Well, I bet you could never guess that composer Justin Hurwitz used to spend his extra time writing episodes of the critically acclaimed sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm.
To understand him and his iconic partnership with Damien Chazelle today, we have to rewind to their first year of college together. Did you know that they were in a band together?
In his first week at Harvard University, Hurwitz decided he wanted to start a pop band. He had heard wonders about this drummer down the hall and decided to give this “Damien Chazelle” guy a cold call. Three more bandmate additions later and they had their group.
They became best friends and eventually roommates. Chazelle had always known he would become a director, and so did everyone else around him. As for Hurwitz, the transition from composing to specifically film composing came naturally to him. He never loved playing any instruments besides piano growing up, but he did love layering and controlling what an entire piece sounded like as a finished project. Composing was that next step, and “movies seemed like a great canvas.”
A few years after graduation, Hurwitz made his debut as a music composer with Chazelle’s first film in 2009 Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. It was inspired by the 1964 romantic musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which serves as an inspiration for them and all their movies to this day. A little bit after that, the two of them decided to move to LA together. They both needed to get jobs to pay the rent. Chazelle ended up getting tapped to write The Last Exorcism Part II, and Hurwitz made a life-changing connection with someone in the comedy world.
At Harvard, Hurwitz had written for The Harvard Lampoon, an undergraduate humor publication, so he was familiar with comedic writing. He was told after college to annoy as many alums from school as he could until they agreed to get coffee with him. Hurwitz struck gold when he connected with Jeff Schaffer, Producer and Showrunner for Curb Your Enthusiasm. He tasked Hurwitz to come up with some ideas for episodes that they could use. Hurwitz spent an entire day just sending Jeff whatever funny and absurd ideas he could think of. He never got credited for them, but they used six of his stories in the show.
At the end of the season, Schaffer told him if they were to be brought back for another season, he would bring Hurwitz as an official writer.
Fast-forward six years. Curb Your Enthusiasm has been on hiatus. Chazelle and Hurwitz had already made Whiplash and La La Land. He gets an email one day from Schaffer saying the show is coming back, and he is going to make good on his promise.
Hurwitz no longer writes for the show, but whenever something “Curb” happens to him in life, he sends the ideas over.
Babylon is Chazelle’s second shot at making a Hollywood epic, but with a much more cynical perspective than La La Land. This story is about the debauchery and disarray of Hollywood and the consequences that four artists face in the 1920s shift from silent films to talkies.
It is clear that Hurwitz and Chazelle approach filmmaking with the same passion and perfection and beauty. “We work with people who are obsessed with their craft and love what they do.” While Babylon may be one of the most polarizing and chaotic films of the year, it is to the credit of them and their entire team for being so brave and bringing the story to life.
We have all looked at a movie screen like Manny looks at Nellie LaRoy. We have all felt the disappointment Jack Conrad experiences when his films do not perform at the box office. Perfectionism in the industry consumes us. While the movie is exaggerated and hyperbolic, there are a lot of elements in this film people in the industry can relate to. The chaos of trying to get a take in when everything keeps going wrong. Keeping your excitement for Hollywood up when it seems to be beating your films down. Growing in an industry that hasn’t always accepted you. Pursuing your art and dreams even though there is a five percent chance they may come true.
As a film student myself, I am a sucker for a movie about movies. When I watch La La Land, Cinema Paradiso, and Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, I feel like I am being transported into a world I had always dreamed of working in as a little girl. A future of bright lights, movie screens, red carpets, and 35mm cameras. Babylon is on the flip side of this coin. While the film’s first half may seduce you into thinking Hollywood is haywire heaven, the second half shows the gritty, heinous, disparaging side of the city of stars.
And yet, through all the corrupt and perverse things that can come our way, we still run towards the Hollywood sign. We run as fast as our feet will take us, towards the scripts and cameras and actors, because we love the movies. We will continue to make them, no matter what the cost.