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Justin Hurwitz attends the Education Through Music-Los Angeles and Griffith Observatory special screening of 'First Man' at Griffith Observatory on Nov. 29, 2018 in Los Angeles, Calif.Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

When you think of film composers, if you think about these under-sung artists at all, the names that tend to pop up are Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Danny Elfman – ultra-prolific artists who score at least a handful of projects every year and come equipped with telltale signatures. (Zimmer especially, with his nine composing credits in 2017 alone, each furthering his trademark bwah-bwah-BWAH style.)

Justin Hurwitz prefers a different, slower approach. The 33-year-old has composed the music for just four films, all alongside director Damien Chazelle, his long-time friend and old Harvard roommate. But each of those four scores – Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Whiplash, La La Land, and this past fall’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man – have struck gold, with Hurwitz earning two Oscars for La La Land (best original score and best original song for City of Stars).

Ahead of this Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, where Hurwitz’s work on First Man is up for best original score, the musician spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about collaboration, obsession, and his unlikely side-gig with Larry David.

The collaboration process between you and Chazelle seems more involved than the typical composer-director relationship.

Damien is very, very hands-on with music. He wants to start thinking about it at the beginning of his own process, so he shares the script with me, and then throws words at me to understand where the score is going to go, emotionally. For First Man, it was all about loss, pain, grief, loneliness. We talked about how some set-pieces would underscore the beauty of space, but at the heart of it, it needed that heartbreak, to speak to the loss that Neil and [his wife] Janet went through when they lost their daughter, and when Neil lost close colleagues. Then I sit down at the piano, and try to find the main themes. I send him demo after demo until he narrows in on what he wants to feel.

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Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in 'First Man.'Photo Credit: Daniel McFadden/Universal Studios

So the screenplay and score are more an intertwined process?

Damien likes to make a lot of the music before he shoots. Working on musicals, you have to work that way. But for a movie like First Man, you don’t need music before you shoot, usually. But Damien sees the whole movie in his head before he shoots it, so he’ll explain to me where the camera is going to be, how long each section is going to be, when the drums need to enter at the 15-second mark. I’ll try to build the music according to what he sees in his head, and he’ll then use that mock up to storyboard. The music becomes a part of the previsualization process.

Your films with Chazelle, they could be boiled down to movies about obsessive people. Do you find yourself obsessive, as well?

Yeah, I do. I identify a lot with the characters that he’s made so far, in terms of obsession and passion. I give a lot of myself to my work – it’s how I spend my time, but also how I say a lot of the things that I’m feeling, how I connect with people and see how they respond to it. When I hear a cover of a song from La La Land, or see someone play it at a recital or something, that’s the most meaningful part of the process for me. It makes the painful and lonely parts of the process pay off.

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The musical score for 'First Man' moved in the direction of loss, pain, grief and loneliness, Hurwitz says.Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Universal Studios

How difficult is it to cut yourself off from it, and let go? I read that you only finished the final mix of First Man 72 hours before its debut at the Venice Film Festival.

I would say that the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals were a blur, because it was so down to the wire. La La Land was finished months before it was released, so we had time to live with it. Here, I had a pickup orchestra session just a few days before the Venice premiere. It was about improving and refining and making everything better to the last minute. It’s not like this was a last-minute process, because I’d been working a year and a half on the score at this point. But still, new decisions were being made, and tweaks were needed. I was watching the movie in Venice, and was remembering things we had done just a week earlier.

Are you interested in working with others beside Chazelle?

I’m definitely open to it, but I haven’t had the opportunity yet, because I went straight from La La Land’s release to working on First Man. I do have an opportunity coming up because Damien is writing his next movie now and that will take time, so I don’t have any music to work on. But I’m nervous because I’ve never done that before, and Damien and I have a special connection and process. It would be good for me, but I haven’t found the right person or project yet. I’m slowly looking.

First Man is up for two Golden Globe nominations, yourself and best supporting actress for Claire Foy, but it’s fallen out of the general chatter of the awards race. Do you feel it’s been under-seen?

I wish more people had seen it, but I think people are still seeing it. There are screenings in L.A. now, and people are coming to those. And Christopher Nolan wrote a cool piece about how it would’ve been nice for more people to have seen it. I appreciate those sentiments, and I hope that more and more people will be able to watch it and realize what Damien was trying to do.

I’m curious about work in comedy – you wouldn’t expect a musician to also have credits writing for shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The League. How do you balance those sensibilities?

Well, I don’t balance them because I just don’t do comedy and music at the same time. I completely put comedy aside when scoring – I feel they’re very different parts of my brain. Comedy was what I did in my first few years in L.A., before Damien was making movies. I figured I was done with it, but then Curb came back for season nine, and it fit in perfectly with my schedule. I found out on the second-last day of mixing La La Land, so I could fit it in. But going forward, I see myself scoring films more than writing comedy. I don’t know how much room I should be making for it in my life.

This interview has been condensed and edited

The 76th annual Golden Globe Awards air live Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. ET on CTV

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