How a Middle School Violin Teacher Became the Secret Sauce for the Music to HBO’s ‘Last Movie Stars’

·4-min read

Singer, songwriter, former frontman of indie rock’s “The Walkmen” and now composer, Hamilton Leithauser can’t play the horns, but that didn’t deter him from accepting a gig to put music to the HBO six-part series “The Last Movie Stars.”-

Helmed by Ethan Hawke and executive-produced by Martin Scorses, the docu-series chronicles the love story of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward alongside their simultaneously flourishing Hollywood careers. Hawke enlisted a host of well-known voices — including Karen Allen, George Clooney, Oscar Isaac, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Zoe Kazan, Laura Linney and Sam Rockwell — to narrate the tale. It was also Hawke who called on Leithauser to compose both score music and songs for “Last Movie Stars.”

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“1000 Times,” “Rough Going” (I Won’t Let Up) and “Here They Come” were among the songs Leithauser chose to include. In a conversation with Variety, he shares his process in scoring the series — with extra credit to the guitar and his eight-year-old daughter’s violin teacher.

What early conversation did you have with Ethan about scoring this?

He has been working on this for a while and had invited me to this house. I saw really early footage with my song, “1959,” on it. That footage was haunting, with these old, beautiful shots of Paul and Joanne as this sad-sounding tune was playing.

About six months later, he asked if I could write something for the opening credits and that’s how it started. We talked about soundtracks and movies that we liked. We also looked at Paul and Joanne, this iconic Americana couple, and the first people I thought of were Randy Newman and Scott Joplin.

This is a six-part series divided into three acts: their marriage, Hollywood and the later years. How did you approach such a long timeline musically?

We were talking about “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or the 1963 film “Hud.” That soundtrack is very minimal and has a classical guitar, so his films were the starting point for me.

I wanted the music to sound time- and film-appropriate. Sometimes a song would work, and sometimes it wouldn’t. Originally, the series was going to be a movie, but then it became an eight-part mini series and they cut it down, so the story changed.

Episode five has a long sequence about Paul being an alcoholic and Joanne is unhappy because her career has been sidelined, and one of my old pieces was still in there. It sounded like raucous, a rock song. It didn’t sound right, so I ended up doing a more somber piano piece and that worked.

Instrument-wise, how did you go about choosing what to use?

It was my daughter’s violin teacher over and over. I have a home studio and I love doing everything at home. So, when I wanted big strings, she’d bring over a viola, a cello and a violin. We’d record and make it sound like a big orchestra.

In episode two, I was in my hotel room at night, and I had my nylon guitar. So, that’s when I realized those guitars had a Western sound to them, almost cinematic that worked with the cowboy movies he was doing at the time. That was the first time I hit my stride, and I had the clarity of the classical guitar.

How and when did you decide score or music would work versus silence?

When Ethan is telling the story, that’s my score, that’s the modern film. When we showed film clips, we would use the film’s soundtrack and that’s how that was mapped out. He also used one of my songs for the end credits of each episode.

Ethan’s audio credits, which include starring in the popular podcast “Fishpriest,” seem to be growing. What was the collaboration process with him like?

We have direct communication. I can text him whenever I want. We also have a foundation of a long friendship and understanding of similar tastes and music. I’d be working in my house and then I just go over we’d watch a cut. It was just easy communication.

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