The Notes in Between: A Conversation with Nicholas Britell

Nicholas Britell’s scores are so finely calibrated to the movies they inhabit that they become inextricable from the images on-screen. Whether it’s the staccato heartbeat of orchestral strings in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight or the mix of piano motifs and hip-hop beats in the TV drama Succession, the sounds that the thirty-eight-year-old composer creates open up a wide range of emotional landscapes while also consistently avoiding the clichés of traditional film music.

A classically trained pianist with a background in hip-hop, Britell has caught the attention of Hollywood with his unique sonic textures, swiftly becoming one of the most sought-after composers in film and television. Central to Britell’s process is the organic rapport he develops with directors, which begins in the earliest stages of production. While he’s worked with a number of different filmmakers, he is best known for his Oscar-nominated collaborations with Jenkins and for his work with Adam McKay, for whom he has scored The Big Short, Vice, and Succession.

Just before netting his first Emmy nomination (for Succession), Britell took some time to chat with me over the phone about his process and his genre-defying sound.

It’s difficult for me to even think about Barry Jenkins’s films without also hearing your music. Your work is so entwined with the emotional fabric of those stories.

I believe there are an infinite number of possible scores anyone could write for a movie, but there’s a subset of those scores that feel like they’re woven into the fabric. There’s something about certain music that just feels like it’s inside the movie when you put it against the picture. Then there’s some music that feels like it’s sitting on top of the movie and has nothing to do with it. And sometimes this difference can be incredibly subtle. The music could be completely right, but if the instrumentation is not right, then it’s wrong—“wrong” in the sense that it doesn’t feel connected to the project.

I love the very deep, close collaborations I’m able to have with directors, and what we do is go on a search together for this feeling. I like getting involved very early on, reading the script and having conversations with the director. Barry often has amazing initial instincts and ideas. For If Beale Street Could Talk, the first thing he said to me was that he imagined the sound of brass and horns. The nice thing about having those early conversations is that some of the ideas turn out to be totally on target, but we also don’t take them as rules. We view everything as starting points and then we go on this journey together.

Top of post: Britell, photographed by Dominic Nicholls; above: If Beale Street Could Talk

Are there chords or instruments that you automatically associate with certain emotions?

When I was growing up, I used to spend a lot of time theorizing about this: are there certain chords that feel a certain way? Is there was a lexicon of harmony? But what I’ve discovered is that I don’t think there is. Music has its own internal language, but the way we associate those sounds with feelings, especially in film music, is so determined by what we see.

Let’s say that we’re trying to create a moment that feels sad. You can imagine that you’d use a piece written in a minor key—you could put that against the picture, and it might work. But if you put a piece of music that’s potentially happy over that same sequence, you may find it’s absolutely tragic. Instead of feeling happy, it actually feels like the loss of happiness. Until you put something up against the picture, you have no idea what it’s going to do.

What moods are you drawn to?

When I’m writing I find myself going in certain directions. But I consciously try to not go in a direction where I feel comfortable, because sometimes when you wind up in the same places there’s no friction. I’m not always sitting at a piano when I’m writing, but if I am, I’ll try to play in keys that aren’t comfortable. For many musicians there are the first keys you learn when you start playing, like C major or A minor. Instead of those, I like to play something like F sharp minor or D flat major. There’s a weird link between your hands and your brain, obviously, and when you enter areas that aren’t as familiar, sometimes you wind up in places you didn’t expect.

You mention not always being at the piano—where are you then? Is there a specific environment or routine that helps your process along?

I have a studio in New York that I built in my apartment, and I’ve created it to be very conducive to my musical exploration. I have my computer and my keyboard and multiple screens where I watch the films. One interesting thing I found when I first started working a lot on films was that I wrote different music when I had a small screen versus when I had a big one in front of me. I used to have a separate computer monitor that was about thirty inches, and I would work on a different monitor for the music. But now I have this big flat panel TV that I put on the wall, and I really believe I write differently because of it. I’m much better able to intuit things with the bigger screen; it’s like having a stronger microscope. It also re-creates the immersive theatrical experience better.

My process is very simple. I have a couch and a desk, and I just like looking out the window. I’m alone a lot. I think many composers can have these little hermetic tendencies. But also I often work with my wife, Caitlin [Sullivan], who was the cellist on Beale Street, and she performs very often, so it’s nice to spend time with her and the wonderful community of musicians in New York.

I’m curious about the difference between scoring for the point of view of individual characters and scoring for a larger omniscient narrative arc.

On Moonlight, the emotional point of view that Barry and I explored was through the character Little’s eyes. Barry created this work of poetry, so I was trying to capture a musical idea that echoed that. A film like Vice is such a different emotional world, and yet the task is still the same. It’s the story of the last sixty years in American history, so what we explored was the idea of a dissonant symphony. Adam wanted the music to feel epic in scope, so for me it was about taking what you might expect an American symphony to sound like—brass fanfare—and inserting all these notes that are kind of wrong. Every single piece in the movie is filled with these notes that are technically not part of the scale. What’s interesting is that when you watch the movie you actually get used to all these wrong notes.

Succession

You clearly take pleasure in playing with disparate styles in your work, specifically hip-hop and classical music. Can you tell me more about that?

I’m always drawn to trying to understand what makes a piece of music or a style of music sound a certain way. If you go around the world, you realize music is a huge but universal language. Sometimes the difference between types of music is so subtle. You take a Chopin waltz, and with a few steps, you can turn that into a Scott Joplin rag. You can take a piece of mid-nineteenth-century classical music, change the rhythm, and suddenly you have a tango. I’ve always been fascinated by why these shifts feel so different. In the process of these explorations sometimes there are juxtapositions that emerge that sound interesting.

I’m working on the second season of Succession right now, and there have been a lot of fun juxtapositions of tone, which serve the story and feel like they’re a part of this world. The show itself is very serious but also very absurd at times, so there’s this tonal duality. This mix of huge hip-hop 808 sub-bass with what are essentially classical compositions highlights the drama.

I’m curious about how your music works in relation to the editing process. Do you collaborate with the editor to establish the rhythm of the film?

When I first scored a film in college, it was for a friend, Nick Louvel, who tragically passed away a couple years ago. My first experience was sitting in the edit room writing music with him as he was trying to put the film together. But it wasn’t until thirteen or fourteen years later that I had a similar experience working on The Big Short, when Adam and Hank Corwin invited me into the edit room. We realized there were so many things we could do just because the three of us were there together. I had my keyboard and my laptop, and as Hank was editing a scene, I would just start playing something. He said it felt like playing jazz together, and he would change a cut based on the music I was writing.

Do you often think about how your music will interact with the other elements of the soundtrack?

I think about that a lot. I’m not always deeply involved in the selection process, but there have been many times on projects where there’s an interesting question of how the score interacts with the diegetic music. Barry and I spent a lot of time exploring a scene in Beale Street in which the character of Daniel is talking to Fonny about his experiences in prison. The music that’s playing on the record player in the scene is the Miles Davis recording of “Blue in Green.” I started to take that recording and run it through a very long reverb so that it begins to have this feeling of an ethereal mist. Then the score started in this very low rumbling sound that came in underneath the floorboards and felt like it was inhabiting a similar world. To Barry and me, when the score and the source music interact in that way it almost feels like the screen vanishes and the audience joins with the characters. There are times when it’s possible to have those pieces of music speak to each other. The Double Life of Véronique is a beautiful example: there’s the music of the score and then there’s a voice concerto [performed on-screen], and when the two combine it has a mystical effect.

What is your relationship to music like when you’re not working on a film?

I’m constantly trying to learn more. I feel most in tune with myself and with my composing when I’m giving myself the time to play the piano during the day. I’ve actually found there’s a direct correlation between how musically engaged I feel in my work and how engaged I am with playing—the more I’m doing musically outside of scoring, the more connected I feel in the work.