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The composer behind 2018’s best movie score on what you did and didn’t hear

Oscar-nominated for If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell digs into his exciting career

Composer Nicholas Britell is not a purist, though to those of us whose Spotify Discover playlists are wall-to-wall film scores, his sustained piano themes and orchestral flexes are fighting a good fight. So often, in modern blockbusters and prestige pictures alike, movie music fills space — swelling, pulverizing or churning through the drama. Britell, a classical pianist with hip-hop training, takes a woodworker’s approach, sculpting sound out of single block of cinema. Every note is laser cut, every chord left behind with a musician’s fingerprints, even when the score is chopped and screwed in the end. The old-meets-new approach has made fans out of Barry Jenkins, Adam McKay, Steve McQueen, and Natalie Portman, and earned the adoration of a community hoping Hollywood can produce more than noise.

Jenkins’ Moonlight earned Britell his first Oscar nomination, but 2018 was his year of uncompromised and lavish vision. In McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic Vice, the composer conducted a fanfare for the power-hungry man. His theme to HBO’s Succession plays like a sardonic Game of Thrones, while the music within is chillier and introspective. And his score for If Beale Street Could Talk, a transcendent riff of loft jazz and Harlem neighborhood soundscapes that beams down from the vastness of space to envelop Barry Jenkins’ romantic images, earned him his second Academy Award nomination — and is easily the best score of the year.

As he ascends to the heights of film music’s most notable names, Polygon caught up with Britell to talk about his start, navigating the movie business, the details that make Beale Street and his other 2018 scores stand out, and where he goes next (hopefully after winning the Oscar).

Polygon: How did you and director Barry Jenkins land on the sound for If Beale Street Could Talk?

Nicholas Britell: I think the wonderful thing is that Barry and I really do feel at the outset that we don’t know where we’re going with the sound of a movie, and it is such an exciting experience to go on that journey together. The movie tells you things as you put things up against it. There is this mysterious, abstract connection that happens between music and a picture and a story. And I think we’re both very sensitive to that. Barry will say he’s hearing brass and horns and that’s his first instinct. But I think none of us really even know how or why sometimes we’re imagining certain things, but we follow those feelings.

So I started writing this music for trumpets and flugelhorns and French horns and cornet. I wrote a piece that, actually, the melody and some of the harmonies of the piece were featured in the film, but the piece I wrote is not in the movie. When we put it up against the picture, it just felt like it was missing something, and we couldn’t figure out exactly what. There was this idea I’d had of: what is the effect of different instruments on the same notes? And it’s something very powerful, where you can play the same chord on trumpets and then you play the same chord on cellos and it’s different. It’s a different chord. What plays those notes matters. The person playing the sound, the instrument, it’s all a different experience.

In Beale Street, we actually hear the breaths of the musicians.

One of the things that I remember loving about hip-hop when I first discovered it for myself was the sonic signature of hip-hop, the [mixing] of beautiful jazz recordings, of amazing drums, the sound of amazing lyricists. There was always a texture to the recordings, especially in the ’90s. In that sampled sound, maybe you hear a vinyl, maybe you hear a record player, you hear the vinyl noise, the grain. I’m just drawn to that kind of sound. It feels human to me, it feels real. It draws me in.

Barry and I talked about that for the first time on Moonlight together. From the very beginning, he had said he wanted the score to be written and recorded with the real players. So when I made those recordings, and I did the same thing on Beale Street, I let us hear people breathing. You can hear the sound of the bow on the strings, you can hear the clicking of the keys on the instruments. I love that sound. I miss it when it’s not there and my favorite recordings, some of the great classical jazz recordings of the mid-20th century, you can hear the air in the room sometimes, you know, you can hear the hiss, you can hear the atmosphere, and I think I’m drawn to that part of the recording almost as much, sometimes, as the music itself.

How does your approach change on a movie like Vice?

Vice is a very, very different sound world than Beale Street, but there’s a similarly close collaboration that I have with Adam McKay. The two of us sit in a room and watch the movie, and actually in the case of Adam, it’s with our editor Hank Corwin, as well. It’s all of us sitting in a room together and looking at the movie that we’re making, and trying to figure out, what do we want to feel here, what’s the sound of this?

Adam had his own early instincts of the sound. When he was writing the script, he felt that the story of Vice, obviously it’s the story of Dick Cheney and his rise through Washington and the repercussions of his actions, but it’s also necessarily the story of the past 60 years of American history and thus, it’s a global story of how American history impacted the world. So because that’s such a large story, Adam felt that we should have a very large-scale symphonic scope to the score. It needed to have this magnitude in a way.

The sound is almost comically grand.

It’s big. It’s a massive orchestra. And I think there’s an idea of an American symphonics under it. But this isn’t your typical American journey, and this isn’t your “typical hero’s journey” at all. This is actually a dissonance, and there needs to be a dissonance. So in every scene in the movie, I was always kind of weaving in these, let’s almost say, like, wrong notes, so that musically, there were things that felt wrong and there was a dissonance that was sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle in how I was writing the music. Hopefully I make you step back from this story that many of us lived through, and those wrong notes make you look at it differently.

Brad Pitt’s company Plan B produced If Beale Street Could Talk, Vice, and a few of your previous films. Have you talked music with him?

I’ve actually had a few really wonderful conversations with him. He’s fantastic. Both him and Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner at Plan B have been incredible supporters of mine and believers in me from the very beginning, really, and I’m so grateful to all of them for everything they’ve done. It was really in 2012 that they first took a chance on me and connected me with Steve McQueen. That was a life-changing experience for me.

How did writing and adapting the in-world songs for 12 Years a Slave actually happen? You weren’t too established at that point.

Around the end of 2010, I started making pilgrimages to Los Angeles, trying to ... figure out how you get work as a composer [laughs]. Like, how do you find a sustainable living in this field? I would call any friends I had, I would try to have coffee with people, really just tell people that I’m available for work. I wasn’t sure how to do that, I just knew that it would take a long time. That was the one assumption I made. I knew it was going to take a long time and I was going to give myself the time to be patient, and know that things don’t happen right away.

Early on when I was coming out to LA, I met Jeremy Kleiner through friends. I didn’t know what he did for a living, and I don’t think he knew what I was trying to do for a living. But we learned we both loved music and we both loved hip-hop music. I was in a hip-hop band in college. I made a lot of beats and produced a lot of tracks, so we just had this mutual love of music and would share music we’re listening to. I would send him some music I was writing, some hip-hop tracks or whatever.

In 2012 I had scored a film called Gimme the Loot that a dear friend of mine, Adam Leon, a fantastic director, had made. We had gotten into the Cannes Film Festival, the Un Certain Regard section, and I remember being at a party somewhere, I was talking to Jeremy and he said, “Oh my God, we have this film that we’re working on and I would just love your thoughts, any ideas you have on this film that is going to have a lot of music. If you have any ideas, just let me know.”

So he sent me the script for 12 Years a Slave, and it was unbelievable, as you can imagine. I didn’t know anything about where he was going to send me, but I am and was one of the most major Steve McQueen fans. Both as an artist and as a director, he’s just a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant mind. And I had a lot of ideas. So I, uh, wrote this very long email [laughs] with different ideas and possibilities, with no thought that anything would really happen. About 24 hours later, I got a phone call and it was Steve McQueen.

What was in the email that struck Steve so hard?

I talked about everything from exploring the question of “what is the sound of 1841?” and imagining that there was going to be a major component of research, but also, depending on whatever the music in that world was going to be, some sort of artistic reimagining, because you’re talking about decades and decades before there were any recordings. We don’t really know how that world sounds, and I talked a little bit about how I felt how [the music] would make that world feel almost like another planet, making it look like a world you’ve never seen so that you can have a new connection to it.

I think that one of the most important things on every film is to make it feel like something you haven’t seen before, because then you’re forced to acknowledge whatever the world is that you’re watching. [A film] helps create new mental and emotional associations. When you see things that you think you already know, it doesn’t force you to acknowledge them in the same way. I guess over the years that’s been something that I think about a lot: what is the way that we experience films? What is the way that we internalize ideas? And how can I, as a composer, think about music in a way that hopefully helps create a new set of associations for an idea? So Steve brought me on to write and research and arrange the music that was in the film, the on-camera music in 12 Years a Slave.

Being able to unload knowledge in an email makes me wonder: You’re in your late 30s, part of a younger generation of composers, so has internet access, or the information age in general, shaped how you think about and create music?

That’s a great idea, actually. I do think the internet is such a powerful tool ... I remember when I first started having internet access, I was probably 14, just as I was in junior high. I remember there were all those different search engines. Remember “web crawler” and AltaVista and all those? But, you know, you’re right, I can’t discount the impact of the fact that I am part of a generation where we have access to the whole world in an immediate sense. I’m a big reader. I love reading. I love going to libraries, and in high school I had access to the Juilliard School of Music library because I went to the Juilliard Pre-College Division before college where I studied piano and theory, harmony, composition, and I remember devouring all the old LPs that they had there.

So I think it’s crucial, obviously, for any field, but as a composer, I do feel that the more knowledge you have and the more experience you have with different types of music, that you see that composers and musicians throughout the centuries are all grappling with the same questions. We’re all working with these 12 notes. Obviously there are more than 12 notes, some cultures have micro tones, there’s so much there, but we’re all dealing with frequencies and we’re all dealing with rhythms and we’re all figuring out what those mean to us and how they feel, and create structures around them. I think for me, the biggest takeaway I have, especially for working in film music as far as the composition of it, is the realization that the form of a piece of music for film is the film. That was always a question I had growing up: what is the form of these pieces? You can write a song or you can write a symphony or there are dances — there are all these different forms.

And I remember asking myself what form I was drawn to, and what’s fascinating about film is that it’s the form; there is a movie, there is a story, there are these characters, and the form of the music for that is its own entity that is completely, in every moment, related to that film. That was a discovery that I made over time. But having access to the world in this immediate way through the internet I’m sure has impacted me in a lot of ways.

You grew up in New York, but New York is huge. Where did you actually grow up?

I grew up on 88th and West End Avenue, so the Upper West Side, and we lived there until I was about 13, and then we moved to Westport, Connecticut. I lived in Westport until college, and then my family moved back to New York. So I went to high school in Connecticut and then I would commute back and forth to Juilliard.

Did Juilliard embrace your ambition to become a film composer?

When I was there, there really wasn’t any film music focus or connection at all. I really wasn’t able to start doing anything with film music until college, when I had friends of mine who wanted to be directors, themselves. A very dear friend of mine, Nick Louvel, was making his own first feature film, and he came up to me one day and was just like, “Have you ever wanted to score a film?” So we spent the next few years just trying to figure out how you make a movie and how you score a movie.

But Juilliard was a really wonderful environment. I was tremendously impacted by that, and the biggest takeaway for me on my musical education, outside of any of the learning I did in the classes, was the unbelievable community of musicians, and you grew up together. A lot of my dearest friends I met when I was 14, and they were 12, 13, 14, 15. It’s such a special experience to meet people who are your age, who love the things that you love, and to share that together. A lot of the musicians I still work with today, who I work with and record with and play with, are those people that I met when I was 14.

I’ve heard you cite Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire score as a moment of awakening — what was going on in that music that unlocked part of your brain?

I’ve had many different experiences with that score, but it was the first music that made me love music. Your first experiences of music and the first thing that draws you to it, how does any one of us know what that is or where that comes from? But I remember when I was 5, I saw Chariots of Fire and I went to our piano in our apartment on West End Avenue — we had this old upright piano — and I tried to figure out how to play that theme, then I immediately asked my mom for piano lessons.

That score, to look at it for a second: This is a period film, set at the 1924 Olympics; this is a score that is a 1980s synth score, and is even more powerful because of it. When you’re watching this film, at no point in the movie does it feel out of place. Talking about creating new associations with things: the fact that you had these sounds, like, there’s those moments — in Chariots of Fire you have the famous sort of fanfare theme, and the running theme — but there are also incredible moments like the fall in one of the races, and someone falls and you hear these sounds that have an almost wailing or crying motif of falling. It was just mind-blowing for me. So I think both in the composition of the score, but also in the choices that were made and how they relate to the film, it’s one of the greatest scores ever written, and clearly had an emotional impact on me.

What other film composers challenged your idea of what film music could be?

John Williams is clearly a legend in both his composition and his orchestration, and the way that he approached the orchestra is something that’s very inspirational. But if you go back in the day, I think Bernard Herrmann is unbelievable. I read a biography of Bernard Herrmann’s called A Heart at Fire’s Center a few years ago, and I thought his story was very beautiful. Going through the years, Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini — there are too many to count. And I mean, I think that growing up for me, The Beatles and Quincy Jones, Dr. Dre, I used to listen to a lot of Gang Starr and then classical music. I was a pianist, so I played a lot of Beethoven and Mozart and Schubert. Schumann and Chopin. I love Gershwin. There are many inspirations.

It’s not a stretch to imagine someone interested in music, technology, and the line between emotion and form getting into hip-hop, but what was your actual gateway?

The gateway was probably MTV in 1993. We had just moved to Connecticut and I had lobbied my parents to get a television in my room, which was the greatest thing ever. We were talking about the Internet, but having a TV in your room when you’re 13, before the internet had the “ease of use” of today [laughs], I learned so much about film and music from that. And obviously that was an incredible year in music, and an incredible year in hip-hop. We watched music videos all of the time. Our daily conversation in seventh grade was what music videos are you watching?

At the exact same time, I had access to some of the amazing cable channels like IFC. I remember I used to watch so many movies on IFC. Especially foreign films. I think both for me and for Barry Jenkins, connecting with foreign films I think was a very powerful thing. I mean, I loved American films — Back to the Future and E.T. were very powerful — but also watching the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, for example. Foreign cinema was something that definitely had a big impact on me early on.

How did you jump from loving hip-hop to actually working in the genre? That could be intimidating.

I did a lot of learning about hip-hop. In the beginning, it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. So this is probably in the ’90s. What I’ve since further reaffirmed is that it’s a fascinating mixture of art and technology. I strongly believe that hip-hop is the most important modern musical form, certainly of my lifetime. And not just a musical form, but a cultural forum that has impacted the world. I think the modes and rhythms and sounds of hip-hop have actually impacted things in such a way that it’s part of the pop sound today.

The uniqueness of hip-hop is something that I think people don’t often recognize: the music is a mixture of incredible rhythms, which early on were sampled breakbeats that were then played on turntables and slowed down, which is how you actually get that deeper drum sound; in the ’90s, there were the samples of jazz music and that form of actually sampling music and what does it do to a sound; and then you’re mixing these kinds of musical elements with rhythmic poetry of rapping, a lyrical poetry that’s happening on top of this incredible musical foundation. That’s something that hadn’t been done, certainly not in a widespread way that was then passed around to the world.

So it was endlessly fascinating on a musical level, on a political level for what it represents, and on an artistic level. I listened to hip-hop music nonstop for seven years. Then when I was [at Harvard], friends of mine were starting a hip-hop band, and I asked if I could join them to play keyboards and synthesizers. For me it was just this constant quest of, “How is this music made and what is it?” I bought a Korg Triton keyboard, which I actually still use to this day as my controller for my setup, and I started experimenting and trying to figure out how sounds were made and “what is hip-hop?” and how could it be performed. So I spent years in college making beats all day, everyday, for four years. It was constant. We performed all over the northeast. I would say our peak was when we opened for Jurassic 5 and Blackalicious at one point.

I wrote so much music in those years, just because I loved writing music and I loved working in my band. After those years it became a habit of writing music. It felt so normal that I started thinking of myself as a composer, and it was exactly in those same years that I was working with some friends who were directors and my performing with my band, that I was writing up all that music.

Nicholas Britell performing at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, CA
Nicholas Britell performing at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, California.
Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

One of your first scoring jobs was for Natalie Portman’s directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness. Did you meet at Harvard?

I met Natalie, like, the first week of freshman year, and we have a very close-knit group of friends.

She was in a Star Wars movie and you just went over and hung out.

But she was a full-time student! She did Star Wars over the summer. And there are, like, freshman mixers, and none of us know anybody and we’re all kind of scared and we just met! And we’ve all stayed in touch. Friends have gotten married and had kids, but we’re all still in touch, and it’s a really beautiful thing. But Natalie was always very supportive of my music and in 2008, when she was starting to direct projects and short films, she asked me to work with her on some of those.

You’ve described your former life as a career pianist as “lonely,” but what’s your process like today? Do you hole up in a room to write most music?

So, for sure, when I’m writing music I may be by myself, but there’s this incredible collaborative outlet of being part of a film team. I don’t do this by myself. I get to closely collaborate with directors and with editors and respond to actors’ amazing performances, and I get to talk to music editors and sound mixers and cinematographers, and it’s that kind of family that is a really joyful experience.

But I am of two minds. I think there’s part of me which does actually really like being alone. Maybe that’s something I was drawn to early on, but then I like being able to be off by myself and write. And then I love to sort of, let’s say, “rejoin civilization” and see people. My wife jokes with me sometimes — she’s always encouraging me to go outside and just take a walk down the street, because I’ll stay inside for four or five days at a time without going outside. So that’s its own experience.

Years ago, Alexandre Desplat said the key to his process was daily runs and gallons of green tea. Does your routine involve something that peaceful?

That’s so healthy. I wish I was that healthy. I love Shake Shack, and I’ll drink coffee all day long. I’m aspiring to eat healthy, but for example, when Barry Jenkins comes over and we work together, we work similarly for days on end and we will have Shake Shack and I’ll drink coffee. I love espresso. I think coffee is wonderful.

Diet be damned, you do seem to have a studious, psychological grasp on the power of music. Is there a specific instance in which you employed music theory to an emotional end in a film?

That’s a very deep question. I could probably talk to you for hours about that. Going back to Beale Street for a second: [Something] Barry and I talked about early on, along with the sound of brass and horns, was this idea of jazz and the sound of New York in the mid-20th century. One of the ways that I approached that score in particular was by starting with an atmosphere. You look at the sound of brass and horns — if you look at the chords of jazz, they’re oftentimes, especially in mid-20th-century jazz, they’re seventh chords. In classical music, the most basic sort of harmonic element is the triad, the three-note chord, but jazz really takes seventh chords as its primary starting point, for its harmonic basis. So I was thinking to myself, “What if I did that with my score, but then wrote it out almost classically? What if, when I was writing for strings, I almost tried to write, let’s say, a piece of 19th-century chamber music, but I was writing it with the mindset of a jazz chorus as if it was then mid-20th century?”

So there was sometimes this kind of a mixture of things where I’m approaching things with jazz harmonies, but I’m writing them classically, and there’s something incredibly beautiful about the extended harmonies that are part of mid-20th-century jazz, where you have upper structures on these chords: You go beyond the seventh to go to the ninth, you go to the 11th to the 13th of the chord. These rich harmonies, which have a complexity to them, became part of the sound in Beale Street. Sometimes there’s the sound of nine cellos playing together, and they’re all playing different notes. Those rich harmonies can show you a complexity, but it has a directness to it, too.

A few cues in the Beale Street and Moonlight scores strip everything away to become sonically fragile. Are there risks to being that musically earnest? Can a movie’s sound be too quiet and too pure?

We’re always trying to be self-aware and self-critical while finding certain ideas that really feel connected to us, and connected to the story above all. There are definitely times that there might be something that I would write that feels direct, or maybe something that doesn’t feel complex enough to respect the story. I think with pieces like “Requiem,” for example, there’s something direct about that piece, and it’s important to be direct when you are feeling it. Sometimes when there is something that you want to say strongly, you have to just say it.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you’re comfortable treating the piano as a percussion instrument in cues like “Mrs. Victoria Rogers” and the theme song to Succession.

The piano is a percussion instrument! You’re striking strings with the hammer. The beautiful thing with any instrument is that every instrument can be a range of things. You know, a string instrument like a cello can be plucked, it can be bowed; depending on where you put the bow, you get a different sound, depending on how the vibrato is. Horns: You can mute the horn, you can flow differently. There are 100 different things that you can do with these instruments. The joy is, I’m getting a chance to try out all these different things and experiment with all these different sounds.

In Succession, for example, we have this very strange, out-of-tune piano, with a quasi-circus-like sound, and that’s in the theme. But in the score of Succession, I’m playing the piano very classically in a lot of senses, and there’s a gravitas, hopefully. So every instrument can be a chameleon.

Did you experiment with sound on Beale Street, even as you worked with more traditional instrumentation?

Oh yeah. One of the big discoveries Barry and I made while we were working on Beale Street was that, [in regard to] the sound of love and joy, which is the brass and the strings, there’s a moment in the film where the character Daniel is speaking to Fonny about his experience in prison and describing the hell of that experience and the injustice of it. Barry and I talked about whether we could put the score there because in the sequence when we first were working on it, Barry had Miles Davis’ “Blue and Green” playing on the record player in the room.

So that was a moment where I experimented: What if I took the sound of the cello that is playing earlier when you see Tish and Fonny first making love, what if I took that sound and distorted and bent it? Barry said to me, “How can we break the sound?” I took that sound and, basically, as they’re having the conversation, you start hearing the rumbling and almost grinding sound coming up from the floorboard. That scary sound is actually the sound of the beautiful cello from earlier in this moment of love that has now been harmed and distorted. It became this kind of musical metaphor for us. What we’re doing to the music there is what is happening to the love in the movie. It’s being harmed by the world. And that is what the sound of injustice is.

In my line of work, I often question whose stories I can tell or interpret. You’ve worked with many black artists to convey the emotional spectrums of black characters, but have there been difficulties there? Do you ever worry about not having the tools you need?

It’s a deep responsibility that I think that I put on myself, and I feel very, very lucky. I’m so humbled by the opportunity to work with Barry on stories, and the feeling, above all, that I have on any of these projects is that I’m there to listen and to receive things from Barry. He is my guide. My goal is to approach any film as a completely new world. I am myself trying to not be a part of that and almost entirely receive and listen to the director, whether it’s working with Barry on Moonlight and we’re exploring the sound of Little, or working with Adam McKay and figuring out the sound of dark mathematics in The Big Short, or working with Natalie Portman on A Tale of Love and Darkness on the sound of a pre-Israel Palestine. It’s about feelings and it’s entirely about that, that receiving of it.

You and composer Justin Hurwitz keep stepping out in parallel. There was Moonlight and La La Land’s big award season moment two years ago. Now Beale Street and First Man. Justin’s score didn’t make the Oscar cut, but really is one of the best of the year, as well. Are you two chummy?

Yeah, I know Justin really well. I was actually an initial investor in Whiplash! I had traded currencies back in the day. It was a fascinating period of time [laughs], but it was not what I was dreaming to do with my life. So I had quit and then become full-time focused on composing, and even while I was trading currencies, I was giving concerts and scoring short films. But I was excited to invest in Whiplash and be able to support Damien, Justin, and the filmmakers in trying to make that film come alive.

I read that one project you had in the works was a version of Carmen for Natalie’s husband, choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Is that still in the works?

Benjamin is one of my dearest friends and collaborators. This is Benjamin’s feature film debut as a director. It’s a modern-day, complete reimagining of Carmen, with all-new music and songs.

And are you returning for Succession season 2?

I am, so I’m starting to brainstorm the next season of Succession, so I’ll be meeting with Jesse Armstrong, the creator of the show, in New York to do a little brainstorming because I definitely want there to be some new themes and some new ideas. It’ll be very interesting for me, because Succession was the first television series that I had scored, and I’m fascinated to know what it sounds like when you go into a new season.

Can you be working when you’re constantly flying back and forth between Los Angeles and New York during award season? Can you compose on an airplane?

Always. I’ve written a lot of stuff on airplanes. You don’t need a piano, you just need pencil and paper. You just write it down. I’ve written parts of everything I’ve ever done on airplanes.