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BMI Composer Nicholas Britell on the Alchemy of Film Scoring

How close collaboration and open experimentation are key to the “Succession” scribe’s music

Posted in News on July 8, 2020 by
Photo: Emma McIntyre – Getty Images

Film scores are a powerful form of art. Composers use scoring to augment the plotline, evoke emotion, and, sometimes, to give viewers a preview of something the onscreen characters are unaware of.

Nicholas Britell has understood this power of film scoring from a young age, when the iconic Chariots of Fire theme inspired him to take piano lessons as a child. He later attended Juilliard’s Pre-College Division and Harvard University, where he was introduced to film scoring when a friend asked him to score a project. He discovered that he loved the collaborative nature of film scoring, and started working on more projects to hone his craft, moving from scoring shorts for friends to collaborating with Natalie Portman and with directors on films competing in the film festival circuit.

His critically acclaimed music for The Big Short and Moonlight cemented his status as an in-demand composer and led to multiple projects with each film’s director, Adam McKay and Barry Jenkins, respectively. He scored Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk and McKay’s Vice, and his relationship with McKay led to his current gig, HBO’s hit series Succession. Along the way, Britell has picked up Academy Award, BAFTA, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice nominations and an Emmy for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme for his work on Succession.

BMI caught up with Britell as he’s working on another project with Jenkins, The Underground Railroad series for Amazon.

Tell us a little about your background in music. How did you first start playing and composing music, and how did you build your passion for music into a career?

Serendipitously somehow, film music and music were always very connected for me. I saw the movie Chariots of Fire when I was 5 and was completely obsessed with the theme music, the Vangelis theme. We had this old upright piano in our apartment, and I remember trying to figure out how to play it, and that led to me asking my mom if I could take piano lessons.

Growing up, right through high school, I wondered about perhaps being a concert pianist, but over time I discovered that I loved collaboration on musical and film projects. In college I was in a hip-hop band with some close friends, and it was also in college that a dear friend of mine, Nick Louvel, first asked me to score a film. He was making a feature, and although that film never really got a release, we spent almost every day for about three years trying things out with his edit and experimenting with music. I really fell in love with that process and that close collaboration with a director.

I loved writing music and scored so many short films that college friends were doing. I’d spend a lot of time on my own just writing music. I found over time that I’m at my happiest when I’m in my studio writing music and getting a chance to work with directors.

You’ve collaborated with Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk, Moonlight), Natalie Portman (Eve, New York I Love You, A Tale of Love and Darkness) and Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice, Succession) on multiple projects. How does the creative process work when you’re collaborating with a filmmaker?

The creative process is a fascinating and mysterious one. I think for me, the key is a really, really close collaboration, and it’s something I’ve learned over the years to stick to as much as possible. The magic ingredient to so much of the creative process is being in the room together and being able to hear the same things at the same time, to look at the same things at the same time, and to being open to what really is an experimental process.

When Barry and I are working together, we’re always talking about how we don’t know where we’re gonna end up. We may have certain ideas in the beginning of the project of what we might like to explore — or what we think might be right for the project — but until we’re doing it and actually putting something up against the picture, we don’t know what’s going to work out. And it’s in that process that we learn for ourselves what a film or television project needs.

You know, in a way, it’s like the movie sort of tells you what it’s looking for. And when you try different things, certain things just connect in a way that you feel it. You really feel it; it’s almost like a physical sensation. When the music works, I think there’s something where it seems to open up an element of what you’re watching. It almost changes your perception. And I think that’s something that we look for. The collaborators that I love to work with are all in the same zone of exploration — we all love that we don’t know the answers until we’re in the room together trying to figure it out.

You have a great working relationship with Succession creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong. How do you collaborate with Armstrong to compose music for the show that translates the essence of the plot without overwhelming it?

That’s a great question. I’ve loved working with Jesse Armstrong on Succession. I was actually first brought onto the show by Adam McKay. Adam and I worked on The Big Short and he told me about this project, Succession, that he was going to produce and direct the pilot for. I had the wonderful opportunity to work with him and Jesse while the pilot was being shot, so I was able to get involved very early on in the show.

It’s the first television series that I’ve ever scored, and what’s been interesting is there were a lot of ideas that I experimented with from the very start while they were still shooting the pilot. I met with Jesse and Adam in my studio and played some early ideas; what’s always fascinating to me is how some of the ideas that you write early on connect in a certain way. The key is really being open and honest with yourself about what feels right. Working with Jesse has been fantastic because he’s been so supportive of this exploration.

I come up with a lot of the ideas from reading the script while they’re shooting, and from early cuts that I see. I actually write a lot of the music then, and then more music for each episode as we go. There is this kind of combined approach, if you will, where there’s a lot of tailoring that goes on moment-to-moment in the episodes, but there are also these larger overarching thematic ideas that we’ve worked on that feel like they are hopefully an integral part of the show. And Jesse is deeply involved; every episode, I’ll send over a draft set of ideas to him and he’ll provide me with important notes on everything. I fully appreciate and really defer to his instincts on particular places where perhaps the music has overstayed its welcome or whenever it comes to things like the comedy of an episode or of a particular moment.

My greatest fear is stepping on the toes of something like that. I sort of joke that it’s like the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” The most important thing is being very careful and making sure that the music is sitting right with a particular scene and is speaking to what we need to feel. Jesse and I are exploring those subtitles and nuances and trying to find where things feel best. It’s a very involved process from start to finish. I go to the dub stage weekly, and we’re in touch all the way until the final mix is done on each episode.

Can you share a little more about scoring the hit HBO show, especially considering that Succession’s plotlines grew darker and more dramatic in season 2? How do you compose music that enhances each episode and encourages an emotional response from the viewer?

Well, the question of how we score anything is a really big one. There is this kind of alchemy of, “what is the right sound for a project?” As I mentioned before, a lot of the fun of scoring is in exploring the possibilities and seeing what kind of music can exist which enhances something, but also which can exist in counterpoint in a way where perhaps the music is saying things that we don’t initially see.

With Succession, there is a sort of fascinating dichotomy which presents a challenge to scoring: The show is both very serious, on the one hand, and also incredibly absurd on the other. On the serious side, the show is focused on a very real issue in the world today — the issue of concentrations of wealth and power among fewer and fewer people, and the repercussions of that. On the other hand, the show is focused on the absurdities and weaknesses of people and the ways in which those two forces combine. Musically, it’s a challenge to figure that out.

In general, the way that I have approached scoring Succession is by focusing on the seriousness. I feel that if something is serious it should be played musically in a serious way, but I’ve also found that when things are meant to be funny or absurd it helps if the music is even more serious. To me, that feels very funny. When the music starts to try to feel funny, it doesn’t sound funny at all. It just sort of loses its humor.

In preparation for season 2, I spoke with Jesse Armstrong and imagined this idea of what if we thought of season 1 as the first movement of the symphony — kind of like a classical symphony — and what if season 2 was like the second movement of the symphony where it’s still part of the same structure, but perhaps has more of a brooding, dark, inward, and really melancholy feeling.

When season 2 starts, we are with Kendall Roy (played by Jeremy Strong), and he has just hidden his guilt of the tragic act that he’s committed at the end of season 1. He has essentially sold his independence away to his father. All of season 1 is spent with Jeremy (Kendall Roy) trying to achieve independence from his father and demonstrate his ability to run a company. At the end of season 1, we see that he’s capitulated and given up on that in order to hide his guilt.

The beginning of season 2 is a place where Kendall is in a very dark place psychologically, and so I wanted to emphasize that darkness, with a sense of resignation and sadness. I wrote a piece which I called “Rondo in F Minor” and that became the starting point of a theme that would continue over the course of season 2. The way I wrote it was that the beginning — let’s say, two-thirds of the piece — are really a new idea, while the last one-third we start to wind back towards a melody and a set of harmonies which rhyme with things in season 1. The key for me in season 2 was exploring new territory while also bringing us back to the feelings and ideas of season 1 to show that we’re still connected. It’s the same people [and] the same characters, but we are much further along on in the journey with them.

What advice would you give to composers on how to nurture strong working relationships with writers, directors, and producers?

Pursuing creative collaborations is really the central key, certainly to film composing. The creative collaborations are the heart of our work. I think that there are so many important elements, but most of all, it’s about being open and honest with your thoughts, always sharing your best work, [and] no matter what, never sending anything that you don’t think is absolutely your best. That’s something I always talk to Barry and Adam about. I always tell them, “Anything I send over, I’m only sending it if I really love it.” I’ll never send something that I kind of think is OK, because then nobody wins. The key is really sending things that you love.

And then, being open to being wrong — being open to a new path. I think that framing the relationships and the work in the context that we are all trying to make something great together. Adam always likes to say something which I think is very helpful, he says, “The movie’s going to win in the end.” To me, that really means that we’re here because we want to make something together that’s greater than something any one of us can make on our own. Each of us is going to contribute our visions and our ideas, but ultimately we’re responding to a project — we’re responding to something and trying to understand it as a group.

I think it’s really important when you’re working with a director, let’s say when I’m working with Barry or Adam, that I have to feel open to presenting ideas. And very often it happens that the idea, even if the music may feel really interesting on its own, it might not be right for a particular scene. It might actually be something very different from what Barry or Adam are expecting, or thinks is the right idea for a particular scene, and that’s actually really essential to the process. I think the way that I approach this and what I’ve found to be helpful is to approach things from the perspective of learning. We’re all trying to find out what works and what’s right for any given scene.

I think that ultimately the key is that even when things don’t work, you learn from those things; you figure out, “Oh, this idea doesn’t work here because we actually need to do something quite different. We actually need to do this.” To me, that’s the exciting part — uncovering the answers and finding the things that feel connected. It’s that process which really bring joy to me; it’s almost like unlocking a mystery. I think that when the focus is less on yourself and it’s more on the project and the ideas within the project, then it actually becomes a very beautiful process.

That’s a broad sense of how I think about collaboration: We’re all going on a journey together, we don’t know the destination, but we’re going to be open and honest with ourselves about what we’re trying to accomplish. In the end we have faith that hopefully we will find some answers.

You produced a remix of the title theme from Succession with lyrics from hip-hop artist Pusha T. Can you tell the story behind that collaboration?

I was incredibly honored to be able to collaborate with Pusha T on our remix “Puppets” of the Succession Main Title Theme. The way that came about was actually after season 1 premiered and people began reaching out to me on Twitter saying, “When is someone going to rhyme on this track,” or, “We need to find a rapper for this!” At first, I thought that was a really cool idea, though I didn’t necessarily think that it was something that might be possible. But you know, amazingly, our audience for the show continued to reach out with increasing frequency, and I started asking myself, “If we were going to do that, who would be the right person?”

And for me, if we were going to do it, I felt we had to do it at the highest possible level. We had to find a true virtuoso artist, and I thought that Pusha T would be the most incredible person to collaborate with. A very good friend of mine knew Pusha T and his manager, and it turned out that Pusha T and his team were fans of the show and were really interested in working on it together.

So, we met up in Los Angeles and discussed how we might approach the track. Push went into the studio and laid some fantastic rhymes and sent them over. Then, as soon as I got the material, I realized that I actually needed to remix the track a bit. So, I sampled my own Main Title Theme and added a new extra beat underneath it, and then I sent that back to Pusha T. That was the nature of the process where we honed a sound for the track that felt really right. We released it through Def Jam, and it ended up being a really wonderful collaboration.

As a Creative Associate at the Juilliard School, you give masterclasses at universities and conservatories. What advice do you give to a young composer who hopes to build a career in the entertainment industry?

I feel so lucky to be able to do this. I think that if you really love writing music, it’s a wonderful and special experience to be able to do this for a living. The advice I would give is, first, find your collaborators. This is an industry where we’re constantly working with other people, and the key to success is really in finding people who share a vision and a joy of collaboration. I would say if you’re still in school, find classmates who are making films or want to work in the industry, and make projects together. Work together on anything you can and try to find the joy in each project within that collaboration. I think, especially at the beginning, it’s less about wondering where these projects will go and more about the learning and the true pleasure of artistic collaboration.

I would strongly encourage — once it’s safe to do so, post-pandemic — any venues, events, and gatherings where you can meet more people who might be collaborators. I always tell people it’s fantastic to go to film festivals even if you don’t have a movie in the festival. It’s a wonderful way to meet people and to find potential collaborations.

I would encourage people to do any type of workshop that’s available at any of the colleges or industry organizations. I think these kinds of group workshops are really helpful for honing your craft and for meeting collaborators. And I think, over time, if you want to work in the entertainment industry as a composer, in addition to listening to a lot of music, I would strongly encourage watching a lot of movies. In order to be a film composer, you have to be both composer and really also a filmmaker. The focus isn’t just on the music, the focus is on figuring out how the music can exist in a film. Loving movies, loving the experience of movies, loving experimenting with the ways that music can work in a film — those are the things that are essential.

What are you working on now?

I am working on Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad series for Amazon, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I’ve been working on that for almost a year now, since the very start of production. From the very beginning, I’ve been imagining certain sounds, exploring ideas with Barry, and trying to think about ways that music might exist within the project. What Barry and I love to do is to think about these things ahead of production so that while the shoot is going on, we’re already imagining certain ideas. Those ideas might not work in the end, but they’re an opportunity for us to start turning the wheels of the creative process.

I had also begun working on season 3 of Succession, though that’s on pause right now due to the virus. Once it’s safe and healthy for everybody to go back into production, we’re excited for that to happen. Luckily, Barry had finished shooting The Underground Railroad prior to the pandemic, so I’m fully immersed in that right now.

What led you to work with BMI?

I met Alex Flores from BMI and began a series of wonderful conversations with her about BMI’s reach and resources. Over the course of those conversations, Alex really communicated to me some of the exciting possibilities about working with BMI, including many interesting creative possibilities such as exploring some of the things we’ve talked about here, exploring collaborations and opportunities through the resources of BMI. Those were some of the things that really piqued my interest. I did my research, and it felt like an exciting time for a change. I’m really thrilled to be working with BMI and truly excited to be joining this community of artists and composers.