Photo by Dominic Nicholls
Nicholas Britell On Scoring 'Succession' And 'The King' & Learning From Steve McQueen
It's safe to say that Nicholas Britell is living the dream—his dream, at least. "Ever since I was five years old, I loved movies and I loved music," the 38-year-old film and TV composer tells the Recording Academy over the phone. "As a composer, the dream is that you can write things and that people can feel the things that you're feeling."
That's exactly what Britell’s work does: It stirs up feelings, whether it’s the bittersweet strings that adorn director Barry Jenkins' 2018 tragic romance If Beale Street Could Talk, or the cascading pianos that usher viewers into the rareified air of the Roy family, the dysfunctional super-wealthy clan at the hardened heart of HBO's Succession. Britell's ear and knack for translating emotion have helped him build quite an impressive IMDb page over the past few years. He's collaborated with some of the most respected filmmakers active today—Jenkins, Steve McQueen, Adam McKay—which means his songs have appeared in two of this decade’s Best Picture winners (McQueen's 12 Years A Slave and Jenkins' Moonlight). Britell has earned some awards attention of his own, as well; he's been nominated for two Oscars for Best Original Score (for Moonlight and Beale Street, respectively) and, more recently, took home a Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music (for Succession, naturally). Odds are, if you have any friends who spend too much time on Film Twitter, they're fans of his.
The Recording Academy chatted with Britell about working alongside a series of auteurs, his score for the second season of Succession (which is presently dominating the TV discourse online), and his compositions for the upcoming Henry V-centric film The King, set to hit theaters on Oct. 11 before debuting on Netflix on Nov. 1. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
To start at the beginning of your recent run: What was it like being a young composer, working on a film as heavy and sobering as 12 Years A Slave and working with a master like Steve McQueen?
Steve is incredible. It was truly inspiring and really a life-changing experience for me, to work closely with an artist like Steve, and to learn from him and just to see the way that he approaches things, his decision-making process, the way that he thinks about artistic choices. I often think back on that experience and I’ve stayed in close touch with Steve, and he’s been a very dear friend as well, since then.
On IMDb, it says "Additional music" for your credit on 12 Years A Slave. Can you clarify: What was your level of involvement? You didn't handle all of the scoring, but you did some of it?
Actually, I wasn't involved in the score of 12 Years A Slave. I wrote and researched and arranged all of the music that appears on-camera in the film.
All of the diegetic music.
Exactly, all of the diegetic music. Everything from working with Chiwetel [Ejiofor] and coordinating, researching the type of fiddle tunes that an African-American violinst in 1841 in New York state might have played. Everything from that to exploring the field songs and dances in the South and collaborating with Steve on figuring out the best way to execute those performances. It was actually a huge research endeavor to figure out what's possible to be known about those types of performances and music, and also what are the limits of our knowledge on that.
You've also collaborated with Barry Jenkins, who has such a distinct visual style, obviously, and favors a lot of close-ups of his characters, a lot of eye contact. What's it like composing for sequences and shots that are so direct, where the audience and the performer are both so vulnerable?
One of the things about Barry's filmmaking style is that he creates a very full, rich aesthetic experience for the films that he makes. What you’re talking about, that sort of directness, is really emblematic of the way that he approaches all of the departments of the films: the colors, the cinematography, the music, the sound. There is a directness and a boldness with his choices, but it’s all in service of the feeling. A lot of what we’re trying to do, from my perspective, it’s about finding musical landscapes that can convey those feelings and the fullness of those feelings.
And every film is different. There's no right score for something, there's just the score that you craft in collaboration with the director, at that moment in time. There are lots of possible scores, but I think one of the beautiful things about scoring is that it's so dependent on the process, and how it comes together, and that's what makes it unique to that film. Above all, it’s about finding a sound that feels like—for you and for the director—that it’s really woven into the fabric of the movie somehow. Some things just feel connected, in a way, and some don't. We ourselves don't really know, and the process is us experimenting together.
You've also worked on two films with Adam McKay, who's an executive produer on Succession. Can you talk about how you got invovled with the show specifically?
Well, actually, Succession was a result of those two films. I first worked with Adam on The Big Short, and it was after we finished The Big Short that we talked about Succession, and he told me about the premise and the ideas behind the show and asked if I wanted to be a part of the pilot, and of course I said yes. It was quite a few years ago, actually. My mental calendar is sort of a blur—but we did the pilot and I worked on that and then it was after the pilot, after some time, we then did the rest of the series and put it all together.
I started talking to Adam about it before they shot the pilot and was able to go to set and be there for when they were shooting the pilot, which, it’s always a great experience because you get to see things up close. So, it directly came out of that experience of first working with Adam on The Big Short. I finished scoring Succession, the first season, while we were making Vice, actually, so I was doing those in parallel to some extent.
The goal for me musically was that it had both this kind of gravitas to the seriousness of that world, which is—it’s a real issue in the world, that there are these increasing concentrations of wealth and power amongst fewer and fewer people. There's a darkness there, but there’s also this absurdity and I think that finding a tone that could balance both of those things was really the key. And it was very interesting, actually, working on Vice at the same time, because I feel working with Adam has been so crucial for me as a learning experience, too, and thinking about that interplay between drama and comedy.
How has the Succession score changed or developed from season one to season two?
Season one really laid the groundwork for the thematic ideas and for the tone. Season two, I think it was really important for me that as the story evolved, I definitely wanted the music to continue its own evolution. I remember talking to Jesse [Armstrong, creator and showrunner of Succession] about this idea of, "Imagine a symphony that is Succession, what's the second movement sound like? What do we do?"
Also, you never want to overstay your welcome with certain musical ideas. There's definitely a sort of dark, maniacal streak to some of the music, and I want to make sure that when we’re using certain ideas, that we know exactly where and they have a power still. There’s certain new elements for Kendall, there are certain elements that are Shiv-focused. It’s the same Succession universe, but hopefully a bit more.
How does working on a TV show compare to working on a feature-length film?
The difference between film and TV is pretty large, actually. There's just so much more real estate in TV. Certainly, there's the micro-level approach, which is thinking episode to episode. But I really try to think about it as one entire piece, in a way. So, you're always thinking about, "Where do certain ideas get seeded, where do certain ideas come back? How does what we hear in episode one impact what we hear in episode 10?" It's actually quite challenging to think about that.
That's something that I really love about film music, is thinking about the architecture of the ideas, like, where you start one idea and then how does it evolve, how does it change, where does it come back? And also, importantly, where do you not have music? That’s always really important, too. Each film has its own musical logic, and you’re trying to have the film tell you where it needs music and where it doesn't want music.
You just won a Creative Arts Emmy for the Succession theme. There's always so much talk about awards campaigning, mostly about the Oscars. What does campaigning look like for a film composer? And how does it differ between the Oscars and the Emmys?
I’m new to the TV world a bit. The film awards season and that process is very linked with the release of those films, so I view it very much as you're participating in helping bringing the film into the world. I remember last year, with Beale Street for example, it wasn’t even so much necessarily campaigning as it was, we would do a lot of Q&As at movie theaters, and really be there sharing what the story of the film is.
With TV, actually, I haven’t done quite as much, I guess. In the sense that that kind of natural, going to movie theaters and doing Q&As and stuff, there really isn't as much of that. And I think that’s partly also just the nature of the medium. Which, I would actually add to that and say that I've been really awed by the level of audience that is possible from television. I love movies, and I love the movie theater experience, but I also think it is a wonderful thing that television is actually able to get out to more people, and more people, on a weekly basis, can participate in the stuff that you’re making. That’s been something of a new experience that I’ve had with working on a TV show.
You worked on a film that's coming out in October, The King. Did you have to get into a dramatically different headspace as a composer, working on something that’s set that far back in the past?
I definitely did not change my process. When I approach a new project, I try to have a blank slate in a way, where you’re trying to be open to feeling what that film or that series need in the way of music, and seeing what that is. Obviously, you don’t figure that out without talking to the director, and having that conversation: What are they feeling and what are they looking for?
I remember with The King, the first thought that I had when I saw a rough cut of the movie was, "What would it be like if I imagined that the 1400s was actually like the 2500s?" You say to yourself, "What is that sort of sense of distance and time mean?" So I tried to create sounds early on that felt like they could be linked with the world that we were witnessing, but that also felt like they weren’t necessarily "period." I was very specifically not trying to say, "All of these instruments are from 1413."
So, the sound that I settled on, working with David [Michôd, director of The King], was this sound where it's a mixture of these bass clarinets that I pitched through this sort of tape filter that created a very strange texture. And then there’s the sound of a boys' choir, which emerges over the course of the film, and there's definitely some symbolism there, emotionally and musically, with the fact that this is a young man who is becoming king. And there were a lot of musical experiments that we did, too, with morphing some brass and morphing these sort of metallic sounds. I think it's about creating something that makes you lean into this world, to want to explore it—but at the same time, you need something that feels like it connects with you.
I've seen a lot of people tweeting about your music, saying things like, "Just working all day to the Beale Street soundtrack." I imagine that if you're a film composer, it'd be rewarding to put your music out, but there would maybe be this fear that your work would be entombed with the movie it's for, just inseprarable from it. But it seems like people are more than happy to associate your compositions with the films, but also to break them out and use them in their own lives.
Well, thank you. I definitely feel like when I’m writing, it's very important that the music for film can exist both inside and outside the project. I think that's maybe a little bit of an aesthetic criteria for me, of whether something works. For any piece that I’m writing for a movie, the music has to be able to exist on its own, hopefully, as an idea. So, I do think about its ability to exist outside of the project, but certainly, the number one goal is that it's right for the project. That's its only reason for being there.