- Friday, Dec. 16, 2016
Among composer Nicholas Britell’s notable credits prior to director/writer Barry Jenkins’ recently released, lauded feature Moonlight is the score for director Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated film The Big Short. Britell’s music was also featured prominently in the Best Picture Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, for which he composed and arranged the on-camera music including the violin performances, spiritual songs, work songs and dances (Hans Zimmer composed the score for that Steve McQueen-directed feature).
Britell additionally scored the Adam Leon-directed Gimme The Loot which won the SXSW Grand Jury Prize in 2012, Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s documentary The Seventh Fire, which premiered at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, Natalie Portman’s directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness which was selected for a special screening at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, this summer’s release Free State of Jones helmed by Gary Ross, and McQueen’s film Caribs’ Leap which has recently been featured as part of the “Master of Light—Robby Muller” retrospective at the Eye film museum in Amsterdam.
Britell has also successfully donned the hat of producer. He produced the short film Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, which won the Jury Award for Best U.S. Fiction Short at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Britell subsequently served as co-producer on the feature Whiplash which too won Sundance’s Jury Prize and its Audience Award in 2014. Whiplash went on to earn three Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Best Achievement in Film Editing (Tom Cross) and Sound Mixing (Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley). Britell additionally helped record and produce music for the Whiplash soundtrack, including the songs “No Two Words,” “When I Wake” and “Reaction.”
Britell has produced numerous other projects with The Amoveo Company, a multimedia production company and artists’ collective that he co-founded with Benjamin Millepied. Amoveo collaborated with director Alejandro G. Inarritu to produce his short film Naran Ja.
As a pianist for the past five years, Britell has been performing as part of the critically acclaimed “Portals” project with violin virtuoso Tim Fain. And reflecting his diverse range, Britell was the keyboardist for the hip-hop ensemble The Witness Protection Program.
Britell is a founding member of the L.A. Dance Project and a board member of the New York-based ensemble Decoda, the first ever affiliate ensemble of Carnegie Hall.
SHOOT connected with Britell to delve more deeply into Moonlight, a coming-of-age story centered on Chiron, an African-American whose story we follow in three chapters—in childhood, as a teenager and then a young adult. Raised in the dangerous Liberty Square neighborhood of Miami, Chiron has much adversity to overcome, including being mercilessly bullied in school and being raised by a drug-addicted mother. He struggles to find himself as a person, eventually coming to certain realizations, including that he is gay. The authenticity and vulnerability of Chiron’s character has engaged audiences and critics alike, helping to make Moonlight prominent in the Oscar conversation.
SHOOT: Provide some backstory. How did you connect with Barry Jenkins and get the opportunity to score Moonlight?
Britell: I scored The Big Short last year and Plan B produced that film. I also wrote and researched music for 12 Years a Slave, another Plan B project. During the time I was scoring The Big Short, Jeremy Kleiner [Moonlight producer and co-president of Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment] reached out to me, telling me about this incredible screenplay. I read it and was profoundly moved. It was sensitive, poetic. I had never read anything like it. I had never met Barry but wanted to after reading that script. I had seen Medicine for Melancholy [Jenkins’ first feature] and thought it was wonderful. What was supposed to be getting together with Barry for coffee turned out to be a two-hour talk in downtown L.A. Early on we felt we had a similar musical perspective. Our conversation began that day and then continued, thankfully leading to me getting the chance to score Moonlight.
SHOOT: What were the biggest creative challenges that Moonlight posed to you as a composer?
Britell: One of the interesting creative challenges is the story’s three-part structure, reflecting vastly different periods of time in the life of Chiron with three different actors portraying him at these different stages—as a boy, a teen and a young man. As a composer a prime challenge is how to you create a sense of cohesion across the chapters while also enabling his transformation and evolution. When I read the screenplay and saw the early cuts of the film, I had that feeling of poetry, intimacy and tenderness in the nature of the movie. It led me to ask what is the musical analog to poetry. How does that feel? What does it sound like?
I sent a piece of music to Barry, calling it a piano and violin poem or Chiron’s theme. That theme in chapter one appears in a deeper and more modulated form in chapter two. In chapter three an ensemble of cellos is brought in, orchestral changes are made. We had an interesting creative breakthrough when Barry told me about his passion for Chopped and Screwed music, a Southern strain of hip-hop which slows the recording down, lowers the pitch, deepens and enriches the sonic texture. Things are stretched out so that there’s more of a physicality to the sound. Early on in the conversation with Barry, he mentioned what if we Chopped and Screwed the score? We did that on the music I wrote and recorded, became excited about the possibilities and dived right into the process.
SHOOT: Were you familiar with Chopped and Screwed?
Britell: I hadn’t ever worked with Chopped and Screwed as a technique. But I was in a hip-hop band in college, became familiar with hip-hop. He is a passionate devotee of Chopped and Screwed while I wasn’t ultra familiar with the lore. But I was familiar with the sonic universe of it along with other hip-hop techniques. When he brought up Chopped and Screwed, I knew how to do it. I’ve been producing hip-hop for 15 years.
SHOOT: Give us a sense of the collaborative process you enjoyed with Barry Jenkins.
Britell: It was an amazing joy. He’s a gifted, incredible artist. One of the things I spoke to him about was how important it is to be in the same room working together. That idea really hit home for me on The Big Short where [director] Adam McKay, [editor] Hank Corwin and I spent the whole summer working together, living with the film, constantly experimenting, trying things out. It was a wonderful sort of immersion.
I felt the more I could be together with Barry in the same place, the better. He’s based in L.A. But he would come to my New York studio. We spent days together in the studio, talking about film, watching the film, exploring things. There were so many discoveries that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Film music is a very mysterious process. It’s not a science. It’s a journey of discovery. Working with Barry reaffirmed to me the power of close collaboration. I don’t think I could work on a film if I couldn’t have that kind of close collaboration. I think directors are really interested in this, the nature of filmmaking being so collaborative. My hope is to be able to continue working in that way. The emotional memory of working with Barry is very strong and profound for me. I saw Barry recently and told him I want to go back to the studio and keep working on Moonlight. I want to keep that kind of collaborative process going. I miss working with Barry in that way.