Words by Amon Warmann

For Nicholas Britell, it’s all about feeling. When we catch up with the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning composer to talk about his recent work, it’s a word that comes up often. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising: for the better part of the last decade, his music has captured just the right feeling for the right moment. 

For his iconic ‘The Middle of the World’ track in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight - which plays in a sequence where the film’s protagonist learns how to swim for the first time - that meant exhilarating strings. For the Harlem neighbourhood sounds of If Beale Street Could Talk, that meant harmonic jazz. And for many other big and small moments in the likes of The Underground Railroad, Succession, and more, Britell always seems to find the right sonic texture for whatever is transpiring on screen. 

His latest canvas for musical exploration is Don’t Look Up, which reunites him with writer-director Adam McKay. The duo has previously teamed up on the likes of The Big Short and Vice, but the tonal jambalaya of their latest project challenged Britell like never before. 

What is something you immediately noted about Adam McKay when you worked with him for the first time on The Big Short? Is there anything new you found out about him or your working relationship with him when you worked on Don’t Look Up?

I was a fan of Adam’s from before I met him. My wife and I love Anchorman, and we will quote that movie to each other, constantly. I think the first thing that I felt when I spoke with him when we met on The Big Short was that he's just such a wonderful, funny person. We spoke on the phone, and he was just so much fun to talk to and to think about ideas with. This is technically our fourth project together because he directed the pilot of Succession, and we really worked very closely together on that as well.

Each project was increasingly challenging, in a sense, and each project is a very nuanced equation of what the right feeling of each of these projects was. For me, Don't Look Up was the most challenging of all of those projects. I remember when we first worked on The Big Short, people called it a docu-dramedy because of the mixture of genres. With Succession, there's a mixture of gravitas and absurdity. But on Don't Look Up, it was really a question of what is the right tone, and how do we figure that out together? What is the right feeling? What is the right sound? Where does the music go? 


'Don’t Look Up', it really was a learning process.

We were discovering the film together. I had read the script and I had been working on it before he shot the film, because I had to write the song that they were going to film, ‘Just Look Up’. My earliest impressions of the script and of talking to Adam… initially, I focused on the feeling of rationality and reverence for science and the feeling of what the higher aspirations of humankind might be. That was my starting place. At times, we wound up in very different places in this movie, where we would ask ourselves what is the opposite of that sound? What's the feeling of a roller coaster careening off a mountaintop… you know? 

I think for both me and for Adam, it was a real challenge to figure out the right sound, and we worked really hard on it. I worked on it for over a year. I wrote a demo idea for Adam to actually play for the actors on set. During the telescope sequence, I wrote this piece called ‘The Overture to Logic and Knowledge’. It was the first thing I wrote for the movie, and it's actually in the music that we hear at the dinner table towards the end of the film. So it's interesting that that's where that idea found its place. 

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Part of composing is coming up with the right music so you’re feeling the right things in the right moment. But listening to this score in isolation is very different to listening to it in the film with full context, especially in the ‘patriotic’ scenes. 

I think that actually speaks to what's wonderful about film music. So much of the meaning and power that we draw from it is in the juxtaposition with the picture. But on its own, the music can have its own set of feelings that may actually lead you to think of another idea. Writing music is writing music - that's its own set of thoughts and techniques. But the real art and challenge of it all are where do you put the music, and what music do you put there. There are certain projects where it feels more straightforward, and where the genre is clearly defined. With something like Don’t Look Up, it really was a learning process for us. We tried certain things out, and then we'd feel like maybe this isn't connecting enough. 

The absurdist big band idea was something that I didn't come up with until probably halfway through scoring. It wasn't that wasn't obvious as an idea. And as soon as I experimented with it, I showed it to Adam and Hank Corwin, the editor, and they were very inspired by it. So that's always a good sign. I think even once we figured that out, it wasn't immediately clear to us where it should go. The second half of my work on the film was really about exploring, extending, and evolving to figure out how that big band might actually go backwards into the orchestra music. Might there be a sort of crazy big band that is somehow always in the score and you just don't know it, and only at a certain time does it come to the fore… a lot of time and thought and conversations and experiments went into that. It's really a totally collaborative conversation that we have where Hank, Adam and I are in the edit. 

On The Big Short, Hank said that he felt like we were playing jazz together. He’d show me something and then pass it on to me, and I'd try something and then I'll show it to Adam, and we'd keep trading thoughts and notes on it. I think that that feeling of openness and trust and freedom to try stuff out is so much of our process.

There’s a really eclectic mix of instrumentation in this score. What was your starting point there and how did you land on banjos, trumpets, toy pianos, and the like?

Through the course of making the film, me and Adam had a lot of conversations about climate change, and the lack of things that are being done to combat it. We had this realisation that it may already be too late to prevent terrible things from happening to human civilization. I had this talk with Adam where I said “it feels like we're in WWII, but we're going to lose WWII. What if we had a WWII big band, but it had a bass sax and a toy piano and duelling trumpets, and it was a little bit out of control?” And he was like “go for it”. So it started with that idea. 

There was a piece that I'd written for an earlier part of the film - it’s called ‘C-5 Galaxy’. It's this chord progression that I'd written as a feeling of the broader film. But it has these sine waves from a Farfisa organ, and then this huge hip hop beat shows up. That progression was something Adam and I were really into. So I was like… what if I use this as a starting point for a crazy big band, and then I wrote the melody, and it all sort of kept going from there. And the way the banjos are used in the film has a feeling of human comedy in a way. Whenever the banjo shows up I feel like it’s a little bit of me saying “this is absurd.” 


Writing on-camera music is very challenging. When it works, it's supposed to feel totally seamless, but to pull that off it required a year of work.

We haven’t talked about the most important element of this score yet, which is of course you screaming and yelling into a microphone…

I've never done that before! There's a long story of how that came about. In the movie, there is a sense of high anxiety. The temperature is always going up. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is having these panic attacks, for example. So I was trying to musically figure out how to convey that. I remember I talked to Adam about it, and the most challenging scene to score - and it might not seem like it was - was the scene with the NASA call at the beginning, where they're just starting to realise that this is an extinction-level event. It’s that feeling when you say to yourself “wait a second”, and then go “OH MY GOD!” I was working on that, and it just never quite felt right. We wanted more anxiety. 

So there was this one day when we moved into our new place, and Hurricane Ida was coming through. In one hour, I believe more rain fell in Central Park than in the history of New York City, essentially, and our roof totally leaked. Literally, there's water pouring into this place. It was crazy. And I'm trying to write this cue and it needs more anxiety, and I'm literally like “trust me, Adam, I feel really anxious!” It felt like I was inside Noah's Ark. So it was at this moment where I thought… maybe I just scream into the mic. Maybe that's the way to express this feeling, with an infantile, primal scream. So I did, and then I took it and I pitched it up and I ran it through this weird filter. And that is me screaming in that scene. Adam liked it so much, and he said “why don't you put your scream in a couple of other places?” So I did that too. 

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That’s amazing! Speaking of Adam, have you ever received a note or a request from a director that’s been more demanding than “I want you to write a song about the end of the world”?

I don't know if I have. That was really a challenge, and every project requires a deep set of thoughts because none of this is obvious. Adam said we need to write a love song that then becomes a song about how we're all going to die. It can't feel like a joke, but it has to be funny. That was probably one of the hardest assignments I've been given. And also, writing on-camera music is very challenging. When it works, it's supposed to feel totally seamless, but to pull that off it required a year of work. It was conceiving of the song, writing it, working with it. I worked with these amazing people - Tara Stinson on the lyrics, and Ariana Grande & Kid Cudi. Putting that together was its own wonderful process. They sang that song on camera in Boston (where they shot the film) over and over again, so full credit to them for that performance. 

And then there’s the post process - finalising the track itself, the instrumentation, and for the final chorus, I recorded strings when I was doing the scoring sessions in London. So much goes into that, even beyond the challenge of the concept itself. And when they work… we were so excited, because the concert is really in the movie. And Hank and Adam came up with this wonderful way of cutting between the concert and then the other rally that was happening in the world at that time.

It’s really intriguing the way McKay deploys your score. At times there’s a sharp cut in a scene, and your music cuts with it. Were there any discussions about that with McKay, and if so did that have any bearing on how you created your score?

We talk about that all the time. In Adam’s films, stopping short and hurdling into the next thing feels very natural. There are certain movies where that would be the absolute wrong thing to do. The way that a piece of music comes into a scene and goes out is its own art form. Every director I work with has their own subtle way that they approach music entering a scene. Some directors like the music to really ease in, and others want music to come right in. Some love it when the music starts at the beginning of a scene, and some like it later. 

Adam and Hank love the abrupt cut, and it really works. A lot of the time, I wouldn't write the end like that. Because if you write the piece to end that way, it sounds like you're ending the piece, and the whole point of that hard cut is that the piece is going and then you stop it. So we're concluding the piece in the edit. We're not having the music end itself. That has its own set of meanings. We don't always do that, but I think there's something funny about it, especially in this film. 

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Photograph: Emma McIntyre

I agree! It’s interesting to contrast this with your work on Succession. I love the way your music flows from one scene to the next on that show, and it really feels like you take the end credits into account too. 

I love end credit sequences. I feel that they're actually very formally important. As an audience member, when I'm watching something, I feel the end credits are a wonderful way to summarise what you felt and allow for a sense of contemplation of what you've just experienced. At times, they can be almost meditative. You’ve just seen this whole story, and in the end credits, all of a sudden you're in the dark again. And we're showing you who made the project, and you're hearing a coda to what you just watched. I love that feeling. 


For Succession, on every episode, I write something different for the end sequences.

On Succession, every episode I write something different for the end sequences, and I write it all the way up to the HBO tag at the end. I often do it in C Minor, because then I can end it in harmony with the HBO tag and I sometimes do it so that the last note of the credits is the HBO tone in C, which is very conscious. I enjoy that. Because it’s still part of the sequence. If I ended a piece in E major instead of C, it won’t feel right. 

On Don’t Look Up, a whole other wonderful part of the process for me was getting to write the song ‘Second Nature’ with Justin Vernon for the end credits. It goes from the song to the instrumental to the crazy ending and then comes back. So just on a personal level, those end credits moments for me are very important. 

Was there any particular scene in the recent season of Succession that you were excited to add your music to? 

The FBI raid (at the end of episode 3) was a really fun sequence. Because, without giving anything away for people who haven't watched the season, the stakes are high. There's a real danger there almost for the first time, to everybody. They’re being raided by the federal government, and we don't know what that will mean. So with that piece I wanted to convey a sense of fully heightened drama. To me, there's pathos there, but there's also grandeur to that sound. Hopefully, it feels like… where are we going? What is happening? What is gonna happen to these people? That was a lot of fun. 

You’ve done a lot of work in TV now, from The Underground Railroad to Succession, and I know you’ve got Winning Time coming up which I’m really excited about. Part of the joy of working in TV is getting to go back and add and build on your previous work. If you could do that with any of the movies you’ve worked on, which would it be and why?

There are certain films that you work on, and you find a sound that really resonates with you. Obviously, I could write more music in that vein, and sometimes I do it for myself, just for my own enjoyment…

Release the Britell cut! I wanna listen to that…

[Laughs] There’s always a lot of music that we don’t put in the final project! But I think for me, one project that I think about in that regard is If Beale Street Could Talk. There's a whole universe of things that Barry [Jenkins] and I talked about, and a sound world that we created there that I love. Whenever I go back to it, I feel like there are more possibilities in that world. I haven't written anything further from those ideas, but who knows? It was a deeply moving experience.


The next film you’re working on is Carmen. Have you gone back and revisited any of the other films or operas based on it? 

One of the things that's wonderful about Carmen is that it has been imagined in so many different ways. I don't want to give too much away about what we’re doing with this new version, but what I found to be really wonderful about the director Benjamin Millepied's conception of it was that he really wanted to completely reimagine it. There are some really, I think, very fascinating connections to the original. But it's not a retelling. It's really a whole other kind of almost parallel dimension, in a sense. 

I rewatched the opera and re-explored the early sources for the opera. Benjamin had been thinking about this for many years, and this opera was something that was very special to him. Doing your research is really important on any of these projects. If a project is about a book or based on a book, it's good to read the book. I know some people who don't want to do that. I know some composers who don't even like reading the scripts of films that they're working on, and I get that too. There's no right way to do any of this. There are times you go down a rabbit hole and you do all the research and that takes you somewhere special and you learn from it, and there are times when by not knowing things you come up with something more interesting. I think it depends on your collaborators. It depends on the project. 

I personally often find it very interesting to get involved as early as possible, as you know, and I like reading scripts because I find that if I imagine a film before I work on it, I sometimes write different music from that than what I would write otherwise. And once you watch the first cut, you can never go back from knowing what that is. So there’s a cool opportunity before you know what that is to experiment.


There are certain films that you work on, and you find a sound that really resonates with you.

You’ve mentioned that you spent a long time trying to unlock the Don’t Look Up score. In those moments where you don’t quite have it, do you have any rituals or techniques that you do to help you get there? And do you remember all your eureka moments from previous projects, or have they all blended into one?

There are certain moments that really do stand out. Some of it has to do with time. I think there are certain parts of films that just you work on for longer periods of time. Some parts of a film just fly by and you figure them out quickly. Some parts of the film just stand out as being particular riddles to you. It's like a maths problem where you're trying to figure out the answer. And then of course, once you find the solution, you're like “of course, it was that”. But until you know the answer, it seems completely insoluble. One moment that always stands out to me was ‘The Middle of the World’ in Moonlight. My first take on that sequence in the film was very different from where we wound up. And I remember Barry [Jenkins] saying that I was not going in the right direction, and having to really think about that. 

Sometimes if there's a particularly tricky part, I'll often be like let me figure out everything else and let me work on all the things I know I can, so then I can really focus on that. Are there any particular things I do to try to help figure that stuff out or experiment? I think it's really a perspective thing. It's a mindset. If you have a fear that you're not going to figure it out, it's very difficult to fix things. But I think if you have a mindset that, of course, you're gonna figure it out, you may not have any idea at any moment what the answers can be, but you will find an answer. It's helpful to just have that mindset because then you're just free to try stuff out. For me, that's the bit where I’ll be like, what if I wrote a fairy tale track here? Should there be a jazz track here? Should there be a solo piano? 

There's a version of every score that is totally different from the one that you hear. I think there are some scores that are really perfect for a film, but that's not to say there's not a whole other way of doing it. What's great about the field is that everyone can bring their own set of ideas and experiments, and everyone will score a movie differently. It’s wonderful.