So when Jamie Fisher got the opportunity to profile the composer for The New York Times Magazine, she wasn’t content to report at arm’s length. She attended sessions with Britell and “The Underground Railroad” director Barry Jenkins and captured a loose-limbed and often funny creative process between two acclaimed artists. “The Composer at the Frontier of Movie Music,” published this past May, takes readers into Britell’s home studio, where they are surrounded by movie posters, empty seltzer bottles, and sounds being cajoled moment by moment into music.
Maybe more importantly, Fisher is able to convey the urgency and originality of Britell’s approach for readers who wouldn’t know an octave from octuplets. There are musical terms throughout — arpeggios and double fugues appear — but Fisher is careful to describe how the music feels, such as the opening of Adam McKay’s irreverent Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” which she says “sounds like ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ if Peter were also the Wolf.” She notes Britell’s score for “Battle of the Sexes“ includes “Bobby Riggs’s sleazy upright piano competing with Billy Jean King’s majestic concert grand,” and describes an in-progress piano sequence “only a few bars long, circling the drain of a few dissonant notes.”
Fisher, who said she was given valuable help by fact-checker Alex Carp, writes a range of pieces as a freelancer while working as a researcher for the Times magazine and a Chinese translator. Her study of Britell is an insightful profile of the composer himself, with such revelatory moments as his being “walloped” by a track from A Tribe Called Quest’s album “The Low End Theory.” Or, as Fisher writes:
It was like learning, as a teenager, that there were more letters to the alphabet than he’d been taught.
But the profile of the man wouldn’t land as definitively if it didn’t also profile his music, and help readers hear the notes buzzing insistently behind the words.
Nieman Storyboard interviewed Fisher about how she reported and wrote the story, and translated layers of music into the flat dimensions of print. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity, and are followed by an annotation of the story. To fully appreciate the profile, we encourage you to take time to listen to some of the music in the links.
Tell me how this story came about, and describe the reporting and writing of it.
Essentially the story happened because I hit critical mass. I realized that the music for “Moonlight,” “Beale Street,” “Vice,” and even one of my favorite podcasts came from Nicholas Britell. Watching the first season of “Succession,” and seeing his name pop up again, I knew I wanted to try pitching a profile.
To be honest, I felt out of my depth. I played viola for years, growing up, but apart from some experience with piano and guitar, that’s really it. I listen pretty widely (Baroque chamber music, Elliott Smith, Alice in Chains) and I know when something’s out of tune. It’s fascinating how many readers have told me “you know so much about music” or “you know so much about movies.” I’m just a curious person who asked questions.
Nick (Britell) was very busy when the pitch was first accepted, in early 2019, so our first meeting didn’t happen until that fall. We spoke at a cafe, at his studio, and then at his session with Barry (Jenkins) in February of the next year; I would listen to the soundtrack to “Moonlight” or “Beale Street” as I took the train up from Brooklyn to Nick’s place. I did the secondary interviews on weekends and a couple lunch breaks.
The story describes a visit with Britell and Barry Jenkins as early as February of 2020. How did the COVID pandemic affect the story’s timeline?
After the February 2020 session, I honestly thought we were ready to go. “The Underground Railroad” didn’t have a release date, but I had a follow-up call with Nick in May that made me think the piece might not need a peg; his descriptions of how the pandemic had affected his work seemed like peg enough. (I loved his somewhat subdued but good-natured strategizing about how they might be able to record the score over FaceTime. He said he’d told Barry, “You know, we may not be able to record with a 90-piece orchestra like we had been thinking,” and laughed.)
So I put the story together in June of 2020, on a vacation week, while listening to Toumani Diabaté. The final version is shorter (whether I’m reporting or writing criticism, I tend to write twice as much as I need, for some masochistic reason), with a little rearranging and updating, but it’s essentially the same. A couple days in, my aunt called to tell me her cancer was back. I tried everything I could to get the piece published while she was still with us, because I knew how much it would mean to her. In the end, the decision was that we needed a peg, so we waited for a release date for “Underground.” I gave her an early draft and she was so excited. She passed in January of this year.
You describe Britell’s music creatively throughout; I particularly liked a description of one passage “circling the drain of a few dissonant notes.” How much did you consider readers, and how much they might — or might not — know about music?
I was interested in bringing readers in. Anything classically-orchestrated can feel forbidding, and it’s one of Nick’s talents that his work doesn’t, even though it’s very deeply informed by music theory. I don’t think the “Succession” theme would have gone viral otherwise.
Some of it comes down to my own interest in how the world works. For most readers, I don’t think it’s helpful to explain that there’s a harmonic progression here or a diminished triad there; that’s like translating an instruction manual from Finnish to Basque. So I talked about what the music feels like, at least for one listener, and what it evokes. One of the reasons I was drawn to writing about Nick was the concrete way he often talks about how his scores start — as the idea of a poem for violin and piano, as an arrhythmia, or as a way to embody “shouting to the sky.” I think even if you’ve never heard “Beale Street” you can imagine what brass shouting to the sky might sound like.
How did your experience as a critic inform this piece, if at all?
The criticism I admire most — with the caveat that everyone enjoys a good takedown — is writing that teaches you how to love what the critic is so excited about. Michael Wood, for example, does this beautifully well in his film criticism, but really it happens with everything he touches. He doesn’t dumb anything down, but invites you in. I like criticism that feels like an invitation.
What did you learn from reporting and writing this story that may be helpful to you, or to other journalists?
Most of what I learned was pretty specific to this story. But I keep thinking about what Nick told me about the creative process. “It’s hard,” he told me a few months into the pandemic, “but it’s never not hard.” You feel at sea, but eventually you’ll hit land.
What are you reading for inspiration?
Ooooh. I just finished Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt” and have returned now to my perennial state of hunting for my next novel. I don’t know how common this is — I thought it was reasonable but people seem surprised when I mention it — but I enjoy trawling back through the archives of great magazines (the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Times Magazine, etc.) for older features. I’d recommend that for any writer for reasons that are probably obvious, but it’s also a fascinating archeological exercise. Sometimes it feels like visiting a different world. The way we used to talk about gay marriage, or trans women, for example, has changed utterly even in the past five years, very much for the better. Even the way we describe mental illness has shifted markedly over the past decade.
ANNOTATION: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Fisher’s answers in blue. To read the story without the annotations, hit the HIDE ANNOTATIONS button, which can be found on the right-hand menu of your desktop or laptop, or at the top of your mobile screen.
The Composer at the Frontier of Movie Music
Nicholas Britell’s scores — for “Succession,” “Moonlight” and “The Underground Railroad,” among others — suggest whole new ways of writing for film and television.
By Jamie Fisher
May 6, 2021The first time I understood what it is that the composer Nicholas Britell does for a film — understood with my whole body — I was in his studio, listening to a mistake he had made and the way he had fixed it. Was this moment always the lede, or did it change during writing or editing? It was always the lede. Earlier, in a cafe off Lincoln Center, I had asked him about the process of making “Moonlight,” the Oscar-winning coming-of-age story he scored for Barry Jenkins. Britell told me about a scene, early in the film, in which the protagonist’s mentor teaches him to swim. “I was looking at the sequence like, ‘Oh, Juan and Little swim,’” Britell said. “It’s a beautiful moment. This will be something special he can carry with him.” So Britell wrote a sweet piece in F major, an orchestral swell with a clarinet singing a variation on Little’s theme on top. He played it for Jenkins. The response was a visceral “nope.”
Jenkins urged him to think of the scene as a spiritual baptism. This wasn’t simple optimism or happiness. It was the first day of the rest of Little’s life. “And I still get moved even just thinking about it,” Britell said. “Because I immediately knew.” On the spot, he began improvising something darker, in D minor, with the virtuosic feeling of a cadenza. “I was playing it on my keyboard with a kind of fake violence,” he said. “Barry was directing me from the couch. And so right there, I just made it in front of him.”
In his studio, Britell played me the scene. Some writers are acutely self-conscious of acknowledging their presence in the story. How aware were you of mentioning yourself at points in this story? The “I” is interesting, because it can read as grandiosity — telling you about myself, when you’re here to read about the composer — but I never saw it that way. To me it’s modesty: there isn’t an objective truth about the way Nick’s music affects you, so here’s how it affected me. I always wanted the piece to have that level of immediacy and intimacy. I’m the reader’s surrogate. First he cued up his original attempt, over footage from an early cut. It was tender, unambiguous movie music that could have scored any rite of passage; I pictured a high school football team triumphing against all odds. Then he cued up “Middle of the World,” the music he made with Jenkins. The violin plays jolting waves of arpeggios, wild and exhilarating. Little vanishes into the ocean, Juan holding him but somehow not protecting him, only initiating him into a kind of violent abandon. I was taken with this description, particularly when you wrote “initiating him into a kind of violent abandon.” Do you remember anything about how you developed this phrase? I wrote the opening sequence on my phone, on the subway home from Nick’s apartment that afternoon. That phrase came right away — really all of it did. I’d been talking with Nick, listening to him play his music right there for hours and I felt like there was so much I needed to get out, to translate what I was feeling. As the passage originally ended, I wrote that I felt “electrified and battered by the possibilities of the world.” I had trouble sleeping that night because it had just been so exciting, in the sense that every part of me felt like it was at attention. You watch with your heart in your throat: It’s beautiful and also, somehow, terrifying.
The studio I was listening in — seated in the same spot Jenkins occupied as the music was written — is the size a New York realtor would market as a child’s bedroom, in an apartment overlooking the Hudson. It’s dark, the walls covered with gray acoustic foam, and Britell often works with the lights off. He shares the apartment with his wife, the cellist Caitlin Sullivan, who “is constantly and correctly encouraging me to take walks.” She also worries that he drinks too much Perrier. This is one of several funny asides I enjoyed. Why did you include the Perrier detail? Because I loved it. There were moments of repetition in the reporting process that felt like lines from a comedy routine coming back again. When I visited for the session with Nick and Barry later, Nick came to the door in checkered socks and said, “Come on in! Perrier is on the way.” I was like, of course it is. It was wonderful. Shake Shack, mentioned below, was like that too. Nick had told me something profound about the composer and director wandering through the wilderness together, and then he said, “And then we order Shake Shack.” There are bookshelves and vintage movie posters on the walls — “Chariots of Fire” greets you at the entrance — and a small sofa, the left side of which is Jenkins’s territory. A huge monitor is mounted over Britell’s keyboard, for projecting rough cuts. (With a movie-size screen, you make movie-size music, Britell has learned.) There’s also a subwoofer the size of a washing machine; Britell’s scores include tones so low that they feel less like something audible and more like approaching weather.
Last year, in February, Britell invited me back to the studio to watch him and Jenkins at work. It’s rare to get invitations to watch creativity like this first-hand. Were you surprised you were invited to observe? Originally I’d been hoping to visit the set of “Underground,” down in Georgia, but that never came through. Sitting in with Barry and Nick was what I’d hoped for, if coming to the set wasn’t possible, and it was wonderful. I was so nervous at first, silently listening, like someone had handed me their newborn child and now I had to try not to destroy anything. I thought I might disturb the energy or something. The two hadn’t previously allowed anyone to sit in on their sessions, days-long confabs that involve near-clinical infusions of Shake Shack. They were still early in their work on “The Underground Railroad” — a 10-part series, based on the novel by Colson Whitehead, that debuts on Amazon this month. It is Britell’s first television collaboration with Jenkins, and his compositions for it are less a single score than 10 intersecting, fully realized musical universes. I was struck by the creative descriptions of music throughout. Do you have a musical background? You’re very kind! I played viola in middle and high school, and I don’t have anything like a technical relationship with music, just a visceral one, which can sometimes be overwhelming. (As an example: I recommended Jason Molina to a good friend who plays in a jazz ensemble, and he complained that all Molina’s work was in a minor key. Absolutely not on my radar.) One of the earliest memories I have of conceptualizing music in a more visceral way is listening to Soundgarden’s “Blow Up the Outside World” and thinking it sounded like Chris Cornell was singing through a broken jaw.
The first piece he played me at the session was something the two men made hours before: a dark, inquisitive piano sequence only a few bars long, circling the drain of a few dissonant notes. “One of the things we keep discovering is, for some reason, pianos,” he said. “Really specific pianos, like slightly warped.” He played another sequence to demonstrate. “It’s felted” — the piano’s hammers are padded with extra cloth — “so it’s really muffled. But it’s always like, piano works.” What prompted you to include the definition of “felted” as soon as the word appeared? Ah, an easy one! My editor (Nitsuh Abebe).
Jenkins sauntered in after finishing his burger in the kitchen. All he had on hand were a few unedited shots, he explained, “but I like to have some kind of picture while we’re working. If it works with the picture, it feels like you can tell if it’s part of the world.” He had been shooting in Georgia since August and flew up to spend the weekend with Britell before heading back to the set. By this point, his voice sounded felted, too. “Ninety-two days, 24 to go,” he said, rubbing his face. “We don’t normally work like this until we’re done. But, yeah, no choice.” In hindsight, this wasn’t quite true; only weeks later, the pandemic would shutter production for months, leaving them to finish their work in a sun-drenched quarantine pod in Los Angeles. Still, by the end of the session, Jenkins had slid down until he was sitting on the floor, slumped against the couch with his hoodie tugged over his face. “You can’t make a meal of how tired I am when you write this,” he warned.
I was more struck by how comfortable the two men seemed together. Britell’s voice even sounded different when he was with Jenkins, half an octave down, words running together easily. This is an insightful moment; how much time did you spend with Jenkins in order to pick up on not only his behavior, but a change in his behavior? This is actually a reference to Nick’s voice, not Barry’s. I’d met with Nick twice then, in long afternoon sessions, but that’s long enough to notice when someone is speaking differently. I wonder now if it was only because he was so relaxed or if it might have been that he was on a mind-meld with Barry, slipping into his deeper register. “You have to understand,” Jenkins said, “when we did ‘Moonlight,’ I didn’t really know Nick at that point.” This is the origin of the Jenkins-Britell partnership, the filmmaking equivalent of buying a house unseen. The producer Jeremy Kleiner had arranged an afternoon coffee between the men, which turned into evening drinks, the two of them talking for hours, mostly not about music. “They just vibed the whole time,” Sullivan told me. “And Barry hired him. He hired him never having heard any samples of Nick’s music of any kind.”
“We had one meeting,” Jenkins said. “We went off and shot the film, and then it was like, ‘Oh, just come to New York.’ And so I walk into this place,” he said, giving considerable side-eye to the premises. “ ‘We’re gonna work in your bedroom? How’s that gonna work?’ But he made all this wonderful music. So, yeah, now it’s like a little home away from home.” I like how specifically both men’s voices are captured throughout this piece. How did you go about recording them (note-taking, tape, etc.)? How much did you end up using, and how much was discarded? Tape, always. My recorder failed me only once, on a secondary call, but I kept looking at it anxiously through every session. For one, I’m a professional fact-checker in my day-job, so I’m fully disillusioned on the limits and flexibility of human memory. But I also wanted to capture the way they actually talked, because that’s one of my interests and pet causes (my background is in linguistics and East Asian studies). There’s a tendency to clean up the way people speak, when the way people really speak is so much more rich and interesting. I also think quote-cleaning can be dangerous when we don’t examine our biases. If you want to make a politician sound dumb, for example, there’s no easier way than not cleaning up his or her quotes.
I would estimate we only ended up using a third of that session. There was so much I wanted to include! I loved their rapport, and Barry kept cracking me up. At one point Nick was explaining that the run of arpeggios Barry wanted the violinist to play — very high, frail, and spidery — was probably outside the limits of human ability, and Barry pulled out his phone. “Tim Fain can do it,” he said, and started recording. “Tim Fain, I have faith. You can do it. Nick! Tell Tim Fain he can do it. Jamie is our witness! Tim, you can do it, bro.” He stopped the video and looked at us solemnly. “He’s going to do it, Nick.”
“It’s a little mystical,” Britell said, deflecting credit to the tiny studio. “I think a lot of it is just feeling like it’s a safe space where you can kind of zone off and go on these little journeys.” He sat back and smiled, happy to vanish into the acoustic foam.
You have almost certainly heard Nicholas Britell’s music, even if you don’t know his name. You address the reader directly at several points … how much consideration was given whether to do that or not? I hadn’t thought about this consciously. I think it’s something I have a tendency to do, because why pretend this isn’t how an article works, right? There’s a reader here and I’m talking to them. He is one of the hardest-working film composers of the past decade, despite having spent its early years wrapping up a career at a hedge fund. More than any other contemporary composer, he appears to have the whole of music history at his command, shifting easily between vocabularies, often in the same film. You may have seen “The Big Short” (2015), the manic, Oscar-winning story of the 2008 financial crash, whose score tried to musically embody subprime mortgages. Or maybe “Moonlight” (2016), narrated by a violin-and-piano theme that matures with the protagonist, tugged lower and richer by techniques borrowed from Southern hip-hop. Maybe you remember Bobby Riggs’s sleazy upright piano competing with Billy Jean King’s majestic concert grand in “Battle of the Sexes” (2017), the vinyl-soft crackle of “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018) or the alluringly deranged sweep of “Vice” (2018).
Britell also scored HBO’s “Succession,” whose title sequence would become the most unexpected hit of 2019 that wasn’t “Old Town Road” — a piece initially indistinguishable from the period music for froufrou costume dramas, except that in the background, maids are carrying value packs of Bounty and wealthy sociopaths are making penis jokes. The theme is dementedly catchy, classical phrases capped with an industrial fizz that sounds like a can of La Croix popping open, or a cash register. I love this piece of description, particularly the specificity of “La Croix.” Was that always part of this particular description, or did it evolve? Ahhh, the La Croix. This description was actually part of my pitch. I wrote it listening to “Succession,” probably in late 2018. This is when La Croix was having its somewhat-unreasonable Moment in pop culture (Schweppes is better, IMHO) and it felt natural to reach for it, both as a sound and as a signifier of luxe quality. Personally I love the sound of a cold can of seltzer cracking open. “Why is the ‘Succession’ theme so meme-able?” the website Vulture asked, on the same day the rapper Pusha T put out a remix with Britell’s enthusiastic collaboration.
“Nick Britell,” the film-music historian Jon Burlingame told me, “is a fascinating example of where film music has gone.” Consider what movies sounded like in their earliest years: the swashbucklers that Erich Korngold scored in the 1930s, or Max Steiner’s lush “Casablanca,” or the sweeping historical epics, like “Ben-Hur,” that Miklos Rozsa wrote for in the ’50s. These composers had been classically taught and turned out symphonic, romantic scores. By the ’60s, film composers like Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones were coming up through a different musical education, rooted in jazz and pop. The next few decades featured competing visions of what film music could do — Vangelis’s triumphal synths, but also John Williams, whose blockbuster orchestrations wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to Korngold. Hans Zimmer managed to do both, inflecting his classical scores with a menacing buzz. I enjoyed this brief history of film scores, not only because it allows me to shoehorn in a plug for Mancini’s score for “Experiment in Terror.” How much consideration did you put into how concise or expansive to make this portion? Ha, glad to give you the chance. I was open to making it long or short, but ultimately the size of the rest of the piece dictated that the section had to be on the shorter side. I read a couple books on film composing while I was waiting for Nick’s schedule to open up, in 2019, so I could be ready for anything. Or at least ready not to say something dumb. “And then,” Burlingame says, “you get to Nick Britell.” His classical training gives him “a fairly large toolbox from which to draw,” including the traditional orchestra, like the 90-piece ensemble in “Vice.” “But his age and experience have also informed him in terms of much more contemporary musical forms,” Burlingame points out. Burlingame makes insightful points. How did you find him? I searched university websites for academics who focused on film and television composing, and I knew that in addition to his books on the subject, Jon wrote for Variety. That made me think he would be a wonderful interviewee. But really he was even kinder and more engaging than I’d hoped, and a huge fan of Nick’s. He tipped me off to the dueling pianos in “Battle of the Sexes.” From hip-hop, especially, Britell learned how to make sounds speak by ripping them open, warping notes to convey an affecting emotional arc rarely heard in cinema.
The composers and filmmakers I spoke to about Britell emphasized the poetic intelligence he brings to his work. But his emotional reach is equally important. Part of his job is helping directors and producers feel things they can’t explain but know they want to feel. As Jesse Armstrong, the showrunner for “Succession,” told me: “I’m a musical Neanderthal, really. Nick speaks Neander.” Dede Gardner, who produced “The Big Short” and “Beale Street” and is an executive producer for “The Underground Railroad,” told me that when you introduce Britell to someone, “it’s like the air starts to vibrate and hum.” He is, she says, “the perfect person. He’s so expansive.”
The director Adam McKay, who worked closely with Britell on “The Big Short” and “Vice,” likes to joke that “you can’t talk about Britell in factual terms, because all you’ll do is gush about him.” Britell’s only flaw that he can think of, he says, is that the composer doesn’t have true perfect pitch — “he has relative perfect pitch.” McKay delights in reciting Britell’s C.V., which reads like a setup for one of his comedies: a Harvard-educated, world-class pianist who studied psychology and once played keys in a moderately successful hip-hop band. “And then he graduates, and you think, Oh, he’s going to go into music. No.” Instead, McKay says, Britell winds up managing portfolios at “one of the biggest currency-trading hedge funds on Wall Street. And then he goes and starts scoring movies. And within five years, he’s nominated for Academy Awards.” You could practically hear McKay shaking his head through the phone. “Brutal.” You get some heavy hitters from the entertainment world to weigh in on Britell. How did you arrange those interviews? Many of them share the same agent! Paula Woods connected me with almost everyone, and most came through because people wanted to talk about how much they loved Nick. It was really heartwarming, honestly, working on a story like this when the news was so grim.
Britell, who is 40, grew up mostly in Manhattan, in a home with the kind of devout enthusiasm for the arts characteristic of many Upper West Side Jewish families. His father, a lawyer, had a layman’s love of music, and Britell remembers figuring out the distinction between Bach and Mozart as his dad toggled between classical stations on the car radio. His mother was a musical-comedy actress before becoming a teacher — in the 1940s, in West Palm Beach, Fla., she was a child star on a local television program called something like “Aunt Lollipop’s Story Hour” — and the apartment was filled with old books of Rodgers and Hart show tunes.
Britell learned to play on a broken player piano that his grandmother picked up from a neighbor; he began tinkering with it when he was 5, driven by an overwhelming desire to figure out “Chariots of Fire.” Slowly he started writing his own boyish pieces — he and his younger brother each fondly remember a repetitive number called “The Train Symphony” — and then, as an adolescent, imaginary scores. This is the only direct mention of Britell’s brother; how long did you talk to him for details on their childhood? I got about 15 minutes with Alex. There was more I wanted to include, and I checked his memories against Nick’s. He was an important resource because I was told that Nick’s parents, who are older, wouldn’t be available for interviews. “I would write fake TV themes for myself all the time,” he says. “This is a fall drama on ABC, or this is a family comedy, or this is a detective story.”
He went to private school in New York City until he was 13, when the family moved to Westport, Conn. On weekends, he commuted into the city for the Juilliard precollege program, where he trained as a pianist. He commuted too between musical worlds. It was the early ’90s, and Britell was transfixed by the hip-hop swallowing the city: the lyrics, and the beats you could feel in your chest, and the mystery of early samples, recordings of recordings that gradually morphed, leaving a fossil record of every person who touched them. He thought of hip-hop as otherworldly in the same way that he found Bach otherworldly. He remembers being walloped by the opening of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions”: the almost-muddy double-bass sample, the way Q-Tip drops in, the drum break adding some final alchemical element. It was like learning, as a teenager, that there were more letters to the alphabet than he’d been taught. This is a striking analogy. Do you remember how you came up with it? I remember coming up with it during closing week, but it came fully formed. It crystallized something I had been thinking about for a long time, the way hip-hop introduced Nick to new ways of thinking about what music could do. By this point he was already a very accomplished pianist, and he would pore over scores in the backseat on family road trips, but hip-hop grabbed him. These artists were doing something you couldn’t learn at Juilliard.
He arrived for his freshman year at Harvard loving everything — math and history, Brahms and Gang Starr — and was abruptly confronted by the necessity of choice. Lost and unsure, he left. For a year he tried to see if he was meant to become a concert pianist, living with his parents and scraping up work around the tristate area: cocktail gigs, the Jewish organist at the Episcopal church. The loneliness was sharper than he had anticipated. After a year, he went back to Harvard with the same sense of indecision, only now with the understanding that he couldn’t work alone.
At a party soon after he returned to campus, he approached two guys rapping along with a D.J. and drums and asked if they needed keys. The group they formed, the Witness Protection Program, consumed his next three years. At its height, the group toured the Northeastern college and club circuits and opened for acts like Blackalicious and Jurassic 5. At the same time, Britell became close with another classmate, Nick Louvel, who was working on a film and invited Britell to write the score. They spent hours together watching films John Williams worked on, pausing often to interrogate the music. Britell thinks about Louvel often; he died in 2015, in a car accident, just as Britell’s musical career was taking off. He was the first person to ask Britell to write a score, and the question proved transformative. “We were always working on this movie, and I was always with the band, and those experiences really defined my life,” Britell says.
Caitlin Sullivan, Britell’s wife, has played on nearly all his scores, including a melody symbolizing love in “Beale Street.” She is also the reason Britell is not currently researching emerging-market currencies in a Midtown office. The two first met when they were 18, studying music at a summer program in Aspen, Colo. — this despite years attending the same Juilliard program. They reunited after college, when Sullivan was embarking on her career as a professional cellist. She took Britell out for a birthday dinner in 2005, and they have been together ever since. It was a difficult balancing act, figuring out how much of Caitlin to include. She’s an extraordinary musician in her own right, and even if the profile is supposed to be about Nick, I didn’t want Caitlin to come off as “and here’s his supportive wife.” She also had a deeply poetic way of talking about Nick’s music, and up until the piece closed I was still trying to sneak that in… She would tell me about the “shimmer” of vibrato in one passage, or how the opening of “Beale Street” has “a touch of pain.” I’d asked her about how she got into the mindset for playing, literally, love in “Beale Street,” and she talked about the way the music itself helped her do that — large intervals she has to jump across again and again, almost like a trust-fall. It reminded me of the way an actor in a costume drama might get the sense of the role once they put on a Regency dress.
By that point, Britell had been in finance for about a year, traveling to interview central bankers and people in finance ministries in Europe and East Asia. He thought he was happy. If you’re a curious person, Sullivan observes, a hypercompetent person, “it’s sometimes hard to actually parse out your true feelings.” For years she watched him come home and play the piano, or improvise beats on his old keyboard. “He’d be up, in a suit, gone around 7:30 a.m. every day and home around dinnertime,” she says. “But he would need to touch the piano.” He scrounged time for projects with friends, including short films for a former classmate, Natalie Portman. (In one of her films, he made a cameo as a cocktail pianist, tucked discreetly behind Lauren Bacall.)
In 2008, on a vacation, Sullivan watched the heavy way Britell would pull out his BlackBerry to check the markets. For months, he had been so depressed that it felt like vertigo, but until Sullivan told him he was unhappy, he hadn’t fully known it. The markets, meanwhile, had guttered, Bear Stearns had folded in front of his eyes and, terrifyingly, the smartest people he knew had no idea what was going on. “People were traumatized,” he says. “It was scary to see that end to what I knew about the way that the world’s economy worked.” The demolished instrumentals leading up to the market’s implosion in “The Big Short” are the closest Britell gets to a vocabulary for what it was like to watch the world crash down.
In 2010, Britell proposed to Sullivan; a month later, he gave notice. By the time they married, he had started to make trips to Los Angeles, a two-year odyssey of “bouncing couches” and trying to arrange coffee dates with directors and producers. “I was down to do anything,” he says. “I wrote telephone hold music for free. For free.” One evening, Jeremy Kleiner, an executive at Plan B Entertainment, attended a party and noticed someone playing Gershwin in the corner of the room. “We had just gotten a green light for the script of ‘12 Years a Slave’ and hadn’t really gotten into the question of composers,” Kleiner says, “and here’s this guy playing on a grand piano at a cocktail party.” Kleiner introduced Britell to the film’s director, Steve McQueen. Then Plan B introduced him to McKay, and then to Jenkins, and within five years, Britell was being nominated for Oscars.
If there’s a through line across Britell’s work, it may be his fascination with winding melodies that make harmonic missteps. The most ambitious example is “Vice,” a kind of antiheroic symphony with an evil heartbeat at its center. It’s a profound technical achievement — buzzing with double fugues and allusions to multiple styles and genres, gesturing toward big-band jazz before ducking away into solo piano or full orchestra. But it’s also a statement about how much Adam McKay trusts Britell. “I don’t even know how to describe our working relationship,” McKay told me. “He’s almost like a producer, because I’ll tell him the idea from the second I have the premise, and he and I will just start kicking it around.”
When McKay was beginning to think about a Dick Cheney mocku-biopic, Britell sent him a note about Mahler’s Ninth. The symphony was the last Mahler completed — while working on it, he was slowly dying from a heart condition. Leonard Bernstein suggested that the symphony’s skewed percussive opening was a reflection of Mahler’s own uneven heartbeat. This seemed like an appropriate reference point for a movie about a man whose life has been framed by repeated heart attacks. McKay began listening to the Ninth constantly, writing the script to it, and when he finished, Britell wrote a twisted, magisterial, Ninth-like score. “Vice” sounds like “Peter and the Wolf,” if Peter were also the Wolf. This is my favorite piece of musical description. Do you remember when and how it came to you? Ah, I’m glad you love it too! I was worried it wouldn’t make it in. It came to me right away, watching “Vice.” Your hero is so menacing, and the score is almost arguing on his behalf with this crooked smile. Maybe there’s something inherently wolfish about that.
“Dick Cheney’s heart is central to understanding his story,” Britell told me in his studio. “What is a malignant rhythm? How, rhythmically, could you play with it? And then I started doing that harmonically as well.” He turned to his Triton keyboard, the same one he used in the Witness Protection Program, and played the theme slowly, landing hard on the dissonant chords and staring at me intently, as if he were channeling either Dick Cheney or the Phantom of the Opera. “It has the shape of something strong,” he said, and yet it has a deadly flaw. You’re reeled in, then repulsed.
There are intriguing parallels between Britell and George Gershwin, another brilliant, energetic Jewish kid who infused the classical canon with the buoyant new genre he loved. Britell’s most arresting scores tend to fuse both ends of his musical education. “Succession” is 18th-century court music married to heart-pounding beats; “Moonlight” chops and screws a classical piano-and-violin duet as if it’s a Three 6 Mafia track. “What I’ve found in the past,” Jon Burlingame told me, “is that people have found it impossible to incorporate such modern musical forms as hip-hop into dramatic underscore for films. When Nick did it in ‘Moonlight,’ I was frankly stunned. I didn’t think it was possible.”
Hip-hop was Britell’s initiation to the fragility of sound — how it could be sampled, stretched and broken and somehow, through the breaking, made more powerful. He loves hearing a story in the sounds around notes: the hiss of spun vinyl, or the musician’s breathing. Britell’s signature may be music that’s been through something: As Barry Jenkins puts it, a productive line of inquiry for the two of them has been: How can we break this?
Take the scene in “Beale Street” when Daniel struggles to tell Fonny what happened to him in prison — a rape, unmistakable in James Baldwin’s novel, that the movie seems to allude to through Britell’s music and Brian Tyree Henry’s remarkable face. On the surface, Miles Davis plays coolly on a record player. But underneath, Britell has taken the cellos from “Eros,” which scored an early romantic scene, and bent them. “We talked about it almost like we were harming them,” he told me. “Hurting the sound, making it feel like the sound is damaged.” You find similar damage in Britell’s breakout score for “The Big Short.” As the movie opens, in the 1970s, funky horns are the sound of irrational exuberance; later, when Steve Carell’s character realizes the industry is built on 40 years of sand, they return as a faint whine, like a chastened mosquito. “That’s what’s happened to his understanding,” Britell said. “It’s been mangled and stretched out and transformed.”
The question of what hip-hop means for Britell may come together most concretely on “Succession.” He had read the pilot script and visited the set with Adam McKay, who suggested him for the project. The show had to have gravitas, Jesse Armstrong told him, but it was also deeply absurd, and the music would have to say both these things at once. It wasn’t clear how Britell could make that happen. Then he started thinking about Kendall Roy, one of the heirs apparent who anchor the show.
“The first thing you see,” Britell said, “is he’s in the back of this car rapping to the Beastie Boys.” It’s hard not to think about Kendall as a failed Britell, a parallel-universe version of what he might have been if he had stayed in finance: a Wall Street bro who hides inside his headphones and disconnects from the world he chose. This comparison — the fictional Kendall and the real Britell — is more imaginative than you’ll see in most feature stories. When did it emerge? Did you discuss this particular passage at all during the editing process? I think it emerged while I was talking with Nick. If I remember correctly, I asked him about it directly, whether the idea was something that resonated with him. The only discussion we had during the editing process was placement, making sure it came after wherever we placed the section about his time in finance. The scene — a young man rapping earnestly inside a chauffeured car — offered a window into how the Roys’ self-conception might contrast sharply with their destructive incompetence. “What if the sound that they imagined for themselves was this dark, courtly, late-1700s harmonic sound?” Britell asked himself. “I played Jesse some of these chords,” he said, “and he was just sort of like, ‘Yes.’”
“It was just a wonderful, hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling that you don’t often have,” Armstrong told me. “To get that feeling, to feel like, Oh, my God, this is something which just feels like the show.” The waltz-like rhythm, reflecting the unsteady dance between the three central siblings, was “a smart insight” that continues to shape the way Armstrong writes the series.
The show’s addictive title sequence was the last recording Britell made for Season 1. He had structured the season’s music like a symphony; the title theme, like an overture, introduces you to all the elements you’ll hear in the show, which Britell recited for me. The beguiling melody. The detuned pianos. “The cello melody, the idea of these huge beats, the weird sleigh bell — ” The sleigh bell? “That’s its own thing,” Britell admitted. “That actually doesn’t appear in other parts of the show.” The main theme is everything, but brighter. “You’re presented with these ideas so you will both recognize them but also notice how they change, and you’ll have this set of expectations. This is the world you’re about to enter.” When Britell sent the title theme to the production team, he reminded himself that the nature of his profession is adapting; he’s used to coming up with a hundred ideas, presenting a director a few dozen and possibly seeing them all rejected. But he also thought, I really don’t know what to do if they don’t like this.
“I’ll never forget it,” Britell said. “Jesse sent an email back, and he was like, ‘I think the right words for this are [expletive] yeah.’”
As Jenkins and I sat on the little studio couch, Britell played an early sketch for the opening of “The Underground Railroad.” A violin bent into a brass fanfare, and then a piano waltzed in, suggesting mystery — another winding melody that makes bewitching missteps. At this point, he and Jenkins had about three hours of music drafted, and at least as many still to go. He scrolled down a long list of file names. “Some of these things, we have a sort of very loose, amorphous idea,” he said, hitting play on another piece. “So this is an idea of descending downward — ”
“I think this comes from the cicada,” Jenkins said. “Just that one melody.” He started singing softly. Do do do, do do do … How deliberate were you in trying to capture dialogue, rather than just quotes? I addressed this above, as far as my interest in capturing the way people actually speak. But I also wanted to transcribe the way that Nick and Barry bounce off each other, and follow each other’s sentences to the end. I was conscious, too, that this would be the only chance for a reported “scene” in the piece, since I wouldn’t be visiting a set. So I wanted to capture the dynamics of two people at work.
Jenkins had been making recordings on set, collecting natural sounds that Britell would pitch down to make instruments. The piano track he’d played me earlier started out as a field recording: the whistle of cicadas and bird noise, an airy crackling that turned out to be cotton. “I just do Play-Doh with some of this audio,” Britell said, filtering out high frequencies and adding reverb until the cicadas sounded blurry and spectral. In one track, an insect caught in the Play-Doh turned into a bell, tolling the same three ghostly notes. “We don’t know what that is, by the way,” Jenkins said. “We just call him Fred now.”
Britell started a new piano track.
Jenkins: “And this piano was to match — ”
Britell: “Trying to match Fred’s melody.”
Jenkins: “So Fred the bug has to get a co-producer credit.”
Jenkins had also been drawn to the noises of the human environment during the shoot. “We were shooting down in Savannah,” he said, “and there was a construction site next to our set, and I was like, ‘Oh, that drill has a really nice rhythm to it.’ And so I had the P.A.s go out and record it and sent it to Nick.” Britell started laughing. “I remember getting these texts from you in the middle of the day,” he said, “and it was just noise.”
There’s a slight Willy Wonka vibe to Britell in his studio, and as I processed Fred and the drill, he and Jenkins grinned like the inventors of the Everlasting Gobstopper. Over time, the two have grown more comfortable with thinking about a score in terms of manipulated recordings, not just a composition for instruments. “If everything’s in context,” Britell said, “the drill is music.” In “Moonlight,” they used ocean sounds; in “Beale Street,” subways. They were looking forward to getting new fire sounds. “We actually do have people on set burning things,” Jenkins said.
Britell cued up early footage from the show: images of an enslaved family in ragged clothing, faces stinging with confrontation; a white-haired Black man standing alone in a cotton field as cicada noises crackled, as if the field were catching fire; two young Black women seated at a dance, a man bowing and offering his hand — a fairy-tale sequence that feels more like a horror movie.
“I didn’t mind the fire being out by that point,” Jenkins said. “Right as he reached for her hand.”
I didn’t fully understand what they were up to until Britell played me a trailer they made for the Television Critics Association, a summary of the show’s music that starts with frantic arpeggios, almost unbearably high, then moves through the waltzing midrange of the Fred-the-bug piano melody and settles gradually into a resonant bass. “It’s that descending idea,” he said. “Going underground, going downward.” The final bass notes were made from the sounds of the drill — you literally hit earth. I like how you include your own thinking at the beginning of this graf, allowing the reader to follow your own mind as you recognize how Jenkins and Britell had turned the parts into a thematic idea. Was that always part of this graf or was it introduced later? That was always there, because I thought it was helpful. I was appreciating the individual parts but it wasn’t until I saw the trailer, descending until it finally hit that drill at the end, that I fully understood. It was an “aha” moment that also felt like a “duh, of course” moment. I should have realized that much earlier.
As we wrapped up, Jenkins concluded, “The piano just works for the show.”
“Like, I can see the episodes when I hear this stuff.”
“And what’s so interesting is at no point in any of the other projects did we feel that way,” Britell said.
“The piano’s just the bedrock, man,” Jenkins said. “The piano and Fred.” You spend a lot of time with Nicholas and Barry. What made this the right spot to end? The ending is the section that changed the most. In the version of the piece that would have been un-pegged, this was the penultimate section. I ended on Nick telling me about how the pandemic had affected him and Caitlin (they were both very sick, and for a while he couldn’t write at all, because of the enormity of what was happening). Here’s how it closed: “There’s an enormous piano in Britell’s living room. He starts each morning with Bach, like a prayer.” After I called Nick this April for an update, I had ended on new information about the project — how he had tried to do his usual sessions with Barry by holding a laptop up to the screen, but had to fly out to Los Angeles with Caitlin in the end; they had managed to record it remotely, with the strings together and the other elements piped in; some of the specifics of how the musical world changes from episode to episode. But in the end, the feeling was that the update wasn’t necessary, not at the expense of cutting elsewhere or breaking up the story. The top editors loved seeing Nick and Barry work, so my editor split the session so that you can jump in almost immediately, toward the top, before revisiting at the bottom. It still feels a little strange to me, likely because the draft took a different shape for a whole year before that. But as Nick told me, there are so many different paths a project can take, and in the end what works has to be what feels right to the director, too.