'Moonlight' Composer Nicholas Britell on His Oscar Nomination: 'My Brain Is Nonfunctional'

Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland in Moonlight.
David Bornfriend/ © A24 /courtesy Everett Collection

Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland in Moonlight. 

On Tuesday (Jan. 24) morning, composer Nicholas Britell woke up to his first Academy Award nomination. "I truly can't even comprehend it," the Moonlight composer tells Billboard hours after the 2017 Oscar nominations were revealed. "My brain is nonfunctional."

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Britell earned a Best Original Score nod for his compositionally innovative Moonlight score, which recast traditionally classical instruments such as violin and cello through the lens of the Southern hip-hop's chopped and screwed production technique (a style, birthed in early '90s Texas, that slows down tempos and alters pitch on already-recorded music). The resulting Moonlight score is as stylistically surprising and emotionally piercing as the film itself -- which is truly a masterpiece.

Following his first Oscar nomination, Moonlight composer Britell got on the phone with Billboard to talk about the experimental, Shake Shack-fueled process of scoring Moonlight and why silence is nearly as important to the film as its music.

Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Moet & Chandon 
Nicholas Britell attends the 22nd Annual Critic's Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on Dec. 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, Calif.

Congratulations on the Oscar nomination! How are you feeling?

It's completely unreal. It's mind-blowing.

Were you expecting this? How surprised are you?

Honestly, I don't think you ever believe it's possible until it happens. Even while making the movie -- we deeply, profoundly believed in the movie -- you never know what's going to happen. It's just been a surreal experience for me and for the whole team; we're all over the moon.

How did you initially get involved with the film?

I scored The Big Short, and Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner produced The Big Short. Jeremy told me about this profoundly beautiful script he'd read. He was deeply moved by it and asked if I would want to read it. So he gave me Moonlight and I was blown away by it -- it was so beautiful and tender and intimate. There was a feeling of poetry that comes right across. It was so inspiring.

I said "I'd love to meet Barry [Jenkins, the director]." We ended up meeting in downtown L.A. for coffee -- that coffee turned into a couple glasses of wine, and we ended up talking about music and film and life and everything. That started a conversation and we took it from there.

2017 Academy Awards

How did you approach making the music? There's classical instruments in the film, but they're done in the chopped and screwed style.

My first instinct with the movie was this feeling of poetry and channeling that idea of "What is the musical sound of poetry?" Actually the first piece I wrote was called "Piano and Violin Poem," and I sent it to Barry and that became "Little's Theme." That was the first [piece of music], with that feeling of intimacy and sensitivity.

Very early on Barry told me about his love of chopped and screwed music and we had this conversation asking, "Could we chop and screw the score?" [Laughs.] Could I write music, fully record it, and then have this second part of the process where I slowed it and pitched it and bent it and really experimented with the tracks themselves? And we said, "Let's try it, let's see what happens." What's so mysterious and exciting and beautiful about film music is until you try something with the picture you never know, but then the movie tells you if it works.

"Little's Theme" felt immediately like part of the film, and then we started to chop and screw and evolve it, and it just worked. Barry and I were so excited. We dove deep and would spend days together -- I live in New York, he'd fly to New York -- and he'd spend days in my studio. We would order Shake Shack and just sit there and try things out. 

Barry is so incredible and he has such a passion and love for music, and he was so open to exploring musical possibilities. No idea was off the table. "I'm gonna take a tremolo violin and create atmosphere with that" or "I'm gonna take a cello and pitch it so low that it feels like bass rumble," and he was like, "Do it, let's see how it looks." He was so excited about exploring musical possibility. There was maybe four months I was recording, but also experimenting and exploring with Barry.

Were there any moments when you found the score wasn't working, and how did you rectify that?

One of the nice things for us is we were following our feelings. So much of the sound of the film was driven by emotional standpoint, starting with "Little's Theme," and exploring the evolution of that. One of the beautiful things about film music is that even when it isn't working, it helps you -- it shows you what will work. That was actually the fun of it -- seeing what we could do in different places.

In one way, one of the important things in Moonlight is where to not put music. One of the beautiful things in Moonlight is moments of real silence and intimacy of people being together. That was something Barry and I were very conscious of -- where music was and wasn't. The silence is like breathing -- you need both. You need the inhale and exhale and this rhythm to it. It needs to be a variation. I believe each film has its wavelength it vibrates at. There's no one right score, but I think there's certain types of sounds that feel like they're part of the movie.

How will you feel if you win?

I truly can't even comprehend it. Even this morning, my brain is nonfunctional. It's been such an incredible honor to be part of this film, really, especially as a composer, to have the opportunity to work with a team like this. The whole Moonlight team, seriously, is amazing. Every member of the team did such a beautiful job: James [Laxton's] cinematography, the incredible acting, the editing, everyone worked together so much. It was a beautiful personal experience and a beautiful artistic one.

What’s next for you?

I'm working right now on a film called Battle of the Sexes starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, which is the story of the 1973 Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match -- directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who did Little Miss Sunshine. And Mildred Iatrou Morgan and Ai-Ling Lee are working on Battle of the Sexes, who were just nominated [for Sound Editing for La La Land], and Emma was nominated [also for La La Land], so it's a funny, crazy thing.

2017 Academy Awards