The work of a composer can be solitary: sitting alone, imagining layers of sounds for months before getting in a room with the people who will play them. But for Nicholas Britell, the past 18 months have been far from lonely.
He’s been immersed in writing the score for director Barry Jenkins’ highly anticipated Amazon series Underground Railroad — an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name. The series is Britell’s third major project with Jenkins, after the acclaimed feature films Moonlight (2016) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), both of which garnered Britell Academy Award nominations.
Pre-pandemic, the two would always meet in New York and Los Angeles to pow-wow. “I’m such a strong proponent of being in the room together, seeing and hearing the same things together,” Britell explains.
When the pandemic hit, they tried to continue that over FaceTime, but it didn’t do the trick. So Britell moved to L.A. for six months and formed a pod with Jenkins and his core editorial team. “We were able to spend more time together working on Underground Railroad than we’ve ever been able to spend on anything,” says Britell, still sounding incredulous. “I rented a house, and a typical day would be Barry in the editorial suite in the morning; then he’d come to the house and we’d work together 4 or 5 hours; then he’d go to the mix stage.”
The epic series, out today (Friday, May 14) — along with a soundtrack released via Lakeshore Records — caps off a stunningly busy past few years in Britell’s career, and kicks off another period filled with ambitious projects.
He’s composing for Disney’s upcoming Cruella, which has meant working with Florence Welch on an original song coming May 21, as well as the upcoming third season of Succession, for which he developed the instantly iconic theme — plinking chromatic piano progressions backed by a heavy hip-hop beat — back in 2019. The composition won him an Emmy for outstanding original main title theme, and later that year, Def Jam even released a remix of it featuring rap star Pusha T.
“Sometimes I multitask out of necessity,” says Britell. “But I think there’s a real value to not just doing one thing at a time. There’s something creatively about zigging and zagging where you naturally give ideas their rest.”
Below, Britell breaks down the three major projects he’s been zig-zagging between lately.
Whitehead’s riveting novel — centered on Cora, a young slave making her way from Georgia to freedom — is anchored in historical fact, but suffused with magical realism: the titular railroad, for instance, is in his narrative an actual underground locomotive system. The first sonic cue Jenkins gave Britell was a mysterious audio text message with no commentary, just the sound of a machine drilling in the background. It took Britell a moment to figure out that Jenkins hadn’t sent it in error.
“At the very beginning of our projects, he always has one or two key ideas he wants me to experiment with,” says Britell. “On Underground Railroad, it was this recording of drilling: that idea of, ‘What does it sound like to go underground, as a metaphorical and lyrical concept?’” (One of the central musical motifs he uses in the score is inspired by “the idea of going downward.”)
From there, Britell looked to the natural world for sonic inspiration (the sound of cicadas humming, or of a fire crackling) and focused on the overall sense of place in each episode. He and Jenkins always aim to create a sonic landscape that brings the viewer into a certain psychological state, and since Underground Railroad takes place in discretely different settings from chapter to chapter, they thought of these as “figurative states of mind — different worlds in each episode.”
Succession Season 3
Composing the soundtrack to the Roy family’s Shakespeare-gone-twisted lives has been an evolving lesson for Britell. “Season 1 was an interesting experiment of, ‘How do you create music for a show with such a complex tone, that’s both incredibly serious and at times completely absurd?’” he says. “My sort of thesis there was that I would be very serious with the music, and inhabit this mixture of oversized beats and very late 18th century classical music harmonies — everything would be a little too big for itself, a little out of proportion, sort of the way the Roy family sees themselves.”
He’s used that idea as a springboard for how the music evolves in the following seasons, taking themes from season one and exploring, refracting and reimagining them further. “Some of the most fun I had in season two was writing new music and having it start winking at music from season one,” Britell says. “I love when music starts having a dialogue with itself like that.”
He’s at work on season 3 right now, and while he won’t reveal whether there’s another moment as instantly meme-able as Kendall’s “L to the OG” rap, hip-hop is a perennial influence for Britell — and it likely won’t leave Succession any time soon.
Don’t Look Up
Beyond his work with Jenkins, Britell has a fruitful, long-term collaboration with another director: Adam McKay, for whom he scored The Big Short (2015) and Vice (2018). He’s just getting started on McKay’s next film, Don’t Look Up, a star-studded (Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio) dark comedy for Netflix about low-level astronomers awaiting a comet’s arrival on Earth, which finished shooting this past year.
“I’m in the midst of working on it right now, going out to L.A. in the next week or so to get back in the edit room” with McKay and his editor Hank Corwin, Britell says. “On The Big Short, Hank talks about it like we were playing jazz together. They’re working on the cut, I’m working music out, we’re all riffing.” Like Jenkins, Britell says McKay has “phenomenal musical instincts” and has a collaboration style that’s “both very direct and open to experimentation — neither of them walks in with preconceived notions.”
Past experience would point towards a score with orchestral elements (for Vice, Britell recorded with an almost 100-piece orchestra in London), but Britell admits he’s not sure of much: “I’m at the stage of, ‘What will work?’ I don’t yet know.”