Exclusive: Composer Nicholas Britell On His Music For ‘Battle Of The Sexes’

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TIFF 2017 Exclusive: Composer Nicholas Britell On His Music For ‘Battle Of The Sexes’
Posted by Wilson Morales

September 29, 2017

Shown during the Toronto International Film Festival and currently playing in theaters is the film ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ directed by Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton and starring Emma Stone as tennis greats Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs.

Also featured in the are Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Natalie Morales, Jessica Mcnamee, Fred Armisen, Lewis Pullman, Martha MacIsaac, Mickey Sumner, Bridey Elliott, and Eric Christian Olsen.

In the wake of the sexual revolution and the rise of the women’s movement, the 1973 tennis match between women’s world champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and ex-men’s-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was billed as the BATTLE OF THE SEXES and became one of the most-watched televised sports events of all time, reaching 90 million viewers around the world.

As the rivalry between King and Riggs kicked into high gear, off-court each was fighting more personal and complex battles.  The fiercely private King was not only championing for equality, but also struggling to come to terms with her own sexuality, as her friendship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) developed.  And Riggs, one of the first self-made media-age celebrities, wrestled with his gambling demons, at the expense of his family and wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue).  Together, Billie and Bobby served up a cultural spectacle that resonated far beyond the tennis court, sparking discussions in bedrooms and boardrooms that continue to reverberate today.

Composing the music for the film was Nicholas Britell, whose critically acclaimed score for Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film Moonlight was nominated for the 2017 Oscar for Best Original Score and was awarded the 2016 Hollywood Music in Media Award for Best Original Score (Dramatic Feature). Among his other credits include writing the score for Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated film The Big Short and serving as co-producer on director Damien Chazelle Oscar-nominated feature film Whiplash.

Blackfilm.com recently spoke with Britell on his music for ‘Sexes’ and working with two directors on a project.

How did go about in composing the score for the film?

Nicholas Britell: For me, one of the things that I love most about working in film music is that every movie is its own universe. It’s exciting to try to imagine “What is the right sound for a movie?” and there are so many possibilities. The starting point is really the close collaboration with the directors. Getting to work with Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris was just wonderful. When I first saw the film, there were two thing that struck me. On the one hand, there’s this incredible, larger than life spectacle match of the battle of the sexes; but on the other hand, the thing that really drew me to it was the personal journeys of the characters. Of seeing Billie Jean King’s personal story and her struggles, her hopes, her dreams; and also learning of Bobby Riggs’ own insecurities and his home life and his gambling addiction. Seeing how those personal stories get realized on a public stage at the end of the film.

Musically, I was trying to figure out what are the feelings of those personal stories and what is the architecture of the score. How do we map out those themes and they evolve so that you feel everything sort of coming together into the match. Those are some of the things I felt thought about. In a lot of ways, the big question we had right away was that this is a film set in 1973 and what’s the sound of that? What should the score sound like? Our initial idea was that what if I were to use the instruments of a 1970s rock band, with electric base, electric guitars, drum kit, and an electric organ. What if I were to use that and write classical music with those instruments.

So, I started experimenting with that a little bit and then as we worked on the movie, at a certain point we said to ourselves, “What if we added woodwind instruments to this? What if we added some strings?” By the end of the film, it actually is a full symphony orchestra playing during the match. It was interesting to see the colors of the instruments themselves and how that evolution, through the film, helped tell the story in a lot of ways.

The intro score to the film is something that we hear throughout the film. Can you talk about arranging that theme and how the music is different when for each of Billie Jean and Bobby’s separate scenes?

Nicholas Britell: We thought about that a lot. The approach to that opening Billie Jean King theme, we called that the “Billie Jean King competition theme.” That’s her athletic, powerful, strong theme and one of the places that theme comes back is when you see her watch the Margaret Court-Bobby Riggs match and you see her realization of what she knows she nows needs to do. You hear that theme come back. There’s a lot of weaving of that theme in different places.

With Bobby, all the piano you hear with Bobby Riggs was recorded with an upright piano. Whenever you hear piano with Billie Jean King, it’s recorded with a 9 foot Steinway concert grand piano. In a way, there was this music metaphor that we were using with the instruments choices where Billie Jean has this incredible, beautiful, strong sound and Bobby has an insecure, not as strong sound. Absolutely, there is that difference in the character and Billie Jean has another theme that recurs, and we thought of that as her personal theme, her internal theme. You hear that for the first time in the haircut sequence where she meets Marilyn. Eventually, the melodic ideas become more pronounced and that theme itself culminates with a cello solo at the end of the match.

At the final moment of victory, you hear that theme played with a full orchestra. We definitely thought of the placements of some of these themes and where they might come back and figuring out how to write something which feels like the character or what you want to feel with the character. Those are the challenges and those are the mysteries in film music where there are so many different possibilities and ultimately you have to rely on your own instincts and follow your own feelings with how stuff should go. Luckily, getting to work with great directors is really the key where I can approach something with my own feeling and talk to the directors about their feelings. We have this coming together of the ideas.

How is working with two directors on a single project like this?

Nicholas Britell: It’s a good question. I have never worked with two directors before and actually it was amazing. We always met together and Jonathan and Valerie each have their own musical perspective. What was really interesting was seeing the ways in which the three of us were together and we can hone in on things that really felt right. It was a very positive process. Each person was contributing a different element to the conversation. We would always meet together and watch and discuss things together.

As a composer, do you need a good amount of time between projects to get the creative flow when composing new music?

Nicholas Britell: I think about that question all the time and actually, I think I love writing music for film and I love writing music. The question of spacing things out is sometimes out of your control. The schedule of film projects evolve on their own timeline and in their own terms. Sometimes, you get more time between projects and sometimes, there’s really no time between projects. Ideally, it would be great to have a window of time after a project is finished where you can rest; but sometimes it’s not the case.

The score has 21 tracks. Do you have an idea how many tracks you are going to add when on any project?

Nicholas Britell: It’s one of those things where you sort of don’t know until the end what is really working. There are two levels of thinking of the process. There’s micro level where you are looking at individual scenes, but there’s a macro level where you really don’t know what actually works until you watch the whole film through; and the film itself is evolving. It’s being editing further. The sound is being mixed, the visual effects are being adjusted and colors are changing. You’re sort of working with something that is in a state of evolution. It’s that combining micro level moment to moment cue ideas with that larger scale macro approach, which leads to the answer. You don’t know how much will be there. I’ve worked on projects where in the end, it was decided the music wasn’t needed. And I’ve also worked on projects, where also in the end, it was decided that more music was needed. It’s very much an evolving process and you have to be nimble with the approach.

Going back, congrats on Moonlight since you’re the composer of that film?

Nicholas Britell: It’s been beyond any imagination of what happened in the past year. That was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. We all feel so blessed and honor to be a part of something like that. It definitely feels like a dream. I think we’re still thinking of the past year and everything that happened. I can’t say enough of how special that was.

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