Exclusive: Composer Nicholas Britell On Creating The Music For ‘Moonlight’Posted by Wilson Morales
October 28, 2016
Currently playing in limited theaters is Barry Jenkins’ critically acclaimed film Moonlight, which stars Naomie Harris, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Alex R. Hibbert, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, and Jharrel Jerome.
Based on the play by Tarell McCraney “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins wrote and directed the film.
MOONLIGHT is the tender, heartbreaking story of a young black man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.
Composing the score for the film was Nicholas Britell, whose previous work included New York, I Love You, Gimme the Loot and Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated film The Big Short. Britell’s music was heavily featured in director Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. In 2016, Britell also scored the music to Gary Ross’ film Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey, as well as Natalie Portman’s directorial debut feature film A Tale of Love and Darkness. Britell also served as a co-producer of the Oscar-nominated feature film Whiplash, which starred Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.
Blackfilm.com recently caught up with Britell as he spoke about creating the music for Barry Jenkins’ emotional and critical favorite Moonlight.
How did you get involved with Moonlight?
Nicholas Britell: I scored ‘The Big Short’ last year, and I had worked with Plan B on that, and also on ’12 Years a Slave.’ I think it was during the scoring of Big Short, I had dinner with Jeremy Kleiner, the co-president of Plan B. He had told me about this screenplay that he had read called ‘Moonlight’ and how just utterly blown away he was by it. I said I’d absolutely love to read it. I read it, and I was just overwhelmed by it. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever read. I said, “Look, I’d love to meet Barry at any point.” I had seen Medicine for Melancholy, his first film.
We ended up connecting in downtown LA and just had this awesome, wide-ranging conversation over coffee. I sent him a playlist of music that I had been inspired by, with everything from the Isley Brothers to Mozart and Manhattans and Bach. It was a whole range of things. We just started a conversation. That’s kind of how we first connected.
Usually, directors pick out their composers. How did it come about in which he talks about the music that he wanted for the movie, or did you have an idea about the music he should have for the movie?
Nicholas Britell: It’s a great question. I would say first off, with Barry, it was a total collaboration. I had some early instincts on ideas, but I think one of the really beautiful things about filmmaking, but specifically about the film composition process, is that it’s a very mysterious process. Even if he thinks that you have early ideas, it can change so much because as you work with the film and as you watch the film and as the film evolves, ideas that might have seemed really correct early on might change. You sort of live with the film.
My early experience, my early feelings about what to do musically, where from that feeling of poetry. When I read the screenplay, when I saw the early cuts of the film, the first word that came to my mind was poetry. It just felt like this incredibly beautiful poem of a movie. There was this subtlety, this intimacy, this tenderness. The first piece, I think it was one of the first pieces I sent to Barry, was a piece actually named Piano and Violin poem. I was trying to imagine to myself, “What is the sound of something that feels like poetry?” That piece actually became Little’s theme, which evolved into Chiron’s theme. Then in Chapter 3, I orchestrated it differently and we call it Black Theme there. Actually, one of the earliest ideas that I had from that did become really the main character’s theme.
At the same time, I think that the ideas for the music, the key to the idea for the whole score in some way, was from Barry in a sense where he said to me early on about how much he loved Chopped and Screwed music, which you know is a sort of southern hip hop genre where you’re taking certain tracks. You take a pop song and you basically slow it way down. In the process of doing that, the pitch goes way down. The tracks get really deepened and rich. Screwing it is where you kind of pitch it and slow it, and chopping it is where you basically layer them against each other. Beats can be offset. You can edit it. You get these tracks which are morphed and kind of evolved, but in an incredibly beautiful and fascinating way.
I said to Barry, “What if we chop and screwed the classical score that I was writing?” We were both sort of immediately excited by that idea. That became this really key kind of concept that we utilized, where I would write music, I would write and record the music, and then I would take the track that I had written and then we would start the second part of the process, where I would experiment with chopping and screwing the tracks themselves. That happened over the course of the whole film. For example, Little’s theme is actually playing in a chopped and screwed version underneath the schoolyard site. It’s slowed way down and pitched about three octaves down. Then it’s layered on top of itself and run through vinyl. You just hear this kind of rumbling in the subwoofers with this occasional noticing of what sounds almost like a weird bell or a bass. It’s actually the Chiron’s Theme.
What’s cool is that you can create these sort of sonic landscapes out of the music that you’ve written, but it’s almost unrecognizable because of that technique.
With most scores, a lot of times you hear the opening theme, and it fluctuates throughout the entire soundtrack. Was it a challenge in creating a theme for each character, even though it’s the same character, from Little to Chiron to Black?
Nicholas Britell: It’s a great question. That was, in some ways, the key challenge of this film. Which was, how to create a sense of cohesion across the chapters while also enabling things to evolve. He was really the combination of the techniques with the chopping and screwing, where there are elements. Little’s theme is still inside of Chiron’s theme, it’s just sort of deeper and lower. Then when it comes back as Black’s theme in Chapter 3, it’s similar music, but there it’s even lower. Then it’s actually played on eight cellos. There’s this changing of the musical palette, the musical colors, and then there’s the deepening of the tones. At the same time, there are strong similarities with each one because you’re still hearing that almost identifying motif for his character.
Having gone from The Big Short to Free State of Jones and now Moonlight, can it be frustrating to not repeat yourself?
Nicholas Britell: For me in a lot of ways, I think what excites me about film composing is that I really feel each film is its own unique challenge and its own unique adventure. I think that’s actually what excites me about it, is that you approach a new film and you say to yourself, “Let’s find a totally new sound palette for this movie.” A lot of that exploration and that experimenting and that discovery, not only is that the fun of it, but also that’s really the essence of the process of working with the director. I really find that so much of the creative inspiration on these projects is driven by the director. I’m there. I’m trying to come up with my own musical expression or evoke feelings that resonate for me, but at the same time, ultimately, I really want the director to feel that this was the collaboration of this is the music that they want, that they feel for their film.
There’s this really kind of fascinating discovery process that you go through. Because everybody is different, I really do believe every movie needs its own character, in a way. It’s something where I think right from the outset, I always try to say to myself, “What can we do that’s new and special?” For each film.
It’s good that you have your tracks in the trailer. Most trailers just have a temp track that people have heard before to get them interested in the movie. Here, you have your unheard tracks on it. Was that at your request, or was that the producer’s call?
Nicholas Britell: It’s a great point because it’s like you said, it’s rarely the case that the score is in the trailer for a movie. That was actually Barry. He was working with the producers on the trailer, and he had sent over to them, I believe, score tracks saying, “Hey, you guys should listen to some of these and think about this.” I’m not exactly sure what they went through and what they explored in that process, but Barry called me up and he’s like, “They’re using your music in the trailer.”
It was really exciting, actually, because what you said, it’s a special moment when the music in the film is able to appear in the trailer. I think what’s cool about it is that I think you get a sense of the feeling of the movie because that is music that is actually part of that film. I think when you’re watching the trailer, you have a really kind of amazing response to it. I feel that the audience can almost tell that that music is part of that film, in the trailer.
You seem to be a big fan of film scores. Who are some of your favorite composers that you still listen to or grew up listening to?
Nicholas Britell: In a lot of ways, what’s interesting is it was really film music that inspired me to start playing music when I was very young. When I was 5 years old, I saw the movie Chariots of Fire. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. Vangelis wrote the theme for that. We had this very old upright piano in our apartment growing up. I saw the movie, and I went to the piano and tried to figure it out. I asked my mom for piano lessons because of that music.
In some ways, it was film music that inspired me in the first place. That feeling of growing up with that kind of iconic them and then so many others. There are so many composers that I love. I’m a classical pianist. I grew up playing Rachmaninoff and I love Gershwin and Mozart and Beethoven. Later on in life, in college, I was in a hip hop band. I absolutely immersed myself in hip hop music. I love Dr. Dre and Gang Starr, Wu Tang, and I love Quincy Jones. There’s so many. There’s almost too many composers to name. There’s just such an amazing array of talent out there.
What are you working on next?
Nicholas Britell: Actually, I’m not sure if I can publicly talk about it yet, but there’s two films upcoming. I’m actually scoring a film right now in LA, so I’ve been sort of going back and forth. I live in Manhattan, and I’m going back and forth working on that. Then I’m going to be scoring a film early in next year that’s here in New York.