Emmy-Winning Composer Nicholas Britell on Working with Filmmaker Adam McKay, from Succession to Vice and Beyond

By Erik Philbrook, ASCAP Editor in Chief  •  October 7, 2019

Photo by Dominic Nicholls

Nicholas Britell is the Academy Award-nominated composer for such films as If Beale Street Could Talk, Best Picture Oscar winners Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave (Britell wrote the on-camera music), as well as Vice, The Big Short and others. His music for TV includes HBO’s critically-acclaimed series Succession, for which he just won an Emmy for its Main Title Theme.

As a longtime member of the ASCAP family, he has been honored numerous times with such awards as The ASCAP Foundation Henry Mancini Music Fellowship (awarded in 2012, the same year he participated in the ASCAP/Columbia Film Scoring Workshop) and this year’s first-ever ASCAP Harmony Award, which he shared with music supervisor Gabe Hilfer and which celebrates outstanding collaborative achievement between composers and music supervisors. He is set to write the score for the upcoming Amazon Underground Railroad series, directed and adapted by Barry Jenkins from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Fiction-winning novel of the same name. And his music also graces Netflix’s The King, starring Joel Edgerton, Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson, which is set for release on November 1.

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The second season of Succession is well underway and it’s another successful collaboration with Adam McKay. How did you first start working with Adam and why has that led to such a fruitful partnership with him?

Adam is amazing. He’s definitely the funniest person I’ve ever met, and he has an incredibly brilliant and wide-ranging intellect where he has this incredible stand-up comedic writing ability, but also a true passion for trying to figure out a way to bring his abilities and his interests and focus them on works that say something about where we are.

Actually, in some ways, I would say all the directors that I’ve had very close collaborations with are drawn to that too. Everyone has their own lens. Adam’s lens over previous years has been very focused on American politics and financial crisis [LAUGHS] in these last two stories.

With Succession it’s interesting because it’s very focused on the concentrations of power and wealth and then on the media industry. When I first worked with Adam it was on The Big Short. I actually had read the book The Big Short. I remember thinking to myself that that would be a really difficult book to turn into a movie because making Wall Street something that is exciting for an audience and also to do justice to the profundity of the story, the sophistication of the story, I felt was almost an impossible task.

And when [film producer] Jeremy Kleiner sent me the script of The Big Short I couldn’t believe it because I was like, they did it! You know, Adam and [screenwriter] Charles Randolph, the two of them, found a way to tell the story by breaking the fourth wall and just sort of blowing it up, where you don’t sacrifice any sophistication but, at the same time, you’re telling it in a fun way that’s entertaining. You enjoy this ride until there’s the fall and the crash. I thought that was brilliant.

What was Adam looking for in his The Big Short score?

I remember the first thing he asked me was “What’s the sound of dark math?” That was his question. So, I layered these different pianos and tried to find a sound that felt like it was both stable and unstable at the same time. I remember sending that to Adam, and he liked it immediately. And we just started our process.

As a New York City-based composer, it must be fun to work on a story like Succession, which is based in and around New York and features such sweeping drama and characters that are so unique to the region. Do you feel like having spent much of your life in New York City you have some additional insight into the story that he’s telling?

[LAUGHS] Well the show is shot all over the world, actually, but it is such a New York show, and I think, growing up here, I can tell how legit that is. You do have that fabric of the city in the show. It is fun. I’ve talked about how there’s both a sort of gravitas to the show and also this very heightened absurdity that is a lot of fun to write music for.

I think in combination with Adam and Jesse Armstrong, who’s the creator of the show and the showrunner, I think it has been one of the great experiences that I’ve ever had to work on it.

And TV is also something very new for me. This is the first series I’ve ever worked on, and getting a chance to try these ideas out over a really long canvas like that – instead of two hours you’re dealing with 10 hours per season. So I’m always thinking "What do we do with the music?" and "How do I make sure that I’m still doing something interesting in Episode 8," [LAUGHS] you know? Those are big questions.

Does it present opportunities musically that you just don’t have on a film, with finding an arc of the story?

It’s definitely different. I think the nature of coming back to certain ideas is something that you do in a film, but in a television series you have a whole other opportunity with that. One of the interesting pleasures with the series is that they have been very excited about having the music as a real part of the fabric of the show. So, I’ve had this fun opportunity to evolve the music and have it kind of live with these characters.

For your main title theme, is that something where Adam just said, "Give me what you got" or did you have a dialogue with him and he laid out his vision for it?

It’s interesting. I talked to Adam about Succession before they shot the pilot and I was able to attend some of the shooting for the pilot and go on set and see things being made in real time.

I had thought of some ideas and I remember putting together a grouping of early things that I wanted to show Adam and Jesse. And it was while they were shooting the pilot I remember having Jesse come over to my studio and I presented some of these early ideas. And it was a range of things. It was everything from some of these like, detuned pianos and beats to these weird bells that, for some reason, I kept working with. I remember there was a sequence in the pilot where this guy comes in and he wants to, like, sage the office, or something like that? And I thought what if we put a weird Zen bell there [LAUGHS], you know?

So I started playing with those things and Jesse was drawn to all of these ideas and he really liked the juxtaposition of these sounds. While Jesse was there, actually, I came up with the string sound that really became a part of the show, and it was totally based on Jesse’s prompting. I had shown him some of these chords and ideas I was working on and he said, "What if we push that, let’s do some more of that," and I started working with this very dark string sound.

And it became clear pretty early on that this kind of dark classical zone, like really, wearing that and living with that sound, was the sound of the Roy family. Maybe they imagine that for themselves? But I also wanted to make sure it was clear that I was not just giving them their own sound, I’m actually trying to make it a little bit over the top, you know?

I would purposely make things a bit disproportionate. So there’s a huge amount of bass on some of this stuff and these beats are too big sometimes and the piano’s out of tune and the strings are over the top. It’s like everything is too large for its own good.

Absurdly grandiose?

Exactly. So I think that was a way, when things are serious, the music is serious but when things are funny, the music gets very serious [LAUGHS] in this almost larger than life kind of way.

Interestingly, I was scoring Vice while I was doing Season 1 of Succession, and this question of a complex tonal landscape where you have both a very serious subject matter and a satirical subject matter, an incredibly comedic subject matter, and how those things work together, is a really big question. It’s not obvious.

Vice, as you just mentioned, was  such a juxtaposition of a very serious, period in American history with this figure at the center that was  a villain to some and a hero to others. Yet, again, you created a musical environment that really captured a lot of these grand, paradoxical emotions. What was most satisfying about working on a film like that?

I think the scope of Vice was something that was exciting as a challenge. Early on, Adam talked to me about his ideas for Vice and, actually, I was able to go through and look at early drafts of the script with him and talk about that.

One of the instincts that Adam had early on was this idea of a symphonic approach. He thought the story of Vice is so large that it merited an equally large-scale musical approach. So one of the things that we started to imagine is what would that sound like? Is there a symphonic approach that could work?

How did you solve that musical puzzle?

My early instinct was that you could imagine this symphonic sound but that there had to be something wrong with it. There had to be a dissonance. There had to be something that under the surface looks like a we’re providing a heroic theme but it’s not, it’s flawed.

What I would do was in almost every cue in the film, there’s some sort of a theme or there’s some sort of a piece, and yet there’s always notes that are wrong in those pieces. What I found interesting was that over the course of the film you got very used to the notes that felt wrong, and they start feeling right.

And I think for us that was an interesting metaphor with everything going on in the world too. We get used to stuff that’s wrong. And I think one of the reasons Adam was making this film was he wanted to make sure that we didn’t get used to these ideas and make sure that we remember what happened.

Ultimately, Vice is not just the story of Dick Cheney over the past 60 years, it’s the story of American history over the past 60 years.

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Visit Nicholas Britell online at www.nicholasbritell.com.

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