The writer and director Adam McKay was working on the market-meltdown adaptation The Big Short in 2015 when he got some unusual feedback from the film’s music guy. Why the hell is the composer sending me financial notes? McKay remembers thinking as he opened an email from Nicholas Britell, the man in charge of The Big Short’s score, that included observations about the accuracy of various economic concepts in the movie’s script.
McKay had known that Britell was “more than just a composer,” as McKay puts it in a recent email, and that the line items on his résumé ranged from studying psychology at Harvard to coproducing the critical and commercial hit Whiplash. But “I had no idea when I first started talking with him,” says McKay, “that he also was a very successful currency trader. Adam Davidson, our [finance] adviser on the movie, was like, ‘These are great notes.’”
These are great notes—that same thing could be said, in comically understated fashion, about Britell’s musical body of work. The 37-year-old grew up in New York City, studied at Juilliard before Harvard, and wrote his first feature-length score in college, for a $10,000 production made with the help of a digital camcorder on loan from Ben Affleck. Upon graduating, Britell “got a job trading currencies while trying to figure out a way to be a composer full time,” he says in an email. Britell did so and then some, going from moonlighting with his music to being nominated for an Oscar last year for the Moonlight score. A classically trained concert pianist who cites as inspiration both Philip Glass and Quincy Jones and who once went by the nom de groove “Dr. ATM” in a collegiate hip-hop band, Britell can write and perform soaring arpeggios alongside subwoofing beats, and he’s as comfortable seated at a grand piano as he is fiddling with digital production software.
He has become one of the most sought-after and ascendant composers in the industry, forging ongoing creative relationships with people like director Barry Jenkins, Plan B producer Jeremy Kleiner, choreographer Benjamin Millepied, and Millepied’s wife, Natalie Portman, who was Britell’s psych classmate back at Harvard. And also with McKay—who loved collaborating with Britell so much on The Big Short that he teamed up with him again afterward for two different projects: Backseat, the much-anticipated Dick Cheney biopic (Dickpic?) that is slated for release in December, and Succession, the HBO series that is currently six episodes through its snickering and unsparing first season.
The story of an aging media mogul, Logan Roy, struggling to cope with the prospect of his messed-up kids messing up his empire, Succession is a study in contrasts, by turns a parochial family dramedy and a sweeping social commentary, as though Six Feet Under met up with Veep to binge-watch Rome. Its characters brood and banter and threaten and wink, flying off the handle over too-cold butter and botching sloppy attempts at corporate subterfuge. (The show’s entire ethos at times seems filtered directly into Kieran Culkin’s Roman Roy, Logan’s youngest son, who uses his riches to taunt the help’s kid, defiles a floor-to-ceiling skyscraper window, and is sickly charming when he says things like: “People like me. I look like a matador and everyone wants to fuck me.”) “I was trying to create a kind of musical mythology for the Roy family and their world,” says Britell, who, in doing so, wound up creating music that is so essential to the story that it feels like another lead character. “I wanted it to have a sense of old-world gravitas,” Britell says, “while also feeling strange and—at times—absurd.” The same can be said for Succession itself.
Britell’s work has long been inspired by a question. As a 5-year-old who had just heard the famous theme to the movie Chariots of Fire, that question was addressed to his parents: Can I take piano lessons? When he was hired in 2013 to write original yet historically precise fiddle tunes and spirituals for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, an enormously research-intensive assignment, Britell told The Hollywood Reporter that he asked himself: “What would Solomon Northup have been playing?” He has said on more than one occasion that he was so moved by the lyricism of Jenkins’s screenplay for Moonlight that it led him to contemplate: “What is the sound of poetry?” Early on in the process of The Big Short, Britell told Variety, McKay asked him: “What is the sound of finance? What is the sound of dark math?” In that case, one of the answers came in the form of a track called, straightforwardly, “Mouseclick Symphony.”
When it came to Succession, Britell’s task was to establish the sonic palette of extreme, obscene wealth. Having drawn directly on his own finance experience to score The Big Short, Britell extrapolated it further as he considered the sound of Succession. “I spent a lot of time thinking about the extent to which economics, and the power associated with large quantities of money, influence us all,” Britell says. “Financial markets aren’t just stock market values and accounting metrics.” His music also needed to match the overall tone of the show—not necessarily a straightforward task on a series with such thread-the-needle vision.
“With how the world is going, we didn’t want to do brightly colored, snappy comedy,” says McKay. Instead, McKay and showrunner Jesse Armstrong “talked a lot about playing the comedy of Succession against a rich, very real canvas,” McKay says, using The Sopranos, Foxcatcher, The Celebration, and the early movies of Neil LaBute as an inspiration. They shot documentary-style, on 35mm film, for a look that conjures both The Big Short as well as Armstrong’s previous work on Armando Iannucci’s political comedies In the Loop and The Thick of It. “All powerful people,” Armstrong told Fast Company, describing the worldview that shapes his projects, “make foolish decisions and end up in humiliating and embarrassing situations, as well as wielding their power.” Britell’s goal was to write music that summoned both the sumptuous lifestyle of the rich and famous as well as the constant threat of an unraveling status quo.
The Succession title theme, Britell says, is “a classical-sounding piano coupled with a large hip-hop beat, distorted strings, and odd electronics.” It’s also a goddamn earworm. Each week, right around when the show begins, there is a fresh batch of tweets about its theme; recent assessments have included “the best hip-hop song lately,” and “my FAVORITE VIBE,” and “gives me so much anxiety!!” The melody recursively rises and tumbles and rises again, connecting to itself like a highbrow “Song That Doesn’t End” until it begins to feel almost claustrophobic. The looming strings are epic and tense. Britell’s piano evokes the sort of lovely live ivory-tickling often heard in rich-people spaces like private clubhouse lounges or penthouse cocktail parties, but the intermittent curdled distortion is a reminder that those sorts of spaces, and the people like the Roys who inhabit them, are objectively kind of fucked up. The sound of sleigh bells feels like a wintry carriage ride through Central Park, warmed by a scratchy blanket and powered by a depressed horse.
And the comments on the song’s YouTube page are a testament to the scope of Britell’s influences: “Has bits from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata!” one listener exclaimed, while a few others detected a bass line from the Tech N9ne track “Who Do I Catch.” This is typical: Last year, Portman told The Washington Post that in college, nights out with Britell “used to always end up at 1 a.m. with him playing Gershwin, going into, like, Snoop Dogg, going into Bach.” One of the coolest things about Britell’s flourishing career is that—even as his audience has ballooned, his output has become more professional, and his stakes have been raised—his creative process still captures the joyful, spontaneous energy of those late-night dorm-room-DJ vibes.
“It’s strange,” emails Jenkins, whose Moonlight earned eight Oscar nominations, in response to a question about what it’s like to sit down with Britell in his studio. “Rarely do we start out with an idea for a song,” Jenkins says. “Instead, similar to flinging paint on a canvas, Nick will take a kernel of a sound and fling it around the speakers.” Jenkins and Britell first met in 2016, after Plan B’s Kleiner, who graduated five years ahead of Britell at Harvard and was a producer on both 12 Years a Slave and The Big Short, showed Britell the script and connected the two men. At an initial meeting at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, “we really just vibed about music, both film music and music in general,” says Jenkins. “Hip-hop, classical, chopped and screwed.”
It was that last genre, the Waffle House–sounding “chopped and screwed,” that really took hold in Moonlight. Originating in the Houston music scene in the early ’90s, chopped and screwed music sloooows down existing tracks and then messes around with the warped results. Britell has always loved to interrogate the building blocks of sound, messing around with reverb and equipment. For Moonlight, he asked violinist Tim Fain to play a note as quietly as possible and then recorded the impossibly breathy result on a mic held extremely close to the instrument. For Battle of the Sexes, the tennis movie about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, Britell wrote theme songs for each character, using a nine-foot Steinway grand piano for King and a honky, clunky upright one for Riggs. But he had never heard of chopped and screwed before meeting Jenkins, and he quickly grew excited about the idea of trying out the technique on orchestral recordings. The result, in Moonlight, is a recurring theme that is cohesive without feeling repetitive, music that deepens and slows over time in a way that underscores the film’s three-part, coming-of-age structure.
It wasn’t just Britell’s music that was noteworthy during the production of Moonlight; it was the way it came together, in an unusually collaborative, sound-kernel-flinging process. “One of the things that I told Barry early on,” Britell told The Playlist before last year’s Oscars, “was, ‘Look, we got to spend time in New York together and as much as possible be in the same place.’” Jenkins would fly from Los Angeles to New York to visit Britell, and the two would turn on the movie, eat Shake Shack, and test ideas out on the fly, sometimes spending entire days in Britell’s studio. (Britell has said that he can get so holed-up while working on projects that he takes extra Vitamin D to make up for lack of sun.)
Working this way wasn’t necessarily efficient by some standards—Jenkins says that the two generated more music that was left out of the movie than music that was kept in—and yet it also felt necessary, the abandoned work functioning like a chrysalis’s shedded skin. The most popular track from Moonlight, an elegiac violin-driven song called “The Middle of the World,” was “literally the last piece of music we created for that film,” Jenkins says. “And it resulted from Nick pushing way, way past where we thought the horizon for a piece of score in that section should be.” Jenkins was so enamored of the experience that he asked Britell to score his subsequent project, an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel If Beale Street Could Talk that is due to be released at the end of this year.
Britell probably would not have urged Jenkins to collaborate with him quite so intimately had it not been for the summer he spent side-by-side in a room with McKay and film editor Hank Corwin making The Big Short. Britell joined that film unusually early on and was engaged in the editing process in a highly iterative, improvisational way. “Hank would do a cut,” Britell told The Playlist, “Adam would have an idea, I would write a piece, put it there, we would joke that it was like playing jazz together.” (The interviewer’s response to that: “That is not how most movies are made.”) To Variety, Britell described the experience as “like a workshop. And kind of dreamlike!” McKay called the setup “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in post” and says that Corwin and Britell have become such “essential collaborators” that he knew he needed to work with them again on Backseat. “I really can’t imagine doing a movie without them,” he says.
Love that there’s a trap remix of the Succession theme https://t.co/iUEWXHtkC3— Adam McKay (@GhostPanther) July 3, 2018
Britell similarly began working on Succession during the developmental process, he says, even visiting the set during the pilot shoot. He composed both the recurring musical suites that the program often deploys in a similar manner to another HBO show, The Leftovers (dramatic swells heighten key moments; big late-episode montages are set to variations on the show’s title theme) as well as additional stand-alone compositions, like one that ran over the closing credits of Episode 4. (Occasionally, a non-Britell song sneaks in: The most recent episode featured a boardroom battle and then closed, rather cheekily, with a folk song written by the wife of a labor union organizer in the 1930s.) “Not giving anything away,” Britell says, “but some of the instrumentation changes in later episodes to instruments we have not heard before.”
Still, even with all this music to work with, Succession is often accompanied only by the sweet sound of silence. It makes awkward exchanges between characters all the more wincing and hilarious, which is to say, it makes them all the more real. (Who needs music when the dialogue between, say, the scheming, doofy Tom and the scheming, doofy Cousin Greg already sings like a doomed ortolan?) “Every director approaches score differently,” says McKay. “I guess the one rule I have is to always let the audience discover the emotion first. […] Scenes played with no score can be like a reminder to the audience that we trust them to react how they want.” In Succession’s sixth episode, the first musical cue that isn’t played over the “previouslies” or the opening credits doesn’t take place until 26 and a half minutes in.
This is fine by Britell, someone so attuned to the aural universe all around him that even a lack of dedicated music speaks volumes. “Where do you need the world to be the score?” is a question he considers in his work, he has said. This is a glass-half-full way for a composer to look at things if there ever was one, but it’s also not a surprising observation from someone so wholly open to finding inspiration not only in the notes, but in all the spaces between them. “This was the quality I recognized in Nick from the very moment I saw him,” Jenkins says. “Nothing is precious. And all exploration is worthwhile.”
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.