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Interview: Nicholas Britell on Composing the Beautiful Moonlight Score

Moonlight is without a doubt a beautiful film. From its acting to its direction to its cinematography and editing, but also married into the jigsaw is the melodic and haunting score composed by Nicholas Britell. The composer first fell in love with film music after hearing the theme to Chariots of Fire at age five, and asked for piano lessons so he could learn to play the theme.

Britell studied at both Juilliard and Harvard, performing in a hip-hop band while pursuing his love for film music. His work can be heard in films as varied as The Big Short, 12 Years a Slave, and Whiplash.

We recently sat down in Beverly Hills to discuss working with Barry Jenkins on Moonlight. “He lives in LA, but he’d fly to New York and to my studio where we would spend whole days together experimenting and trying things out. It was incredibly exciting. So much of the experience was the ability to work closely together,” Britell says. He also talks about how Jenkins and he had discussed using a technique called chopping and screwing to connect the music dots.

Read our interview below and take a listen to the Moonlight score which features Britell’s music:

Awards Daily: How’s the whole ride been for you?

Nicholas Britell: It’s been incredible actually. I think one of the great things is that it’s such a wonderful team of people, and this is a nice reunion for us in a way.

AD: You have the wonderful task of composing the score for Moonlight, but tell us about your musical background.

NB: I started playing music when I was five. I saw Chariots of Fire, and I fell in love with that music. We had an old upright piano in our apartment in New York, and I went to the piano and tried to figure it out, and I asked my mom for piano lessons and that was how it started. Film music influenced me from the beginning.

I’m a pianist. I went to Juilliard for the pre-college division, and I was in a hip-hop band while I was at college at Harvard, so I’ve had an eclectic wide range of musical types that I’ve explored.

I started scoring film when I was at college, it’s something I’ve always loved. Nick Lovell was making his first feature film in college and he asked if I’d write the music, and that was the first project I’d worked on.

AD: How did you get involved with Barry Jenkins and Moonlight?

NB: I was scoring The Big Short last year, and that was an amazing experience working on that. I collaborated with Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner from Plan B, and while we were scoring it, Jeremy told me about this incredible screenplay he had read called Moonlight. He was so moved by it, and he asked if I wanted to read it, and I did. It was incredible, beautiful, and so profoundly moving. I said I’d love to meet Barry if that’s possible. He connected the two of us and I met him in Downtown LA. We had coffee that turned into a glass of wine, and we had this wonderful wide ranging conversation, and that was how we connected, and the conversation evolved from there.

AD: How do you start once you get on to a project?

NB: With different films, it’s different each time. Sometimes, you get involved early and sometimes you get involved very late. With Moonlight, I got involved early, and so I was able to read the screenplay and was able to have some early ideas. You have certain feelings that a project conveys to you. With Moonlight and seeing early cuts of the movie, there was just this feeling of poetry that felt very natural. There were this tenderness and naturalness in the script and that Barry created in the film. A lot of what I do is staying sensitive to your own emotions and try to figure out how to translate those emotions musically. With Moonlight, if I was feeling this feeling of poetry, what is it musically that can convey that? So, that is really my starting point, what is this sound of poetry? One of the first things I sent to Barry was a piece called the piano and violin poem. That is what became Little’s theme in the movie.

What was interesting was that you don’t always know what is going to work because ultimately, it’s going to be the picture that tells you. You can write so much music and feel so deeply connected to that music, and then you put it up against the picture and realize it doesn’t work. It’s about experimentation and you try things out, each time you try something out, it tells you something. If something works, it tells you something about what might work. If it doesn’t work, it might move you closer in a direction to what will. I feel the writing process is mysterious, but it’s also exciting because each film is a new adventure.

AD: Is there a musical theme that links the characters that we should be aware of?

NB: Absolutely, and that’s a great question. Little’s theme that we hear in Chapter one evolves into Chiron’s theme in Chapter two which then evolves into Black’s theme in Chapter three. The music internally is similar across all three. There’s a characteristic melody that goes with it. In one, it’s piano and violin. In two, I apply this technique called chopping and screwing. Chopping and screwing is a Southern hip-hop technique where you take pieces of music and you slow them down. When you slow a piece of music down the pitch goes down, and you get this deeper and enriched musical texture. Early on in our conversations, Barry said how much he loved that and we had this moment where I said, “What if I do that to my score? What if I wrote music, recorded it, and chopped and screwed the recording?” That is actually what we did throughout Moonlight. Chiron’s theme is a little bent version of Little’s theme, it’s deeper and it’s lower, and the audio character is a little different. Black’s theme in chapter three is similar and I recorded it with a chapter of cellos, and I took that recording and I chopped and screwed it so that it’s lower and deeper. You’re hearing these cellos that sound like cellos, but they almost don’t, they almost sound like a bass. Everything is far deeper. When we started these techniques, it was an interesting way to evolve things, but also connect everything through these ideas.

AD: I had heard this was a technique you used and was so fascinated by it.

NB: We did it throughout the film. In the schoolyard when Chiron is at school, what you’re hearing is this rumbling, and occasionally you hear these notes poke out. That sound is Little’s theme from chapter one where I bent it, slowed it about three octaves down, and I layered a version of it on top of itself, so you’re hearing two versions of it. I ran it through a vinyl filter and so the things that sound like the notes coming through, to me sound like a bell or a bass, and for me, that bell is actually the piano from the beginning, and the bass is actually the violin, but it’s so bent that it feels like this low rumbling bass. That’s an extreme example where we took a track.

AD: Was that sound easy to get or did you have to play with it a lot?

NB: Like everything, when something works it’s usually the result of hundreds of hours work right? I’ve been experimenting with audio production techniques for years and years. So, the reason I knew it would be possible is because I’d had experience with it. So, when Barry brought it up, I knew what we could do.
If in the final moment, it was because it was based on thousands of hours before that of experimenting over the years.

AD: You also have a soundtrack, so how does that play in with the score when you’re composing?

NB: There are certain songs that Barry wrote into the screenplay. “Hello Stranger” was written into the screenplay, that they would be sitting in the diner and that song plays. What’s interesting is the two worlds are very different worlds and each provides an emotional lens into the film. The score is a very specific kind of soundscape, and the source music is its own soundscape too. I loved the way that they parallel each other in some way.

AD: Did you have an orchestra, or did you create the sound?

NB: Yes. The ensemble size ranged from some cues where it was one instrument. The last piece of music in the movie before the credits is just a solo piano, just one note at a time and a subtle texture. For the large scope, we had a chamber-sized orchestra with twenty players. The swimming sequence was called The Middle of the World and that’s a violin soloist and a small orchestra. It ranged in scope.

AD: What was your whole experience like working on Moonlight?

NB: It was amazing and very unforgettable. Barry and I worked so closely together, and that was the key to the process. He lives in LA, but he’d fly to New York and to my studio where we would spend whole days together experimenting and trying things out. It was incredibly exciting. So much of the experience was the ability to work closely together. When you do that, you find things that you would never have found otherwise. You just do. You come up with ideas because you’re able to have a very deep discussion and you’re able to try things out which is something you can’t do over email. You have to be there, you have to try things together. My experience was that it was a deep process. I’ve said to Barry that I can’t wait to get back into the studio together hopefully. I miss it, we had a great time.

AD: What’s next?

NB: I’m scoring a film called The Battle of the Sexes which I’m very excited about. I’m working with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. That’s the 1970s Billie Jean King movie. Emma Stone is in that. I’m doing the next Ocean’s movie, Ocean’s Eight.

AD: All the women.

NB: They’re shooting it right now. I’m so excited about that and will be doing that next year.

AD: We’ll have to talk about that. One last question, what was it like seeing the film for the first time?

NB: When you’re writing and working on a film, you’re very up close to it in a way. So, it’s awe inspiring when you make something and it’s on a huge screen. I feel in a way, it’s how I feel with performing. It’s the one moment when you’re in the film process where you feel like you’re a performer. A film is something that is pre-done, but when you’re there with an audience, it feels like you’re on stage, so it was awesome.

Listen to Britell’s score below: