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Interview: Nicholas Britell On Composing the Perfect Score for Battle Of The Sexes

On September 20, 1973 a tennis match dubbed the Battle of the Sexes took place and over 48 million viewers tuned in to watch Billie Jean King defeat Bobby Riggs. Riggs was 55 and a former World number one. Jean-King was 29 and at the top of her tennis game. Forty years later, the story has been brought to the screen by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with Steve Carell as Riggs and Emma Stone as Billie Jean King. The period comes to life with Nicolas Britell’s swelling score featuring electric guitar and bass riffs that capture the groove of the era.

I caught up with Brittel to talk about his process in replicating the sounds of the ’70s.

The last time we spoke, you were actually working on this. So how did you arrive at this project?

I found out about the film just about a year ago. It was right around the Moonlight premiere in Telluride and a friend of mine had reached out to me and was looking for music examples to show to some directors. Often, when that happens nothing really materializes. A day after that, Jonathan Dayton and, Valerie Faris gave me a call. They sent me a rough cut and I watched that version and I loved it. I thought it would be interesting to work on a film that had an overly exciting and huge sports spectacle. What also struck me about the film was the internal stories of the characters. It wasn’t just about the sport, it was really about the personal stories. It was about Billie Jean King’s own personal struggles and her hopes. It was about the trials and tribulations of Bobby Riggs’ personal life. What I thought was so wonderful was the way all of those things came together and you had a much deeper understanding of what was going on in the world at the time with the characters and it comes to fruition in this battle of the sexes at the end of the film.

I loved it and it’s a very different soundscape from the other films I’ve worked on. What I love about film music is that each story is so different and each presents its own universe that you get to explore and experiment with. My personal goal is always to find a soundscape that feels like it’s really part of the movie somehow and woven into the fabric of the movie. I got the chance to work so closely with Jon and Val, and as we went through the process our initial ideas evolved quite a bit. We were talking about the film being set in 1973, so what would be a fresh and unique way to approach the musical landscape of that era?

One of the first ideas was what if I wrote a classical score, but it was scored for 1970s rock band instrumentation? We do this classical music but it’s got electric guitars, bass, and drums. One of the interesting things we found was that as we were broadening that experimentation, I would say, “What if we added strings and woodwinds?” We found that the film really responded to that and by the end of the film, there’s a full symphony orchestra performing the score.

What was cool was that there’s this evolution as the film progresses where the instrumentation expands and reaches its apex in the match. So, that was interesting as to how the architecture of the movie led us to think about the orchestration and instrumental colors.

In the final scene, we hear the music swelling to that full orchestra. How big was that orchestra by the end?

We had a 79-piece orchestra with amazing extraordinary LA musicians and one of the interesting things about the match was that theoretically there are many different ways you could approach something like that. I didn’t want the music to just feel functional during that sequence. I didn’t want it to accent a point here or there. I didn’t want you to be hearing what you were seeing. I wanted you to hear things you weren’t seeing in the visuals.

The approach we had was to weave the personal themes we had established for Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean and a lot of what you’re hearing is their more internal themes from earlier in the film because it felt like that was what was happening because it felt like their personal journeys were being realized on this public stage. You’re hearing their emotional journey while you’re watching their global athletic journey.

That being said, there’s still such a drama to that moment. Jon, Val and I would sometimes say we’d want it to feel operatic there because we wanted to hopefully give the sense of heightened drama. There’s a variety of theme ideas that come together there.

You have Bobby’s theme which is like a small jazz band. It’s a small upright piano, double bass, drumkit and some woodwinds that play with that. It’s more of an intimate fragile sounding theme which we felt resonated with his own insecurities because in a lot of ways many of the elements of the need to have this match are based on his gambling addiction and his insecurities and his need for recognition of his abilities and who he is. At home, his family life is falling apart and that’s going on. When you see Bobby and if there’s a piano, it’s an upright piano.

When you hear a piano with Billie Jean it’s a Steinway concert grand. We had this musical metaphor where she is this strong, incredible Steinway instrument and Bobby is the less impressive upright piano. We thought a lot about the colors as well as the themes themselves.

Billie Jean is this great player, meanwhile, she’s fighting for equal pay and going through her personal life issues. I wanted to ask how do you take those cues in the film and make music illustrate that?

I think that actually gets to the heart of so much of the process of writing for a film like this. What is that sound? How do you evoke that? For me, so much of the film experience for me is the emotional journey that you as an audience member goes through. I’m constantly trying to feel and imagine that feeling and that response to the character and story.

For Billie Jean, there are two different musical ideas that come about. There’s the one at the beginning of the film, the competition theme that is this motif on a Steinway that very briefly gets large right at the beginning and vanishes and you hear it coming back at key points in the film. You hear it when Bobby plays Margaret Court and you see Billie Jean realizing what she now knows she has to do. It’s the same idea from the beginning again. It’s the idea of the fate of the competition coming up. I would almost think of that as the external theme for her.

Then there’s the personal internal theme that we had, and you first hear the basis for that during the haircut scene when she meets Marilyn. At first, it’s almost like an ambient soundscape. It’s very delicate. That scene when I first saw it was so hypnotic. It felt like time was stopping. The music there is gentle and delicate, which then evolves and becomes clearer as her relationship with Marilyn develops. You hear that same idea really take on its own new shape in the match, towards the end of the match, and the moment of victory.

In the match at the end, that theme that you first heard earlier is a cello solo over an orchestra. The moment of victory is the full orchestra playing. There’s a parallel journey the score takes, telling the story in its own terms.

Jon and Val talked about the possibilities for the score, we really wanted this score to have its own world and own identity that could live parallel to what we were seeing.

It was exciting to see what was working and continue with it.

You also have the soundtrack with songs such as “Crimson and Clover.” Talk about how you wanted that to contrast with the score.

Our music supervisor worked closely with Jon and Val. What’s important about the soundtrack choices, aside from being awesome, is that each of them gives us a really important sense of time. With the score, the way we tried to evoke the score, we recorded it with vintage microphones. I would treat the audio with analog tape effects and try to give it the texture of the era. The soundtrack literally gives you that texture. Each element of music in the film serves its own role like that in a way.

What about “If I Dare” and working with Sara Bareilles. What was that collaboration like?

It was really exciting that that collaboration came together. We had dreamed of the possibility of having an original song for the film. One of the things we really wanted from the song was that we wanted it to feel like it was part of the film and a culmination of the film. I had actually put together a demo of some of the theme ideas of the movie in a song form and I sent that to Sara.

I really hoped she would respond to the music, though I didn’t want her to feel like she had to follow this initial outline at all. I wanted her to be inspired in her own way. We started swapping notes back and forth. We’d meet at my studio in New York and try things out. We worked very closely on how the song would evolve itself and I think she did a brilliant job of working with these theme ideas but bringing her own musicianship to it. She’s an incredible artist, her voice is amazing, and the lyrics capture that feeling of boldness, of perseverance, and of empowerment. We couldn’t be happier with how it all came together.



Battle of the Sexes opens today