Nicholas Britell earned early praise for collaborations on Natalie Portman’s directorial debut Eve, but it was those first few musical moments of “Little’s theme” in Moonlight that launched him into all of our hearts. Brittell continued a partnership with Barry Jenkins and scored the utterly breathtaking If Beale Street Could Talk. One of his other partnerships is in connection with director/producer Adam McKay. Britell composed the score for Vice, and of course his operatic score that helps define the Logan family in HBO’s Succession.
Britell brings himself to every project, and the scores he composes each have an individualism that relate to the tone and tenor of the subject matter. When you listen to the music of Succession, you can see that the score adopts a different tone in season two. There is a darker undertone to where this family is and what is happening in their world. Britell’s classical influences emanate in Succession and bring out some of the series’ most important qualities. Britell’s work is something that allows the moment to happen. It never tells you what you should feel but rather underscores the tone.
Britell also showed us his other influences including hip-hop, and we got to see this play out in the big Kendall rap moment of the season, a genuinely iconic moment from season two of Succession. Once again Britell shows his versatility in his musical composition and creates musical moments that are unforgettable.
Awards Daily TV: You have scored a diverse array of film and television from Moonlight, The King, and of course Succession. What is your process in crafting unique musical compositions for each of your projects?
Nicholas Britell: Every single project is a different entity. Every work demands its own approach and musical fingerprint. That is what excites me about what I do for a living. Every project is a new learning experience. We get to explore the different music possibilities. There are infinite ways you could score a project. It is never intellectually clear what the direction should be.
Barry Jenkins and I talk about this when we start a project. What is the movie or show telling us? It is telling us to keep going, or it’s telling us no. You are also learning when something does not work. There is something about music in projects. You want it to add to the dimensionality and wavelength of a project. When you see something, you have already seen it. You do not want those senses to feel redundant. You want the music to feel additive, and there is also a diagonal aspect to the work. Where you bringing in a new dimension with sound and music
There are times where you are consciously adding to what you see. There are often times where you want to hear things differently than what you see. The scoring is testing of what people see.
Jack Warner said, ‘Movies are fantasy, and fantasy requires music.’ My goal with every project is to help people live within that fantasy.
ADTV: Your music always lends a personal touch to the moments, and characters. Are there any themes you use for specific characters in Succession?
NB: I do think about character all the time. As a starting point I will think about emotional states. I put myself in the character’s shoes. Musical themes are never related to an individual character. Themes and musical ideas are relational. It’s Kendall in relation to Shiv or Shiv related to Logan.
If a theme is just linked to a character and it is not constantly evolving, then it would not lend to the personality. Why am I hearing this sound? You do not want a specific character score. When I hear a sound and it links to something else, those moments are the most fun. You then see the connection and you feel this makes way more sense. It is almost like a math problem. Once you figure out the problem it then becomes obvious. In the end I look to create a musical score that matches the complicated emotional nature of the characters, and the story and the way they evolve over a season, or several seasons.
ADTV: I have to ask you about the Kendall rap. How much fun did you have writing that? Who do you think Kendall listens to?
NB: Basically the way it came about, I did not know this was going to happen. Jesse Armstrong reached out to me and said Kendall is going to rap. Jesse shared with me that this has to have a cringe factor but also has to be a good rap. The show has a tone of seriousness but underbelly of absurdity. This had to balance.out with the rap, and this also lines up with Kendall and his relationship to Logan.
If Kendall has to write a tribute to his father, who is he going to think about, he is going to put his all into this. He wants to impress his father, do his father, and he would never give it less than 100 percent, so the rap had to have that blended element or tone that matches the show. In the first episode, Kendall was listening to the Beastie Boys, so I thought maybe Kendall would be interested in this. I thought about my own experiences with rap, in the early 90s and this matched and felt like it would be an influence for Kendall
The process was incredibly fun. I had an old beat, and I remixed a Bach prelude and turned it more into a hip hop track. It has a duality in the tone. Adam McKay and Will Tracy sent me the lyrics, and I wanted to figure out how to put it together. We jumped on the phone to work it out, and they asked me to do the rap and demo it. I said, ‘If you promise that no one in the history of civilization will hear this recording then I will do this.’ So we were in the studio and made it happen.
After I rapped this and recorded it, I sent it to Jeremy to practice too. I have to give a ton of credit to Jeremy Strong. It’s one thing to act, but it’s also another to perform this the way he did. He did that rap live, in that huge event space, and watching that play out in the way it did was everything you wanted to get from that musical moment.
On the back end, I love how much work that went into the rap. The production team and post production team played a huge role in this as well. There was so much work that went into making this sound good. It was essentially the whole crew that made this moment happen.
ADTV: The final moment in season two of Succession was an iconic mic drop (I will not spoil). The scene itself is quiet, but the aftermath and your music builds. What helped you create this specific musical moment?
NB: I was shocked by the final moment of the season, so I had to think about the approach. There was more of a baroque sound I explored in season two. In season one I focused on the late 1700s classical sound. I wanted to go further into the past for season two, which is a darker classical sound. The moment the betrayal happens, I am exploring the undertones of the old baroque sound. It was exploring the high operatic tones of the period. I wanted a big operatic quality of the man slaying the dragon. In the end credits, the last thing we hear over those end credits is a variation of what we hear at the beginning of season two. This crafted a darker hue to this initial moment of the season. This gave us a whole full circle moment, and laid the groundwork for the next stages in the show.
Succession is available to stream on HBO Max.