Film Composer (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Big Short, Vice, 12 Years a Slave)
by D. Dona Le
“If it feels good, keep going. If it doesn’t, stop.”
That is a “very obvious… but groundbreaking” lesson that film composer Nicholas Britell AB ‘03 discovered at Harvard while collaborating with friend and fellow band member, Jake Rubin AB ‘03. The two were part of a hip-hop group, The Witness Protection Program, comprised of six instrumentalists and two rappers. They were discussing a track that Britell was writing for the band—whether the track was working, going in the right direction—and Rubin’s words struck a chord that lingers with the composer today.
“There are a lot of elements to the creative process. When you’re writing a lot of music, constantly trying to feel what you think works, sometimes there’s a belief that [even] if you’re not feeling something, you just have to trudge through it,” explains Britell. “But I’ve always found that that’s not the case. If you’re not feeling something, stop and do something else. And when it’s working, just keep doing it.”
Here, Britell is describing his work process on a micro level. But even a cursory overview of his career on the macro level proves that everything is working for Britell right now. The young composer is behind the scores for acclaimed films Moonlight, The Big Short, Vice, and If Beale Street Could Talk, to name but a few. He was first nominated for an Academy Award for his score to Moonlight in 2017. He is currently nominated for a Best Score Academy Award for his work on If Beale Street Could Talk. Also the composer for HBO’s drama series Succession, Britell has been described as “the composer with a growing fan club among directors” (NPR) and hailed as “the sound of money in Hollywood” (TheRinger.com).
Given Britell’s tremendous resume, it is unsurprising that “film and music were connected right from the beginning of [his] musical interest.” At the age of five, Britell watched Chariots of Fire and became enamored with the score and, in particular, the film’s theme. It inspired him to tinker on his family’s old upright piano in their New York apartment on West End Avenue.
“I asked my mom if I could take piano lessons—pretty much so I could learn how to play the theme,” Britell laughs.
Within five years, Britell was giving public concerts in New York; in fewer than ten, he began attending Juilliard Pre-College as a concert pianist.
“The best part of [Juillard] was meeting this phenomenal community of other musicians, people my age who were all interested in the same thing. I still play and work and record with all my friends from when I was 14 at Juilliard.”
In fact, Britell’s wife, cellist Caitlin Sullivan, attended Juilliard Pre-College at the same time, though the two never crossed paths as students. Britell and Sullivan only met for the first time after graduating from Juilliard, when both were attending the Aspen Music Festival. Sullivan is featured in both the Beale Street and 12 Years a Slave soundtracks, the cello’s theme being particularly prominent in the former.
After high school, Britell opted not to continue his studies at a conservatory and headed to Harvard because “I had a sense that I might not want to be a full-time concert pianist.”
“I read an amazing biography of [theoretical physicist] Richard Feynman, [who] was initially a math major at MIT when he asked the professor what the point of something they were learning was. And the professor said, ‘If you have to ask, maybe this isn’t the place for you.’ And that’s when Feynman realized that pure math wasn’t his focus. I had a similar revelation. If you have to ask, ‘Do you want to be a concert pianist?,’ maybe this isn’t for you.”
So Britell arrived at Harvard with an open mind, eager to expand the scope of his education and musical training beyond classical piano. Though he did take the iconic course Music 51 with John Stewart (“such an impactful class for me”), Britell first opted to study Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, before switching his concentration to Psychology, with a special interest in neuromusicology.
“A lot of the papers I was writing for psych classes were angled through the lens of: how does the brain understand music? There are still so many very grand mysteries within that field.”
After freshman year, Britell took a year off to consider a career as a full-time pianist. He performed extensively and worked as a cocktail lounge pianist. Upon his return to campus, Britell continued to perform: at a Signet Society annual dinner and during Arts First weekends on campus; as a member of the Harvard Organ Society at Memorial Church and Adolphus Busch Hall.
However, “I had done so much classical before I even came to Harvard,” Britell comments, “and I wanted to explore a lot of things.”
His band, The Witness Protection Program, was one of those things—a significant commitment for the rest of Britell’s college career. The group performed throughout the Northeast at famed venues, including Arlene’s Grocery and Don Hill’s in New York, The Middle East in Cambridge, and Paradise Rock Club in Boston. Writing and performing hip-hop became an exciting evolution beyond Britell’s classical training.
“Over the past forty years, hip-hop is certainly the most impactful new artform that has emerged,” he says. “I was really fascinated by hip-hop and I spent every day thinking beats, exploring how hip-hop music was crafted, and studying it. In those same years, when I was writing music every day for the band, I got into this rhythm, this daily habit of writing music…. We were talking to record labels. Our high point was we opened for Jurassic 5 and Blackalicious at one point. I still have a photo of that in my studio.”
Another memento Britell keeps in his studio is a thank-you card from 2002 Citystep students. He composed the popular group’s dance music for their shows at Harvard, featuring undergraduates performing alongside local public school youth.
Most crucially, it was at Harvard that Britell began scoring film. His dear friend, the late Nick Louvel AB ‘03, “was an amazing director and the first person who ever asked me to score a movie. He was making a $10,000 feature film called Domino One. Basically it was shot at Harvard and all of our friends were in it. I worked on that movie for years.”
Domino One, co-written by Louvel and Nick Garrison AB ‘03, was filmed on a camera lent by Ben Affleck and featured Tatyana Ali AB ‘02 and Natalie Portman AB ‘03.
Britell marks his undergraduate years as being “really packed full of work,” between scoring Louvel’s film and being part of The Witness Protection Program.
“One of the great things is when you have those periods of time when you zone in and you feel very inspired, it becomes a really natural process,” he says. “I really credit the band and working with Nick Louvel on his film to making me be myself as a composer.”
For the first time, Britell began to consider composing as a viable career. He astutely notes that the classical conception of a composer evokes “larger-than-life, almost superhuman figures” such as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.
“I never even really thought of myself as a composer, even though I loved to write music,” Britell admits of his younger self, “because it felt like an impossible title. But when I was writing music all the time, I remember how special that experience was, how inspiring it was.”
But by the time graduation rolled around, The Witness Protection Program was disbanding, and Domino One was still in production. Like most new graduates, Britell was in search of a job. Through “pure serendipity,” Britell met Barry Cohen AB ‘74, MBA/JD ‘77, a fellow Harvard alum, music lover, and composer—who worked in finance. Cohen hired Britell to join Bear Stearns, a position that would land him back in New York City, where he could continue to pursue his music interests outside of work hours. It was a wise decision for that period in Britell’s career.
“In arts and entertainment—in particular film music—it takes a long time to find your footing,” Britell says frankly. “There’s no clear path to that. The job that I did have was fascinating at the time: I learned to trade currencies, and I learned a lot about the world, about international economics. For a period of time, it was a wonderful education in its own right.”
Meanwhile, Britell continued performing throughout New York and was asked to score many old college friends’ short films. His music was featured in Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, Eve, where Britell had a role as a cocktail lounge pianist and played a piece he had composed for the scene also featuring Lauren Bacall. Britell also scored Portman’s short for the anthology film New York, I Love You.
Another close friend Britell has worked with is filmmaker Jack Pettibone Riccobono AB ‘03, scoring his 2015 documentary The Seventh Fire. Their first collaboration occurred much earlier, when Britell acted in one of Riccobono’s shorts made during their sophomore year.
“There was something very special about our group of friends at Harvard,” Britell says fondly. “Not only did we stay in touch, but we all love to work together on things.”
Yet another friend from sophomore year, producer Helen Estabrook AB ‘03 (Casual, Whiplash, Up in the Air), connected Britell with director Damien Chazelle AB ‘07-’08 (La La Land, First Man). Britell ended up producing Chazelle’s short film Whiplash, as well as co-producing the subsequent feature film.
Finally, Britell made the leap to quit his full-time job in finance. Though he and his then-fiancee Sullivan were committed to residing in New York, Britell began making frequent “pilgrimages” to Los Angeles to connect with people who might need a composer.
Yet, when he first met producer Jeremy Kleiner AB ‘98, networking was not on his mind.
“I didn’t know what [Jeremy] did for a living; he didn’t know what I did for a living,” Britell recalls. “We just became friends, and it was a wonderful happenstance that we discovered we could collaborate.”
They first worked together on 12 Years a Slave (a soundtrack that features Sullivan’s cello playing), and then on The Big Short. During their work on the latter film, they were having dinner when Kleiner told Britell about an “unbelievably powerful script” called Moonlight. Britell read it and requested to meet Barry Jenkins.
An initial coffee meeting with Jenkins at the ACE Hotel in DTLA ended up being a multi-hour conversation over wine about music, life, and movies. Fast forward a few years, and moviegoers and music lovers have been graced with Best Picture winner Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, nominated for multiple Golden Globes and Academy Awards, including Best Original Score.
“Music and film are both communal art forms where you get to work and play together,” Britell says.
In the last three years, Britell has received nominations for Best Film Music / Best Original Score by the Academy, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, Critics’ Choice, and more. This year, he had the rare distinction of being shortlisted twice in the same category for Best Original Score, with Vice and If Beale Street Could Talk. At the 91st Academy Awards, he will be up for Beale Street.
But Britell realizes that success and recognition are never guaranteed.
“It’s been really exciting because on these projects; you never know what’s going to happen,” Britell says. “The joy of working on these projects isn’t necessarily the destination. It’s a cliche, but it is the journey. On something like Moonlight, for example, we had no idea what was going to happen with the movie. We just had such a profound experience working on it and wanted to share that. So it’s incredible when these projects are able to take on a life of their own and when people respond to them.”
Britell has said that he will never bring a piece of music to a director unless he himself truly loves it. But a challenge for artists of all types—whether writers, painters, or musicians—can be identifying when their own work has reached that level. When asked about this, Britell (unsurprisingly) offers another thoughtful and nuanced response.
“When something really connects with you, it’s like a physical sensation,” he says. “You get a shiver down your spine. You really feel things. So a lot of [the process] is being open to your own feelings and being honest with yourself about what you like. I like writing music that I want to listen to. I’m making things that I love, in that sense, because I want to experience them over and over again.”
Marrying music to film, an art form in its own right, demands even more of the creators. Britell credits his experience through the ASCAP Columbia University Film Scoring Workshop, under music editor and supervisor Alex Steyermark, as being an influence. In one workshop, Steyermark posed the question: “[The music] is good, but is it really the best music for this sequence?”
The seemingly simple question had a huge impact on Britell.
“I’m not just trying to write a piece of music that works,” Britell declares. “I’m trying to bring something to the director that I feel is truly the best idea I have for whatever the particular moment is. The best idea is one that connects with the film, but also one that I feel intellectually and emotionally invested in.”
Everyone who has worked with Britell, including Adam McKay and Barry Jenkins in their own interviews, speak highly of him as a person, a composer, a collaborator. He no doubt has a strong community of supporters who will be rooting for him at the Oscars on February 24th.
Meanwhile Britell is already thinking about his next project: scoring a film adaptation of the original story of Carmen, to be directed by Benjamin Millepied (Portman’s husband) and produced by Estabrook.
Whatever Britell has on tap to release next, we are all ears. Everything is working. It feels good. Keep going.
(Photos of Nicholas Britell by Dominic Nicholls)