It goes without saying that Barry Jenkins‘ “Moonlight” would not reach the cinematic heights it hits without the contributions of Nicholas Britell. The New York City-based composer is responsible for the film’s incredible score, which audiences first heard in the trailer, that has already been rewarded with Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations.
Jenkins and Britell discuss the film’s music in this exclusive featurette A24 has provided to The Playlist.
Britell first came to prestige prominence for his musical contributions to Steve McQueen‘s “12 Years A Slave,” and since then has scored Natalie Portman‘s “A Tale Of Love and Darkness,” Adam McKay‘s “The Big Short” and Gary Ross‘ “Free State Of Jones,” among other films. It’s his soaring work for “Moonlight,” however, that has really gotten Hollywood’s attention.
We sat down with Britell last month and chatted about how he came on board the project and his unique working relationship with Jenkins writing the film’s score.
The Playlist: When you were making this movie, did you expect this euphoric reaction at all?
Nicholas Britell: This is very surreal. It’s just been so exciting. When you make something like this, the dream is that people will see it and hear it and feel it. I think in some ways there’s no greater joy than when you have these emotions with something. Then you know other people feel what you were feeling. I think the fact that it has really gotten out there and people really are experiencing it — it’s the dream, I think, with any project.
How did Barry describe it when he first asked you to work on it? Or did he just say, “Here’s a script. I’ve been working on this. What do you think?”
It was an interesting process because I was scoring “The Big Short” last summer and I was having dinner with [producer] Jeremy Kleiner from Plan B and he got very emotional at one point and he started to tell me about this screenplay he’d read and how incredibly moved he was by it. He said, “It’s called ‘Moonlight.’ Would you like to read it?” I said, “Absolutely.” When I read it, I was overwhelmed by it. It was so beautiful and so poetic and so intimate and profound. I had actually seen [Jenkins’ previous film] “Medicine For Melancholy.” I was like, “You know what? I would love to meet Barry, if that’s possible.” He connected the two of us and we ended up getting coffee. Coffee turned into a couple glasses of wine.
Last summer I was living out here for “The Big Short” and we met in downtown LA at The Ace at a bar there and had a coffee and it turned into wine, and then we just had this really wonderful wide range [of] conversation. Afterwards, I actually sent him, just unsolicited, a playlist of some music that I was listening to or that I liked. Just…like,…’here is a range of sounds,’ you know? One of the pieces was Mozart, actually. There was some Isley Brothers. It was this big range of stuff, you know? I think the breadth of that is what resonated with him, and we’ve talked about that since then. I think he saw that I was thinking similarly to him about what was possible. It was some of those very early conversations that opened those doors, and then we just started collaborating together.
Before production began, did Barry know what direction he wanted the score to go in? Did he have specific ideas about each scene?
I think one of the biggest mysteries in movies is where and where don’t you put music. I’m very focused on that, and Barry and I together were extremely focused on that. Where do you put music and where do you need silence? Where do you need the world to be the score? So, for example, the song in the diner — Barbara Lewis‘ “Hello Stranger” — that was in the screenplay. Everything I think for Barry was woven into the movie in that way. He was very thoughtful about every detail of the movie. When it came to the score, I think that was something where it was more of a open question of where do you put music in this? What feels right? For that stuff, it’s really a journey. It’s a journey of discovery. It really is where I learned it; in [particular,] I knew the first time I really learned this closely was on “The Big Short” where Adam McKay and Hank [Corwin], the editor, and I basically spent the whole summer together in the same room working together. Trying things out. Hank would do a cut, Adam would have an idea, I would write a piece, put it there, we would joke that it was like playing jazz together.
That is not how most movies are made.
And that’s a movie they were racing until the end to get done, right?
Well, actually, what was interesting was, it came together very quickly. It was almost because things came together so quickly that we then realized we could actually finish it quickly. We didn’t know that would happen. It was [a] sort-of miraculous thing where we’re like, “Oh, my God. This movie is coming together.” It felt really conceptually cohesive very quickly. What I learned from that was the importance of that close experience. That was the takeaway where I saw that when you were in the same room with the director and with the editor, if they’re around, you can come up with ideas and you can try things out. You can make so much progress so quickly that immediately you have a first, a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth idea and you can have a whole sensibility that you can discover. Whereas, if I was in New York and the director’s in LA and we’re emailing things in three weeks, you don’t accomplish what you do in an hour.
One of the things that I told Barry early on was, “Look, we got to spend time in New York together and as much as possible be in the same place.” Barry would fly to New York and we would spend days together in my studio just exploring things. Watching the movie, we would order in Shake Shack and we would just sit there and try music out in different places to a point where it’s like, “What if we did something there? What would it feel like? Or what if we didn’t? How does it feel? Or what if it was a totally different type of a thing? What if instead of a tone, what if it’s actually a pretty big piece there?” We would try those kinds of things. I would write stuff right in front of him.
This might be my lack of memory on the score for “The Big Short,” but the style of music you chose for “Moonlight” is substantially different.
Yes, it is.
If you were to say, what is more you in terms of your style, was “Moonlight” out of your box a little bit or was “The Big Short”?
Honestly, the thing that I find exciting about film music is that I really believe every movie should have a unique score. Every movie should have its own fit. The fun and the adventure is that each movie’s different. “The Big Short” was me and in some ways the emotional connection that I had with some of the music that I ended up writing for “Moonlight” was very, very deep for me. I think they’re both me.
My background is: I started playing the piano when I was five. I saw “Chariots Of Fire” and was obsessed with the music, and went to the piano. We had this old upright piano and I tried to figure out “Chariots Of Fire” and I asked my mom for piano lessons. I am a classical musician. I’m kind of like a classical pianist, but in college I was in a hip-hop band for four years and dove in. I love hip-hop. We performed instrumental hip-hop with two rappers and I think in some ways I’m drawn to a lot of different styles and sounds of music and genres. I think “Big Short” had elements of my aesthetic and so does “Moonlight.”
Is there any one moment of the score where you really nailed it? That you achieved what Barry was looking for?
I think the high point for me, and for Barry, was the swimming sequence. The middle-of-the-world cue, which they used in the trailer for the movie. That was something where, early on, Barry told me about how important that scene was for the film and his view that it had to have a substantial gravitas. It was like a spiritual baptism. This was the first day of the rest of his life. I think what was exciting was talking to Barry and having him really tell me, “Look, go for it. This music can soar.” There was a moment we were in my studio together, actually, and I had this idea of almost like a violin concerto, almost like a cadenza, where a virtuous concerto would really, like, soar over the orchestra. I just started playing…and we had this amazing sort of camaraderie partnership there where he was like, “Keep going.” He was conducting me and I sort of wrote it in front of him like that. He just looked at me and was like, “I think we got it.”
By the way, how big was the orchestra for that?
For that piece, that was our largest-scope orchestra. That was about 20 players and then [a] violin soloist. I conducted, it was about 20 players and on top of it elements of that I wove in there were some string parts that I recorded, so there was this multi-part process of making that track. There was this big violin, there’s an orchestra, and there are these almost sonic layers. For example, you hear that sort-of — it almost sounds like air rustling? Sort-of shaking?
That’s a violin and a cello just shaking back and forth with the tremolo on the string, and that sound that you first hear at the water actually comes back again when Chiron is walking to the beach and he’s going to encounter Kevin. You almost have this sonic signature of the sea that comes back when he’s going back, there’s this linkage. Elements like [that are] woven into the swimming sequence. If I added all the layers up, [there are] a lot of pieces of it.
“Moonlight” is still playing in theaters across the country.