Fri. Oct 30th, 2020

Interview: Emmy-winning composer Nicholas Britell, the secret weapon of ‘Succession’

Nicholas Britell’s biography is almost as long as Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The baby-faced 39-year old Emmy winner, born and raised in New York City, was destined for music at an early age, settling for no less than prep at Hopkins School, Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division and Harvard University where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

He is a Steinway Artist and a Founding Member of L.A. Dance Project. He is also Chairman of the Board of the New York-based ensemble Decoda, the first-ever affiliate ensemble of Carnegie Hall. He was awarded the Henry Mancini Fellowship from the ASCAP Foundation in December 2012 and also won the ASCAP/Doddle Award for Collaborative Achievement.

He’s also a film producer. Britell produced the short film Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, which won the Jury Award for Best US Fiction Short at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. After the initial success of the Whiplash short, he served as a co-producer on the feature film Whiplash which also won Sundance’s 2014 Jury Prize and its Audience Award, and then went on to win three Academy Awards and be nominated for Best Picture.

Britell’s big commercial break came when he was asked to add compositions to 2013’s Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave from Steve McQueen (and where he met his wife, fellow musician Caitlin Sullivan). The two had an existing relationship when Britell had scored McQueen’s 2002 short film Caribs’ Leap. For that film he composed and arranged the on-camera music including the violin performances, spiritual songs, work songs, and dances.

Since then he’s given us memorable work from Oscar-winning films like 2015’s The Big Short (where the Adam McKay-Succession connection comes in), composed the original score for Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes, and also wrote and produced, with singer Sara Bareilles, an original song for the film, “If I Dare.” But it was working with Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins on his pair of Oscar-winning films, Moonlight (the 2016 Best Picture winner) and 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk (which earned Regina King the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) that made him a household name, earning him two Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe nomination and a BAFTA nomination.

Right in between there came Succession, the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell produced HBO drama about a megarich American family that runs a global media company along the lines of Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. He earned his first Emmy nomination and win last year for the show’s indelible main title theme and I talked with him about the transition from season one to season two, his love of rap and hip-hop, his lasting with with Jenkins (and what’s coming up), composing under quarantine and yes, “L to the OG.”

Erik Anderson: Hello.

Nicholas Britell: Hello? Hey.

Hey Nick, how are you?

I’m good. How are you?

I am doing well, actually. I’m getting there.

Good. Good to hear.

How are you holding up during this most unprecedented time?

We are hanging in. I’ve been in the apartment for, I don’t even know how many weeks now. I think it’s like 10 weeks maybe. Yeah. Like 10 weeks, I guess. So I’ve been in the apartment for 10 weeks and I’ve been outside three times. So that’s, maybe says how … where my brain is.

Oh, my goodness. Okay.

We’ve been real, real stringent on our lockdown, and we started going out with masks maybe just for a little walk here or there, that kind of thing. Caitlin’s a little more of an athlete than I am.

I’m sort of a … I’m very an indoors creature. My natural habitat is staying inside.

I love it. All right. So, it’s not too different or too bad.

It’s not. I think I would say that I never imagined that I would be indoors for this extent. I’ve definitely gotten … Prior to the virus, I would go days at a time being inside, but I don’t think I ever imagined it would be for months on end, but it is what it is. And actually, I mean, people are really … From everything we can tell, people are really following all the prescriptions here and the regulations, and everyone’s wearing masks from what we can see. And it’s a good affirmation of everything.

Definitely, definitely is. I’m glad to hear that, so that we can all kind of move together forward.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Are you in L.A.?

No, I’m up in Northern California-

Oh, wow.

… in Sonoma County. And I live in a really tiny town, so we’ve had a lot-

Oh, wow.

We’ve had a lot of freedom that you wouldn’t have in a larger city, because we can be spread out more, and because there’s just not that many people, and it’s normally a very touristy town. And with no tourism, it’s just us.

Right, right, right. You know, the actual population.

Yeah, exactly. So we’ve had a lot more physical freedom and geographical freedom and, like in New York City or Los Angeles.

For sure. Yeah. We’re definitely … I don’t think I’ve ever imagined being like inside for this long and realizing that where you are really matters right now. Friends who are in Los Angeles, for example, I think being able to just go to a backyard in the middle of the day, easily and safely. It’s definitely a luxury that we do not have here.

Yeah. For sure. Before digging into Succession, I wanted to just talk a little bit about Moonlight and Beale Street.

Sure.

Something really unique happened in that, the impact of your work on those has really lasted long after the films. I’ve seen pieces, and I think you have as well, used in many videos and tributes in a way, that’s just really lasted. How does it feel to have that kind of legacy?

I mean, thank you. It’s a really, really deep honor, and I think I’m still processing it in a way, because it’s never really happened to me before. I think growing up, you always dream of people wanting to listen to your music. I think every artist who’s creating work, wants to share it and wants, I think, in the ideal, for people to feel what they felt when they made it.

I think that’s kind of that that highest ideal of art is that sharing of a feeling, where you can communicate what you were going through, or what you were imagining, or the emotion that you had, and have that translate and have that be felt. And I think the extent of this and the way that people have taken these works into their own lives has been … it’s been really moving, and it continues to be.

I mean, Barry and I have talked about it, and I think the way that people have … People have gotten married to some of the music, and people have made family videos. And obviously, there have been tributes, and it’s really almost like a … There aren’t really words for what that means to us, I think.

And in so many ways too, I think we’re all asking ourselves as artists today, what can we be doing in this world, a world of real, real change and a real trouble and difficulties? And I think there is something to be said for that power of art, hopefully, that art can kind of combine ideas and feelings. And I think for me, that’s something that I’ve really … I’ve thought about more and more, the sort of way that there’s something about when you feel something that it can communicate it maybe, or maybe help understand at a deeper level an idea. I think we intellectually can understand things, but I think we can also emotionally and almost like physically understand things. And I think art can be that, can be sort of a vessel for that in a way.

So I think in a sense, like when people are taking this music or these films into their lives, I think it’s because it’s resonating in some way for them. And I think for us, it just makes us want to double down and do even more. I know that there’s so much more to be done and to say. And it just feels like it’s a very special, I think, reaffirmation to us, and it’s very humbling. It’s really, really humbling, I think. I don’t think there’s any other word for it. We’re deeply honored that people want to have this music in their lives.

Yeah. I was just talking to Barry a couple of days ago, and we were sharing stuff back and forth and it was … It’s still remarkable. It’s really remarkable.

Thank you, man. I know. No, I mean, it means a lot to us. We are continually humbled by it. There’s no point where we take it for granted. You know?

Sure.

I think any person who listens to it, and it moved them, I mean, that’s … It’s newly special to us, I would say.

Alright, let’s dive into some Succession.

Awesome.

So, Succession is your first television show. How did you approach the second season in order to not really repeat yourself?

Yeah, like thinking about … I think in a lot of these projects, I love sort of zooming out and trying to think about the structure of like, what are we trying to do? And television, because there’s so much real estate, does increase the complexity of how you approach it.

Film in such a more condensed medium in a way, where you’re expressing something in 90 minutes, or 120 minutes, versus doing it over 20 hours, let’s say. And I think that with season two, I definitely wanted to have it feel like it was the same show kind of re-ignite some of those same feelings or moves that we had, with the theme from season one. There was never really a moment where we were like, “Let’s change the theme.”

I think we always … We felt that it was really kind of hitting at the right wavelengths. So for me, it was about, what could I do to these chords? What could I do to these melodies, where they veer off and go into a whole other set of avenues, but then perhaps they come back and we sort of wink at them again?

I never wanted to feel as if we had gotten somewhere else and not kind of connected back. And early on, when I first talked to Jesse, the first conversation I had with him, actually, I played him a couple ideas that I’d been having. And the thought process was like, what if this is the second movement of the symphony that we’re making together? Where the second movement still part of the same piece, but it’s a different tone. It’s perhaps more brooding, darker. Kendall, at the beginning of season two, is in such a melancholy place. So perhaps it’s a little melancholy there. And how do we start that, and then still kind of wind back?

So there’s a track … It’s actually really one of the first things you hear in the first episode of season two, where it’s a track called Rondo in F minor for Piano and Orchestra and I sort of nickname it “Kendall’s Journey.” And to me, that was kind of the theme that I was going to take begin this new season. And as the scene evolves, it first sort of quiet and inward and melancholic, but then towards the end of the piece, you start hearing that windy kind of melody that’s in the main theme. And it’s different, but it’s sort of slithering around and the chords are a little different.

And then there’s one sort of set of bars, where all of a sudden it kind of asserts itself again. And at the end, you’re like, “Oh, it’s Succession.”

So I felt that was kind … that was some of the idea that like, I didn’t … The last thing I wanted to do was have it feel like we were just repeating where we had been, because we’re not. It’s a totally new season. Characters going in different directions. The stakes are heightened. There’s more at play, I guess I would say, in season two. There’s so many different directions that the power dynamics are moving. There’s the Pierce family. There’s so many other things happening.

And so, I think in some sense too, I wanted the music to represent the complexity of that, where … One of those ways I did that actually was, there was a set of pieces that I sort of leaned into this feeling of almost like the Baroque era of music. You know?

Yeah.

Like in season one, I was definitely channeling kind of late 1700s harmonies. I always like how different eras of music have different sounds. And not just sounds, there’s different kinds of chords and chord progressions that people are drawn to in different time periods. It’s an interesting thing to think about, like how certain chords in certain periods kind of meant something in a different way.

And at the end of the 1700s, there were certain chord progressions that to me, they had a function in the music. They’re like a kind of culminating function. And that core progression that I’m using to me feels very much like it in season one, where there’s a sort of drama to it. There’s a kind of heightened drama, I guess I’d say. And in season two, I wanted to go back even a little further in classical history, sort of a feeling of Baroque almost like a hundred years before that.

And I guess the metaphor there is that if the Roy family imagined this sort of dark courtly sound for themselves, in season two, it’s going even further, it’s even more old school and kind of a stark in that approach. And that music itself has a huge amount of kind of inner interplay, I guess, where there’s … the sort of metaphor is a concerto Grosso, which this sort of older classical Baroque form, where you’d have multiple instruments kind of soloing against each other over a base of instrument. And that kind of metaphor, the idea that there’s multiple kinds of people vying for power over this dark Baroque basis. That felt like a good metaphor for where we were.

So, season two is definitely more kind of like arch Baroque. There’s definitely that more melancholic brooding feeling, but it’s still Succession. There still are these recurrences of some of those chords from season one. And yeah, and there’s still some beats some 808’s.

And as individual characters’ motivations and growth changes, their themes are as well. So there’s an adaptation of that.

Absolutely. And that’s an interesting thing, because, I think about that in every project, and we’ve talked about this in the past. I mean, I feel like for me, every new project is a new opportunity to kind of learn …

So what we hear with Kendall, isn’t like a Kendall theme. It’s evolving over the course of the whole show. What we hear around Kendall might eventually recur around a different character. There’s a theme that I call Shiv’s Move, and that theme, it definitely occurs initially around Shiv and the thought process of ‘will she takeover?’, but it’s not only for Shiv, and I think that’s one of the key things, it’s kind of the cards get dealt, but they keep moving to different players over time. So the music itself is constantly hopefully changing its context and its meaning. And I think one of the fun things for me is always figuring out when you have certain of these ideas and they appear in one place, figuring out when can they come back and almost that recurrence, when can it reveal something to us.

I was as surprised at the ending of the season as anybody. I didn’t know that it was going to go there. I was unaware that the betrayal was going to happen. I remember when I first watched it I was stunned by it; and in exploring the music, one of the things that I was really excited by was the last thing you hear in the season is a cello concerto version of that first Kendall theme that you hear in the very beginning of the first episode of season two, so there is this kind of symmetry over the whole season, and yet it’s different. It’s not what we’ve heard at the beginning. It’s changed. It’s kind of deeper, and richer, and more dramatic to me. So those are the kinds of things I would love that kind of parallel architecture that we can do with this score, that lives it side by side with the visual story.

Speaking of Kendall, we obviously have to talk about “L to the OG.” Oh my God. It’s so much fun. I have so many questions. What was the origin of it? Was it something you and Jesse [Armstrong] worked together on? How did Jeremy Strong come in to rehearse this then, how did that all work out?

No, absolutely. I did not know, when I started working on the scene, I didn’t know that was going to happen either. And I remember Jesse reaching out to me and saying, “So, you know Kendall’s going to rap in this one.” And he had a really specific note to me, which was, it has to be totally cringe-worthy, but it also has to feel kind of really well executed, it can’t just be cringe-worthy because Kendall’s serious in his endeavor there. And the show, I think the L to the OG for me is kind of like a metaphor for the whole show in a way where it does have that cringe feeling where you look at it and you say ‘this is absurd’.

And yet it’s taken totally seriously in the show. Kendall takes it seriously and musically we take it seriously. I think if any one of those things wasn’t true, I don’t think it would work. That was the tricky task was to figure out how to do something that was both cringe-worthy and kind of executed well. I thought to myself, I’m basically Kendall’s age, I’m 39. And I was thinking to myself, Kendall’s a huge hip hop fan. And we’ve seen that pilot episode of season one, you see Kendall rapping to himself. And so I said, when I was in college I was a huge hip hop fan and I was in a hip hop band [The Witness Protection Program] and I was making beats every day for hours a day. I was like, maybe I had a beat that I made years ago that perhaps we could imagine was the type of thing Kendall was into, or would’ve wanted to make.

So I found an old track of mine that was a remix I did of a Bach prelude where I made it much more kind of hooky and hip hop feeling. And I sent that to Jesse and I was like, I think this could work. It has this kind of cool mixture of elements and they were totally into it. So then Adam McKay and Will Tracy sent lyrics over. And Jeremy Strong reached out and he was like, “Hey, can we talk about this?” So we got on the phone and he was like “How should we do this?”, I said, “Here’s the track and here’s the lyrics. And you just kind of do it” and Jeremy was like “Well, would you do it for me?”

And I was like, “What do you mean?” And he’s like “Would you do a demo of it kind of, would you rap it for me? And maybe I could hear that.” I said, “Okay, if I do this in the entire history of the future, no one will ever hear this recording. As long as you assure me.”

You need some rock solid NDAs there. (Laughs)

(Laughs) Literally I was like, “As long as you assure me no one ever in the history of mankind will hear this,” so he promised, and I kind of did the track and I rapped it out and I put on the beat and I sent it to Jeremy and Jeremy rehearsed and practiced to that track. And then he did it live, that whole video of him.

Mm-hmm.

It was a big question of how to do that, but he just went there and acting and rapping or our different skillsets, being a great actor. Being a great rapper you need to amazing rhythmic ability, you need to be able to execute this kind of much more complicated performative art. And Jeremy just did it, that was live in that whole lot of space. So huge credit to Jeremy Strong for pulling this off entirely; and the little melody that Kendall kind of pseudo sings on the chorus with the “L to the OG,” that was all Jeremy. He actually came up with that. That was his idea to do that little melody there. In the best sense it was a real collaboration where everyone brought something to it, from McKay and Will Tracey with the lyrics and Jesse and Jeremy and it was this huge team effort.

Then once it was finished, our amazing post team, our music editors, Todd Kasow down John Finklea and the sound team, there was a lot of work to just get the sound to feel strong but also live and capture that. It was a big orchestration and it was exciting to see it all come together.

And it is incredibly successful and you’re right. It can’t only be cringe-worthy. The best satire has to have a respect and appreciation for the thing that it’s satirizing to be able to do it well.

Exactly.

I think it’s why “L to the OG” is as effective as it is because yeah, it’s a little cringey, but you’re looking at somebody that has passion for what he’s doing, while at the same time, the relationship with all of the kids with their father is this sort of like subservient one up for where each other are trying to one-up each other and it’s amazing.

Right. And each trying to, Kendall’s legitimately trying to create what is his personal tribute to Logan and Kendall took it seriously. And Jeremy and I talked about that, Kendall would work really hard at it to get that and to have confidence in it. And for me to, I think the fascinating thing with Succession is it’s continually exciting, but it’s continually a challenge as a composer because there are just L to the OG, there are these balancing of forces that I’m trying to navigate. The show has to be funny at times. And I never want to step on the toes of the humor. I’m very worried about that. I don’t want to cause a problem in that regard, but also the show is really serious.

To see the world today, with concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people is a major global issue. So the show at base is a very serious show and there should be a serious underpinning to it all. So musically for me, like you were saying, I think that the answer that I come to often is just that if the music takes itself seriously, that’s the right approach. And then when it needs to be absurd, the music should take itself even more seriously.

Before we wrap up, I just wanted to ask, even though obviously the third season of Succession is on hold now because of production being on hold, you are working on The Underground Railroad right now.

Yeah.

You started composing that before it was even finished, right? How has that been while sheltering in place?

So I started composing even before Barry had really started shooting or right around that time.

He and I were talking about that too.

Knock on wood, luckily we’ve been working on it for months and months, even prior to what’s happened to the world and I think for me that’s been one of the most wonderful things about having a creative partnership with Barry is, the ability to really explore these ideas over a long period of time, see how they evolve.

Obviously, Underground Railroad is a huge project and there is a lot of musical exploration that we still have to do.

But one of the things that we’ve discovered so far is that the early ideas that we have, the early ideas and that we’ve explored have been really connecting so far. I’m ultra excited and I’m hoping that that once things can safely resolve themselves, I’m hoping to be able to see Barry again and get in the studio at some point. Because Barry and I, we do have such a close working relationship and being able to be in the same room is really important for both of us. So I’m looking forward to the day when that is safe and possible.

Definitely. I’m looking forward to that as well, we all are. Nick, thanks so much.

Of course. Thank you. Thank you. Good talking to you.

You too.

Keep in touch. We’ll catch up more for sure.

Will do, take care.

All right. Take care. You too. Okay.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nicholas Britell is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series (Original Dramatic Score) and Outstanding Music and Lyrics for the song “L to the OG,” both from the second season of Succession.

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