'Beale Street' And 'Vice' Composer Isn't Afraid To Play The 'Wrong' Notes

Jan 30, 2019
Originally published on January 31, 2019 12:06 pm

From the cello-laden soundtrack of If Beale Street Could Talk to the symphony of "wrong notes" he created for Vice, composer Nicholas Britell seeks out sounds that capture each film's essence. His process involves many discussions with a film's director before the film has even been shot — and a lot of experimenting.

For If Beale Street Could Talk, Britell and director Barry Jenkins initially thought the score would emphasize horns and brass. But then Britell played a few of his compositions alongside some of the early sequences of the film, and realized the tone was off.

"It just wasn't quite right," Britell says. "It was definitely missing something." So Britell took the music he'd created and began writing it for cello instead. Something clicked: "The cellos really became for us this symbol of love, because the movie is about love and injustice."

Britell is up for an Academy Award for his work on If Beale Street Could Talk and was also nominated for an Oscar in 2017 for his score for Moonlight. But he wasn't always a successful film composer. He once worked as a currency trader on Wall Street — and he also composed telephone hold music.

"I wrote this kind of almost, like, spa-like music and all my friends would call this restaurant and ask to be placed on hold," he says. "I loved it. I just loved writing music."


Interview highlights

On why the score for If Beale Street Could Talk isn't jazz, which is what the characters in the film listen to

I knew that Barry was interested in having on the record player [in the film], for example, Miles Davis' "Blue in Green" or John Coltrane, "I Wish I Knew." For me, I think there's always this question of, "Do you want to hear what you're seeing?" In some places, in certain films, the music score will enhance what you're seeing, but I often find that when you hear something that may be different than what you're seeing ... neurologically, you hear something that's different, and so your brain kind of creates a new association in a way. The way to put it is: You don't necessarily want to put a hat on a hat, you know? So sometimes you say, "What is this other sound world that we could create?" And Barry and I spend a lot of time experimenting.

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On writing the opening theme for Vice

[Director Adam McKay's] instinct was: This story is so large, not only is Vice the story of Dick Cheney and this man's rise through Washington and the repercussions of his actions, it's also really the story of America over the past 50, 60 years — and thus it's clearly also the story of America's impact on the world over those years. So this is such a large story that Adam felt we need a symphonic scope. "Why don't you write a symphony for this movie?" That's an amazing opportunity, but it's also a question of, "What does that symphony sound like, were I to write a symphony?" ...

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I think we have in our back of our minds a sense of: Is there an American symphonic sound? I think there are certain things that we may think of when someone says, "What's an American symphonic sound?" And I think there's also an idea we have of a hero's journey. What does a hero's journey sound like? Maybe it's a brass fanfare, or something like that, but I felt right away that this isn't that movie.

I actually started to experiment with ideas where I could take a melodic idea, let's say, and what if I inserted the "wrong notes." What if I said: Here's a heroic theme, but these notes are wrong, so we're constantly feeling a rub. - Nicholas Britell

This is a movie that has dissonance to it. The dissonance has to be integral and woven into the nature of the notes themselves. So I actually started to experiment with ideas where I could take a melodic idea, let's say, and what if I inserted the "wrong notes." What if I said: Here's a heroic theme, but these notes are wrong, so we're constantly feeling a rub. There's a dissonance somewhere, and I actually use dissonance as a guiding principle where every piece in this score has a dissonance.

On writing "Little's Theme" for Moonlight

We put the violin very, very close to the mic and I asked [violinist] Tim [Fain] to basically play the notes as quietly as he possibly could while still having the confidence of the note, feeling, because you can play it so quietly that it loses some of its inner strength. So he found this pressure where it was just at the point where it felt confident and yet it was so quiet, and because it was close-mic you had the sound of the bow hair. ... I like hearing the sound of the instruments and hearing the noises and the textures that instruments make, hearing the air in the room. I think that makes it feel real and beautiful to me.

YouTube

So then I took the violin that we'd recorded very closely and I ran it through some reverb, where there's actually a subtle amount of very long-tail reverb on it too, which just gives the violin this extra feeling of almost like a mist or something around the notes. There is that feeling of tenderness, hopefully. There's an intimacy that I wanted that to feel like. ... Once I knew "Little's Theme" connected with the picture, then it became the question of, "How do we evolve this over the course of the movie? Where do we go from there?" And that was when Barry and I really began more fully exploring this idea of chopped and screwed music.

On using a "chopped and screwed" technique on Moonlight

In these in these early conversations I had with Barry, he was telling me about how much he loves chopped and screwed music, which is a style of Southern hip-hop where you take a recording and you slow it down. And when you slow the recording down, the pitch goes down, and what it does to the audio texture is that it just deepens and enriches it. And Barry loves listening to music that's been chopped and screwed.

It's incredible when you hear music that's chopped and screwed. It's the same but it's different. ... In a way, by slowing things down and enriching it, it almost makes the music have an even deeper gravitas to it. And so we had this idea of: What if I were to write a score for Moonlight? What if I was going to write and record the music and then what would happen if I actually chopped and screwed my own recordings that I made? It sounds cool. It's an interesting idea, but ultimately the test is, does it work for the movie? Is it right for the picture? Does it tell us something latent within the movie? ... We discovered that it did work, and Barry got so excited about these possibilities, and so I started taking my themes in the music that I was writing and chopping and screwing them.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, composer Nicholas Britell, is nominated for an Oscar for his score for the film "If Beale Street Could Talk." He wrote the score for "Vice," which is nominated for best picture and his score from "Moonlight" was nominated for an Oscar. He also wrote the music for "The Big Short," Adam McKay's comedy explaining the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. When McKay asked Britell to compose the music, McKay didn't know that Britell had formerly worked as a currency trader at Bear Stearns and was fluent in the language of Wall Street.

Other music by Britell you might know include the theme for the HBO series "Succession" and spirituals and work songs he wrote for the film "12 Years A Slave." Britell had once planned to be a classical concert pianist. He studied at Juilliard's pre-college program. At Harvard, he studied psychology and the neuropsychology of music - how music works on our brain and therefore our emotions.

Let's start with a scene from "If Beale Street Could Talk," which is adapted from the James Baldwin novel of the same name, set in Harlem in the early '70s. The main characters - a 19-year-old woman Tish and a 22-year-old man Fonny - have become lovers after being best friends since childhood. But they're forced to communicate from opposite sides of thick glass after he's wrongly accused of rape and sent to jail. In a flashback scene, she's on the subway with Fonny, thinking about the time when they were young children and took baths together. Listen for Britell's underscoring, the music underneath the voiceover.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK")

KIKI LAYNE: (As Tish Rivers) I don't remember that we ever had any curiosity concerning each other's bodies. Fonny loved me too much. And that meant that there had never been any occasion for shame between us. We were a part of each other - flesh of each other's flesh, which we so took for granted that we never thought of the flesh. And yet, it was no surprise to me when I finally understood that he was the most beautiful person I had seen in all my life.

GROSS: Nicholas Britell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. That music is so beautiful that we heard under that scene. And it's so fitting for her recalling this beautiful time in her life about a person who she's so in love with. The music you composed for this movie isn't the music that the characters would be listening to. The music they or their parents would be listening to, like Coltrane or Miles, Nina Simone - I think I heard Al Green in the background...

NICHOLAS BRITELL: Yes.

GROSS: ...Are played on records that they're listening to. Beale Street, from which the title derives and Harlem where the film is set, they're both famous for jazz. So it must have been a very conscious decision not to write a jazz score. So tell us about that decision.

BRITELL: You know, my goal is to try to find a sound that hopefully feels like it resonates in some way with the movie. And I find oftentimes that sound isn't necessarily something that seems clear at first. You know, with "Beale Street," it's my second chance to work with Barry Jenkins. And, you know, one of the wonderful things that we get the chance to do is we talk before he shoots the film actually.

So Barry on "Beale Street" said to me that he was hearing the sound of brass and horns. That was that was really what he said. You know, and I think there was an idea of jazz and mid-20th century jazz. But he said, you know, I'm hearing brass and horns. And so I went off and, you know, started experimenting with trumpets and flugelhorn and cornets and French horns. And I remember I wrote some music and hadn't seen any footage. And then I played the pieces for Barry - just a couple pieces - and he loved them. But when we put them up against the early - some early sequences the movie, it just wasn't quite right. It was definitely missing something.

And, you know, through our process and through, you know, exploring the film together, we discovered that if I actually took that music that I'd written for brass and started writing it for cellos, in particular, that is how we sort of open this door to this feeling of love and this - you know, the cellos really became for us this symbol of love because the movie is about love and injustice.

GROSS: I still want to know why you didn't do something that was more specifically jazz.

BRITELL: I think that in the world of the characters in the film I knew that Barry was interested in having, on the record player, for example, Miles Davis "Blue In Green" or John Coltrane, you know, "I Wish I Knew." And for me, I think there is - you know, there's always this question of, you know, do you want to hear what you're seeing, in a sense, you know? Like, we - you know, in some places in certain films, you know, you - the music - the score will enhance what you're seeing. But I often find that when you hear something that may be different than what you're seeing, it almost gives you this - almost like neurologically, like, you hear something that's different, and so your brain kind of creates a new association in a way.

GROSS: If I'm hearing it correctly, the opening line of that theme is in a minor key, but the last note on that first line is, like, a major chord.

BRITELL: So it's interesting you bring that up because, you know, I'm very - I guess, you could say I'm sort of obsessed with the feelings that different harmonies can give us. And the opening chord in that piece is a - it's interesting because it's a C minor seven chord, but it's actually in an inversion. So in a way, it kind of functions as both almost a major or a minor. And there are a lot of moments in the score where I'm kind of playing with both of those.

GROSS: So the music you wrote for "Beale Street," it strikes me that you didn't want the music to overpower the characters. I'm going to compare that to music that you wrote for "Vice," the Adam McKay movie about Dick Cheney. And I want to play, like, the opening credit theme...

BRITELL: Sure, OK.

GROSS: ...For "Vice." And this is - it's a very turbulent theme. You know, it's piano, and it becomes increasingly discordant as it goes on. And, you know, it basically says, like, things aren't going to be going quite right.

BRITELL: Exactly.

GROSS: So let's hear the opening credit theme from "Vice." And this music is composed by my guest Nicholas Britell, and the movie is nominated for an Oscar for best film.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "'VICE' OPENING CREDIT THEME")

GROSS: That's part of the opening credit music from the film "Vice," music composed by my guest Nicholas Britell. So I love that piece of music I'd listen to that in a concert hall.

BRITELL: Thank you, thank you.

GROSS: So tell us about what you were trying to do with it.

BRITELL: So that actually was the last thing I wrote for "Vice" before we finished the film. And from the very beginning - you know, I'd talk to Adam McKay, our director of "Vice." And I'd first worked with Adam on "The Big Short." And from early on, his first idea - you know, we were talking about those first ideas that kind of - you know, you receive this guidance from a director when they have an instinct.

And his instinct was this is - this story is so large - you know, not only is "Vice" the story of of Dick Cheney, this man and his rise through Washington and the repercussions of his actions. It's also really the story of America over the past 50, 60 years. And thus it's clearly also the story of America's impact on the world over those years.

So this is such a large story that Adam felt, you know, we need a symphonic scope. It has to be - you know, we should have a large - why don't you write a symphony, you know, for this movie? And that's a - you know, it's an amazing opportunity, but it's also a question of, well, what does that symphony sound like were I to write a symphony? And so I thought to myself - you know, I think we have in our - in the back of our minds a sense of, is there an American symphonic sound, you know?

I think there's certain things that we may think of when we - when someone says, what's an American symphonic sound? And I think there's also an idea we have of like a hero's journey. What does a hero's journey sound like? You know, maybe it's a brass fanfare or something like that. But I felt right away that this isn't that movie. You know, this is a movie that has dissonance to it. It's - the dissonance has to be integral and woven into the nature of the notes themselves.

So I actually started to experiment with ideas where I could take a melodic idea, let's say. And what if I inserted the, quote, "wrong notes"? (Laughter) You know, what if I said, here's a heroic theme. But these notes are wrong, so we're constantly feeling a rub, you know? There's a dissonance somewhere. And I actually use dissonance as a - sort of a guiding principle, where every piece in the score has a dissonance.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Britell. And he writes movie music. He composed the score for "If Beale Street Could Talk." And he's nominated for an Oscar for that. He composed the music for the current film "Vice." And "Vice" is nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. He was also nominated for an Oscar for the score for "Moonlight." We're going to hear more of his music after we come back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "KEEPERS OF THE KEYS AND SEALS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Britell. He's nominated for an Oscar for composing the score for "If Beale Street Could Talk." He also wrote the score for the current film "Vice" about Dick Cheney. And that film is nominated for best picture. He was also nominated for an Oscar for "Moonlight."

Let's talk about writing the score for "Moonlight." The first thing I want to do is play the theme. And I should say there's three different versions of this theme because the film is about three different chapters in this character's life. And the character early on in the film, in Chapter One, he's a young, African-American boy growing up in Florida. His mother is a crack addict. And he's a small and very, very quiet boy. There's a lot going on beneath the surface, but he doesn't say very much. So this is his theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "LITTLE'S THEME")

GROSS: The violin is played so quietly and tentatively. It's very much like the boy, who's afraid - or too afraid or too shy or too inhibited to really speak much. And it's like the violinist is almost afraid to fully bow the strings, to fully, like, connect with the strings.

BRITELL: That's such a great point that you bring that up because that really was what I was going for there. The violin's played by Tim Fain, who's just a stunning violinist. And the way we recorded it, actually, was we put the violin very, very close to the mic. And I asked Tim to basically play the notes as quietly as he possibly could while still having the confidence of the note feeling, you know, because you can play it so quietly that it loses some of its inner strength. But so he found this pressure where it was just at the point where it felt confident, and yet it was so quiet. And because it was close-miked, you had the sound of the bow hair.

You know, I like keeping - in a lot of recordings, actually, really, as almost an aesthetic choice, I like hearing the sound of the instruments and hearing the, you know, hearing the noises and the textures that instruments make, you know, hearing the air in the room, hearing the - you know, I think that makes it feel real and beautiful to me. And so then I took the violin that we'd recorded very closely. And I ran it through some reverb, where there's actually a subtle amount of very long tail reverb on it, too, which just gives the violin this extra feeling of - I don't know - almost like a mist or something around the notes.

And I - you know, there is that feeling of tenderness, hopefully. There's this feeling of - you know, there's a - there's an intimacy that I wanted that to feel like. And Tim just played that so beautifully. And that became, in a way - you know, once we knew "Little's Theme" connected with the picture, then it became the question of, how do we evolve this over the course of the movie? You know, where do we go from there? And that was when Barry and I really began more fully exploring this idea of chopped and screwed music, which was one of the first...

GROSS: Explain what chopped and screwed is.

BRITELL: Sure, sure. So in these early conversations I had with Barry, he was telling me about how much he loves chopped and screwed music, which is a style of Southern hip-hop where you take a recording, and you slow it down. And when you slow the recording down, the pitch goes down. And what it does to the audio texture is that it just deepens and enriches it. And Barry loves listening to music that's been chopped and screwed.

And, you know, it's incredible when you hear music that's chopped and screwed. It just completely - it's the same, but it's different. And it, actually - in a way, by slowing things down and enriching it, you have this - it almost makes the music have an even deeper gravitas to it.

And so we had this idea of, what if I were to write a score for "Moonlight"? What if I was going to write and record the music? And then what would happen if I actually chopped and screwed my own recordings that I made? And, again, you know, that's one of those - it sounds cool. It's an interesting idea. But ultimately the test is, does it work for the movie (laughter), you know? Is it right for the picture? Does it tell us something latent within the movie?

And we discovered that it did work. And Barry got so excited about these possibilities. And so I started taking my themes in the music that I was writing and chopping and screwing them. So I was saying, well, what if I take this? And what if I slow this down? And what if - where does this track go if I really, you know, screw it down? And it's, like, this incredibly distorted texture.

GROSS: So we've made a mix of two of the three versions of the theme that you have. Again, there's three chapters of the movie - one where the main character is a young boy, one where he's in high school and one after he's gotten out of prison. That's the part that we're hearing, after he's gotten out of jail and after he's become a drug dealer.

So the first part of this mix is going to be a short excerpt of what we just heard a little earlier. And then it's going to go into the chopped and screwed version where everything is slowed down and becomes deeper as well. And I think maybe you've added some instruments on top of it too.

BRITELL: So "Black's Theme" is actually orchestrated for cellos, and it's in the same key as "Little's Theme." But it is then chopped and screwed down. So it's in D major, which is where "Little's Theme" is, and then it's actually pitched down to A.

GROSS: OK, and the second version sounds not only like it has more gravitas, which is I think the word that you used, but it also sounds mournful.

BRITELL: Yeah.

GROSS: It sounds sad. So let's hear it. This is the chapter one version of the theme and the chapter three as an adult version of the theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "'MOONLIGHT' THEME")

GROSS: That's really beautiful.

BRITELL: Thank you.

GROSS: So are you interested in the French impressionist composers? I almost feel like I hear Satie in that.

BRITELL: Oh, you know what? That era is such a beautiful moment in time. And I love the sort of this sort of - you're probably thinking of the "Gymnopedie," you know, those, like, miniatures, you know. I think also there is an element almost of - sometimes if I'm thinking back on, you know, the things that feels like there's almost like a mazurka - like, almost, like, a Chopin mazurka, kind of miniature feeling too. You know, sometimes there's a - I always am drawn, I think, to composers who also have that kind of tenderness, I think, in their approach. You know, with Satie, there really was that simplicity that I thought was so beautiful. And, you know, obviously I think in the 19th century, classical music took on such gargantuan proportions at times. And I love when composers go in the opposite direction, and there's actually this purity or simplicity to it. Mozart would do that too, where, you know, he would have a piece where it could be just a few notes. You know, sometimes that's, for me, even more powerful than if there are 1,000 notes.

GROSS: My guest this composer Nicholas Britell. His score for "If Beale Street Could Talk" is nominated for an Oscar. He also wrote the score for "Vice," which is nominated for best picture. We'll talk more and hear more of his music after a break. And John Powers will review the new Netflix drama series "Black Earth Rising" about the search for justice after the Rwandan genocide. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK SATIE'S "GYMNOPEDIE NO. 1")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Nicholas Britell. He's nominated for an Oscar for his score for the film "If Beale Street Could Talk." He wrote the score for "Vice," which is nominated for best picture. His score for "Moonlight" was nominated for an Oscar. He also wrote the theme for the HBO series "Succession" and the score for "The Big Short."

When you were in Harvard, you studied psychology, and you studied neuromusicology, which means basically studying how music works on the brain and therefore how music works on you when you're listening. Are there principles of neuromusicology that you learned that you've applied as a composer?

BRITELL: You know, yeah, when I was in school, I was a psychology concentrator. And I'd always been fascinated with questions of, you know, why do certain chords feel a certain way, or do they feel a certain way, you know, asking the really sort of deep questions of, like, what is music, and why does it impact us at all - because I think there are these - you know, music is so ever present in our lives today that I think sometimes we almost take for granted how mysterious it is that there are these, you know, vibrations in the air, these frequencies that combine that, you know, hit our ears and that we then create deep complexes of emotion out of, you know. It's this incredibly mysterious thing that we really don't know that much about.

And, you know, with neuromusicology specifically, I mean, there are so many interesting questions. And actually I think it's only deepened the mystery for me. It hasn't clarified things. It actually made me have more questions where - I think growing up, I used to think, for example, that a major chord was happy and a minor chord was sad. And now I don't. I actually think that it's all about context. And I think that sometimes the saddest music is with major chords, and the most inspiring music that feels like true perseverance can be with minor chords.

GROSS: You studied piano - classically trained. You went to Juilliard's pre-college program. For a while, you hoped to be a concert pianist. When you chose not to become a concert pianist, it's not like you immediately became a film composer. You spent some time as a currency trader (laughter) on...

BRITELL: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Wall Street. And that is not a direct route from concert pianist. It's a really, to me, inexplicable detour...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...That your life took. So please explain how you went from deciding, yeah, I'm not going to be a concert pianist, to being a currency trader. And exactly what credentials did you have to become one?

BRITELL: That's a great question (laughter). So when I was in college, the way in which I got started with film music and with - and, really, furthered my own music was I joined a hip-hop band that friends of mine had started and - called the Witness Protection Program. And I was passionate about the band and actually wrote so much music over those years. And exactly at that same period of time, when I was writing so much music for the band, my very dear friend Nick Lavelle (ph), who tragically passed away a few years ago, who was an amazing director, he asked me if I had ever scored a film and would I like to score the $10,000 feature film that he was making while we were at Harvard. And I said, let's do it. Let's try it out. So in college, my whole life was really scoring Nick's film and, you know, playing with my band all the time.

And at the end of college, the movie didn't come out. And it wasn't clear when it was going to come out. I thought, you know, maybe this movie will come out in six months or a year, you know? So that wasn't very clear - what was happening. And then the band broke up. You know, and we decided to part ways. And at that moment, I actually interviewed with someone who had gone to Harvard, who, himself, was a composer. And he worked in finance. And he said, you know what? You know, we can find something for you to do (laughter).

So I ended up - he ended up hiring me. And I learned to trade currencies and was exposed to this whole other world of international finance. You know, we focused on currencies and emerging market currencies, specifically, and interest rates. And while I was doing that during the day, I was scoring short films. I would give concerts even. Actually, I gave a concert for our investors. You know, I would do that. I would write all...

GROSS: (Laughter) That's interesting.

BRITELL: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I would give - I would write all sorts music. I wrote telephone hold music, you know?

GROSS: Oh, no. Really?

BRITELL: Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely. I remember writing telephone hold music and having a friend of mine, who got me the gig - he was like, do you want to do this? I was like, absolutely. And I wrote this kind of almost like spa-like music. And all my friends would call this restaurant and ask to be placed on hold.

(LAUGHTER)

BRITELL: So that was - you know. But, you know, I loved it. I just loved writing music.

GROSS: You worked for the investment bank Bear Stearns. And this was a bank that kind of - that collapsed at the start of the financial meltdown of 2007 and 2008. Were you working for Bear Stearns when it collapsed?

BRITELL: So I worked in the asset management division. And we had our own fund, actually. So we were under the umbrella of Bear Stearns. But we functioned sort of very, very separately. But our, you know, our office was in the Bear Stearns building (laughter). And I was there, you know, during the crisis. And it was an interesting position to be in for sure because, you know, we were operating this strategy that was separate from what the bank was doing. But at the same time, we were there. And, you know, seeing that up close was, you know, certainly something I won't ever forget.

GROSS: I imagine there was an atmosphere of utter panic.

BRITELL: There was, I think, an atmosphere of shock. It - I think a lot of things - you know, that's sort of the nature of financial markets in a sense, you know? They're stable until they aren't. And, you know, there was sort of a metaphor sometimes people would say in the markets, where, you know, it's like escalator up, elevator down (laughter), you know? And I think that's how it felt, where, you know, all of a sudden, the whole system felt to be at risk.

BRITELL: When Adam McKay - when the director and writer Adam McKay hired you to do the music for "The Big Short" - a movie that combines comedy and drama to tell the story of how the financial markets collapsed and how the economy collapsed - he didn't know that you knew the language of Wall Street. He didn't know that you'd been a currency trader. And so what - how did he find out? And what was his reaction?

BRITELL: It's a funny story, actually, because, you know, that's correct. Like, I had read the script. Jeremy Kleiner, the producer - one of the producers of "The Big Short" had sent me the script. And I loved the book "The Big Short." Michael Lewis is so brilliant. And I remember talking to Jeremy before I read the script and saying, how are you going to make this into a movie? And when I read the script, I knew immediately, you know, Adam had such an insight into that story, into the way he wanted to make the movie.

But you're right. Adam hired me because he had heard my music and really liked it. And we had an early conversation where he said to me, what is this - what do you think the sound of dark math is? And I had an idea. And I recorded it and sent it to him. And he kind of hired me immediately, actually, still having no idea that I knew anything about finance.

But what happened was one day, Jeremy said to me, you know, if you have any notes on the script, you know, just general thoughts on, you know, inaccuracies or whatever, you know, details, feel free to send them over. I was like, are you sure? Like, I mean, I'm happy look at it. But do you really - you know? And he said, yeah. Sure, sure. Send them over. So, you know, I went through and sent some notes over. And much later on, Adam told me that he called Jeremy and was like, why on Earth is our composer (laughter) sending me financial notes on our script? And Jeremy was like, oh, you know, he actually, you know, worked in finance and trade currencies, et cetera.

And so that was how Adam found out that I had - it was much after the fact. And I was very happy because I wouldn't have wanted to be hired because I worked in finance. I would, you know, I would only want to work on the film if Adam thought my music was right for it.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Britell. He's nominated for an Oscar for composing the score for "If Beale Street Could Talk." And he composed the score for the current film "Vice," which is nominated for an Oscar for best film. He also wrote the score for "Moonlight." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "LEWIS RANIERI")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is composer Nicholas Britell, who's known for his film scores. He's nominated for an Oscar for his score for "If Beale Street Could Talk." He wrote the score for the new film "Vice," which is nominated for an Oscar for best picture. He also wrote the score for "Moonlight" and "The Big Short."

So I want to play part of the music that you wrote for "The Big Short." And this is the opening music. In the film, there's a voiceover by Ryan Gosling, who's talking about, like, the old days of Wall Street when, you know, investment banking was a kind of, like, boring business. It was a boring, slow world. And so here's the music that you wrote to accompany that voiceover about the boring business of banking in the old days.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "BORING OLD BANKING")

GROSS: That's music from the film "The Big Short." That is so unlike what we've been hearing.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What were you thinking of when you wrote this? I'll start by saying it's a kind of old-fashioned waltz...

BRITELL: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: ...And like, very, like, middle-of-the-road, almost, like, sedated, you know, like, a - like, you know? You take it from there.

BRITELL: Yeah, no, no, that's exactly right. I think there was an idea of - what I talked about with Adam was this feeling of almost, like, old Americana. You know, back in the day, Wall Street was boring. It was sleepy in a way maybe as it should be. You know, I think, you know, I definitely am of the view that certain industries, especially when they are so, you know, crucial to the functioning of the world and the economy - maybe they should be a little boring, you know? Maybe they should be like the utility system, you know? You don't want the public utility system to be exciting. (Laughter) I think, you know, if the electrical grid was exciting all the time, maybe that would be bad.

So banking was boring, and there was this idea of just that old - sort of old sound, old Americana waltz, sleepy waltz. And then Adam said to me - I wrote that piece, and Adam said, maybe there should be one thing that's just weird. (Laughter) Like, how do we make it a little weird? And so there's this sound I did of a electric keyboard, like, a Wurlitzer that I ran through a tape - like, a wild sort of tape filter that made - gave it this almost kind of, like, bizarro alien kind of sound. So there's this very boring waltz. But right in the middle of it, there's some strangeness kind of just seeding that idea that maybe things are going somewhere different.

GROSS: Is that music that we just heard from "The Big Short" anything like the hold music that you wrote...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...For when people are put on hold?

BRITELL: That's funny. It isn't. And I recently went back and tried to find that hold music 'cause I was curious about it.

GROSS: I want to hear that so bad.

BRITELL: I was curious about it. The hold music I wrote - I remember it was much more like the music you'd hear at a spa. It was like spa music. You know, it was that kind of, like, very sort of almost, like, twinkly kind of piano and very delicate, you know, soothing texture so not worlds away from this but but not as musically structured in a way. Where the "Boring Old Banking" track has sort of a progression and, you know, the - I would say the hold music was more sort of - had a stasis to it.

GROSS: That kind of spa music just really drives me crazy 'cause I know it's supposed to calm me down, but I find it, like, really irritating because I don't like the music.

BRITELL: (Laughter) Well, if I find my hold music, I will send it to you. Hopefully - maybe mine won't, you know, bother you.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did...

BRITELL: But you never know. You never know. I don't know (laughter).

GROSS: So I just have to ask you. What were your goals - 'cause whenever you write, you're writing with, like, a goal, with an emotional and narrative mission in mind. So when you were writing hold music, what was your goal?

BRITELL: My goal was to, you know, make your experience on hold as pleasurable as possible (laughter). I think it really was to - you know, if you have to be on hold, you know, you might as well have some music that, you know, doesn't make you want to, you know, hang up the phone too quickly. So I was hoping that if it was this sort of soothing atmosphere, maybe - you know, maybe theoretically it would make your time on hold more enjoyable.

GROSS: There was a period when I was flying a lot, and so I knew the USAir, which is no longer existing under that name - but I knew the USAir hold music by heart, and it was so irritating (laughter).

BRITELL: Oh, no, oh, no (laughter). You know, yeah, I think sometimes there is the potential irony of things that are designed to soothe that are very problematic, so - and I've had that experience where you go to a spa, and if the music is not quite right, it actually really takes away from the relaxation of the (laughter) experience. But my hope was, knowing all of that, to create something that might be relaxing.

GROSS: One of the things you've composed is the score for HBO's series "Succession," which is about an older media mogul who may be entering the early stages of dementia, and his sons and daughter are competing to see who's going to inherit the empire and gain control over it. So this is a very kind of turbulent theme. Before we hear it, say a few words about writing it.

BRITELL: I think the thing that excited me about working for "Succession" was to create something that had, on the one hand, a gravitas to it because we have to take this world seriously because it's real (laughter) to a large extent. But also, there is an absurdity to it and to the feeling that I think I wanted. So the opening track has a massive hip-hop beat, and then there's this sort of almost slightly out-of-tune piano that almost feels like crazy circus music or something, you know? So that was the - those are the many different tonalities I think I was going for.

GROSS: And was it hard for you to work within the confines? I guess it wasn't 'cause you do movie music all the time. But a theme has to be a certain amount of time exactly.

BRITELL: I love that actually. I feel that restrictions are very liberating in that sense creatively. So, you know, I think sometimes when you get these - I like these types of assignments where they say, here, you have 90 seconds; do this (laughter).

GROSS: Nicholas Britell, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you for your music.

BRITELL: Thank you so much for having me. It was really a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "'SUCCESSION' MAIN TITLE")

GROSS: That's the theme for the HBO series "Succession" composed by Nicholas Britell. His score for "If Beale Street Could Talk" is nominated for an Oscar. After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new Netflix drama series "Black Earth Rising" about the search for justice during and after the Rwandan genocide. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "'VICE' - MAIN TITLE PIANO SUITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.