Behind the Theme Music – Interview with Nicholas Britell

This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Podster Magazine.

PODSTER: I saw an interview in which you said you became interested in piano around age 4 when you heard the theme to Chariots of Fire. Having gone on to write music for movies yourself (The Big Short, 12 Years a Slave, the upcoming film Moonlight), what do you think are the keys that make great theme music for films? 

NICHOLAS BRITELL: That’s a great question. I think for theme music, what really matters is getting a sense of the internal “spirit” of the project. Certain projects will require more overt musical themes and ideas, while other projects will require a much more subtle or restrained approach. What’s fascinating is discovering what is really the right sound for a film. A superhero or fantasy movie without a large, soaring theme might very well feel like a letdown, while a more intimate drama might need a much sparser feeling, or even perhaps no music at all. 

PODSTER: How do you go about composing for a movie? 

NICHOLAS: That’s another great question, but a more difficult one! I would say that each film is a really different experience, and each film requires a totally new set of ideas and approaches. I really believe that the key to composing for film is being totally open to the many musical ideas which are possible. I always think to myself of the almost infinite ways that a film could be scored. My goal is to find the musical approach that feels most “woven into” the fabric of the movie. What musical textures feel most impactful and emotional when they are put up against the picture? Which musical ideas feel like they naturally flow out of the material? These are the sorts of things I think about a lot. Most importantly, the process requires working very closely with the film’s director, editor, and producers. I feel that without active discussion and experimenting together, it’s very difficult to get it right. 

PODSTER: For a few years you were in an instrumental hip-hop group, The Witness Protection Program. How did that come about, and what was the experience like for you? 

NICHOLAS: Yes, The WPP! During college, I was part of an instrumental hip-hop band. It was an incredible experience; we toured many colleges and played venues all across the Northeast. We once even opened for Jurassic 5 and Blackalicious! While in the band, I started a regimen of writing music all the time; almost every day I would write a few different tracks of music or beats. It became a habit, and I think it was this constant writing which helped give me the confidence to become a full-time composer. 

PODSTER: I can hear a little bit of the TWPP instrumental sound in the theme for Surprisingly Awesome. Is that just me or is it there? 

NICHOLAS: There actually is definitely a hip-hop vibe in the theme for Surprisingly Awesome! I love the sound of a gospel organ, and that riff felt like it needed a hip-hop beat underneath to groove with it. 

PODSTER: How did you end up composing the theme for Surprisingly Awesome? 

NICHOLAS: I was playing around with some different ideas and when I wrote that chord progression I just immediately liked the feeling of it. After recording those chords with the organ, I began experimenting with various rhythm accompaniments and it just went from there. Sometimes you come upon the harmonies first, sometimes it’s the rhythm, sometimes it’s a melody—each piece develops differently. In this case, it started with the harmonies. 

PODSTER: What music do you listen to when you’re driving around in your car? 

NICHOLAS: I actually don’t have a car anymore! I live here in NYC, and I ended up never driving the car that I had. Whenever I do drive while traveling, however, I listen to a huge range of music. I generally gravitate towards either classical or hip-hop, but I’m always trying to listen to music from a wide variety of artists and genres. I’m often most fascinated by artists who are trying to push the form of their music, lengthening it and seeing how the ideas evolve.

This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Podster Magazine.

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