Nicholas Britell reteamed with not one, but two directors this year to score two very different films: Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” and Adam McKay’s “Vice.” The former is a love story, adapted from the James Baldwin novel of the same name, and the latter is a Dick Cheney biopic, but both scores required the same type of experimentation.
“With film scoring, there’s this very almost abstract thing that happens where you’re trying to connect words or feelings with sounds,” Britell said at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Composers panel, moderated by this author (watch above). “And it’s very not obvious, I think, because — certainly not to me — how something is going to feel when you put it against the picture. I think you guess.”
With “Beale Street,” Jenkins already had a sound in mind when they first discussed the project. “His initial instinct, I remember, he was feeling brass and horns,” Britell recalled. “So I sort of went on a journey of exploring trumpets and flugelhorns and French horns and cornets.” Brittell, who received Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for his score for Jenkins’ “Moonlight” (2016), also incorporated elements of jazz to reflect the setting of the film, 1970s Harlem.
SEE Barry Jenkins: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is ‘angry as hell’
“I was trying to explore something that felt like it was neither directly jazz nor directly classical. I was trying do something that was sort of its own kind of a sound world for the film,” he said. “And we really found that together. Barry and I work really closely together and we’ll just get in my studio for days on end and experiment with things.”
During that time, they realized the score needed something more than horns. That’s when they landed on adding strings to convey the love in the film, not just between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), but parental love and sibling love. The result is a swoony, lush composition that feels euphoric and melancholic. “The film is about love and injustice, and for us the strings came to feel like love,” Britell said. “And there was a lot of exploration and evolution of the ways in which the strings and brass interact.”
SEE ‘Vice’ could put Christian Bale in nice company as 7th man to sweep both acting Oscars
Britell had to evoke a different feeling altogether in “Vice,” McKay’s follow-up to “The Big Short” (2015), which Britell scored. Told with McKay’s irreverent, acidic bent, “Vice” chronicles Cheney’s (Christian Bale) rise to the vice presidency and the repercussions of his behind-the-scenes puppeteering. It’s not your usual triumphant biopic, which means you don’t hear your usual triumphant biopic music.
“It is a complex undertaking because there are these very grave repercussions to his actions,” Britell said. “But at the same time, I think in order for the film to be a true representation of what happened and also to accurately reflect the complexity of the world and the story, you have to deal with it in a very serious way.” Using McKay’s idea of a symphonic sound as a starting point, Britell looked for ways to add dissonance to the music to let moviegoers know that something feels off here with this guy and this story.
“Maybe there’s a trumpet fanfare. Maybe there’s a symphonic, sweeping kind of sound. But if you inject a dissonance into everything that is there and you sort of explore, what if you put the wrong note there? What if you add something that feels like there’s a rub?” he said. “Hopefully it’s implying that there’s something else going on here. There’s also dissonance in the sense of juxtaposition. There’s certain sequences where you’re seeing something and you have a dissonance of, what’s the choice of music here? Like we could say, what are we really saying with this? You could have a very, very joyous piece of music in juxtaposition with something that doesn’t make any sense, and then you’re making a commentary.”
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