“Don’t Look Up” is the fourth project Nicholas Britell has scored for Adam McKay, following “The Big Short” (2015), “Vice” (2018) and “Succession,” but it marked a first in one big way. Before production began, McKay asked Britell to write a piece of music for him to play during the shoot for the actors.
“I don’t think I’ve written music before he shot something before, so this was the first time he asked for that,” Britell tells Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: Composers panel (watch above). “I had read the script and I knew when they were getting ready to shoot and also I was beginning to work on the song ‘Just Look Up’ that was going to be in the film. And it was around that time that Adam said, ‘You know, for some of the actors, I’d love to play an early idea of the score just to give people a sense of the kind of feeling the movie could have.’ I created a piece that I called ‘Overture to Logic and Knowledge,’ which was attempting to sort of grasp that sound of reverence for rationality and science and knowledge and higher aspirations of humankind. It’s sort of a starting point for obviously trying to figure the opposite of that sound, before the roller coaster goes off the rails.”
A motif of the piece is used throughout the Netflix film, but the entire piece is played near the end during the emotional dinner table scene, in which the aspirational cue “takes on that hue of loss.” Melancholy is just one of the many tones the satire and climate change allegory juggles, and Britell’s score had to reflect that as well. The two-time Oscar nominee and Emmy winner worked on the score for more than a year, and came up with the idea for the main theme — a jazzy big band number — during a brainstorming session with McKay and editor Hank Corwin.
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“I was having this conversation with Adam: ‘This feeling with climate change, that we’re not gonna do anything about it in time, we’re gonna lose this race, this battle. It’s like we’re in World War II but we’re gonna lose World War II.’ And then I was like, ‘What if we did, like, a big band? Mid-century big band, but it was crazy and it has a toy piano and all sorts of weird instruments in it.’ Adam is amazing and was like, ‘Try it out!’ So I wrote this piece and I put it up against the main title sequence actually, and I remember Adam and Hank saying how inspired they were by that.”
While the theme is upbeat as a whole, it carries an edgy, distressed undertone, thanks to its cocktail of competing instruments. “I think some ways it helped us figure out some other tonal things in the film too, this sort of feeling of not just anxiety but I think it’s a feeling of ever-increasing astonishment at how crazy things are,” Britell says. “There’s already a bass sax that’s really loud in the mix and there’s celestas and pianos and banjo and mandolin and toy piano. It’s just kind of got the whole kitchen sink, and I think that sort of raucous, brash feeling was something that was actually helpful in other elements of the film. Then once we sort of experimented with that, it was a question of how you tie all these things together. That was a big process. This was definitely the most challenging score I think I’ve done before.”
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