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Nicholas Britell Says Goodbye to Succession

To the delight of audiences all over the world, composer Nicholas Britell has provided the score for some of the most critically acclaimed, influential, and popular films and TV series of the last decade. He balanced the bombast of Wall Street and the anxiety of financial collapse in “The Big Short,” he provided “Moonlight” with soul-stirring sweetness and trepidation, and he imbued the revolution against the Empire with incredible depth and thrills on “Andor.” But he is perhaps known best for writing TV's most addictive theme song. When the soaring strings and florid piano of the “Succession” theme song rev their engines on Sunday nights, it's time for yet another wild ride with the Roy family. In addition to being a smash hit, Britell's theme has also been repurposed by the Internet, edited perfectly to fit the opening credits of “Severance,” “Arrested Development,” even the “The Office.” The catchiness and flexibility of Britell's work suggest a long shelf-life for his creations, not to mention an ever expanding fan base across genres and styles. During our conversation this week, we discussed his life as a currency trader just a few years before someone named Adam McKay gave him a call to work on “The Big Short,” creating backstories through music on “Andor,” and bidding adieu to TV’s best drama.

You once worked as a currency trader at Bear Stearns, and just a few years later, composed the original score for “The Big Short.”

Many years ago, I did that after college for a bit. And [director and co-writer] Adam [McKay] didn't know that when he hired me to do the score. I had an eye-opening moment when the producers asked me to give some notes on the script. I sent some detailed notes, and I think Adam called the producers and was like, “Why is the composer giving me notes on my work? Who does this guy think he is?” [laughs]

That is some next-level cosmic coincidence.

Crazy, literally crazy, the way that life sometimes takes you to places that you couldn't imagine. It wasn't like I sought out “The Big Short” as a project. I was very, very close and still am very, very close with Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner from Plan B, amazing producers who have really been mentors to me over the years. Jeremy approached me about “The Big Short.” I'd read the book. I remember saying to Jeremy, “That's a very, very difficult story to turn into a movie. It's these incredibly complicated, structured financial products. I can't see how that's going to make sense for an audience. Even people on Wall Street kind of barely understand it.” Then he sent me the script that Adam and Charles [Randolph] had written. I was like, “Oh, my God, they did it. That's it. That's how you make the movie.” I got on the phone with Adam. We talked about it a bit. I did not talk about that I had ever traded currency. He was just a fan of my work and I had sent him some music. He really liked the sound of my music. I remember when we spoke on the phone, his question for the movie was that he was wondering what the sound of dark math was. What is that sound? I said, “Let me think about that.” And I wrote a piece that week that was six pianos sort of overlaid on top of each other. I called it “The Tessellation.” I sent it to Adam, he emailed back and he said “You're hired.” And that piece I wrote is actually one of the main themes in the movie. It's called “Redemption at the Roulette Table.” That was the first ever track I wrote for Adam.

What did you take from your memories of working at Bear Stearns? How did you use it to inform what you created?

It's an interesting question. My experience with working on Wall Street was really a very fascinating education about the world. In college I had been in a hip-hop band and I had written music for my friends’ films. I thought either my band was going to get signed to a label, or this movie that I was scoring was gonna come out, but our band broke up, and then the movie didn't come out. So you don't know where your life is gonna go. In the first few years, it was really fascinating. I had an amazing education and as time went on, my feelings, towards the end of my experience on Wall Street, were really very unhappy. So much of my experience was about wanting to do something else, towards the end. When I was scoring “The Big Short,” I think it definitely brought back some of those emotions. I think we all have, at different times in our lives, that feeling of when you're not doing something that you love. Why aren't you doing something you love? So I think if anything, that was the personal feeling I had while I was working on “The Big Short.” Being a currency trader during 2008 was a very unhappy experience. It was a very, very painful experience, it was a lot of getting up at five in the morning. I'm not a morning person. 

Before we get to “Succession,” I want to ask about “Andor,” specifically Marva's pre-recorded speech at her own funeral. The music in that scene makes me want to weep. I timed each of those longer notes during her speech itself, they're at least five to six seconds long. It's almost like you're building, step by step. You're climbing up, you're ramping up, and then everything explodes. It’s perfect. Can you talk a little bit about how you arrived at the decision to elongate those notes?

Thank you. What was interesting about that speech was there's so much that went into that moment. The music for the procession and speech was the first thing I wrote for “Andor.” This was in the summer of 2020. [Writer and showrunner] Tony [Gilroy] had asked me to think about that sequence, because that was one of the first we had to shoot. All the music that's on camera, we had to figure out before it was shot. That moment had to mean so many different things. If anything, I was imagining the creation of the sound of this culture, this people, and imagining through the generations that this would have been a piece of music that they all would have grown up with. At this moment in people's lives, they would have performed this as a symbol. When I first played it for Tony, and it really resonated for him, that was the first kind of way in, musically, to what that sequence would become. It was, from the very beginning, a sense that the musical ideas there would include a rhythmic motif that, to me, signified Maarva. There were elements of it that signified Ferrix, there were elements of it that intersected with Cassian. The key thing there was that there's the whole funeral procession, and then there's the speech. The speech actually lines up and rhymes with the end of Episode Three with “Past/Present Suite.” That culminates in Maarva, looking at Cassian in the ship, and us feeling that connection there. 


One of the things I love about films, and certainly with television series, is the sense that you get to create memories. You can seed an idea early in a movie or in a show, and when you come back to it, you've actually created a memory of something. So it almost has this feeling of life itself, this feeling of “I know that. Oh, now I remember that.” With Maarva's speech in particular, I wanted there to be that feeling of memory, literally. The eulogy there, the step by step building, was something that I had first thought of, actually, in Episode Three. So much of the show, to be honest, was me thinking about that final sequence with Maarva. There's so many elements musically, structurally, that's where I knew we were going. And a lot of it was this in the back of my mind, always, like “Oh, we have to wind up there.”

That makes sense. It allows you to work backward, to build everything to lead up to that.

Exactly. Which is a thesis. Tony and I would say to ourselves “We hope it works,” because you never know you could do all these things in a moment. So luckily, it did feel right when we got there, and the way that the literal speech worked was—I don't know if we initially were sure about music under the speech because there's the question of spotting, and where does music go is always a big question. I think when I first saw that sequence, I don't think there was any music there at all. They hadn't been thinking it was necessary. They were thinking of having the speech. I remember feeling very strongly, you had to have this idea, this final moment with Maarva. I wanted it to kind of explode into the realm that happens.

It propels the rest of the season. It sounds like a forward thrust on a rocket.

That was my hope.

I recently interviewed Craig Wedren and Anna Waronker, the composers of “Yellowjackets,” both of whom expressed immense gratitude to you for making theme songs hip again.

Oh wow. [laughs] Amazing. That's very kind.

They, like I think most people who watch the show, never skip the opening credits. Everyone wants to get into “Succession” mode with that soaring orchestra. Did theme songs appeal to you from an early age?

Yeah, I've loved theme songs since I was very, very young. I think there's something about TV theme songs, but also opening credit sequences—and I think about that in movies as well—I'm a big fan of formal cinematic structures. I love opening title sequences. I also love end-credit sequences. Not that you can't do without them too. Every project has its own grammar, so some projects shouldn't have an opening title sequence, because there's something powerful about a cold open. But I feel, especially with something like “Succession,” perhaps, there's almost this idea of an overture to an opera, let's say, or a musical, where the music is going to bring you into this world and set the stage, no pun intended. It's sort of saying “here we go.” I think there's a value to that. Similarly, end-credit sequences: I love the feeling after a movie, where you're sitting, for example, you're sitting in darkness. You've just experienced something. The music is there to sort of allow you a moment of contemplation, to ponder what you have just felt. I love that. I think that's why we go to movies, that's why we want to have a chance to explore our own emotions. I think those formal structures sometimes give us a very specific way of experiencing those things.

I think of going to the movies as going to church, you go there to be transformed, to have an experience that isn't possible elsewhere.

Absolutely. Totally.

I want to go back to “Austerlitz,” in Season One, to the scene right after the Roys' family therapy session. They're in a kitchen, fighting, and Logan comes at Kendall and has to be restrained. You rarely use guitar on the show but you used guitar there. Could you tell me why you made that decision in that scene?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That was something that, to me, speaks to the wonderful collaboration that I have with Jesse Armstrong and with Adam McKay, where we're always talking about different ideas. There was something there, I remember, that just came from a conversation I was having with them. [The Roys] are in the Southwest. There's this sort of different environment, they're like fish out of water kinda. They're just like, where are they? What is happening to them? What is this? I think there's something about, in particular, these journeys that Kendall goes on in the show, that I, in hindsight, have sort of a habit of focusing on these journeys. In Season Two, for example, I wrote this piece called “Rondo in F minor” that, to me, is about the melancholic journey that he goes on. The piece we're talking about has a guitar and a banjo, and it was attempting to give this special sound to that moment for Kendall. It was a very conscious idea of, “What would that sound like?” A lot of what I do for “Succession,” as with a lot of my projects, are experiments. I never assume that something is going to work. My instinct is always to try it out. And worst case scenario, Jesse will say, “This does not work.” [laughs] I'm always like, “Okay.” But it felt really right. I remember recording those pieces and feeling like I found there was something very beautiful about the sound of the banjo and the guitar doing that theme for Kendall there. There were moments, as the show went on, that I was like, “Oh, could I ever use that again?” And it hadn't felt right. Until, actually—I'm just trying to think if we've already seen it, I don't want to give anything away. But there was a moment in Season Four where I actually brought back that guitar very subtly in an episode. 

I think it's in “Living+.”

It might've been “Living+.” Was it the opening of that episode, as an intro to the theme?

Yes.

Amazing ears. You heard that. There's an opening to the theme. I've done that a few times in Season Four where I very particularly wanted to give some new intros to the theme. We kind of rise into the theme. It was a particular intro for Kendall. And so I brought back the guitar very subtly in there. There's a guitar and a clarinet. So you've incredible ears that you heard that.

The bulk of the show's score uses traditional classical music structure. So when there are deviations from it, they stand out like roses in a snowbank.

That's a great point because what's interesting is that different eras of music and different styles obviously have their own grammar. One of the things that I think is wonderful about the classical era is that these formal structures did exist. So much of a composer's identity was how they played with the expectations of what, at different moments, was a relatively set structure. We sort of defined some of these composers by how they deviated, so it's wonderful for me getting the opportunity to, in many ways, do the same. There's a lot of dissonance in modern production and 808s and things that I'm doing, but there's also a sense, I think, with my music that I'm really leaning into the musical grammar of the 1790s.

I also rewatched “Honeymoon States.” At the very end of that, Kendall starts making Logan Roy-esque moves, and he threatens Hugo with the strapon. The music in that scene almost felt like you were musically mimicking his walk toward Hugo, toward these decisions he's begun making. It's like he's taking halting but determined steps. 

Totally. Well, the way I thought of it was, in all of their different ways, I think they're all living these kind of strange meta lives, where they're trying to figure themselves out. But they're also trying to figure out who they were supposed to be to Logan. They're always sort of looking at themselves outside of themselves. That sequence there, to me, it felt like Kendall was almost trying to put on Logan's clothes, you know what I mean? 

He's literally staring at Logan's jacket hung over the back of his office chair just a few moments before that.

It kind of goes back to that age-old Logan question: can he be a killer? Does he have it in him? Could he ever have been? The question Logan is always asking. I think the show poses these questions more than it answers them. Because I think the kids themselves don't know. And so he's trying on those moves. To their credit, and I feel what I'm saying in the music is, maybe. Maybe he can do this. I purposely don't watch the end of the seasons until I get to them. So I am myself asking these questions as I score the show. Jesse and I talk always; I get an outline, and I get a sense, and I read certain of the scripts and talk to Jesse about key moments, but I think every single season, I haven't known where the season was going. And so I liked that because I think it makes me more like an audience member, posing questions and proposing answers sometimes. So that's how I approach that. I gave us the chance of, at that moment, when you have that look on Kendall's face, I wanted to go to a very, very intense end credit sequence to kind of lean into this idea of, perhaps this is Kendall, maybe he is going into this darker path.

There are long stretches of episodes this season—including “Connor's Wedding” and “Church and State”—where there is no music. Do you get to make that call too?

We all talk about it. Our music editors, Todd Kasow and John Finklea—amazing, wonderful musical editors—and Jesse and I have lots of conversations. There's a sort of idea of where music might go, but one of the things I really go out of my way to do, every single episode, is watch the whole episode straight through, and instinctively see where I think music should go. I often propose music in more places than it may wind up. Because, to me, you can always throw a piece of music away. You can always say “That doesn't work.” But if you don't try to put music in a certain place, you may miss a very impactful opportunity, actually. I kind of go out of my way to say “Oh, but what if we put music here? What if we put music there?” And interestingly, in the funeral itself at the church, I think we all felt where the music should go. There was going to be this diegetic music there, the Vivaldi concerto that you actually see performed. The idea there was that, how is Logan's funeral more than the normal funeral? [laughs]

It was a bit much, and it made the scene very funny. Compared to what you write, it was like, “This is a bit much, tone it down.”

It's a huge moment so there was this sense of the over-grandeur, perhaps, of what they're doing. I think we were all on the same page of where the music went. I think there needed to be these silences. I think what it does, actually, some of those moments are so emotionally painful. You want it to be exposed without music. I think when the music does come in, for example, after Shiv's eulogy, I think the music, for a moment, can be a balm.

Every single one of these people deserves to be guillotined, and yet those strings kick in, and I feel so bad for them. I was crying when Marcia holds Kerry's hand.

I know. I think that's the brilliance of how they've written the show. It's a testament to the whole crew, and to these actors, whose performances are unbelievable to me. I'm so moved by them. Obviously the show itself is about these concentrations of power and wealth among fewer and fewer people. So it's asking and exploring this societal problem that exists in the world. But it's also showing that these places themselves can be incredibly unhappy places. Pathos is pathos.

Your music winds up serving as the perfect foil to their own arrogance. I love Shiv and Tom's wedding, which begins with the bus driving up the bridge to the castle. And it's so stupid and petty that Tom and the wedding planner are arguing about the bus coming across the bridge. But the music of that scene, which sounds like a royal processional, were it to be used on “The Crown,” would be over the top. But here, it's perfect.

It works. I think for me, there's these two levels that the music is always trying to work on. There is this fundamental absurdity to the situations that this family winds up in. There's almost this dynamic within the Roy family that at any moment where they're about to achieve something, they immediately self-deceive or self-thwart themselves. 

Always crafting tragedies of their own making.

Absolutely. But at the same time, there is a gravitas underlying all of this, which I think to me, again, it's more about just the pathos of the human condition. That no matter what level of wealth, no matter how much power, no matter how much you're given, can buy you happiness. We're just here on Earth, and our lives are our lives, and our sadnesses are our sadnesses, and there's no escape from that reality. Hopefully, the music kind of resonates in some way that we're all we're all here, just trying to do our dance.

Actors, costume designers, directors, and other crew members often describe the last day on set as the last day of school. How do you say goodbye to a project? Because so much of what you're doing is just you at home in your studio, sending notes to editors, working with the post team. Do you get to be on set to say goodbye? Or do you just say goodbye from afar?

It's interesting. It depends on the project. On some of the projects, when I'm working in post on certain films, sometimes I'm very involved. Like with Adam and [editor] Hank Corwin on “The Big Short” or “Don't Look Up,” I'm maybe there with them in the edit suite as we're finishing up. If it's about the production itself, like on set, I'm not always around for that. There's times when people might say, “Oh, there's a wrap party for 'Succession.'” They did invite me to some of the wrap parties, which was great to go. And over the years, I've had the pleasure of getting to know everyone and it's been really wonderful. But you're right. Especially for something like “Succession,” which is the first television series I've worked on. I've worked on some more since I started “Succession.” But it's the longest running kind of project in this way that I've worked on. I don't think I've yet processed the full set of emotions. 

You haven't pre-grieved? 

[laughs] I haven't pre-grieved. Exactly. It's been so special. I'm happy to say I'm still in touch with, and, I think, hopefully, will stay in touch with Jesse. Obviously, I'm very close with Adam and Kevin Messick, one of our producers. The whole team has been very, very wonderful. My hope is that we all continue to stay in touch.

It's going to be hard to top this. If I was Jesse Armstrong, I'd be at my wit's end, wondering how on Earth to come up with something better than this.

But the thing is, with projects, you never know what's going to happen with anything. I remember Adam first telling me about “Succession.” I had never done television. I remember him saying to me, “There's a project we're working on, there's going to be a pilot, it's sort of about a media mogul family in New York City.” And I said yes, not knowing too much about it, and could never have imagined where we've taken this and what's happened with it. But I feel that's the joy and the excitement of all of these things. Every new project, you never know what's going to happen. So much of it is about, for me, the making of it. I think there obviously is an incredible joy when things resonate, like if you make something and people love it, it's wonderful! At the same time, making some of these projects is so much fun, and it's wonderful to work with these amazing, brilliant people. You never know what's gonna happen with anything, but my hope is that you just want to keep getting in the room and trying to try to do new things and see what happens.

Nandini Balial

Nandini Balial is a film and TV critic, essayist, and interviewer.

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