Composer Nicholas Britell talks working with Barry Jenkins on Beale Street

Nicholas Britell was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Moonlight, and now he’s earned another nomination for his second team-up with Barry Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk.

We spoke with the prodigious composer at London Film Festival, where we also spoke with Barry Jenkins and star Colman Domingo.

Source: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images Europe

After Moonlight, how does it feel to be back with Barry?

It’s amazing to work with Barry. I was so excited to get the opportunity to work with him again. What’s wonderful is out process was really able to continue from what we had started doing in Moonlight, and although the two movies are very different, I think our process was similar in the sense of following our feelings.

We had no preconceived idea of what the sound of the movie might be, and actually early on Barry said to me that he was hearing horns and brass, he was thinking that might be the sound of the movie, so I started writing for trumpet and French horns, and it was interesting because once I stared getting the cut of the movie, it was missing something. The horns weren’t enough. And we realised we were missing strings. And so I started writing music for cellos and basses, and that felt like love.

The movie is really about love – a lot of love. There’s a lot of injustice, but what’s fascinating is there’s so much love. And the strings represent a lot of that love, and then we found a way to merge the brass with the strings, so by the end of the film, a lot of themes are strings and brass together in a new combination. But it’s a process – we don’t know ahead of time that that’s what’s going to happen.

We’re always coming up with ideas, and I’ll play something for him, put it up against the picture and see how it feels, and maybe the movie can be edited differently – you know, it’s a constant changing. But I do always believe that if you keep following that process, and you hope you find the right things, I think you know when you do. When something really works, I think you feel that. So we don’t stop until we feel it.

© 2018 Annapurna Releasing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Did you have a favourite piece of music from the film?

That’s a really good question! The first melody I wrote – the one that I wrote for brass – that piece is not in the movie. The music is in the movie, but not just for brass – there’s a version of it that’s on piano, there’s a version where the trumpet plays the melody with strings underneath, so there are many variations around it in the movie. But I think that melody was something that really… it’s interesting how melodies become certain symbols sometimes in a movie, and when you hear them, they resonate in some way for you. And I don’t know why or how, but I think that melody stuck out early on to us.

But every piece was its own journey, I mean there are a few pieces that are very experimental, and those are the ones that are most memorable to write, because Barry and I reached a place where we felt there was a whole concept of really going into taking ideas and distorting them to show the injustice. How do you feel? That sense of the tragedy of what’s going on to Fonnie’s character in the film. And that was an amazing exploration of taking ideas and bending them and morphing them in a way where everything’s connected.

So the darkness that you’re feeling is also very similar to the light and the joy, but it’s just distorted by life. So writing some of that music was eye-opening. But sometimes just a few notes in a certain melody can be very powerful. That’s the stuff I love listening to – if you listen to Mozart, sometimes there’s just very few notes, but they’re just so beautiful. Sometimes simplicity is the hardest thing – to make something concise. How do you say something with very few notes?

If Beale Street Could Talk is in cinemas from February 14th.

Sneh Rupra

Co-founder & Editor

Sneh co-founded Outtake Mag with Laura. She has a day job in film PR and dreams of a day when everyone has equal opportunities in the film industry. Her opinions are always right, so jot that down.