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Composer Nicholas Britell on 'Big Short' Film Score: Balancing Comedy & Drama with Music [Q&A]

by Jon Niles   Dec 17, 2015 16:00 PM EST

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The Big Short is in select theaters right now, with a wide release on Dec. 23, 2015, but this is a film that critics and moviegoers can't stop talking about already. Based on author Michael Lewis' novel The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which tells the story of the very real housing market collapse of the United States just a few years back, one wouldn't think that such a serious subject could come off as funny. The balance of comedy and the severity of the situations depicted in the film is why everyone is raving about it. Composer Nicholas Britell (along with the cast and crew) is a big part of this balance.

In a new exclusive interview with the film's composer, Music Times learned about Britell's approach, his experience working with director Adam McKay and much more. Read more on the score and Britell below.

This project is quite layered. It has plenty of humor and has one of the biggest comedy directors, yet it's about something so serious and scary from the point-of-view of the characters and those affected in the story. Was there a pressure to balance the layers of the film within your music? What was your approach?

I think the arc of the film and how it progresses was really important to us. For example, we had a sort of mapping in a way. The beginning of the movie starts in the 1970s when banking was boring and there's this sort of almost like sleepy time, old Americana feeling. Then it goes into the montage with Lew Ranieri and how in his work he was a god and kind of created the first mortgage bank security -- so there's that sort of '70s funk. The whole first half there's definitely a feeling of upbeat energy and excitement, you know because it's really an intellectual detective story in a way. These guys are figuring something out that no one's figured out. And then there is the turn, you know. So in a way the beginning of the turn I think in a lot of ways sort of starts around Vegas. That's the place where you start getting a sense. We sort of, subtly begin implying the darkness, even earlier on. There's that cue when Ryan Gosling is talking about "does banking make you feel bored? Does it make you feel stupid?" you know, that moment. And there's a cue called "Does it Make You Bored," and that's the first appearance of that sort of dark math theme.

So early on, I think it's a balance of things because there's fun and there's the energy, but even from early on we're starting to imply that there is a darkness there and a distortion that is happening in the world. Obviously it gets full-on once you reach Vegas and the collapse really begins fully. There is this big arch to it, and I think that's what's fascinating about the movie and the way Adam made it and the way [editor] Hank [Corwin] edited it is that you get this sense that you really are on this fun frolicking ride and then there's this sudden turn. I think you feel how hard it hits and how tragic it is in a way because you've been on this sort of high. In a way, the tragedy hits hard because you sort of fall with the market. Emotionally, you have this sort of fall. So absolutely, to answer the question. We really did think about that, that arch for the music, for sure.

How involved in the music was Adam McKay?

Well actually it was a very unique experience for me and in some ways for all of us. I live in Manhattan, but I moved out to LA for the summer and lived out there and worked really really closely with Adam and Hank. We were in the same room basically at Paramount. We got a chance on a daily basis to just workshop all these ideas together. Which was so much fun in the sense of like, Adam and Hank would be looking at a scene and editing it and Adam be thinking about it and then I would come in and be like "What if we try some music like this?" and literally I would then go off and write an idea and I'd come in and we'd try it immediately. So there was this incredible kind of like experimenting that we were able to do, which I've never had that experience on a movie before. It was amazing; it sort of made us all want that to be the case on every movie. It's such a fun collaboration where you can see how the music impacts the editing, the editing impacts the music, the overall arch of the story impacts things. It's this cool kind of back and forth.

Adam is amazing; he's so collaborative. He's a brilliant guy, but on top of that he's positive and open to different ideas, so I really did have free range to try a lot of thing but ultimately the music that finally gets into the movie is a combination of all of our views and Adam feeling what's working in different ways so it's totally a collaboration. That's what I enjoy about music and film, is that you have this fun collaboration that is this back and forth discussion of like what really works best for the film. We would say that all the time, ultimately it's the film that wins in the end, like whatever is best for the film.

How would you compare and contrast working on The Big Short with previous films?

I think The Big Short is just a unique film, so some of that is just its own unique experience. I think what was definitely special about it and different was the logistics of it. It was something that I think is actually really wonderful for future projects that I think we are all going to try to go for. When you are all in the same place you get the opportunity to have this kind of collaborative zone and you're not working alone, you're working, like a cool art workshop or something. It's not just Adam and Hank, you know it's John Finklea, my amazing music editor was there. We had the other editors and the FX people and the post people and the sound people so it was a real awesome team of people who ... like for example, a good example is there's a piece called "The Mouse Click Symphony," which I wrote composed entirely of computer sounds, mouse clicks and computer beeps. The fun thing with that was we were talking and we had this idea of what would it be like if I wrote a piece that was entirely made up of mouse clicks and I approached it like a percussion piece. Like I'm going to write this classical percussion piece with mouse clicks. And the fun thing was because I was right there with the sound department I said, "Hey you guys have some great authentic-to-the-era mouse clicks and computer beeps?" And so they gave me this whole variety of handpicked mouse click sounds and computer sounds and so immediately I was able to write this piece out. So because of the way we were set up with this fun kind of like immediacy of thinking of something and just doing it. So that was a fun example of the fact that we were all there together all the time really lead to this fun experience.

I learned that you had a job trading currencies before...

When I was in college, I had a hip-hop band called The Witness Protection Program and I had also scored a film in college. When I was graduating our band had actually broken up and the film that I had scored didn't seem like it was coming out soon and I was trying to figure out what job to get to pay my rent. I actually interviewed with someone who was a composer and worked on Wall St. and maybe he took pity on me or something, but he hired me and I got a job trading currencies. So by day I was trading currencies and by night I was scoring films and giving concerts and things like that. So it was interesting having had some of that experience because it definitely gave me an interesting perspective on this film in particular because it is amazing to the extend in which financing impacts our lives. I think one of the big moments of The Big Short is actually trying to bring that to people and have them really feel how financialized our lives are in a way and at the same time how little we all know about what forces are really at work there. It was very interesting and at time surreal to have had that experience one time and then to actually written music for a movie about Wall St.

That was actually my question.

Yeah, I had quit my job and I had always dreamed of being a film composer and it was great. I was able to save some money and build a studio.

Do you have any other upcoming projects?

Yeah there's a few. I'm actually working on a documentary called the Uncondemned that's a bit of a sad story with me, actually. Director Nick Louvel who I worked very closely with for years and years was the co-director of this film and he actually passed away this summer in a car accident. So I'm working on that film and finishing the score in the next couple months. It's a beautiful documentary about an important subject, the Rwanda genocide and the legal case which for the first time they were actually able to convict someone of a war crime due to rape actually and how rape was used as a war crime. So it's a very powerful documentary.

I'm scoring a few other movies too ... working with director Adam Leon on Tramps and I'm scoring a movie called The Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey and directed by Gary Ross. And there are some other projects for early next year. It's been a lot of fun it's been a really interesting next year. And our soundtrack for The Big Short is actually on iTunes now!

Do you have any advice for aspiring film composers?

The number one thing I will say is you have to really love it. There are times were it can be challenging and long stretches of time where you are searching for your next project. When you do get these projects and opportunities, it's so fulfilling. The best advice would be to meet producers and meet directors, go to film festivals, meet those potential collaborators that you might work with. Go to Sundance, go to SXSW meet directors, and reach out to people whose work you love. Realize that it's a long process; it's definitely a marathon, not a sprint.

For more on Nicholas and his music, check out his official website, Twitter and Facebook!

Jon Niles is an Associate Editor for Music Times. He is a contributing features writer for MStars News as well. Follow Jon on Twitter right here! 

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