The Composer at the Frontier of Movie Music

The composers and filmmakers I spoke to about Britell emphasized the poetic intelligence he brings to his work. But his emotional reach is equally important. Part of his job is helping directors and producers feel things they can’t explain but know they want to feel. As Jesse Armstrong, the showrunner for “Succession,” told me: “I’m a musical Neanderthal, really. Nick speaks Neander.” Dede Gardner, who produced “The Big Short” and “Beale Street” and is an executive producer for “The Underground Railroad,” told me that when you introduce Britell to someone, “it’s like the air starts to vibrate and hum.” He is, she says, “the perfect person. He’s so expansive.”

The director Adam McKay, who worked closely with Britell on “The Big Short” and “Vice,” likes to joke that “you can’t talk about Britell in factual terms, because all you’ll do is gush about him.” Britell’s only flaw that he can think of, he says, is that the composer doesn’t have true perfect pitch — “he has relative perfect pitch.” McKay delights in reciting Britell’s C.V., which reads like a setup for one of his comedies: a Harvard-educated, world-class pianist who studied psychology and once played keys in a moderately successful hip-hop band. “And then he graduates, and you think, Oh, he’s going to go into music. No.” Instead, McKay says, Britell winds up managing portfolios at “one of the biggest currency-trading hedge funds on Wall Street. And then he goes and starts scoring movies. And within five years, he’s nominated for Academy Awards.” You could practically hear McKay shaking his head through the phone. “Brutal.”

Britell, who is 40, grew up mostly in Manhattan, in a home with the kind of devout enthusiasm for the arts characteristic of many Upper West Side Jewish families. His father, a lawyer, had a layman’s love of music, and Britell remembers figuring out the distinction between Bach and Mozart as his dad toggled between classical stations on the car radio. His mother was a musical-comedy actress before becoming a teacher — in the 1940s, in West Palm Beach, Fla., she was a child star on a local television program called something like “Aunt Lollipop’s Story Hour” — and the apartment was filled with old books of Rodgers and Hart show tunes.

Britell learned to play on a broken player piano that his grandmother picked up from a neighbor; he began tinkering with it when he was 5, driven by an overwhelming desire to figure out “Chariots of Fire.” Slowly he started writing his own boyish pieces — he and his younger brother each fondly remember a repetitive number called “The Train Symphony” — and then, as an adolescent, imaginary scores. “I would write fake TV themes for myself all the time,” he says. “This is a fall drama on ABC, or this is a family comedy, or this is a detective story.”

He went to private school in New York City until he was 13, when the family moved to Westport, Conn. On weekends, he commuted into the city for the Juilliard precollege program, where he trained as a pianist. He commuted too between musical worlds. It was the early ’90s, and Britell was transfixed by the hip-hop swallowing the city: the lyrics, and the beats you could feel in your chest, and the mystery of early samples, recordings of recordings that gradually morphed, leaving a fossil record of every person who touched them. He thought of hip-hop as otherworldly in the same way that he found Bach otherworldly. He remembers being walloped by the opening of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions”: the almost-muddy double-bass sample, the way Q-Tip drops in, the drum break adding some final alchemical element. It was like learning, as a teenager, that there were more letters to the alphabet than he’d been taught.

He arrived for his freshman year at Harvard loving everything — math and history, Brahms and Gang Starr — and was abruptly confronted by the necessity of choice. Lost and unsure, he left. For a year he tried to see if he was meant to become a concert pianist, living with his parents and scraping up work around the tristate area: cocktail gigs, the Jewish organist at the Episcopal church. The loneliness was sharper than he had anticipated. After a year, he went back to Harvard with the same sense of indecision, only now with the understanding that he couldn’t work alone.

At a party soon after he returned to campus, he approached two guys rapping along with a D.J. and drums and asked if they needed keys. The group they formed, the Witness Protection Program, consumed his next three years. At its height, the group toured the Northeastern college and club circuits and opened for acts like Blackalicious and Jurassic 5. At the same time, Britell became close with another classmate, Nick Louvel, who was working on a film and invited Britell to write the score. They spent hours together watching films John Williams worked on, pausing often to interrogate the music. Britell thinks about Louvel often; he died in 2015, in a car accident, just as Britell’s musical career was taking off. He was the first person to ask Britell to write a score, and the question proved transformative. “We were always working on this movie, and I was always with the band, and those experiences really defined my life,” Britell says.

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