How 'The Underground Railroad' Composer Nicholas Britell Writes His Phenomenal Scores

Britell and director Barry Jenkins worked together closely, experimenting with recordings of construction sites and cicadas.

barry jenkins, nicholas britell
Barry Jenkins & Nicholas Britell | Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Barry Jenkins & Nicholas Britell | Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Just as he was starting to work on the score for The Underground Railroad, composer Nicholas Britell got an audio message from his frequent collaborator, the director Barry Jenkins, who was on the set of the Amazon drama based on the acclaimed novel by Colson Whitehead. Britell was initially confused. At first listen, what Jenkins had sent him was background noise, the drilling on a construction site. Jenkins later followed up, and suddenly Britell got it. "He's talking about digging into the earth and going downward and going underground," Britell remembers. "And what does that mean?" Britell started experimenting with the file, finding the music in what to other people would consider a disturbance. 

The Underground Railroad is the third collaboration between Britell and Jenkins, following Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, and the series is just as stunning as the pieces that came before it. Over 10 episodes, Jenkins charts the journey of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave who escapes from a Georgia plantation in the first episode. What she does not find is safety, but a tour of American ills shaped by place and circumstance but never fully vanquished. Cora is led to each destination on her trip by the system that is Whitehead's central conceit: In this magically realist alternate history, the Underground Railroad is an actual locomotive enterprise buried deep beneath the soil. Britell's score emerges from the diegetic sounds of cicadas and engines, matching Jenkins' disturbing and beautiful imagery. 

In the past six years, Britell, a former hedge fund manager, has become one of the most essential names in film and television music. From his aforementioned Oscar-nominated works with Jenkins to his team-ups with Adam McKay, including Succession for which he netted an Emmy, Britell is the guy you turn to when you want the sound of your project to be obsessed over. Prior to the release of The Underground Railroad on May 14, the same day the score will be available digitally, I spoke to Britell about his relationship with Jenkins and his work on Succession Season 3. 

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Thrillist: Your work with Barry has been so fruitful. What was the first moment when you knew that you clicked?
Nicholas Britell:
I was scoring The Big Short and Jeremy Kleiner, who was also producing The Big Short, was producing Moonlight. It was still before they shot Moonlight. I had dinner with Jeremy one night, and he started telling me about this script that he was helping produce. As he talked about it, he started to cry. And I was like, "Oh, my god. Could I read this script?" He sent it to me, and it was the Moonlight script, which is, to this day still, I think the most amazing script I've ever read. I said, "Look, is there any way I could have a coffee with Barry?" So Jeremy connected the two of us and we met up for coffee at the Ace Hotel in Downtown LA. It was just a coffee meeting. What was amazing was we started talking and then we opened a bottle of wine and then we literally spoke for three hours about music and life and movies. It just felt like right away, we were inside this creative conversation. That's the type of thing where I just feel very lucky to have met Barry because you never can imagine those sorts of things. Life is so circuitous. You never know exactly how these things are going to happen. Especially as a film composer, those sorts of creative partnerships can be so important in so many ways.

What is the process like when he approaches you with a new project? For instance, with The Underground Railroad, how does the conversation start unraveling about what it's going to sound like and what work you're going to do on it?
I look forward to those early conversations because Barry has an incredible ability to focus on these initial instincts that he has, and those instincts are so fruitful as a starting point for us. What's even more amazing, I think, about Barry, is he has these strong initial instincts, and yet at the exact same time, he's totally open to exploring from there. I remember reading the book The Underground Railroad, and thinking to myself in particular in the chapters on South Carolina, there was that moment where they talk about the skyscraper. I was like, "I didn't know there were skyscrapers in the mid-1800s." Then, of course, I was like, "Oh, there aren't skyscrapers in the middle of the 1800s." There's that moment of like, "Oh, these historical anachronisms, the magical realism, the sense of strangeness as a concept." I started thinking to myself, "OK, what could that sound like?" 

When I first started talking to Barry about it, he went to shoot, and there was this one day where I got an audio message from Barry. He was in Savannah, and he doesn't normally send me audio text messages. I listened to it, and it just sounded like a construction site drilling or something. So I was like, "What is this?" About two hours later, I get a text from Barry and he just says, "Did you get what I sent?" Then I was like, "OK, I know what he's talking about." Immediately, I was like, "He's talking about digging into the earth and going downward and going underground. And what does that mean?" I literally took that file and I started to experiment with it. I bent it and I slowed it down. What was interesting was there was this like rhythm to it that Barry was really into, this sort of drilling. And then there was actually like a tone, like notes almost, you know? That was the starting point of then saying to ourselves, "Are there these like elemental forces to explore?" There's earth. Is there air? What's in the earth? It's these insects, these cicadas. Is there a sound of cicadas?

Our amazing sound supervisor sent us these incredible field recordings they had made of that sound and we started to play with it. This was pre-pandemic. Barry and I were in LA this one time working, and I started to play with this sound of cicadas. And when it's normal, it's that characteristic sound. When you slow it, it's actually crazy that you can almost make out these weird melodic shapes. I was like, "Is that like a melody? What is that?" I'm trying to figure it out on the piano. It's such a massive scope of a project and we worked on it over such a long period of time. I worked on it for 18 months on the composition and I'm still working on it. I mean, I'm probably in month 20-something, because I'm working on the soundtrack album and it's these sorts of early experiments from cicadas, then going to fire and hearing the sound of fire.

Did he ever tell you what specifically that voice note was a recording of? Was it just a construction site?
Where they were shooting I think there was literally a construction site. I can't say enough about Barry because, I mean, he's so in tune with things, he's so incredibly sensitive and thoughtful and creative with these ideas. He's literally in the midst of a TV series set, and in the midst of that, he's maybe on a break for a second and he hears off in the distance this drilling, and he says to himself, "That rhythm of that sound is interesting." For me, it's so inspiring because you think where do you start? The amazing answer is: Barry always kind of knows where to start.

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I wanted to ask about the main theme, which you hear in the opening where you see Cora falling, and reoccurs when the train arrives. Where did that come from? 
That actually came directly from the drilling. What happened with that was, after I was playing with the drilling, this idea of going downward, I said to myself sort of musically, "OK, well, what would mean downward in music terms?" I started actually just playing with a four note descending chromatic scale. Let's say like E flat, D, D flat, C. Just going down half steps. I always know if something's working, if Barry is like, "Keep going." He'll be like, "Don't stop. Don't stop." I was playing this thing, and I was playing these chords and holding them, and in each new chord, inside the chords, there was this descending line, which was inspired by the idea of going downward. We called that piece "Pillars" because it felt like these almost pillars in the earth. I was like, "OK, what would it sound like if I did that with strings?" And then I said, "OK, what if I did it with strings, but the strings had this raw kind of tremolo-ing? This almost harsh sound." And then, to make a long story short, pandemic happens, 100 things I can tell you about how we logistically figured this out, but we ended up recording with a 50-piece string orchestra at AIR Studios in London. And then kept working on it and it wound up as the opening of the series. So that's the long gestation. Now that piece is called "Genesis." But that for that first version you hear, we still kind of call it "Pillars" ourselves, that idea. But there are different versions and clearly different variations and lots of things that happened to it.

The score does have this sense of magical realism you mentioned, but it also has elements of horror and dread and diegetic sound from the 19th century. How did you think about these tonal shifts? 
That was really kind of a central philosophy in the work that we did on The Underground Railroad, which, from early on, was this idea that Cora is going on a journey to different literal states, but also to different figurative and states of mind. There was this idea from us that there was going to be a whole added challenge, I think, which was that we needed different musical worlds, literally, for the different worlds. Every episode we thought about, "What is the sonic world?" And as opposed to something like Succession where you're going from one episode to the next, but it's the Roy family and the universe is the same universe, essentially. In The Underground Railroad, every episode, maybe you're in a different world, actually.

Barry also had a sense of the different types of musical landscapes he wanted in different episodes. For example, there were certain episodes where he was like, "This is going to be a very quiet episode. I don't want a lot of music in this." Right from the start of our collaboration with Moonlight, there were certain places where he knew the quiet brought you closer to the characters. It's more intimate in a lot of ways. I remember the final sequence in Moonlight where you're with Black and Kevin at the apartment, and there's no music because we're just with them. Music would almost push us, in a sense. And it's only at the end of the sequence the music comes in to sort of say, "OK, we're going somewhere."

It's kind of a long way of saying that there are truly many different musical worlds. And like you said, there's the music in the world of the characters, the diegetic music. Some of the songs that you see people singing while they're on-camera, all of that's researched. We actually had Professor [Eric] Crawford from Coastal Carolina University, who did a tremendous amount of research on 19th century song. What would that have been? Some of that music also was stuff [I composed], for example, the social waltzes that you see in South Carolina. I said, "Do you want an actual period waltz?" And he said, "No." He actually was like, "I think I want it to sound almost like a European or like central European." He's always having these interesting thoughts on how we can create kind of a counterpoint with something. All those different kinds of layers went into that.

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You probably can't say anything about what the ideas are for Succession Season 3, but do you think of each season differently in the same way you thought of each episode for The Underground Railroad differently?
100%. With Seasons 1 and 2, as an example, at the beginning of Season 2, in particular, I remember saying to [series creator] Jesse [Armstrong], "I like thinking of it almost as each season is the movement of a classical symphony." For example, Season 1 was the Allegro. It's like the opening movement. We're sort of hurled into this universe and we're inhabiting it with all these different characters. And then the beginning of Season 2, I remember saying to Jesse, "My thought was the second movement of a classical symphony often was an Adagio movement." It was sort of a quieter, more contemplative sense. And I remember writing this piece for Kendall, this Rondo in F minor that opens in Iceland because he's in this classical melancholy. I think while I do always want to write new things for each season—and I do actually, I really put a lot of pressure on myself to do that—there are certain of these themes and this sort of chord progressions I've done for Succession that I think are now very connected in an almost inexplicable way, I think, with some of these characters. 

And the theme itself! Did you have any idea that the theme would take off the way it did?
Not a clue. And actually, that theme track that I did was the last thing I did for Season 1. I had written the whole score and scored all the episodes. I didn't know how long the opening was. HBO's like, "It's 90 seconds." I was like, "OK, let me have a shot at this." I think it was helpful though, in a way, that I did the whole season, because by the end of the season, I was like, "I have a real sense, I think, of what this show feels like now." It gives you a chance of being like, "Now that I've learned all this stuff about these characters, what would I say?"

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.