Nicholas Britell Gets to the Emotional Core of Composing for ‘The King’

Jazz Tangcay

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We’ve spent the entire summer listening to the “Succession” theme; the sound of extreme wealth and extravagance courtesy of Emmy-Award winner Nicholas Britell. The score reflects the absurdly manipulative Roy family. He’s no stranger to composing scores revolving around power and families; “The Big Short” and “Vice” come to mind. His work has garnered him Oscar nominations for “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

For his latest score, Britell worked with director David Michôd to create the sounds of the 15th century for “The King.” Rather than stay faithful to that time period, Britell approached it with, “something that felt timeless in the sense that it could represent any time period.”

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The King” is a period film, but that’s not what you did with the score. Explain your process for how you and David approached this.

The first time I saw “The King” was very early this year. Dede Gardner told me about it, and I watched it with no music at all. It’s so interesting watching a movie blank like that because movies tell you what they’re looking for. You learn from the movie what it needs. It was this huge landscape, and I’d never worked on a film like that before.

The first thing I said to David was — and I don’t know where these first initial instincts come from, you just have to follow those questions you ask yourself. The first question I asked myself was, “What if this were the 25th century?” I think there was this feeling that the 1400s is so foreign to us. None of us have any idea what the 1400s were and it would feel like a foreign planet to us. For us, the question that the story raises, these ideas are ones that every generation raises — the ideas of truth and falsehood, the nature of power and families in power.

I think there was a sense of creating something musically that felt like you hadn’t seen that world. We also wanted something that felt timeless in the sense that it could represent any time period.

For the idea of the music, I started experimenting in March. Dede came to my studio in March, and we took sounds and tried different instruments against the picture. What’s interesting is that you are in the room; you’re hearing the same things, you’re looking at the same things, and there are certain sounds that feel as if they are inside the movie. There are certain sounds that are rejected straight away. You can’t do that process, not in the same realm. It’s not a process that works over email.

I took these bass clarinets and played them outside their range and ran them through these tape filters. I showed David this idea, and he was really into it because it had this human, yet, strange feeling.

There’s a theme called the “Tetrachord,” it’s this motif that goes from the first descend of the scale to the fifth descend of the scale. It’s this very ancient motif that has been used for a thousand years. I was using it as a melody. There’s something about the downward scale that has this darkness and sadness. It’s a dark and somber story. There are certain emotions in the score that I haven’t explored before.

In addition to the bass clarinets, I was taking the sound of metal and distorting it. You can hear that all throughout the score. Yet, all that being said, his coming of age, his friendship and relationship with Falstaff is the emotional core of the story.

I remember saying early on, I wanted to feel the heart of the story. I found the relationship between Timothée and Joel really moving. I think for me that whatever the Falstaff idea was, it had to be the same idea that would also be at the death of Falstaff. David had a very clear idea about that; he wanted it to be something that you’d remember. He wanted something that had a bittersweet quality. I’ve always been drawn to those pieces that cycle between different emotions. The most powerful emotion is multiple emotions at once.

There’s this cycling of chords in the hymn. Each time they come back, they are different, but they all have the same wavelength. Once I came up with that, we latched on to it, and it became the emotional core.

There’s a theme for Hal in the office of King and maybe he’s not following the right path. When you first hear that, it’s the Ballade piece.  You hear it at the Coronation and he’s hurdling forward into the unknown and there’s a fear, a darkness and there’s an intensity for scope. You hear it in the trebuchets, the siege and you think, “Is Hal following the right path?”

There’s another piece called “Song of Hal.” That is the core Hal theme. For him, it’s the relationship to himself and understanding his place in the world. That’s the one you hear many times in his relationship with William and his Vizier. It’s him legitimately trying to understand what the role of a king is. Again, as we see in the movie, it’s something he never thought he was going to do. That also is the same music you hear at the closure. Those are the main elements right there.

With the descending Tetrachord, that’s woven in with a lot of the sounds that I created and it has elements of the unknown. To us, that felt like it was about forces out of our control and where life was taking you.

When the King’s son is beheaded, what are we hearing there?

You’re hearing the swirling sound. It almost sounds like blades. You’re hearing the darker key of that. It’s happening under the beheading and in the siege. It’s also happening when you see the traversing in France, it’s this idea of, is the office of King affecting Hal in the wrong way? Is power getting to his head? I think those are the key questions when someone comes of age. It’s already a complicated time for all of us, let alone when you’re becoming king.

I think for me, the thing I loved was David’s take on power and nationalism and the way a king operates. It doesn’t make war glorious. People don’t die in a glorious swordfight, instead, the Dauphin slips in the mud. David told me that in Agincourt most of the people died getting trampled or drowning in mud. That’s not our conventional ideas of war. In a way, I think the humanness of that and the frailty of the human body in the face of war; the lack of knowledge of the reality of these forces are something all woven into the story.

That’s also used in the trailer. It’s our entry into the world of the king. There’s this transformation that happens. The music had to represent that transmutation. What happens is you initially start the piece with members of the court going to visit Falstaff who says, “This is now the property of the King.” He’s not aware of what’s happening and replies, “What king of England?” So, it starts with a question. The music you’re hearing is this tense tremolo. There’s a shaking that you hear there. Underneath it, is the war motif. It plays throughout the film, but it’s a signal of the role of power and what is to come. This idea culminates in the Battle of Agincourt.

As you cut to Hal who is now becoming the Henry, you’re hearing these strings that are swirling. There are multiple viola parts that are layered. On top of that, there’s a low resonant bass and a synthesizer. For me, that added to the darkness, and you hear woodwinds. There are oboes and when used in a certain way, there’s a sour moroseness to their sound.

You imagine the coronation of the king being this glorious moment of pomp and circumstance, but it’s the exact opposite of what we were doing. You’re seeing pomp and circumstance, but it’s not what you’re hearing.

Those are opportunities where the music needs to have sweep and scope. The transformation is happening, but we as the audience don’t know where we are headed. That’s what I love about film composing. You get to explore a dimension that isn’t in front of you. It actually is there, but it’s not what you first think. What’s so interesting with music in film is that the film has its own context. Music has its own potential, but it’s when you put them together that this alchemy happens.

Was this the most score-heavy movie you’ve done?

I think it might be. There are many places where it’s woven in with the sound design, but there are places where it’s very featured. I think this and “Vice” probably have the most score-wise.

Talk about working with sound design — I think the Battle of Agincourt is a great example of that where you have the score underneath amidst the swords and horses.

At times, I’ll use sound in my music. I did that in “Moonlight” and “The Big Short.” When we’re working on the Battle of Agincourt, I’m writing music knowing it will be filled and woven into this world of sounds; I’m working with a temp sound universe. I have to just take as all I can work with. You have a sense of what’s going to be there, but at the end of the day, it’s all David. They did all the post in Australia. I was recording the score in London. The strings and choir were mixed at British Grove. There was so much music and while we were mixing, we sent it to Australia and they’d mix it there. It was definitely a parallel process. I didn’t hear the final version until the screenings.

In some places, there’s music called “Antiphon” that for a moment presents this idea for a potentially glorious battle. Immediately, the battle starts and you hear it distorted. I filtered it, so it’s almost hard to hear. Sonically, things are not just distorted. It’s hoping the audience leans into understanding what’s going on.

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