Arts & Culture

‘Moonlight’ reflection

7 min read

Oscar-nominated composer Britell ’03 found inspiration in film’s poetic depth

Nicholas Britell ’03 can connect his career ascent closely to the many friends he made at Harvard. The composer-pianist will celebrate with several of them this weekend as his music for “Moonlight” competes for the Oscar for best original score. The nomination is one of many successes for Britell since he got his entertainment start as keyboardist in the hip-hop group Witness Protection Program.  

Britell, who once considered becoming a concert pianist, said the collaborative environment at Harvard continues to frame his career. He spoke to us about campus connections, the class that changed his life, and how a film score can sound like poetry.

GAZETTE: How did “Moonlight” happen?

BRITELL: I was scoring “The Big Short” in 2015, which was produced by Jeremy Kleiner ’98, co-president of Plan B Entertainment. I had previously worked with him on “12 Years a Slave.” One night we were having dinner, and he was getting very emotional while discussing a screenplay he had read called “Moonlight.” He asked, “Would you like to read it?” I read it, and I was just blown away by it. It was so intimate and tender. It felt like a piece of poetry. I said I would love to meet [writer-director] Barry Jenkins, and he connected us. We got together for coffee in downtown L.A. That turned into glasses of wine and a wide-ranging conversation. It felt right away like we had similar mindsets of what the possibilities were for the film.

GAZETTE: The film is such a personal story for Jenkins. How does that inform you as an artist — knowing that you have these layers that need to be honored or acknowledged in the music?

BRITELL: The closeness of the project — it affects the way you connect to it. Early on, I mentioned how it felt like Barry brought such a sense of a poetry into the film. It was following those feelings, and exploring what is the musical analogue of this feeling of poetry: figuring out what’s the musical sound of that. So much of what I do is translating my internal feelings into these mysterious frequency vibrations in the air we experience as music. It’s a very abstract process. Among the first things I sent to him was a piece I called “Piano and Violin Poem.” That piece became “Little’s Theme.” [The character Little is the story’s protagonist.] It felt like a way into Little’s point of view. In scoring a film, my main goal is to find sounds, textures, and musical ideas that are woven into the fabric of the film. My hope is that the music feels like it is part of the film, not something placed on top of it.

Working closely together with a director is really the key to finding the right musical landscape for a film. [“Big Short” director] Adam McKay, editor Hank Corwin, and I spent the whole summer of 2015 more or less in the same room working together. It was an amazing artistic workshop. So when Barry said, “What’s the best way for us to work together?” I said, “For you and I to get in the studio and spend a lot of time together!”

GAZETTE: The film has already won many awards, and is up for eight Academy Awards. Is it gratifying to know the movie meant so much to people who were not so closely connected to the story?

BRITELL: My dream is always to make things people connect with. That’s the joy — the sharing of creative work. The premiere of “Moonlight” at Telluride Film Festival last fall was incredibly exhilarating. All of us who worked on the project were so profoundly moved by the film and connected to it. And the “Moonlight” team has become some of my dearest friends.

GAZETTE: Did you focus on music and film during your time at Harvard?

BRITELL: I concentrated in psychology. I was always fascinated with connections between music and the brain. I took wonderful one-on-one tutorial classes, including supervised reading on neuromusicology. That’s something that’s been so illuminating in many ways for my career. I did take some incredible music classes, including “Music 51” with John Stewart. That class was spectacular. It was inspirational for me. We studied so much, and took an in-depth look at Bach chorales primarily. In the final project, I wrote a tango for piano and violin. It was really special getting the chance to perform it. I still remember that being an influential moment.

My dear classmate and friend Nick Louvel ’03, who tragically died a little over a year ago, was the first person who ever said to me, “Have you ever thought about scoring a film?” He was a brilliant film director, and it was a truly formative experience for me to work with him. We made a film called “Domino One” during our years at Harvard. Although the film was never released, I wrote almost three hours of orchestral music for it from 2001 to 2003.

During college, I also played extensively with the Witness Protection Program. I had taken a year off after my freshman year while trying to decide if I wanted to be a concert pianist. After the year, I realized it wasn’t exactly the life I wanted. I really love collaborating with people, and being part of a creative team. When I returned from my year off — that’s when I joined the band. Being in the WPP was a fantastic experience. We were very serious and really thought about pursuing the band professionally. We toured a lot, playing all over New York, Boston, and other parts of the Northeast. We even opened for Jurassic 5 and Blackalicious. I wrote a lot of music for the band and played synthesizers and keyboards.

Harvard was really an incredible place to meet people who had similar artistic goals, things they wanted to explore. Certainly, my closest friends and collaborators I met at Harvard. Natalie Portman ’03 is dear friend and we met during freshman year. We’ve recently collaborated on many projects together, including recently on her feature-film directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”

GAZETTE: You were commencement speaker at Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division, which you attended. Do you have advice for students today?

BRITELL: Many of the people I’ve worked with in the film industry I first met at Harvard, but a lot of musicians I collaborate with —including my wife, Caitlin, who is a cellist — I met at Juilliard. It’s such a blessing to meet all these people and to have the opportunity to form long-term friendships and artistic relationships from such a young age. It’s so important to really cherish those opportunities and moments together.

My main advice to students would be to let them know how there is no rulebook as to how opportunities come together. Things can seem very random. It’s really about being open to a lot of possibilities, like the experience I had when I first worked with Nick on “Domino One.” Over the years, I scored many short films all the time without really knowing where it would all lead. I was not planning too much. I just loved writing music for films.

Interview was edited and condensed.