How to Write Film Music That Stops Time

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a young Black man with glasses in a grey coat and black pants speaks into a microphone onstage next to a young white man in a black coat and glasses, as part of a panel at a film event
Director Barry Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell, seen here in 2019 at an event discussing 'If Beale Street Could Talk.' Jenkins and Britell will be in discussion, and present live performances from their collaborations, at the San Francisco Symphony's SoundBox April 14–15. (Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

There’s a standout scene in Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ widely acclaimed 2016 coming-of-age film, that doesn’t have the typical “pivotal moment” hallmarks of an Oscars Best Picture winner. There’s not a big speech. Not a lot really happens, even.

But the scene in which Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches Little (Alex Hibbert) how to swim is rich text for other reasons. There’s the painterly light, athletic camera work. The symbolism is somehow both striking and understated — a rare glimpse of Black masculinity as a nurturing force, as well as what Jenkins has called a “spiritual transference” between these two characters.

Then there’s the music. Bright, anxious violins pick up speed as the figurative baptism progresses; over the course of a two-minute piece, composer Nicholas Britell’s score reflects the beauty and danger of the ocean, as well as the complex sea of emotions in our young protagonist: determination, hope and fear. I dare you to find me someone who didn’t sit in the movie theater holding their breath for the entire scene.

In the seven years since Moonlight’s release, with films like If Beale Street Could Talk and the limited series The Underground Railroad, the partnership between Jenkins and Britell has produced numerous breathtaking moments like this. Jenkins tells stories of Black America, consistently turning an artful, unflinching eye on protagonists who are limited or literally trapped by injustice, by poverty and incarceration. And while Jenkins’ writing and direction are deeply empathetic, it’s often Britell’s scores — soaring, evocative works that apply R&B and hip-hop production techniques to classical music — that grant these characters their full humanity, reminding us that even people living in the most tragic of circumstances experience a vast range of emotion, including love and yearning along with anguish.

A horn line swells, and we remember — oh, right. Every single person I meet has an entire universe of pain and beauty and unfulfilled dreams swirling inside them at all times. And then we weep uncontrollably into our popcorn.

Britell, a classically trained pianist, has been a “collaborative partner” with the San Francisco Symphony since 2018. But his April 14–15 events with Jenkins at SoundBox, with Symphony musicians performing works from Moonlight, Beale Street and The Underground Railroad, will present his most personal collaboration yet with the organization.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Emma Silvers: Barry, your projects have always shown a love of music, even going back to Medicine for Melancholy. Can you talk about where music lives in your writing process?

Barry Jenkins: Music has always been part of it. I mean, I’ve always been surrounded by music — I grew up in a household where, even though we were so extremely poor, there was always music playing. Or I would go to the flea market and get tapes — and this is terrible as someone who now makes a living from copywritten material — but people would make these cassette tapes with all these different songs on them, and you could get a tape for like five bucks, as opposed to an album, which cost 15 or 20 bucks.

And I’ve always listened to music while I write. When I first got to college and started pursuing creative writing and working on film, I would go to this café to work. And between coffee, wine and music, I found that I could slip into a place where I could translate the feeling of what was happening in the scene in my head to the page.

This was also when I was discovering the filmmakers who became foundational to my idea of what cinema was, people like Claire Denis and Wong Kar-wai, and they used music in a very open, very clear way. In film school, I was taught music is meant to be in the background of a film, which is kind of making it elevator music. So I was like, No, no, no: I’ve seen films where you can use this combination of sound and images and score to really elevate what the character was feeling. That’s the place it’s always had for me.

a black and white photo of a young Black man in a dark collared shirt with glasses, smiling at the camera
Barry Jenkins’ San Francisco-set debut feature, ‘Medicine for Melancholy,’ will be released by The Criterion Collection in June, with new commentary from the filmmaker. (Matt Morris)

You’ve both spoken about not wanting to tell the audience how to feel, that it’s more about music that sounds the way the characters feel — kind of achieving interiority through music. Which, especially as a non-musician, seems mystical to me. Can you talk about what it looks like to get into that headspace and compose for different characters, especially people with very different lived experiences from your own?

Nicholas Britell: It can feel mystical; I also use the word “alchemy” a lot. And so much of it is about this incredibly close collaboration, searching together for things — I’m never working alone. Which is why it’s so special that Barry and I are doing this show; we get into this stream of consciousness when we’re in the room together.

On Beale Street, for example, Barry said “I’m hearing brass and horns.” So I started thinking about the scene where Tish and Fonny have finally been able to rent that apartment, and they’re in the street and they start shouting to the sky with joy. I think a lot about shapes. I feel that the shapes of things in music actually affect us all in similar ways. So, OK, I want the music to go upward — to shout to the sky. Well, what if it’s a trumpet shouting to the sky? And then I start doing experiments with brass, French horns, clarinet, trumpet, flugelhorn, piccolo trumpet, and I kind of go off into the wilderness and try things.

Then, through experimenting together, we realized it was missing cellos. Like, oh, the cellos are the feeling of love. And all of a sudden, if I take the chords that I was playing with brass but the cellos play them, everything feels different. It’s never, oh, what key signature is this, or what type of chord is this. It ultimately always comes back to feelings.

Audiences have these incredibly poignant, personal responses to these scores, where the music seems to help them access complicated feelings about their own lives. Have you seen the comments on “Agape” on YouTube?

Barry Jenkins: They’re nuts. (Laughs.) Nuts! Way more people have listened to that piece than have even heard of this film. Way more people are going to hear that song than will ever watch If Beale Street Could Talk. And I remember being there at the moment of its creation, in this really diligent but simple process of chasing what that moment felt like, both within the film and within the characters’ lives. It’s this very aspirational moment, when Tish is at her most hopeful, like everything is on the table for this family. And Nick just did this thing where he had the song keep reaching up and up and up.

But the way that piece of music connects with people, and this is me saying this, not Nick — these are Black films and this is Black music. It really is. And it’s amazing to me there are white people all over the world, we’ve seen this on Instagram, who walk down the aisle to this piece of music. I say it’s Black music because what Mr. Baldwin was writing, and what Regina and Stephan and KiKi are doing in that sequence, is bottling this nuclear atom of the hopes, the aspirations, the yearning, the melancholy of Black life in America. And Nick somehow found a way to get in there and really translate that into music.

When I get a little tipsy and I go read those comments on YouTube, I see that the whole journey of making that film, even if people only accessed it through hearing this one song, would have been worth it. Because the way people respond to the feeling of that music … I mean, sometimes it knocks me down. If you want to know the power, the effect, the legitimate movement that a piece of score can create, go look up that thing on YouTube and the things that complete strangers — who have no skin in the game on how successful this film is or isn’t! — and they’re just pouring themselves out about what this piece of music means to them.

a young white man with light brown hair in a black button-down shirt and glasses looks down away from the camera
Nicholas Britell’s other scores include collaborations with director Adam McKay, including ‘The Big Short’ and ‘Don’t Look Up,’ as well as the HBO show ‘Succession.’ (Emma McIntyre)

Nicholas Britell: I’ll just add that the music that I write with Barry is unlike anything else that I write. In some ways, I think Barry lets me tap into different emotions, and there are certain feelings that I think we are both drawn to. And I get to figure out: what is the sound of that? So much of what we do is experimentation — Barry will like a kernel of something, so we follow that, but we don’t know where we’re going. Just that when we’re there, we’ll know.

Moonlight and Beale Street were both so rooted in Miami and New York, respectively, the cities where they took place. But The Underground Railroad takes us to so many different locations, and then also has surreal elements. How do you find the sound for something of that scope, especially without the anchor of a specific, singular time or place?

Nicholas Britell: The scale and scope and difficulty of The Underground Railroad was unlike anything I’d ever done. I remember Barry saying to me, you know, each state is a different state of mind for Cora — and we thought of it almost like different planets. Because that journey is unlike anything. As a comparison, it’s not Succession, where, from episode 1 to 2, we’re probably in New York City, probably in the Roy family. This is like we’re in a different universe. We’re in a different dimension, possibly.

Then there’s the sonic experimentation, just the amount that we were going to push… we look at Moonlight, where there was the idea of using chopped and screwed as a technique, or in Beale Street, where we’re taking the sounds of love and harming them so they’re broken and they become a sound of injustice. On Underground Railroad, it was times 100. How do we push things to feel beyond what we can even imagine?

Then, what is the architecture? Because if you establish a musical idea at the very beginning of a film, part of the beauty, hopefully, is that if it comes back later, you have a memory of having felt it — even just subconsciously. So multiplying that across 10 episodes, when do we echo back? I remember showing Barry some new ideas at one point, and he was like, ‘You know what? No new ideas. We’re done.’

Barry Jenkins: The Underground Railroad was definitely less of a literal journey, but to me it was also a much more clear emotional one: every state is different, because Cora’s mental state has shifted in addition to the setting. What Nick said about planets — I love that because different planets have different atmospheres, and these soundscapes are like those atmospheres. Venus is not like Mars, you know, it’s got to be completely different.

And we’re also responding to the world around us. [At one point during production] Nick and Caitlin, his wife, who’s a cellist, had moved out to L.A., and Nick, do you remember Caitlin took up this hobby of birdwatching?

Nicholas Britell: She’s still doing it. She’s an avid birder.

Barry Jenkins: She had all these feeders around, so there were these hummingbirds always around the studio. And I was thinking the other day, Nick, about the track “Fireflies.” And there’s a harp that’s played really fast, and to me, that’s the hummingbird wings.

a crowd of people sits watching classical musicians perform in a dark club-like space with large artworks projected onto the walls and ceiling
‘SoundBox: Modern Sanctuary,’ conducted by Edwin Outwater in February 2020. (Mike Grittani/Grittani Creative)

What do you want people to know going into these SoundBox shows?

Nicholas Britell: These performances are something Barry and I have never really done. While we’ve played Moonlight live to picture before with orchestras, we have never actually performed in the authentic forms of the film with the original orchestrations. This is something we’ve been talking about since these were first written — like, how could we do this? Can we do this? Because, for example, Beale Street is as much an orchestration exercise, with these different instrument colors, as it is about these very special reverbs at times, where you hear the sounds sort of floating and soaring and swirling.

Barry Jenkins: We have heard stories about the reverb quality of SoundBox and we are hoping to put it through its paces. We’ve heard it’s legit. And the cats that work there are out to prove to us that it’s legit, so we’re pushing the boundaries with this concert.

I’ll also say — I moved to the Bay at a time in my life when I was incredibly down on myself, and I went through some ups and downs there. And I’d walk past the Symphony all the time, and I just never thought … There are going to be images of Black folks projected all throughout this show. These folks are going to be playing music that I think organically reflects the experience of Black people. And I just never, never thought there was a world in which that would ever happen. It’s gonna be very cool.

‘SoundBox: In Conversation With Nicholas Britell and Barry Jenkins’ takes place at 9 p.m. on Friday, April 14 and Saturday, April 15 at the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox (300 Franklin St., San Francisco). Tickets start at $99; details here.