Nicholas Britell on the writing the score for The Underground Railroad

The renowned film composer explains how he blended fantasy and history to craft the score for his third collaboration with director Barry Jenkins.

17 May 2021

By James Bell

The Underground Railroad (2021)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ The Underground Railroad (10 episodes) is on Amazon Prime from 14 May.

Following his work with Damien Chazelle (on Whiplash, 2014), Steve McQueen (on 12 Years a Slave, 2013), Adam McKay (on The Big Short, 2015; Vice, 2018; and Succession, 2018-), and especially Barry Jenkins, for whom he scored Moonlight (2016), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and now The Underground Railroad, 40-year-old Nicholas Britell has become one of the most sought-after contemporary film composers.

Britell’s collaborations with Jenkins have been especially close, with the two typically spending long hours together in the studio. On The Underground Railroad, that intimate process was initially disrupted by the pandemic, with Britell on the East Coast and Jenkins in Los Angeles, before Britell flew out and lived in a ‘production bubble’ with Jenkins and the crew.

Nicholas Britell
© Emma McIntyre

The score he and Jenkins crafted for the ten hours of the series, Britell says, was easily the most ambitious and challenging work of his career – made all the more so by having to record musicians in London via Zoom. The series also offered particular challenges in the way that each episode, as it moves to a new state, required a new musical palette. But with that, and with the embrace of the elements of fantasy and historical anachronism in the story’s narrative, came a great freedom to experiment and sidestep the expected.

James Bell: What was your starting point for the score?

Nicholas Britell: The first concrete idea came when Barry was on set in Savannah. He sent some audio files that sounded like drilling. It was cryptic, but all of a sudden, I realised – this idea of rhythmic drilling [was] of going downward into the earth.

That set me off experimenting with the sounds of that world, of nature. Barry and I talked about using elemental sounds, things like cicadas, the sound of the air, insects. We took the [sound of the] cicadas and slowed them, and in doing that uncovered these interesting motifs in the sounds of nature.

Was one of the principles behind the music that it should reflect Cora’s expanding sense of herself? So, in the early episodes, cicadas would be a sound that she would have heard on the plantation, where other music is denied to her. Then in later episodes, as her experiences grow, we’re hearing strings and refined music.

Yes, it was important to bring it within the scope of Cora’s perspective, because the entire show is about her journey and state of mind. Barry and I talked a lot about there needing to be many different musical elements, just as in a physical sense, there are many different states literally that she is going to.

William Jackson Harper and Thuso Mbedu in The Underground Railroad

One of the keys was that each state, be it literal or figurative, required its own type of music. So in certain states there is a sense of the elemental forces, while in certain states there’s the literal – is this music that is on the farm right?

And with Barry it’s never the obvious choice. Barry always says, “The music could be anything. What do we want to say with it?” And so, yes, in the beginning of Episode 7, there’s the string septet that I wrote that has a heightened, almost classical sensibility, but it’s not necessarily true to that exact world. The whole series is historical fiction with anachronisms – there are skyscrapers in the 19th century in South Carolina – and so that [use of music] is just another.

In some episodes – for instance The Great Spirit – I was struck by how little music there is. There are frequently periods of quiet.

Absolutely. Barry knew exactly which episodes he wanted to be very sparse. I remember on Moonlight, there were parts where the [onscreen] sounds are the ‘score’ – you want to just be with the characters, you want to be immersed. Here was the same.

In Underground Railroad there are multiple levels of how we would score things. There’s music in the world with the characters, the diegetic music. There’s large-scale, orchestral sounds. There’s intimate instrumental music. There’s dream-like atmospheric music. There’s a sonic, experimental music, which might incorporate some of the nature, elemental things.

And then there’s elements, for example with Ridgeway [the slave-catcher played by Joel Edgerton], where he doesn’t get music. Ridgeway has abrasive, sonic elements. There’s brass but it’s not musical. And at the fullest extent of that there’s no music at all and we’re just in with sound.

Mbedu and Jenkins behind the scenes of The Underground Railroad

Did you feel any pressure to incorporate African-American music traditions? And were there any clichés of the South and slavery that you want to avoid?

It’s a good question. We had Professor Eric Crawford from the Joyner Institute in Coastal Carolina University as an adviser for the music that would be in the world of the characters – the diegetic musical choices; that was definitely researched.

But the sonic direction and inspiration always comes from Barry. And his instinct on every project is, whatever the sound is, he wants it to be unique. So I really take his lead on that.

I remember the first thing that I did for the series was the waltzes that we hear [in the South Carolina episode], and I said to him, “What kind of sound are you looking for here? Do you want an American sound? Do you want 19th-century?” And he said he was hoping that it would feel almost European. For Barry, there are moments you want to be in sync with the world, and then there are moments you want to be in counterpoint.

It’s almost all music you composed, then suddenly there’s the tender scene where you use Debussy’s Clair de lune. Why did you decide to use that there? And the tracks over the end credits [which include Marvin Gaye, Outkast, Donald Glover], are they your choices or Barry’s?

Those are Barry’s. He has incredible instincts on those – the needle-drops. Like on Moonlight, for example, Hello Stranger was in the script. The idea of the needle-drops at the end credits, Barry and I felt, was a really powerful choice because immediately, it contextualises everything.

And Clair de lune, similarly so. That’s a piece of music that has meant so much to people in so many contexts, that I think Barry found it very powerful to put it here in this world. To say, “Why not here?”

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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