Grace Van Patten and Callum Turner in "Tramps"

Interview: Nicholas Britell on Creating a Diversity of Music for “Tramps”

Because of the unique nature of how “Tramps” was made and what a special film it is, we’re devoting this week to celebrating many of the artists behind the scenes that made it possible with a series of interviews illuminating their work before its premiere on Netflix.

You wonder what would’ve happened if a mutual friend hadn’t introduced “Tramps” director Adam Leon and composer Nicholas Britell while the two were in college. Both exceptionally talented, there’s no doubt they could find creative partners with similar sensibilities that would appreciate their vast and idiosyncratic musical tastes, but it’s evident from the soundtracks they’ve collaborated on, these artistic soulmates push each other to make the most exciting harmonies together.

“He’s love,” Leon says of one of his closest collaborators in Britell. “[Nicholas is] just love and art as a person. He loves the process, the work, the people, the energy of the world. He embodies everything that’s great about what we do.”

And to think there was a time when Britell wasn’t doing this. Though music has always been in Britell’s life, the polymath who earned a psych degree at Harvard had his choice of professions and found steady work as a hedge fund manager after getting out of college, with his instrumental hip-hop band Witness Protection Program, who opened for the likes of Jurassic 5, ending when school did. But the music bug never went away. Britell, who had been staying active with scores for his late friend and classmate Nick Louvel’s shorts and even an unreleased feature, ultimately left Wall Street to test the waters in Hollywood, where he started picking up some odd jobs and really made a name for himself when he was was contacted by another classmate, the producer Helen Estabrook, who was putting together the financing for the short that would be used as a proof-of-concept for “Whiplash,” which he came onboard as a producer on and later contributed a song to the feature.

Since then, Britell has compiled one of the most enviable filmographies as a composer in recent memory, both in terms of the overall success of the pictures and the inventiveness of his scores. Able to precisely articulate the way we think and feel in every note, whether it is the pings of synthesizers that replicated the sensation of neurons firing off in the minds of financial brokers in “The Big Short” or the choice piano keys that felt as if they came directly from the depths of the fatherless Chiron’s soul in “Moonlight,” Britell has found new and immediate ways to access timeless emotions. (It’s no wonder he was sought out for contemporary considerations of the past such as Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and Natalie Portman’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”)

However, his work on Leon’s two films is unique even for him since it contains so many different kinds of music, often running the gamut from electronica to funk and classical to country, deployed in a variety of ways, whether it’s coming from a stray stereo in the background or overtaking a scene as a feeling overwhelms the characters onscreen. For Leon, who creates a massive playlist of music in the early stages of the screenwriting process, the work with Britell is foundational, rather than an afterthought that comes in at the end as mere accent and for films as energetic as “Gimme the Loot” and “Tramps,” the composer’s diverse skills from mastering the piano before his teens and making his own beats on his synths soon after have given the coming-of-age adventures an unpredictability and explosiveness that make them transcendent and all too true to their subjects. Recently, Britell took a moment away from a busy schedule scoring the upcoming Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes” and Gary Ross’ “Ocean’s Eight” to talk about the fun he has working with Leon, how studying psychology helped him figure out his own sonic tastes, and the delightful challenge of creating both songs and instrumental score for “Tramps.”

Adam Leon's "Tramps"It sounds like a different collaboration than most directors and composers would have – are you talking about ideas even before a script is finished? Or when you get a script, does a playlist come with it?

Adam has a huge knowledge of many genres of music, and he usually has very clear ideas, even from when he’s writing a script as to what the key songs will be in the film. Then what’s fun is we talk through some of that musical tapestry and we figure out what’s missing from that, so maybe there are places where he couldn’t think of what [would be] the right thing for here and [we’ll think], “Oh maybe we’ll write our own song for this part.” So it’s a very flexible approach where the two of us really have a lot of fun and are able to experiment with so many different types of music. In “Tramps,” for example, we did a little bit of what we did in “Gimme the Loot,” which is [when] there’s music playing diegetically in a scene, like on a radio or something that someone’s listening to somewhere, we won’t necessarily license this music – I’ll actually write a song coming from a radio that sounds like an old jazz song or a hip-hop track, so we’ll actually make our own album over the course of making these films.

What was different with “Tramps” from “Gimme the Loot” was that in “Gimme the Loot,” there really wasn’t much music used in the way that you’d think of score. There was a lot of music I wrote, but it was used in a way where it felt like tracks or pieces that would play in different places whereas in “Tramps,” we use more of what one thinks of as score. But we were using score to get inside of the points of views of the characters and trying to have an inward feeling where it’s not really commenting on the external things in the world as much as it’s commenting on internal, inward, psychological feelings of the characters. So the score was a variety of things — everything from these dreamlike cues to some very rhythmic percussive cues with sticks and things like that. There was a pretty wide range of sounds that we explored, but the fun of working with Adam is that we do these explorations of parallel universes of music – one [for] the songs and one [for] the score.

Since the music’s so varied, is there a sound or sonic idea you can hang everything off of?

It was really about the feeling of the music as opposed to the sound because there’s actually a pretty wide sonic palette in the score of “Tramps.” It’s everything from jazz to some synth electronica to this very, almost raw sounding percussion. I actually sampled the sound of a metronome and used it as a percussion instrument, so the goal was always to get into their state of mind as the characters as they experience what’s happening.

It also leads to these great clashes – some of the percussion you’re referring to can be heard in the lead up to the handoff of the briefcase in the film, which articulates the tension in the air as Danny’s nerves get the best of him leading up to the exchange, and after there’s an explosion of sound when he gets on the train, illustrating the chaos in his mind. How did you figure that sequence out?

Adam and I worked on that in various iterations as the film was coming together and we had played around with these polyrhythms that would be playing against each other — these sort of sticks. We liked the feeling of that – the sounds felt very real, very tangible, and there was that feeling of increasing tension and activity. Then [you’re referring to an] electronic dance track right after he’s realizing what’s happened – that’s actually a licensed piece of music, I think it’s called “El Tigoroso” [by Maluca] that was a cool track and as things build up from there, there’s also further sound design and musical elements that I did to amp things from there, so it’s a big variety of things going on there that we were doing.

In describing your selflessness, Adam mentioned a scene that wasn’t quite working and after pitching an improvised original piece, you suggested moving a sound cue from another part of the movie that wasn’t yours. Do these work a little like puzzle pieces for you?

That’s how I like approaching every score, to be honest. I really like getting involved as early as possible and ultimately for me, it’s about what’s right for the film. It’s about making the movie the most fulfilled version of what it can be, especially for the director because it’s the director’s vision that I’m trying to help realize. And if it could mean that we don’t have music in lots of parts of the movie or that there’s a piece of music I wrote and then we watched the movie and it’s not right anymore, that’s totally fine because it’s about letting the movie tell you what it needs. So it’s very important to be very open about that and very honest with yourself about what’s right for the picture.

In studying psychology at Harvard, I understand in part it was to understand the psychological effects of music. Have you’ve been able to apply any of what you may have learned there to storytelling in these features specifically?

I did get a degree in psychology at Harvard and while I was there, I was able to take a few classes where I explored and did supervised reading in neuromusicology. What’s interesting with that is the more you know about the physics of music and the psychology of music, it definitely shapes the way I think what music is doing generally, and certainly in a film specifically. But in some ways, it’s not to get necessarily scientific about it. It’s really more that when you think about how music affects you in a deep way, it helps you be more in tune with how you’re being affected by music. So I try to be very sensitive to how music is moving me in a particular way and the hope is that if I’m feeling something, I hope that others may feel similarly. That definitely helps you as a storyteller because it definitely helps you figure out how you’re going to shape things or figure out possible paths.

What was it like to see it all come together in “Tramps”?

I really love the film. One of the most exciting things, in general, is, to use a metaphor that you used earlier, see the puzzle pieces come together and I’m really excited about what we were able to do with “Tramps.” It was such a wonderful experience to work with Adam on it and for me, what’s so much fun is that we get to try out so many things. It’s fun thinking about how those elements interact — diegetic and non-diegetic music, soundtrack and score — and how those elements affect the progression of the film. Adam and I work very closely together. We talk a lot about what we’re trying to do and then I’ll record things and we’ll try them out together. There’s such a range of things that we can and actually do use in these films — In “Gimme the Loot,” I had the chance to write in so many styles and pieces for that film and for “Tramps” as well. That’s really the fun of it.

“Tramps” starts streaming on Netflix on April 21st.

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