Since its release, the world has fallen in love with Moonlight. Not just a portrait of contemporary African American life, the film is a meditation on identity, family, friendship, and love. And the successes it has enjoyed during the award season is testament to its triumphs.
The film, directed by Barry Jenkins, follows the story of Chiron, a boy growing up in Miami with his drug-addicted mother. Sensitive and shy, Chiron is ruthlessly bullied. We follow his story through three stages of life: as a child; a teenager; and an adult – exploring the difficulties he faces with his own sexuality and identity.
What sets Moonlight apart from the rest is its quietness; this is a film of tender moments and grave silences. The score is as integral to the film as the script itself.
So how does one compose a music score to compliment a film like this? We sat down with film composer, Nicholas Britell, to talk all things Moonlight, music and movies.
How did you get involved in scoring Moonlight?
In 2015, while I was scoring The Big Short, one of the producers, Jeremy Kleiner (Plan B Entertainment) told me about this incredible script that he’d read. It was called Moonlight. He asked me if I’d like to read it. I was blown away by it – it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever read.
Then Barry and I met up for coffee; which turned into a few glasses of wine; which ended up becoming this wide-ranging conversation about music and films and life. And that conversation was the beginning of our collaboration.
Given how moving the script is, did you have ideas for the music straight away?
One of the special things about Moonlight was that, when I read the script, I came away with this incredible feeling of the poetry of it. Then, when I saw the early cuts of the film. I was amazed by the extent to which Barry had brought out that exact same feeling of poetry and intimacy into the film itself.
I now had this film that felt like a poem. So my focus – from a musical perspective – was to imagine the musical equivalent of this feeling of poetry. What type of music, what sound would give you that feeling of sensitivity and tenderness?
Early on in our collaboration, I sent Barry a piece of music that I wrote, called ‘Piano and Violin Poem’. I was really trying to channel that feeling of poetry. That piece became ‘Little’s Theme’ in the film.
Once you had the idea for ‘Little’s Theme’, how do you then develop it to become the score for a feature film?
It’s always exciting when you get an idea right away, as with Moonlight; but there’s always a lot to think about when scoring a movie. The difference between writing music for a concert stage and writing music for a film is that the form the music takes is determined by the film. You have to think about the architecture of the whole movie – there’s almost a geography to it. You need to figure out where the music goes; not only from moment to moment, but also how the connections between the ideas evolve. And, though you’re writing it to the film, the music must have its own logic in how it evolves.
For me, it’s an artistic journey you take with the director; sitting in the room and testing different musical sounds and ideas and seeing how they work with the film. It’s very much about emotional intuition, rather than a checklist of things you have to do.
The film is split into the three stages of Chiron’s life; how did you adapt the music to show the transition between each stage?
The question we asked ourselves was how to maintain cohesion across the three chapters. It’s ultimately the same boy becoming a man through the film; it’s always Chiron but there’s also an evolution there. We had to create this sense of transformation while also maintaining the same sense of character.
Is this where the Chopped and Screwed method came in?
Definitely. Chopped and screwed is a style of hip-hop, where you take a track and slow it down. When you slow the audio down, the pitch goes down; it stretches, deepens, and enrichens the musical texture; you hear things you didn’t hear before. It unlocks a whole range of sounds that are different but connected.
Early on in our conversations, Barry and I played with the idea of using this method; what if I wrote instrumental, orchestral music for the movie. And then, as a second part of the process, what if we chopped and screwed the recording and experimented with it? What if we slowed it down and changed the pitch?
We had no idea it would work until we put it up against the film. But, when we started doing this to the early tracks, like ‘Little’s Theme’, it immediately felt like it was a part of the film. The sounds felt like they were almost woven into the fabric of the movie.
You use ‘Little’s Theme’ as an example, how did you chop and screw it to suit the different themes of the film?
In each chapter, ‘Little’s Theme’ is pitched and orchestrated in a different way. Chapter one has the original piano and violin.
In the piece called ‘Chiron’s Theme’ in chapter two, those same audio elements were pitched down. Then, in the schoolyard fight, it’s slowed and bent so far that it sounds almost like a rumbling in the subwoofers – you almost can’t hear anything. What you do hear is a kind of bass and a bell. But that bass is the violin and the bell is the piano from chapter one.
Then, in ‘Black’s Theme’ in chapter three, I orchestrated the theme for an ensemble of cellos. We took that recording and chopped and screwed it and the end results sounds more like quasi-basses than cellos.
There are many other techniques we used for the film, but ‘Little’s Theme’ is a nice example of how we applied the Chopped and Screwed technique to show Chiron’s evolution over the course of his life.
The ocean and the water plays a huge part in Chiron’s life; how did the notion of water influence your composition for the film?
The idea of water was an integral element of the film and I incorporated it into the music in a few ways. There are elements of actual pieces with ocean sounds, as well as musical ideas that correspond to the moments where the ocean is in the movie.
On one hand, I utilised actual production sounds from the film and brought them into the music. For example, when he’s looking at himself in the mirror at school, you hear this sound of air rushing; that’s actually the sound of Little pouring water into the bathtub in chapter one; but here the sound is stretched and bent.
I also used a musical motif that would recur when Chiron was at the beach. In the cue, Middle of the World, which plays when Juan is teaching Little how to swim, there is a string tremolo which begins the piece. We recorded the strings very close to the mic so you could really hear the tremolo, the bow, and the feeling of air rushing through. That same introductory tremolo plays in chapter two when Chiron walks back to the beach to encounter Kevin – it’s the same motif.
There’s so much meaning behind each section of music. What inspired you to compose it this way?
Barry and I wanted to build a large-scale sonic tapestry to portray Chiron’s internal state of mind. To get inside his world, so you could feel the memories and thoughts swirling in his head. But memories aren’t just visual, they can be aural too. So we brought in sonic memories from the past into these scenes.
For example, in the piece when he goes into the school to fight back, (the cue ‘You Don’t Even Know’), there are a lot of percussion sounds. They almost sound like drum hi-hats, but they’re actually the sound of Kevin and Chiron high-fiving the last time they saw each other. We wanted to replicate the ricocheting of their friendship in Chiron’s mind during that sequence.
We didn’t necessarily think people would recognise the sounds but, for us, it felt like a symbolic connection that would express the profundity of that moment.
Given that you knew all these secret meanings in the audio, how did it feel to watch the film for the first time?
When you’re making something, a lot of the joy is the sharing of it and having people feel a connection with it. For us, the first time we premiered Moonlight last year was a very moving experience. We’d seen the film internally as a group, but releasing the film and having it reach a lot of people was a very special experience. Our dream was always that people would see the film and it would resonate with them and, watching it for the first time and feeling the audience’s connection to it was truly amazing.
How has the experience been with Moonlight doing so well in all the awards? How does it feel to be part of that?
It’s been unbelievable, almost surreal at times. When we were making the film, our dream was that people would see the film and connect to it emotionally. Everything that’s happened during the award season, and winning Best Picture, has been beyond our wildest imagination. Sometimes it’s hard to even comprehend it. The only word I can use to describe it is that it’s surreal.