A two-time Oscar nominee known for his collaborations with Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) and Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice, Succession), composer Nicholas Britell branched out recently with The King, collaborating for the first time with Australian director David Michôd, on what ended up being “the most somber” score he’d ever done.
Starring Timothée Chalamet and Joel Edgerton, the Netflix pic centers on the wayward Prince Hal, who reluctantly assumes the English throne, following the death of his father. Reluctant to entangle himself in the wars of his father and the politics of the palace, Hal is forced to embrace the life he had tried hard to escape, going to war with France, alongside friend and mentor John Falstaff.
From the beginnings of his time on The King, Britell was experimenting with sounds, in pursuit of one that felt right for the drama. Having never before scored a period war picture, the composer’s first instinct was to avoid aligning the music too closely with The King’s 15th century setting.
Rooting his score in beautifully melancholic strings, playing at the bottom of their register, Britell incorporated brass, an “old analog synth,” prepared piano, digitally manipulated percussion, as well as the Trinity Boys Choir to capture “the sadness and darkness” of King Henry V’s world, with a score that felt timeless and appropriate for the tragic hero.
A fan of Michôd’s since seeing his 2010 film Animal Kingdom, Britell needed time to get to know the director, and to “figure out a language” for the score that he and the director both felt strongly about. “I think for me, that was one of the most exciting challenges. I’ve had this amazing experience of working with Adam McKay, for example, and Barry Jenkins. They know so much about me, and I know so much about them, and we don’t even need to talk sometimes. We sort of just know what we’re thinking about,” the composer says. “So much of my job is to really try to hone in on the actual feelings and aesthetics that directors are looking for, and I think it was actually a really good challenge for me, to start fresh with somebody, and have to really begin anew.”
DEADLINE: Did the team at Plan B Entertainment bring you onto The King? What excited you about scoring the film?
NICHOLAS BRITELL: Yeah. Dede Gardner actually reached out to me first about it in January. I went to see it and watched it completely blank, with no music, no ideas, nothing—straight through, with just sound—and it felt right away like this amazing canvas upon which to imagine a musical landscape. I’d never done a film like this before, and I think that that was one of the attractions as well. Also, the performances were beautiful, the cinematography was beautiful, I thought the script was amazing, and I liked the idea that this was a different take on that time period, and on this story.
The way that David showed war and battle as being so human, and humans as being so frail, and war as not being glorious, those were things that I was really taken by. I remember early on, David telling me about how at Agincourt, most of the people who were fighting died by being trampled on and drowning in mud, as opposed to swashbuckling, glorious sword fighting, and that resonated—just that this was a more real and somber take on that period of time. I thought too, [about] the idea of, what is the sound of that world? Which is something I’m always asking myself on different projects, at the beginning.
I always find it to be this very mysterious question. There’s so many possible things—how do you choose the right feeling for something? I remember my first instinct after watching it, when I talked to David for the first time was, “What if we imagine that this was the 25th century, not the 15th century?” That was interesting, that that was my first instinct, because I think there’re ideas that we all inherit about what the 1400s might’ve been like, yet none of us actually has any idea of what they were really like. It’s such a foreign world to us, so I think what I was saying to David when I said that was this idea of, could we make the early 1400s feel like a world we’ve never been to before, almost like a foreign planet? David, I think, was thinking similar things, and was really into that idea, so that was the starting point for our discussions.
DEADLINE: That concept for the score seems to align naturally with the kinds of films Michôd is known for, like The Rover.
BRITELL: Yeah, and his aesthetic is very unique. I think what drew him to this project, as well, was an opportunity to make this story—[he] and Joel [Edgerton] wrote the script together—their own, and use the Shakespeare as a starting point, but really bring it into a different place. From those early conversations, it was I think March when he came to my studio in New York for the first time, and we spent this whole week together, really just exploring sounds. I was taking these sounds of bass clarinets and playing them above their range, and running them through these tape filters, and that sound is in the movie. There’s a theme I called “Tetrachord”—this four-note, descending motif—and what’s interesting about it is, that sound of that instrument, doing that kind of motif, feels oddly like a voice, and yet it’s just an instrument from the orchestra playing, run through this tape. So, there’s things like that, where you’re taking things that might seem normal, and then you’re just changing them in some way—so all of a sudden, they feel very different.
So, that was a fun week, where we really dove into all these different kinds of sounds. We took the sound of clanging metal and I tried to pitch it in ways, so that it felt musical, and actually wove that sound into a lot of the pieces. At times, it’s more noticeable and at times, I think it’s more subtle, but there’s literally just the sound of clanging metal in some of these pieces.
DEADLINE: It seemed like deep, dark strings served as the core of your score.
BRITELL: Totally. What was interesting was, as we explored things, there was this world of sound that felt strange and foreign, or unexpected, and then there was a world of sound that actually needed to feel hopefully kind of timeless, like it was from any era. One of the things David and I talked a lot about was that the themes in the film are questions and ideas that resonate for any generation of people—questions of what is true and false, questions of, to whom do we entrust our power? The power of the state, the nation, the idea of families in power, and how does that work? These are all things that clearly resonate with many eras, and I think we needed a sound that felt like it wasn’t about just one time period.
So, the sound of strings, through discussion and experimentation—that, to us, felt like something that could represent the story across the ages, in a way. And I spent a lot of time with David on the sound of the strings, actually, because there’s so many ways strings can be played. There’s a sound that can be very emotional; there’s a sound that can have a lot of vibrato, for example, very espressivo; there’s a sound which is non-vibrato, which is a very pure, open sound.
We experimented with both of those extremes, and came actually to a place in the middle. We wanted the strings to have a sense of emotion and richness, but at the same time, I did some experiments where the strings were being played entirely non-vibrato, and that actually started to feel sort of period. It started to feel almost medieval. David, throughout the process, really cautioned me from having the music ever feel like it was just from the year 1413—and rightly so. Because I think it made him feel like it was [of] a smaller scope than what he was imagining.
DEADLINE: You have a remarkable ability to conjure the sound of epic, romantic tragedy, and it seems as though you’ve explored different shades of that sound with a number of your scores, on films like If Beale Street Could Talk, as well as HBO’s Succession. To what do you attribute your ability to tap into a palette that is lush, emotional and melancholic, all at the same time?
BRITELL: I think musically and emotionally, I’m drawn to some of that idea, in a way, and it’s always interesting to ask yourself why you’re attracted to certain sounds. I love the sound of strings, I love the sound of rich harmonies played on families of instruments in an orchestra. I think that in some ways, I also love the sound of lower strings. There’s definitely beautiful violins in our orchestra for The King, which we recorded in London at British Grove Studios, and we actually also recorded with the Trinity Boys Choir in London. But with the strings, I think I did orchestrate it so that there’re more violas and celli and basses, proportionally, than you would normally have, so it was a lower, richer sound.
There’s definitely a harmonic richness, or a richness of sound, that I personally enjoy hearing. But at the same time, I think that in each film, I am very much trying to hone in on a unique wavelength for each movie. For example, I think that the emotional hue of the Succession music is different from the emotional hue of Beale Street, [although] they’re both rich strings. What’s interesting is, even the way that the strings are written is actually distinct in each one. In The King, I actually think the emotional wavelength is probably the most somber I’ve ever done, and I think that’s because I’m constantly responding to the picture, and to the story, and to David. I think there’s also kind of an emotional austerity, at times, in this score, where I’m very consciously trying to feel almost a darkness that is captive, in a way. I think it’s related to the idea that Hal feels so captive to this new office of King; he’s, himself, unsure of his own feelings, at times.
Clearly, before the events of the film have taken place, he’s leading a very different life, and I think the idea of being uncertain of your fate, and at the same time having so much responsibility for others, is such an interesting dynamic. I think virtually everyone goes through a real complex period of life when they’re coming of age, when you’re learning about how the world works, and shedding some of your ideas, and to have that be happening concurrently with becoming the leader of a nation is kind of a mind-blowing idea.
He’s had family members die. I remember David telling me, right from the beginning of the film, that the zone that he was hoping for, feeling wise, was the idea that this is almost like a hell on earth. The land is sick under Henry IV, and there’s already a darkness there in the landscape. So, it’s a combination of factors that I think led to a dark score.
DEADLINE: What inspired you to include the Trinity Boys Choir in your score?
BRITELL: Initially, I had thought about the idea of voices, and the idea of a wordless choir. I’ve always found that sound to be so beautiful, and with this story, it felt like it really resonated, not just musically, but also symbolically, this idea that we’re hearing a boys choir, when there’s this young man who’s becoming King. The choir really comes into the fore of our musical concept, I would say, right at the entry into France. There’s a very large sort of tutti with the choir and orchestra, upon the landing in France, and that was a moment where I think it symbolizes Chapter Two of this story.
DEADLINE: Many of the titles of your cues feature the words “ballade,” “canticle” and “hymn,” which are all forms of music dating back centuries. Were you consciously experimenting with these forms, in crafting your score, even if the sound you were pursuing wasn’t specific to the 1400s?
BRITELL: When I first spoke with David, after these sonic experimentations, this idea of the 25th century, I did this really deep dive into late medieval music and early renaissance music. One of the things I was trying to understand was, is there a sound of England in the early 1400s that I should know about? I did research into a composer John Dunstable, for example, and that whole moment in time, where really, the medieval era is transitioning into a sound that we now think of as more renaissance.
What was interesting was, those experiments, that was the stuff that David, I think, felt led me into too much of a period route. So, I ended up turning a bit away from that. But I think the research itself did have an interesting impact on me. I’ve always felt that once you learn something about anything, the residue of that is always with you, in a way—and I think that I was trying to channel, with some of the names, the idea of a ballade, or hymn. Names, I think, imply certain ideas and certain feelings. For example, with the Falstaff piece, I think calling it a hymn made me also, just by name, trigger a set of emotions about what I wanted people to think of, when they heard the relationship between Hal and Falstaff. Because there’s a real heart there, and almost like a prayerfulness, in the way that I was hoping to write that music. To me, that theme is really the heart of the movie, in a way. Their relationship, that one true friendship that they have, is this one place of warmth in what is essentially a very cold life for Hal.