Interview with Nicholas Britell

Nicholas Britell is an award-winning composer, pianist, and producer. His music is diverse to say the least. From his spiritual, work and dance music for 12 Years A Slave to Whiplash then The Big Short. Each piece is different and compelling. His recent scores for Free State of Jones [sparse, mean & moody and down right good] and Natalie Portman’s directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness push the boundaries again, no score is alike. Our interview covered this diversity and also working with Natalie on Love and Darkness.

Re-visiting your previous scores, there is such diversity in the range of projects you have taken on. From the period music for 12 Years A Slave, to the contemporary feel of The Big Short, you then moved to atmospheric sparseness in Free State of Jones, and now we have your new score to A Tale of Love and Darkness. You certainly like a challenge.

NB: Thank you Ley, yes it has definitely been a fascinating few years. One of the things that I really love about film music is the opportunity to explore different musical worlds with each project. And the fun challenge is to discover a way to create a unique sound world for each film. I feel that each film is like a different creative assignment where you can try out new ideas, new techniques, new palettes of sounds.

LB: How did you become involved in A Tale of Love and Darkness?
NB: Natalie and I have been dear friends since college, and I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to collaborate with her on her other short-film projects which she has directed. In 2008, I performed a piece of mine, “Forgotten Waltz No. 2” in her short film Eve, and I scored the vignette she directed for the film New York, I Love You as well. In 2013, Natalie asked me if I would be interested in scoring A Tale of Love and Darkness; I was incredibly honored to get the chance to work with her on it.

LB:  WAS there any remit to what music was required?

NB: From early on in the project, Natalie and I spoke extensively about many different musical possibilities. In fact, Natalie asked me to write some musical suites for the film before shooting commenced; in this way, she and her DP Slawomir Idziak could have some musical rhythm and atmosphere for their on-set experience of the film. From the beginning, Natalie and I discussed the many potential musical influences of the characters within the film. We talked about the Eastern European origins of Amos’ family, the Middle Eastern world into which they entered, and also the Western European classical music which their family cherished. Ultimately, I tried to craft a musical landscape which was not directly related to any one of these traditions; my hope was to create a musical language which felt inspired by – but not beholden to – any of these influences.

LB: The beginning of The Opening Music gives not only the feeling of sorrow but of something lost, the strings almost sound rusty, it’s quite haunting and certainly grabs the attention. It then goes into a classical mode. It’s not a opening theme as such but rather creates an unsettled atmosphere and then it just stops.
How did you approach this first track?

NB: The opening music for the film presented a distinct challenge. Certainly, opening music often “sets the tone” for a film. Yet, there were many other elements which needed to be considered here. First, the opening of A Tale of Love and Darkness has a voiceover – an element which requires that the music balance itself with the need for verbal clarity. In addition, the opening of the film presents an exposition of the history of Amos’ family, of his mother’s dreams and worldview, as well as of the tragedy of the execution of their friends and relatives in Rovno. With all this material to cover, the music needed to weave a connection between everything while maintaining a musical cohesion.
I’m glad you pointed out the almost “rusty” sound of the strings. I really wanted the instruments to have a unique texture in the film – we recorded and mixed them in such a way that we emphasized the sound of the bowing itself. The sudden stop of the music was an idea that we discussed early on as well – we wanted there to be a musical counterpoint to the sudden revelation of the execution in the Sosenki forest. By literally cutting off the music at that moment, we hoped to create an additional drama: the disappearance of the music paralleling the disappearance of the people.

LB: Main Theme in F#/ Poeme in F# is achingly sad, it made me realise that my emotions were not being flooded by a full orchestral overdoing it with strings, but with a piano refrain and the beautiful voice of Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev. Is this how you perceived your score to be? Did you ever consider an orchestral score.
NB: Throughout the project, Natalie and I were in total agreement on the need for intimacy and restraint in the score. We never wanted the music to feel too overt, or to feel like we were pushing too much. The instrumentation I utilized was an ensemble of primarily lower strings (violas, cellos, basses), pianos, bells, and harp. In certain cues, I introduced some woodwinds (as in the “Soldier’s Tale” piece), in others there were instruments like altered sitars (“The Monk’s Tale”) or even prepared pianos (in the scene with Steletsky’s story). But overall, it was absolutely a conscious choice to not utilize a full orchestra. I often feel that when you reduce the instrumentation, you increase the potency of each note; sometimes the most powerful music is really the most sparse.

LB: The simplicity of the seven note Post-War Jerusalem [one of my favourite cues] is short and effective as is the ‘quietness’ of Arieh Goes Out. It’s a very measured score.

NB: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed those! We really tried to tailor each moment in the film to its most appropriate musical idea. Natalie and I worked very closely together on the score – we experimented with many different ideas for each scene until we found the ideas which felt most “woven into” the fabric of the film.

LB:The incongruity of a gavotte being given the title of Dance of Death is unsettling and yet this is the most lyrical of the cues. Given that I have not yet seen the film, can you describe what this piece of music is the background to?

NB: Yes, that cue is in fact the “climactic” piece of the film. Without giving too much away in the film, this “Dance of Death” is the musical counterpoint to what we see onscreen: the culmination of Fania’s hopes and dreams which, sadly, are disappointed by the harsh realities of her new life in Israel. Throughout the film, there is a recurring appearance of a mysterious figure: the “Pioneer,” a personification of Fania’s “ideal” man. While the Gavotte plays, we see a surreal “dance” in which Fania finally embraces the Pioneer, just before her death.

LB: Toccata is the longest piece on what is quite a short soundtrack. It’s movement tells of hope. This is a very accomplished soundtrack and given it’s source I was expecting a heavier score, but less is most definitely more here, is that what you had in mind?

NB: The Toccata is, in many ways, the focal piece on the soundtrack. It is the last cue in the film and, interestingly, it was the first piece which we knew was really “right” for the film. It was from this final piece of music – which plays during the last montage in the movie – that we discovered the sound of the film. The theme in the Toccata became the main theme for the film; for us, this theme seemed to signify musically “the world through Amos’ eyes.” As I described earlier, it was really crucial for Natalie and for me that the music always be extremely sensitive and restrained. Any time we experimented with larger-scale musical ensemble textures, it always felt unbalanced with the nature and nuance of the film. We worked very hard to really find a musical landscape that felt like it was part of the fabric of the film. It was an extraordinary experience working on the film, and I really feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Natalie on it.


  • 1. Opening Music (feat. Caitlin Sullivan, Kyle Armbrust)
  • 2. Women’s Dance from Aleko (Excerpt) (feat. Tim Fain)
  • 3. La mer – Charles Trenet
  • 4. Swing Sequence (feat. Caitlin Sullivan, Kyle Armbrust)
  • 5. The Monk’s Tale
  • 6. Main Theme in F# / Poeme in F# (feat. Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev)
  • 7. The Soldier’s Tale
  • 8. War Footage
  • 9. Post-War Jerusalem (feat. Caitlin Sullivan)
  • 10. Arieh Goes Out
  • 11. Amos Sees Arieh (feat. Caitlin Sullivan, Kyle Armbrust)
  • 12. Pioneer on the Mountain (feat. Caitlin Sullivan, Kyle Armbrust)
  • 13. Cossack Lullaby (Traditional) -Natalie Portman
  • 14. Emunah V’omanut (feaat. Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev)
  • 15. Dance of Death (Gavotte) – Emunah V’omanut -Ben-Ze’ev
  • 16. Toccata