How ‘The Underground Railroad’ Composer Created a “Very Complex Soundscape” with Music

In 2016, Nicholas Britell burst onto audiences’ radar with his mesmerizing score for Moonlight, for which he earned his first Oscar nomination. In another important first, the film marked the beginning of his creative partnership with writer-director Barry Jenkins. Following 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, the duo embarked on their third project together with Amazon’s antebellum drama The Underground Railroad, adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The result is Britell’s most ambitious and haunting work yet. In an interview with THR, the Emmy winner discusses why he loves working with Jenkins, the origins of the limited series’ sound and his philosophy on the relationship between music and emotion.

Has composing in isolation been helpful to your creative process, or does it make the work harder?

It’s definitely harder. For me, composing and film and television music collaborations are such intimate, close working relationships that I have to be in the same room with people. I always kind of knew that, but it was during the pandemic I just realized. Looking at Underground Railroad, for example, I worked on that with Barry for almost 20 months, from before the pandemic started. When the pandemic first happened in March, there was a window of time where we didn’t know if we would be able to work together in person the way that we always do. For a few months — this was kind of pre-Zoom — we were trying to figure this thing out like, do we FaceTime and turn the laptop to the screen? It just did not work at all. So my wife and I actually moved out to Los Angeles for six months. We were able to work in a very safe, fully tested quarantine pod that we were in.

The Underground Railroad is your third time working with Barry Jenkins. What is it about the relationship between directors and composers that lends itself to repeated collaboration?

Barry’s the dream collaborator, and he’s also become one of my closest friends. It all started the first time we met while I was doing The Big Short in 2015. What started as a coffee turned into a multi-hour conversation about music and life and movies, and we opened a bottle of wine. The dream collaborations are those where you can go in a room and discover things that you didn’t think were possible, and you don’t even know where they come from. Every time you get in the room together, you are learning and you’re growing and you’re always excited. Maybe that sounds very big- picture and abstract, but I mean it in the truest sense — it’s such a joyful experience and such a special artistic experience to get to work with someone like Barry. He has such amazing instincts, but he’s also totally open to experimenting. Both of us always say to each other, we don’t know where we’re going to wind up with things. Each day is a new possibility.

You’ve described The Underground Railroad‘s sonic inspiration as the noise of a drill going into the ground. How did you translate that into music?

I got these audio messages from [Barry] one day, and it was just the sound of a construction site. I honestly did not know what to make of it. Then, a couple hours later, he just sent me a text [that] said, “Did you get what I sent?” Immediately, I knew what he was talking about, where the drilling that I was hearing was the point. What I started to do right away [was] experiment with that actual audio. I started to bend it and warp it and see what was latent within the sound world that it represented. There was an interesting sort of rhythm to the drilling and an undulating tone as well. It made me start thinking about not just weaving that sound into the score literally, which we occasionally did, but also, what did that represent sonically for us? What it led to initially was the concept of going downward, of going underground, of digging. Musically, what would that mean to go down? I’ve always believed that the shapes and the contours of melodies have a sort of subconscious significance. They certainly affect me that way. I remember when we were doing If Beale Street Could Talk, there’s a sequence where Tish and Fonny are yelling to the sky, joyfully, because they’ve been able to rent this apartment. I was thinking to myself, could I have an upward horn that would represent going upward, this idea of shouting to the sky? With Underground Railroad, it was kind of the other direction, so there was this motif, this E flat, D, D flat, C motif, that [was] sort of hypnotic, descending. That was a very musical representation of that idea. What was exciting about the audio, the drilling concept, was that it opened the door to things. We started experimenting with the sound of cicadas and insects and collaborating very closely with Onnalee Blank, our amazing sound supervisor, and going through field recordings. And then these sort of elemental forces, [fire, for example] became something of a touchstone for us.

Did you research the sounds of the historical period in which the show takes place?

Absolutely, those were some early conversations that Barry and I had. We had Eric Crawford, who’s a professor at Coastal Carolina University [and] the director of the [Charles W. Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies] there. He researched and helped us explore pop for some of the songs and [to be] very period-authentic for certain moments of on-camera music. There were [also] certain moments where Barry wanted to go against what you might expect, because as you see in the series, it’s filled with this magical realism and these historical anachronisms. Sometimes seeing certain things and hearing something that is a counterpoint to that provides a question mark, which is helpful for us. Some of the social waltzes in “South Carolina,” for example, are actually pieces that I wrote, which Barry did not want [to be] period-authentic American music. He wanted something that almost felt European or even potentially Central or Eastern European. Of course, I inflected it occasionally with what I felt was right for the world that we’re in. Underground Railroad is a very complex soundscape, because every state represents not just a literal different state, but [also] a different state of mind, different state of consciousness on Cora’s journey. Each [state] is its own planet that she is traveling to.

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Thuso Mbedu in the Amazon limited series The Underground Railroad.
Courtesy of Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios

How does the score change over the course of the series to reflect Cora’s journey?

It was a constant evolution, starting with “Georgia” when you’re hearing the first iterations of certain themes. Juxtaposing it with “South Carolina,” you can see a completely different set of elements that is introduced. In the first episode, there’s a textured, dark, more chamber kind of a sound on some of the instrumentation. By contrast, “South Carolina” [has] some of the most lush, almost fantastically lush, orchestral settings that I’ve ever put together, the sound of these soaring strings and the harps and celestas creating that sort of fantastical magical sound. There’s vocals, which is the first time actually Barry and I have overutilized vocals in a score. I started working with David Hughey, an amazing tenor, who sang certain settings of the score, and Julia Bullock, an incredible operatic soprano. Some of those pieces found their way into the series. For example, Julia sings the aria that I wrote in the “South Carolina” episode, and you hear some of David in “North Carolina”. So that was definitely a new texture that emerged. And then as we go further, as things evolve, the sounds actually get even more experimental. Things become more distorted, more bent, and perhaps overtly strange at times. [There isn’t] a full resolution of that sound, but we come back to some more orchestral sounds as we get closer towards the end of the series. 

Did you compose any themes for any specific characters or moments that recur throughout the series?

I never really write themes particular for characters, I always think of them as relationships between characters. Even [with] “Caesar’s Theme,” it’s in relation to the world and to Cora. There are many other themes, though. One of the main themes that you hear right from the very beginning of the series, “Genesis,” is one of the very evolved versions of a descending four-note motif I mentioned earlier. The piece “Bessie,” the very lush orchestral sound, recurs in many different forms and in many different guises. For me and Barry, the themes are always there, they always transcend the bounds of their initial inspiration.

When you’re composing, are you trying to hit certain emotional beats in the story, or does that happen organically?

One thing Barry and I always talk about is that we never want to push the audience to feel something. We try as much as is musically possible to create the actual feeling of something. As time goes on, we’re more and more sensitive to that, I think, and really trying to evoke the experience of things to the best of our ability. There are times where we’ll have a thesis for a certain place, and we’ll return to it and say, “You know what, now that we’ve done all these things, I think this is how that should feel.” So there’s kind of a constant reevaluation that Barry and I are doing.

At what point in the filmmaking process are you usually brought on board?

It’s different every time. With Barry, I do get started pretty early. Partly from my experience with Succession, I know how much work goes into a television series. There’s a certain point toward the end of postproduction where the mixing and the finalizing of episodes starts happening, and you really need to be ahead of the game for that. I was keenly aware that I wanted to start [on The Underground Railroad] as early as possible. It’s not that I’m scoring things early on. It was very much about starting our experimentations and our idea generation early, because we never want to rush that. We always want to have the time and the space to think about things. What was wonderful though, was I was able to go visit [the] set in 2019. Also, early on [Barry] actually cut together about 40 or 50 minutes of sequences of what he was putting together and shared that with some of the crew. That was in the middle of his shooting of all these episodes, but I was able to start experiencing the visuals and start seeing what we were going to be working with. That’s really the earliest and most involved I’ve ever been on something.

Do you ever experience composer’s block or creative burnout?

On a creative level, I don’t really ever get to a place where I’m not curious about things. I feel naturally very excited to do this. If anything, the thing I do worry about is just being exhausted. I remember when we were doing the recordings for Underground Railroad, during the pandemic, I was in L.A., and we were recording in London. I was getting up at 5 a.m. every day and recording via Zoom and this Audiomovers program for eight hours, and then continuing to score the series. It was intense. After we finished recording, I think I fell asleep for, like, a day and a half.

What types of projects or genres do you hope to tackle in the future?

I’ve never done a horror movie. I’ve always sort of in the back of my mind wondered about that. But you know, I’m just excited for whatever comes next. I think it’s important to treat every project like its own universe, its own totally distinct world.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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