A version of this story about Nicholas Britell first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Among the music nominees at this year’s Emmys, Danny Elfman (“Wednesday”) and Laura Karpman (“Ms. Marvel”) have double nominations for those series’ scores and main title themes, but Nicholas Britell takes it one step further as the only composer with three nominations. Two of those, for score and theme, are for the first season of the Disney+ series “Andor.” The last is for his score in the final season of “Succession,” for which Britell had been nominated for three previous Emmys, winning one.
Britell’s previous work has tended toward the indie world, including Barry Jenkins’ films “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” and his limited series “The Underground Railroad.” He’s gone more mainstream with Adam McKay’s “Vice” and “Don’t Look Up” and he entered the world of Disney with 2021’s “Cruella.” But “Andor” is something else entirely because it’s part of the “Star Wars” universe. That’s a terrain inescapably tied to the themes John Williams wrote for the original trilogy and the scores he wrote for all nine features.
“From when I was probably 3 years old, I was the biggest ‘Star Wars’ fan,” Britell said. “But when you get the opportunity to work on a ‘Star Wars’ project, how do you even relate to this epic John Williams sound that is part of the world’s culture at this point? The only way I was able to enter the universe was in the first conversation I had with [creator] Tony Gilroy, when he reached out and said he wanted to do something completely different.”
With “Andor” taking place before the first “Star Wars” movie, Britell said he was freed up to come up with a distinct sound that could set the stage for the world of Williams’ score without having to ape it in any way. “I felt, OK, I can attempt that,” he said, laughing. “And it was exciting for me, because metaphysically and spiritually, there’s a feeling that you want this to have. But on a practical level, it had to be something unique to this story.”
He immediately thought of “retro analog synthesizers” for a sound that reminded him of the past. But before he could really write the underscore, he and Gilroy had to figure out the sound — and, crucially, the music — of the different planets on which the series would take place.
“My starting point for the whole season was the funeral in Episode 12,” he said. “That was the first piece of music I wrote with all of the movements and the choreography, and we hired musicians to perform it on set. That was the first thing I played for Tony in the hope that we could find a sound for that world. And once we figured out the on-camera music, I began utilizing that as a starting point for the score.”
But that was just one location for a season that jumped between a number of different worlds. “It happened multiple times throughout the season,” he said. “I remember starting to work on Episode 8 and realizing that there was nothing I had written up to that point that would work on that planet. We would get to a new planet or a new storyline, and I would realize I didn’t have anything that would work. I would say, ‘Tony, I need a little time to come up with a new sound palette for this planet.’”
For the main theme, Britell said, “I wanted it to feel like a question mark, more than the incredible ‘Star Wars’ fanfare,” he said. “It starts with this very quiet, low synth pulse, and then slowly elements come in and the sound starts to build. Then there’s this sudden crescendo, but it’s over almost as soon as it’s begun. It’s only 35.2 seconds long, and it’s really trying to figure itself out. In a sense, it’s a metaphor for Cassian [Andor].”
Britell and Gilroy also had to figure out which arrangement of the theme to use in the opening credits. “I had tried a few different ideas of how to orchestrate the main theme,” he said, “and I remember saying, ‘Tony, what if we didn’t have to choose? What if we did all these ideas?’ We had the insane idea of doing 12 different evolutions of the theme, one for each episode, which was its own massive undertaking. By the time I got to Episode 9, I was like, ‘Wow, did I really say we were going to do 12 different main titles?’”
“Succession,” on the other hand, occupied a familiar musical terrain that Britell himself had essentially created. “I went out of my way in each season to create a whole new set of themes and musical ideas,” he said, “but I also wanted to make sure that at times the music would wink back at itself and acknowledge where it came from. Inside the pieces themselves, I would try to have elements from past seasons.”
The overall approach to Season 4, he said, was in many ways similar to what he’d done in the earlier seasons. “There’s a kind of dark gravitas, a kind of melancholy and also an absurdity and an over-the-top-ness that I put into it at times,” he said. “But then on top of that, there were certain things I knew about going into Season 4 that I wanted to think about musically, and certain things I didn’t know.”
For example? “I knew Logan was going to die in Episode 3. I knew that Shiv and Tom were going to have this increasingly painful and complicated relationship. But I didn’t know how the season ended. For every season, I never knew how it would end. And that helps me, because I can be an audience member who is surprised and then thinks, ‘Oh, if I’m feeling this certain way, what can I contribute to that feeling?’”
The biggest challenge of the final season came in Episode 3, where the family learns that patriarch and media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) has died. “That was unlike anything I’ve done,” he said. “There was no sound from ‘Succession’ historically that would work in that moment. The way it was shot, it felt like I needed to be inside the POV of the kids. I wanted this sense of, ‘This is terrible, but it might be so much worse than we can even imagine.’ But what is the sound of that? For me, it was this very raw, almost sandpapery string sound with all these dissonances.”
As he was writing it, though, he knew he needed another pair of ears. “It needed to be choreographed very closely with [show creator] Jesse [Armstrong],” he said. “I called Jesse when I was working on it and said, ‘I’m not sure where in the world you are right now, but you really need to come over and work with me in my studio on this sequence. We worked on it very, very closely in the way you’re with them on the call. When Kendall goes downstairs to find Shiv and tell her, the music starts to almost drift away, and then as they come back up the stairs, the music comes back in.
“Often, the sound of ‘Succession’ is almost like a 30,000-foot take on the show, as much about the characters as it is about the show writ large,” he added. “Whereas in that moment, it had to be very personal and intimate.”
Britell said he found the music often commenting on the show — but you could argue that Britell is also complicit in making the audience feel for these awful characters. “On a personal level, I found the show sadder and sadder,” he said. “As time went on, the tragic element came to the fore for me. So that’s really my emotional and musical wavelength for them.
“Hopefully I’m also imparting moments of absurdity that are counterpoint to whatever we feel for them,” he said. “But by the end of Season 4, I just found it unrelentingly sad. So if there’s a sense of melancholy and tragedy, that’s something I feel and something I was trying to impart.”