Barry Jenkins and Nicholas Britell Were in a Quar-Pod Together

Filmmaker & composer pals talk creative collaboration at SXSW Online

Top: Barry Jenkins, Nicholas Britell; Bottom: Hannah Giorgis

It’s easy to admire the transportive work of filmmaker Barry Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell, but who knew they’d embody #friendshipgoals too?

Jenkins and Britell anchored one of the first featured sessions out of the gate of this year’s entirely virtual SXSW Online. During a 55-minute, pretaped chat, focused on their musical collaborative process and moderated by Hannah Giorgis of The Atlantic, the pair ran through their first introduction six years ago and the projects they’ve embarked upon together: Moonlight (which earned Britell his first Oscar nomination), If Beale Street Could Talk (and his second), and the upcoming Amazon limited series The Underground Railroad. (Additionally, Britell won an Emmy in 2018 for his addictive main title theme for HBO’s Succession, and Jenkins of course took home his own hardware for Moonlight, which won Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Picture Oscars.)

Britell credited Jenkins with first lighting on the idea of a chopped and screwed sound on Moonlight (a technique that started in hip hop of slowing down a track, in the process deepening the pitch and producing a richer, thicker sound). Jenkins recalled that early in the process, Britell shared a Beethoven track with him for inspiration: “I put the Beethoven into, like, iMovie and slowed it down and sent it back to you,” sending his composer in the direction of what would become the score’s defining sound.

Attendees sound off in a live discussion during the featured session screening on the SXSW Online platform

“One of the things that I love most about working with Barry,” Britell explained, “[is that] Barry has these immediate instincts of things. ... He has specific ideas but they’re also abstract enough that they gave me all this room to explore things.”

In the case of If Beale Street Could Talk, one specific idea came when Jenkins first read the source novel by James Baldwin: “When I read the book, I just heard brass.”

Britell took that brief and ran with it, incorporating flugelhorns, trumpets, cornets, and various mutes in his early demos. Work that was eventually discarded wasn’t regretted, as it was part of the process – one marked, Britell said, by “joy and creative freedom.” Both cited the importance of being open to deviating from the obvious path and explore alternate avenues, to continue the road-themed metaphor Jenkins used: “When you’re on the highway [and say], ‘let me pull over for a minute, there’s an In-n-Out Burger.’”

For their newest project, Jenkins’ miniseries adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad (debuting on Amazon Prime May 14), the aural landscape of location shooting worked its way into the mix.

One day, Britell recalled, Jenkins texted him an inscrutable text – an audio file of what sounded like a drill. He listened again and caught on immediately what Jenkins was going for – a subterranean, otherworldly sound in concert with the book’s literalization of an underground railroad.

Jenkins explained the drill’s origin story: “I think you gotta be a sponge, man. There was a construction site next door [to the production shoot].” While the production was on lunch break, the construction site fired up a massive drill. “I could feel the vibration through the earth, and it felt like a rhythm. I literally ran across the square [to record it].”

They played several teaser trailers for the series, then went into fascinating, granular detail of how the composition was created, explaining how Britell created new compositions by reversing other themes, and how the sound of cicadas was chopped and screwed to single out a lone cicada dubbed “Fred.”

What emerged from the conversation was a sidelong portrait of the challenges of making art during a pandemic. At one point in the conversation, the Los Angeles-based director pointed to his composer’s Zoom window and said that where Britell was sitting in New York was normally where he would perch during sessions. “This is Barry’s seat!” Britell affirmed. The composer also mentioned the challenge of virtually directing a 50-piece orchestra in a recording session in London while he was stuck stateside.

Ironically, the demands of The Underground Railroad – and especially the ticking clock of a fixed premiere date – meant the duo got to experience an intense togetherness. Forming a pod, Jenkins said Britell was for a time the person he saw the most, save his partner, filmmaker Lulu Wang. “This is the most time we’ve ever spent together,” he laughed.

Capping a conversation overflowing with mutual respect and obvious affection, Jenkins said it best: “I think we’ve created some dope-ass shit, Nick, over the course of six years.”

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SXSW 2021, SXSW Online, Barry Jenkins, Nicholas Britell, Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Underground Railroad, Hannah Giorgis

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