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Composer Nicholas Britell Says ‘Big Short’ Was a ‘Surreal’ Experience

Nicholas Britell composed the complex score for Paramount’s “The Big Short,” which opened in a limited run and expanded on Dec. 23. The composer has a background in the financial world and told Variety that working with director Adam McKay was a great experience, with some “surreal” and dreamlike moments.

How did you come to this project?
I had worked on “12 Years a Slave,” doing some on-camera music like violin pieces, so I worked with Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner of Plan B. And then Jeremy much later told me about “The Big Short.” I loved the script; there were cool moments including scenes that called for a piece of classical music. So I emailed Adam and attached a few music pieces. The first thing I sent him was a classical piece I’d written, but after talking with Adam, the music I ended up writing for the film was definitely different. We had a conversation and he asked “What is the sound of finance? What is the sound of dark math?”

When did you actually start work on the film?
I read the script in the springtime and talked to Adam throughout the shoot. The unique part was getting involved so early, and being able to work with Adam and (editor) Hank Corwin, even in the early stages of editing. He would edit working with the music. It was like a workshop. And kind of dreamlike!

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Did you have favorite scenes?
There’s a piece in the film when they’re leaving Vegas. We used six pianos, all layered together; all these pianos felt stable and unstable at the same time — which seemed like the markets themselves. There is quite a bit of piano through the film. There’s also a track called “Mouseclick Symphony,” which is just composed of mouseclicks and computer beeps, when Michael (Christian Bale) is analyzing individual mortgages. They were authentic computer sounds, and the goal is: “Oh, I’m in his brain right now.” Technology enabled that, authentic computer sounds. I worked with Adam and Hank on how to sculpt this piece.

Talk about the technology.
Technology was essential, but music has always been involved with technology. I used Abelton Live software, which gives you the ability to bend sounds and to stretch things, and play with it like Play-Doh. There is a theme called “America’s Number One Industry,” which took a theme and stretched it out, distorted it. We were always trying to connect ideas, not just with music but the audio.

What was the hardest sequence?
The end of the movie, from Mark Baum (Steve Carell) saying “Boom!” to his “Sell it all.” I tried a lot of different stuff. The movie at that point is tying so many things together; at the same time, there’s a massive collapse around the globe that was so intense and large-scale. I tried to bring it all together by using all the earlier themes. But one night Adam said, “It would be interesting to write a piece for solo piano; write it as if it’s a classical piece.” I wrote a 12-minute piece, which worked so much better than what we had.

You have a piano background, don’t you?
I started playing piano at 5 and started composing young. I was into classical, then jazz, then in hip-hop as a member of the band Witness Protection Program. In college, I scored my first movie, a $10,000 feature called “Domino One.” My dreams were always to be a film composer; the first music to inspire me was “Chariots of Fire.”

You also worked as a trader?
After college, I needed a job, so I interviewed with a man on Wall Street who also happened to be a composer. He hired me and I learned to trade currencies, while at night I was scoring short films. It was fascinating and I learned a lot. But working on “Big Short,” it was surreal to think about these currencies concepts in an artistic way.

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