Emmy-winning, Oscar and Grammy-nominated composer Nicholas Britell is nominated again for multiple shows heading into the scheduled January 15 telecast. He picked up nominations in the same category for his work on both Andor and Succession. He previously won an Emmy for the “Original Main Title Theme Music” for Season One of Succession.
Now, what makes his work on Andor stand out is that it’s unlike any music that audiences have heard before in the Star Wars universe, be it live-action or animated. Most composers playing in the Star Wars playground have more or less emulated the work of the iconic John Williams, but that’s not what Britell is done and the series is all the better for it. One can say the same thing about Tony Gilroy’s decision to go with practical sets to keep it in sync with Rogue One rather than filming with The Volume.
The first season of Andor follows the beginnings of the Rebel Alliance in the lead-up to both Rogue One and Star Wars: A New Hope. One of the people that the series focuses on is the titular Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) from five years before the start of Rogue One. He’s in a very different place at this point in his life as he’s trying to find himself. A flashback in Andor’s backstory reveals how the Clone Wars shaped his childhood. The larger picture involves Senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård), both of whom are involved with the Rebel Alliance.
Recently, Britell spoke with Below the Line about his Emmy-nominated work on the well-received Disney+ series.
Below the Line: How honored are you to receive a pair of Emmy nominations for the main title theme and the score on the season finale of Andor?
Nicholas Britell: It’s amazing. You never can expect anything like this but it means a lot. We put so much into the whole project. I spent about two years working on just season one of Andor so it definitely means a lot that people responded to it.
BTL: At what point in the process did you first come on board to work on the series?
Britell: I was brought on before they started filming. I started speaking with Tony Gilroy in, I guess, it was the beginning of 2020, about doing season one. We ended up meeting to start really working together in my studio for the first time in August of 2020. That’s when I started working on a lot of the on camera music that had to be choreographed and figured out. That was really my first focus was getting all that together. That included, for example, the funeral sequence in Episode 12. That was actually the first thing that I ended up writing for the series for Tony and then just continued from there and finished mixing season one in August of 2022. That was the full window.
BTL: You’re so busy with scores on multiple series and multiple films. How do you find the time to balance everything out?
Britell: To be honest with you, I don’t think I really do balance it. I don’t do much else. I’m mostly here in the cave, just writing music, which I love and I feel really blessed to be able to do that. But yeah, I do not do much else.
BTL: I felt that your work on Andor was unlike anything I’ve heard in the Star Wars universe before.
Britell: Thank you. I appreciate that.
BTL: You’re welcome. What sort of direction did you get from Tony Gilroy when it came to composing the score or notes throughout the process?
Britell: Well, the really wonderful thing was right from the very beginning, it was really clear to Tony that he wanted a unique sound for Andor. Right from the beginning of Episode 1 on Morlana there, it was really about what is the story that we’re dealing with, what’s right in front of us, and what should be the sound of that. I think, obviously, Andor fits into a much larger story so certainly, in the back of our minds, there’s always a question of how do things connect and what is the cohesion with everything else. But at the very beginning of the process, it was really about what’s in front of us and what might the sound be forecasting Andor.
I think the way that I really started thinking about it, besides just focusing on the on-camera music, figuring out the sound of the culture of Ferrix and things like that, the first thing I really was thinking about was, who is Cassian? One of the things that really jumped out was the idea that he’s trying to figure out who he is. He has questions about his past, he certainly has questions about his present—where he is at this moment in his life—and he doesn’t know where he’s going either. We know where he’s going so there’s that dramatic tension there of him figuring things out where we obviously know where he will end up in the very end.
One of the things I worked on was, what might that theme be? What might our main Andor theme consist of? What I played for Tony, what I finally presented him, was this idea that I felt in a way represented my hope for how people might begin to understand Cassian. It was this idea of the main theme being something that really started almost in darkness. There’s this low synth pulse that starts and this opening theme is—you’re unsure what exactly it is at first and then it starts growing and growing. It starts gaining confidence.
There’s this huge kind of crescendo to it and then it finishes all of a sudden, too. It’s almost done out of nowhere. There was this mystery and a question to a huge crescendo, and then all of a sudden, it’s out. In a way, I felt that sort of represented Cassian even because he doesn’t know what exactly is going on and doesn’t know who he is in a lot of senses. There is this sense of discovery that I think the music sort of shows.
That idea was presented to Tony, and he was really into it. The interesting next step was that I remember saying to Tony, there are so many different ways that I could orchestrate this. I showed him a version that was very intimate. I showed him a version that had these strange textural bells and pianos. I showed him a version that was a full orchestra. Early on, we just said to ourselves, what if we didn’t have to choose? What if, every episode, we presented the audience a different take on this theme? What if that was actually a way of telling the story and helping tell the story so that when a new main title shows up, it’s a transition from where we’ve been and perhaps gives you a sense of where we might be going. In the beginning, that seemed like a fun idea. I felt by the time I was around Episode 9, I realized the scope of what I had undertaken was a large scope of work, in addition to scoring things. I’m really happy that we did that and it was very, very fulfilling to take an idea and really kind of explore all the possible ways of turning it around.
Below the Line: In general, how long did it take to compose the score for each episode?
Britell: There was a lot of initial laying the groundwork that went into each episode in the sense of some of the episodes had extensive on-camera music. Some of those episodes, I would have spent all this time thinking about them beforehand and writing things. But when it finally came down to it, I would say I was writing each episode for about a month, probably, and that’s separate from recording and mixing each episode. We would record in London with an amazing orchestra there, primarily at AIR Studios. Once we got into the rhythm of it, we were recording there almost every four to six weeks, I would say, for a whole chunk of a year pretty much so. It was a lot of recording, a lot of mixing. While we were recording and mixing, I was writing as well. It was definitely a complicated endeavor.
BTL: How did the pandemic impact the recording process?
Britell: It impacted it, I think—in the end, we love everything we did but it certainly impacted the process. I wasn’t able to go there, for example. I wasn’t able to conduct. I love conducting my own scores and recordings but I couldn’t be there for it. It was just too complicated during the pandemic, because we really were—this was still 2020 when we were starting to do a lot of the work. When I was recording, it was into 2021 as well. We ended up getting into 2022, even with some of the recording, obviously, but by that point, our process was pretty established. It definitely impacted how we did it.
I think the positive that I think a lot of people would say from having had this difficult experience was learning how to do things a little bit differently and seeing the possibilities. We figured out ways of spreading musicians out in the spaces differently. We figured out ways of—technologically, there’s this program called Audiomovers that I think a lot of composers—I’ve used and I think a lot of people have used, which enables you to have sort of a real-time hi-fi connection with the mixing booth basically so you can hear what’s really coming directly out of the mics. I used that and I was on Zoo. It’s definitely a different experience but it is very practically possible. I certainly in the future would prefer to to be in the room.
BTL: Speaking of recording, is there a studio that you like recording in because of how the music sounds?
Britell: It’s a good question. There are so many wonderful studios all around the world. I think every studio has its own unique idiosyncrasies. The studios in London are incredible. I’ve had the opportunity to record in many of them and I don’t think I have a particular preference (Laughs). I think they’re all really wonderful and each has its own sound in a sense, I think. Where we recorded for Andor, which is the Lyndhurst Hall. It’s a former church hall in London at AIR and that room is incredible. It’s got a beautiful golden reverberation that I think it adds to some of the sound so that was quite wonderful to record there.
BTL: Were there any themes or cues that evolved as you started composing?
Britell: Well, actually, I would say the score itself really evolved a lot as we were working on it, primarily because of two things. I think on the one hand, Tony and I, we knew how much work was going to go into this but at a certain point, I think we realized how we vastly had underestimated how much work was gonna go into this. There was a level of just the realization of how much was going into this that. As we went on, we realized that there was so much that had to continue evolving so the process itself required so much of a change in the score as we went. But in a positive sense, I think it was merited by the story. The story takes us to so many different planets, to so many different—not just parts of the story, but literally parts of that galaxy. I think that as we went to these different places, the sound had to evolve and had to change. That was the type of thing that I didn’t fully realize, I think, until I was deep in the process.
I remember in particular, I think was around Episode 8, where we go to Narkina Five, that prison planet, and nothing that I had written up until that point worked there (Laughs). It needed a totally new sound. I remember saying to Tony, I need a little time to come up with a whole other palette. I wanted there to be this very dark, symphy edgy sound for that planet, which then, over the course of those three episodes culminating in Episode 10 of those three of the prison planet, I wanted it to really culminate in this massive kind of orchestral finish, as they do escape from the prison. But yeah, I remember in particular, that was a point in the process where I just realized how much the score had to evolve and how much it was evolving.
BTL: How did you first get interested in composing?
Britell: It’s a good question. I loved music from when I was very, very young. I was always a pianist. I thought I might actually be a concert pianist as my life. But as I got older, I really found that I loved collaborating on creative projects and always loved movies and always loved music. Actually, it was in college, a very, very dear friend of mine, Nick Lavelle, one day just came up to me and said that he was making a feature film in college and asked if I wanted to score it. I had never scored a movie before and so we really spent the next three years working together on that. That was certainly how I got into film composing. How I got into just composing in general was from a very young age. I just always liked playing music and I would write little things here and there. It wasn’t really until college that I think I gained the confidence in my own writing.
BTL: I know you have the Winning Time album coming out but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I loved your work on Don’t Look Up.
Britell: Oh, thank you so much. I appreciate that. That was a very, very special project—another pandemic era project—that we really put a lot into. Certainly, with everything going on in the world with climate change right now and people realizing the ever cascading dangers of climate change, I think we’re really proud of that project.
BTL: I was at the world premiere.
Britell: Oh, amazing. Okay, fantastic. Here in New York.
BTL: Yep. Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Britell: Jazz at Lincoln Center. I was there, too. Yeah. That was a great night. No, I’m really happy with that one. Both the score that I worked really closely with Adam McKay on and also the songs that we did for the film as well.
BTL: It’s one of my go-to albums whenever I’m flying long enough to where I could finish the score from start to finish.
Britell: Well, thank you so much. Yeah, that was that had that sort of combination of—there was a reverence for science that I was kind of going for, but also that totally absurdist Big Band jazz, to give you the sense of, hopefully, the chaos of the modern world.
All episodes of Andor are currently available to watch on Disney+.