Composer Nicholas Britell on Re-creating the 70's for "Battle of the Sexes"

09/21/2017 04:21 pm ET

Nicholas Britell is one of the most accomplished and thoughtful young composers in Hollywood, and it was a great pleasure to talk to him about creating a score for “Battle of the Sexes” (now in theaters). It is the story of the tennis match that became a wild and wildly controversial national event, with Steve Carell and Emma Stone as Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King.

One thing I love about the movie is that it takes a real-life media circus based on caricatures and hyperbole and shows us the real human stories behind it.

That really gets to the heart of the approach that I had with the story. When I first met [directors] Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris] and watched the rough cut of the film, I was so excited about the movie because on the surface there is this massive athletic event, spectacle, this huge story but what I was really drawn to was the way in which the personal story of the characters is woven through the film. The personal story on this very public stage is what the film is really about.

And so musically it was a wonderful experience to work so closely with John and Valerie. We spent months together while they were editing the movie. I came up with a series of musical theme ideas and we mapped it out over the course of the film. There is a Bobby Riggs personal theme which is scored for a small jazz group with an upright piano and a double bass and a drum kit and then there are a few woodwinds here and there. And then there is a Billie Jean personal theme that reflects the changes she experiences. The colors of that theme change over the course of the film, so in the beginning it is more of an ambient soundscape and by the end it's actually a full 79-piece orchestra. Her theme evolves until it finally reaches its full scope where there is a big cello in the match with her theme and then at the moment of her victory, there is a full orchestra taking it over. So it was exciting to see the way in which the geography of the musical ideas could live in parallel to the story.

And one of the things we really utilized throughout the film was the evolution of instrumentation. We thought a lot about the musical colors themselves. One of the first things we talked about was how this is a big story set in 1973, so what should the music actually sound like? We used some old-style equipment to try to have the music feel like it might have been recorded in the 1970s. One of our first ideas was: what if I were to write classical style music but written for 1970's rock band instrumentation, electric guitars and electric bass and drums and an electric rock organ that is woven in through the whole movie. In the beginning, it's very quiet in the background and in the tennis match you really hear it and it gets focused on. We started with the 70's band instrumentation and as we explored the film and worked on it together, we started saying, “What if we had woodwinds here?” and “What if we have strings?” The movie responded so immediately to those experiments. The movie wanted the largest scope as the story unfolded.

Any time you hear a piano with Billie Jean in the movie, it's a Steinway concert grand, a beautiful instrument. And whenever you hear a piano with Bobby Riggs, it’s actually this little upright piano.

We really thought a lot about the percussion, too, because of the hoopla and spectacle, which has a marching band and over the top spectacle. So there is a marching band drum set that we utilized, there is this big bass drum and snare percussion that you hear quietly in different places in the movie and then finally in the match you are hearing it writ large.

I know you like to do research. What did you learn in researching this story?

I did not know anything about the story at all but my wife is a huge tennis fan and she knew about it. Her father is a sports photographer who happened to shoot at the US Open almost every year. We discovered that there was actually a photograph taken of my wife's dad with Billie Jean and her partner from the '90s. But the best research was Billie Jean, getting a chance to meet her and speak with her. She is so remarkable and it has been just such a privilege to have that opportunity.

What did you like most about working on this movie?

Jonathan and Valerie are so lovely and so encouraging and so kind and also so talented and ultimately they have such great instincts. And it was exciting to create an original song for the movie. When Sara Bareilles said she would work with us it was a dream, the very coolest collaboration. And one of the really special things about the story is its significance on a lot of levels. There is an important global historical quality and there is empowerment. And there is also a personal story of the path that our lives take us on and our own inner hopes and dreams.

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