In scoring “She Said,” the movie about two New York Times reporters uncovering the Harvey Weinstein sexual-assault scandal, composer Nicholas Britell’s search for the right sound, and the right collaborator, led him just steps away: to his wife, classical cellist Caitlin Sullivan.
“There was something about the sonic possibilities of what a cello can do that, intuitively, felt right,” the three-time Oscar nominee tells News Brig. “And that this might be a project where I was able to have Caitlin be a co-producer of the score. I would write the music, but Caitlin would not just record for me, as she has in the past, but really sit and talk with me about this, to get her instincts.”
Britell conceived the score with the cello as a primary voice, but also with himself on piano and a 15-piece string orchestra in New York – not just the primary location of the film but where Sullivan is constantly performing in both chamber and orchestral ensembles.
Journalism movies are always a challenge to score, as they are usually more about process and the pursuit of information, but there was an obvious emotional component in “She Said” that demanded more. Director Maria Schrader, he said, “wanted the music at the beginning of the movie to know more than we do.”
The encounters that reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor (Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan) have with Weinstein’s alleged victims are painful to watch, and this is reflected in Britell’s score. “There is a search for truth here,” the composer notes, “but there’s also a search for inner truth. There’s a whole layer of the music talking not just about work and home life, but about inner trauma. It was so important to be incredibly sensitive, incredibly restrained.”
The film’s sonic landscape, Britell says, contains some “dark, ominous, disturbing” sounds and “icier, more textured, more edgy” ones created by advanced compositional and performance techniques. “Our focus, really, was about the inner journey,” he adds.
Says Sullivan: “I wanted to make sure that we were really exploring more extended techniques on the cello, to get to the absolute fullest spectrum of sounds, to access different emotions and highlight the trauma that was being portrayed.
In one particular technique, Sullivan plucked the strings in a way that was, she says, “very jolting, and you could hear the metal against the wood of the fingerboard. There is an appropriate ugliness to it.”
In addition to Sullivan’s melancholy solos and experimental techniques, there are haunting string harmonics played by the New York ensemble and more electronic, studio-produced, percussive textures created by Britell in his studio. “The dissonances represent the challenge of what [the reporters] are doing, for so many different reasons,” he says.
As the reporters close in on the all-important on-the-record interview that will damn Weinstein, “there is an evolution of the sound,” Britell explains. Yet the score does not reach any sense of finality, as the story is still unfolding. “The music itself is conflicted. These are continuing issues. It’s raising a question, not answering it.”
Adds the composer: “There is a soul that the cello has. I’m always fascinated that different cellists sound different. It’s a very personal sound. I’ve always felt that Caitlin had such amazing musical ideas and instincts, and it was wonderful to have a formal reason to sit here and say, ‘What do you think?’ and not just bother her throughout her busy day.”