Though Carter Burwell is no stranger to prestigious film projects, 2015 finds his work in the some of the most acclaimed films of the year, including Bill Condon’s “Mr. Holmes,” Todd Haynes’ ‘Carol” and Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa.”
The recent Middleburg Film Festival held a tribute concert for Carter Burwell’s myriad works, and he stopped by to discuss his work with moderator Ann Hornaday. The Loudon Symphony Orchestra appeared to perform some of his pieces live at the event. Watch their performance of Burwell’s “Carol” theme above. Here are the highlights of the discussion with Burwell.
1. He didn’t start in film.
“I’m not a trained musician really unless you count piano lessons,” Burwell admitted. “Beyond that, in my teenage years I just began improvising for therapy really, just for myself to get my feelings out. Then after college, some friends and I thought we should have a band. It was the era of punk rock. And in the world of punk rock it’s assumed you don’t know what you’re doing. So it fit me perfectly. We moved to New York and I had regular jobs of various kinds but in the evenings we would play in places like CBGBs and that was what I spent my 20s doing.”
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Burwell’s film composing career picked up speed in 1984. “Someone who knew me through the punk world was working on a film as a sound editor, and the film didn’t have music yet. He asked me if I would be interested in doing music for it. It’s a longer story, but I eventually became the composer of ‘Blood Simple.’ I was told that this film would never come out, I was told not to wait for it. Because at the time, the independent film world didn’t really exist yet. But when the film did come out, other people called me.”
2. He likes to see as much of the film as possible before scoring it.
“I enjoy reading the scripts,” explained the composer. “But I’m not usually writing anything until there’s some part of the picture in front of me. I respond to the visuals. The script doesn’t tell me about the pacing or whether the film is blue or gray, so I always wait until there’t something. And the filmmakers I know well, like the Coens, they’ll wait until there’s just one scene, they’ll show me one and they feel comfortable enough letting me in early in the process. But other times I’ll see the film totally cut. I always do a lot of research.”
3. “Twilight” was one of his most stressful gigs.
“Catherine [Hardwicke] called me to see if I would do ‘Twilight.’ It’s not my typical film, a teenage romance,” Burwell confided. “I was not sure it was my cup of tea, but she had me come out to Portland while she was shooting and she showed me a lot of it. While I was there, she got this memo from the studio saying, ‘We have to add a scene.’ Apparently, there’s a scene where the boy plays Bella a tune on the piano and the song is called ‘Bella’s Lullaby.’ They hadn’t put that in the screenplay, but they were watching the blogs and the internet since the book already had fans. And the fans were wondering what Bella’s Lullaby was going to sound like. So it fell in my lap when I agreed to do the movie. And everyone was just kind of waiting. In fact, there were already people who had written ‘Bella’s Lullaby’s online. Some fan pieces already existed. So it was a little bit of pressure.”
Despite his initial trepidation, “Twilight” brought him to one of his most touching musical discoveries. “As I was trying things out, I stumbled across an old piece. And the story of that was that I had written the piece to deal with feelings after I’d been dropped by this girl I was seeing. And there was some truth and some pang in the music that felt right for Bella and Edward. As it so happens, the woman I wrote it for, she and I had our 16th anniversary just yesterday.”
4. He’s got a massive library of personal music.
“I get music out of my head by recording it. I play piano almost every day and when I have something that I feel like is of any value, I record and catalogue them. I’ve got about 1500 pieces saved,” he explained. “That’s one of the things that lets me sleep at night when I have a deadline.”
5. He doesn’t always want you to notice his scores.
For some films, the score is so bombastic that it distracts, but Burwell emphasized that films don’t have to be so obvious. “I only notice the music in the film if there’s something really wrong or something really right. Taking into account a couple of films that I’ve worked on, for example, ‘No Country for Old Men,’ we found that the presence of anything that sounded like music at all repressed the feeling of anxiety and made things feel a little less tense. And of course, the film’s whole value is this dry tension. So the music that’s in that movie is snuck in underneath wind or underneath car sounds so you hopefully never notice the score.”
He explained that ‘Carol’ is at the other end of the spectrum since it has “boldly placed music. “The last scene of the movie has no dialogue, nothing else, and the music is very loud and very upfront,” said Burwell. “Todd Haynes is a melodramatist and he likes the music to be like that, almost more up front than I would choose, but I knew that’s what he wanted. It should be whatever is going to make the most dramatic experience for the audience.”
7. Working with the Coen Brothers is challenging (but rewarding).
Burwell has forged a long-running relationship with the notoriously eccentric Coen Brothers. “They will send me a script and sometimes even a set of scripts. At one point, they knew they were doing ‘No Country for Old Men,’ ‘True Grit’ and something else so they sent me all three to work on for a couple of years,” he told the audience.
In order to make sure the film is the best it can be, it’s important for both the Coens and Burwell to discuss just what they plan to do with the film. “We talk before they shoot about what the problem the movie presents,” he explained. “So for ‘True Grit,’ it was that it was a Western, but we didn’t want to necessarily do a Western score. I read the book, I read their script and I noticed one of the things that isn’t in the script is that the book is written from the point of view of this girl, and she’s constantly reading scripture. I thought that the churchiness wasn’t in the script, so I thought we’d use hymns in the score of the movie. But sometimes I don’t know until we have the picture.”
But even after their 30-year long collaboration, Burwell still can’t claim to know everything the Coens are thinking. “They are very taciturn though, I do miss the face-to-face because on the phone they are people of very few words. They hate to ever talk about what their movies are about, so sometimes it can be difficult to claw out of them, they refuse to discuss the meaning. So it’s a challenge.”
6. He wants his scores to tell a story.
While scores can inform emotion and manipulate the audience’s feelings, Burwell noted that the film score’s role is still developing and changing. “You can see over the history of the movies that what’s acceptable has changed. In movies from the ’40s, they’re telling you who everyone is and what they’re like. It’s on top of, if not a little ahead of the action. What I prefer is very much the opposite, to leave the audience a little more uncertain about what’s going on,” he explained. “But there is also an element of attempting to find something in the film that’s not already there on the screen and speak to that, bring that out. Sometimes that means bringing something that’s completely different on the screen. And you can call that irony, but I think it doesn’t always serve an ironical purpose, I think that sometimes it can just be another layer. Sometimes music isn’t playing what’s there, but it’s still informing it in some other way.”
8. ‘Hail Ceasar’ is one of his most ambitious scores yet.
The Coen Brother’s latest collaboration with Burwell is their upcoming “Hail Ceasar,” a slapstick romp whose stuffed-to-the-brim cast includes George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum. “We had to try so many things because it’s a film with many films within it,” Burwell said of the film. “There are five or six films within the film, and they’re all different styles: there’s a Western, there’s a Roman swords-and-sandals movie, an Esther Williams water ballet, and the question becomes how they come together to make one movie. It’s something we’re still figuring out.”
9. He values his influences.
“I’m always looking for something new to listen to. I don’t have a lot of listening time because I’m often writing, so I don’t listen to as much as I used to. I’m not worried about unconscious influences because influences are good and important, but I actually have a very poor memory for music,” Burwell said. “That’s why I improvise, I write something and record it and that way I can remember it. If I’m worried about something, I ask my wife and she can tell me if I stole it. She has a good ear for music. But I would never know. [laughs]”
11. He doesn’t always work alone.
“When I first started I didn’t know anything about sound design, but now I try to write music so the notes fall in between dialogue, and I work with the Coen brothers’ sound designer, who got me into this business in the first place,” said Burwell. “When we think about films, something like ‘Barton Fink,’ the sound effects are essentially like a score. A lot of the sound effects are not naturalistic, so I do keep in touch with him. It’s not commonly done, but we’ll spot the movie together along with Joel and Ethan. More typically what happens is at the final mix, the composer is saying, ‘Turn up the music,’ and the dialogue designer is saying, ‘Turn up the dialogue’ and the sound designer is saying ‘Turn up the sound effects.’ It’s not always such a happy arrangement.”
10. He worked on “Carol” to give a voice to the unspoken.
Todd Haynes’ “Carol” has received notable buzz since its premiere at Cannes earlier this year, especially the stunning performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who find themselves falling in love in the mid-1950s. Carter Burwell discussed his thoughts behind the sumptuous score for “Carol.” “Really what the score is there to do is to speak. The culture they are in hasn’t given them the language with which to describe their feelings. But also it is desire. We are watching the carefully paced development of love and at first comes desire, which is not easy to put into words ever but the music is behind a lot of that pacing, that development of the relationship.”
See the Loudon Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the “Carol” theme at the top of the article. Varese Sarabande Records will release the “Carol” original soundtrack including Carter Burwell’s score on November 20.