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Oscars 2018: How Carter Burwell Channeled a Western Score for ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

Composer Burwell honed in on themes of war, loss, and death for his Oscar-nominated score.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”


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When Carter Burwell got stuck figuring out how to score “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” because the character dynamics were so intense and constantly shifting, he went to director Martin McDonagh and asked what the movie was really about. “A woman at war with the police,” he told him.

But the eureka moment didn’t come until McDonagh described Mildred (played by Oscar fronrunner Frances McDormand) wearing overalls and putting her hair up like she was on the warpath.  “I thought maybe the music is something she puts on and takes off,” Burwell said. “This became a ‘War’ march with guitar, mandolin, and other string instruments, but using a stomp-clap rhythm.”


Musically Defining Mildred

This “War” march helped define Mildred’s violence and vengeance. Overall, Burwell used a folksy idiom for the imaginary Ebbing that sits in the heart of America. Yet he needed other themes to amplify Mildred’s motivation (the rape and murder of her daughter). This would also help create sympathy for such morally questionable acts as firebombing the police station.

“There is a theme of ‘Loss’ that elicits sympathy for her situation and choices,” said Burwell. “This trades off of nylon string guitar, clarinet, and piano, supported by other strings. I tried hard to keep it intimate because this is a character alone most of the time.”

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

The other main theme is “Death,” which is never far away. “As the story and the relationships develop, the themes intertwine until, by the last couple of reels, they’re barely recognizable,” Burwell said.

“The film is very funny and very violent, and death is one of the things that drives all the characters towards their violence and their funny activities,” added Burwell. “They’re trying to deal with it as we all are.”

Rejecting Morricone

However, with a narrative that switches between Mildred and Oscar-nominated Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson as the racist cop Dixon and cancer-stricken Sheriff Willoughby, the composer considered an approach used by Ennio Morricone in his spaghetti western scores (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”). That is, providing each character a distinctive musical signature. But Burwell realized that it was too arch so he stayed with scoring Mildred and then picking up on Dixon at the midpoint, using the soulful “Loss” as a shared theme.

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Fox Searchlight

“Dixon’s been burned to a crisp, basically, while he’s reading a letter from his mentor [Willoughby], and the advice he gives him in this letter leads him off in a different direction. So the music begins to play sympathetically for him and he now begins to align musically with Mildred,” Burwell said.

Although Burwell likes to use irony in many of his scores, there’s no distancing effect here. He prefers to bring you into Mildred’s world and how it overlaps with Dixon. “I love Martin’s writing. He manages to use enigmatic dialogue and characters trying to communicate something deep but with meager verbal resources, like Dixon. And Martin creates a thing of beauty with that challenge,” he said.

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