Oscar-nominated composer Carter Burwell has been at the Coen Brothers’ side since their explosive 1984 debut “Blood Simple,” and that will include writer/director Joel Coen’s solo effort, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. In a recent conversation with IndieWire, Burwell, who’s currently in the Emmys race for the soundtracks to “The Morning Show” and “Space Force,” talked about what he’s seen so far of “Macbeth” and reflected on scoring another Coen classic, 2007’s “No Country for Old Men.”
“Joel shot at least half of it and he has sent me some footage in the last week,” Burwell said of the Shakespeare adaptation from A24, which began filming in Los Angeles in early February; production was halted in late March. “I’ve read the script, and it’s not like they changed the story from what’s in the play. But it’s different. Joel has adapted the play for film and just like the adaptations Joel and Ethan have done with books like ‘No Country for Old Men,’ it’s interesting how it really does change. It’s the same story in the same language, but it’s a beautiful adaptation that really turns it into a film with a certain amount of visual power. It’s always moving forward. You’re in constant motion toward some conclusion, which is hard to pull off on stage.”
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is being shot entirely on sound stages to give the film a look untethered from reality. “It doesn’t look like Scotland,” Burwell said. “It’s more like a psychological reality. That said, it doesn’t seem stage-like either. Joel has compared it to German Expressionist film. You’re in a psychological world, and it’s pretty clear right from the beginning the way he’s shot it.”
While Burwell has scored nearly every Coen Brothers’ film, from “Fargo” and “Barton Fink” to “The Big Lebowski” and “A Serious Man,” one film where the composer’s presence is most invisible is also one of their finest, “No Country for Old Men.” To the untrained ear, the film famously contains almost no music outside of the opening titles and end credits, instead relying on nimble sound design and dreadful silence to ratchet up unbearable tension. However, Burwell said that wasn’t always the plan.
“Ethan was dubious that there wasn’t any score that would work for the movie. He felt that the silence was an important part of the tension, and that movie, without tension, doesn’t work. Joel felt that, be that as it may, there were still parts of the movie that needed the sort of oomph that music can bring that just needed to be dramatically amplified, that they needed more than just the sound of wind and gunfire,” Burwell said.
He added that while there was a degree of behind-the-scenes disagreement on the soundtrack, they exhausted the possibilities and realized “we can’t have any musical instruments. It’s weird to say, but it told you you were in a Hollywood movie. Of course, you know you’re watching a movie, but there’s something about hearing a recognizable instrument that just defeated the raw illusion of reality,” he said.
Burwell added that “the piece of music that plays on the end credits I originally wrote for a place in the film, where you first see blood on the ground at the beginning. There is actually music in the film, but it’s always snuck in behind wind or car sounds.”