Composer Carter Burwell Is Attuned to Streaming with ‘The Morning Show’ and ‘Space Force’

The Oscar-nominated composer talks the freedoms and limits of composing for Netflix and Apple, a far cry from intimate collaborations with filmmakers like the Coens and Todd Haynes.
Carter Burwell
Carter Burwell

Carter Burwell is the musical force behind many of your favorite movies, beginning in 1984 with his debut “Blood Simple,” also his first collaboration with the Coen Brothers, who he’s worked with steadily ever since. He’s only been nominated for Oscars twice, for Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and has never won. But he did scoop up an Emmy for Todd Haynes’ lush 2011 miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” and now is back on the small screen with scores for Apple TV+’s flagship drama “The Morning Show” and Netflix’s satire “Space Force,” positioning him prominently among the ranks of the streaming swell underway in 2020.

“At this particular moment in time when we’re experiencing a sort of streaming wars, there’s just a tremendous amount of production going on, and a lot of money flooding into it,” Burwell said in a phone interview out of New York. “For instance, on ‘Space Force,’ Netflix is willing to pay for an orchestra, which in a half-hour comedy on television is not a very common experience. They’re willing to let us achieve this music at the highest level that wouldn’t been normal 10 years ago.”

With “The Morning Show,” set behind the scenes of a television newsroom and perhaps the most high-profile episodic to take on #MeToo, Burwell didn’t want to overwhelm the audience or do the work for them. That’s why the score leans delicately on piano and bass to carry the emotional beats as Jennifer Aniston’s TV host grapples with the implosion of her life after her co-star, played by Steve Carell, is outed as a sexual predator.

“We generally veered away from playing [the emotions] musically, or did a pretty minimal, less-is-more approach. There is almost no use of strings, maybe once or twice,” Burwell said. “We didn’t want the show to be melodramatic. Even when I didn’t know what the story was, in the beginning, I was told, ‘Well, in the last episode everything blows up!’ It’s true. It’s where all the floodgates open, and all this information comes out. The music has to do more work because, while staying away from melodrama, we were turning up the volume on emotion, tension, and drama. You have to do that to get us there, to when Jennifer Aniston has this nervous breakdown onscreen, on live television. We needed a very strong musical impetus. The music is always pushing in that direction.”

While Burwell’s scores are often orchestral, grand, and operatic, they never assault the senses, and instead work to complement what’s happening onscreen, whether in a period romance like “Carol” or an ironic, deadpan thriller like “Fargo.” Burwell said that, while he doesn’t watch much television, he feels there’s often too much music in film and TV. “When the filmmakers and composers are insistent on telling me how to feel, they’ve taken away a lot of the pleasure for me as a viewer,” he said.

Burwell cited David Chase’s “The Sopranos” as an example of a show that masterfully deploys score, or a lack thereof, because the series has no music that isn’t diegetic. “You couldn’t have done it any other way because the whole pleasure of that show is watching people that you like doing things you know are wrong. If the music commented on that, you would’ve lost that pleasure,” he said.

Space Force Steve Carell Netflix series The Office creator
Steve Carell in “Space Force”Aaron Epstein / Netflix

With “Space Force,” Burwell looked to the music of Aaron Copland and patriotic American fanfare to bring an ironic sense of majesty and self-importance to the political farce. That extended especially to Steve Carell’s character, Gen. Mark R. Naird, the Space Force’s ridiculous Chief of Operations. “His character might even be funnier if we play the idea of his attempts at nobility, his hopes and dreams that are often left unfulfilled by an impetuous president, if we played it that way, it might be fun. My touchstone was ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ by Copland. It feels aspirational, and it’s brass, which is the military medium of the show,” Burwell said.

While streaming has allowed Burwell to compose on a bigger scale (i.e., a bigger budget), he said that one element that differentiates the experience from intimate collaborations with directors like the Coens and Todd Haynes is the clamor of voices at the table. “I never did traditional network television, so I can’t say how much streaming is different. But working on these shows, there were many producers, many creative voices that I needed to listen to. That’s just the way television is. The show has producers, Apple and Netflix have their own producers who have comments. On ‘The Morning Show,’ Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon are producers, and they have comments. It’s a lot of voices to listen to.”

While Burwell certainly is listening, there’s no mistaking his signature in the scores for “The Morning Show” and “Space Force.” That’s because the Carter Burwell Score is a recognizable brand for Hollywood, which hires him on the basis of his distinct sensibilities. Still, he said it’s not something he’s consciously cultivating, or even aware of.

“It’s not an intentional brand that I am putting out there. I guess I can explain it even if I can’t describe it. It’s largely due to the fact that I don’t have a real musical education. It’s this particular combination of things that I like and have studied, rather than being the normal canon of classical music,” he said. “It’s, in other words, basically ignorance. I’m aware that the things I write sound like me, but why wouldn’t they?”

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