When you’ve scored some 90-odd films and have a long-standing relationship with the Coen brothers, you could be forgiven for relaxing and taking a break. But not Carter Burwell. This season he snagged his first Oscar nom for his Carol score, worked on Anomalisa, Legend, Mr Holmes, Hail Caesar! and The Finest Hours, with yet more projects in the pipeline.
Actually Burwell did take a break in his career once, but it could hardly be classed as a vacation since he was busy getting a Masters in biotechnology at the time. “I wanted to do something different. It was pretty satisfying in that way,” he says.
Scoring Carol was, he says, a new challenge. “I don’t think I’ve ever really done a love story before,” he says. Todd Haynes’ film about the then forbidden love between a housewife (Cate Blanchett) and a young girl (Rooney Mara), could also, Burwell says, be considered “in terms of social meaning, but I think from the point of view of music’s role, I was really looking at it as a love story, so that’s a new thing for me.”
“I’ve been known for these dark, strange stories,” he says, “such as ones that I did with the Coens or Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, but in fact from my point of view, it’s not that different, because even though it’s a love story, there’s a darkness underneath, a sense of danger and mystery.”
Haynes and Burwell were very much on the same page with regard to a pared-down approach. “We discussed exactly how much to say, and how much not to say with music and we usually ended up deciding to say less. We were almost always withholding more information.”
Of his approach to scoring a film, Burwell says, “I imagine what I would want to experience if I were in the audience, if I were watching this movie. I’m not thinking about other people, some hypothetical audience that I don’t know anything about, but I just think about what would make the film richer for me–a richer experience, a more dramatic one, a more cinematic one–and a lot of times it’s trying to find something that’s not already on the screen that the music can speak to, not just reinforcing things you’re already seeing. I’m not saying that I always succeed, but that’s my goal.”
Burwell also scored Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion movie Anomalisa, which is tipped for Best Animated Feature. Did the stop-motion factor affect Burwell’s process at all?
“I’d say the main approach that I took to that film was to treat the characters as being completely human. I tried very specifically not to make it any different than anything else. I tried to treat everything that’s going on as though everyone were completely human, even when the activities get a bit surreal or uncomfortable–those are two adjectives Charlie specializes in, the surreal and the uncomfortable. Charlie always abstracts a little, so there’s some premise you have to get over before you can get to the extremely vulnerable characters that are the heart of all of his stories. Like in Being John Malkovich, the idea that you can go in someone else’s mind, or in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s the idea that you can erase memories. Here it’s the animation, but once you get past those premises, what he’s feeling is actually something that’s familiar to all of us and it involves a great deal of vulnerability and fragility. So I really tried to just play it entirely from the point of view of those characters, regardless of what else is going on.”
Burwell’s relationship with the Coens was formed long ago and was a catalyst for his entire career. Playing in a punk band at CBGB at the time, Burwell was asked by the brothers to score Blood Simple. “They told me, ‘oh, this is never going to come out probably.’ Back then, there wasn’t an avenue for independently-produced, low-budget movies to get real distribution, but in the end, it did get seen, at least by some people, and then other people started calling me up, and asking me to do their films.”
The reason the relationship with the Coens has lasted so long is, Burwell says, because “I think we certainly have a similar outlook on film and then on humor. We both have a tendency to see humor in tragedy, and dark, awful situations. Sometimes where things are funniest, I think, for all three of us, is taking one character, and just giving him the worst possible experience, and then somehow humor comes out of that. For instance, why is one even laughing at some of their movies, like No Country for Old Men? Obviously it’s not in any way a comedy, but there are certainly parts that you just have to laugh at. That’s because of the hair that they give Javier Bardem, or it’s the way they pause on shots where you think, ‘oh, we’re going to cut away from that shot,’ but they hold it for another beat, and you just laugh with the discomfort of it. I think we all have a very real appreciation for that kind of thing. Their movies also are often a bit silly, certainly Hail, Caesar! is, but the music takes the proceedings very seriously and in that way makes it even funnier, I hope. I think we see it that way, that the more humorless the music is, the more truly ridiculous the scene can become, and so without our having to discuss it, that often ends up being my role.”