Some composers obsess over minimizing their scores in exchange for the drama onscreen, but Carter Burwell always leaves the moviegoer with a sense of time, place and mood, especially in such films as the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing or Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich. There’s a legacy sound to Burwell’s canon that triggers emotional recall: You can’t imagine his music in any other film than the one it’s in.
With Carol, Burwell has created an affective set of rhythmic cello, contemplative piano and woodwind to capture the tortured 1950s romance between two women of varying ages in this feature adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt.
“The drama is largely internal and communicated by the music,” he explains. “The music is forthright in telling you the importance of the emotions of what’s going on. Even if the theme doesn’t match what’s on screen, it shows what’s in the eyes of these characters.”
Carol marks the Long Island-based composer’s third collaboration with director Todd Haynes, after Velvet Goldmine and the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. Burwell begins by watching a rough cut of the film rather than first reading the script. “Especially with Todd’s films, the script doesn’t tell me everything I need to know,” he says. “Todd’s such a visual stylist. The way he shoots through glass or into mirrors, the way the subject is clouded or distorted, is characteristic of the film.”
Burwell has an Emmy for his work on Mildred Pierce and received a Golden Globe nomination for his Where the Wild Things Are score, but the Academy has yet to laud him despite his long relationship with the Oscar-winning Coens. This year, however, Burwell’s odds are further bolstered by his music for three other awards contenders: Paramount’s adult animated Anomalisa, Roadside Attraction’s Mr. Holmes and Universal’s British gangster epic Legend.