One of the most prolific of Hollywood composers, prolific Oscar nominee Carter Burwell has three scores in contention this season. The films are Simon Curtis’ Winnie-the-Pooh drama Goodbye Christopher Robin, Martin McDonagh’s fiery Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, each with a very distinct sound. In these scores, Burwell is able to mine the depths of human emotion and experience, conjuring up whimsy and tragedy, a Western anthem for an enraged, mourning mother, and music for those who are unable to hear it.
Speaking with Deadline, the composer explains the sonic color palette he worked with for each film, discussing challenges on Wonderstruck that pushed him like he’d never been pushed before.
Looking at your scores for films bowing this fall, is there any artistic through line you can identify in your work?
Generally speaking, I find it very hard to work on films where what you see is what you get. I need contradictions, and I need paradoxes, honestly, to be interested in any story, or in life. I like to have ideas in juxtaposition.
For instance, if Goodbye Christopher Robin were just about the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh and the story ended there, I would not have been able to write it at all. It’s only because there is this dark irony, that the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh ends up being a tragedy, that I can find my way in.
How would you describe the colors you ended up employing for those scores on display this year?
Three Billboards is fairly simple, in terms of the color. Because the film’s called Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin wanted it to be local. He wanted a feeling of it being from this place in the middle of America, so going with a bit of a folk feeling—working with guitar and mandolin, and instruments like that—seemed obvious.
Before he shot Goodbye Christopher Robin, Simon suggested that I listen to some composers in the English pastoral tradition, like Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth. I knew Vaughan Williams, but I didn’t know Butterworth, so I listened to some of his work. He, like [Winnie-the-Pooh creator A.A.] Milne, went off as a young man to fight in World War I. He did not come back, so he had a promising career, but didn’t write that much.
He did write this piece called “Two English Idylls,” and it did actually really help, in terms of being a touchstone for a sound of the English countryside. The way that he interwove woodwinds, the music changes tempo or complexion very quickly, as if you’re walking down a walkway and you suddenly see the sun come in. It had this quality that I did think was informative to me, as a composer.
On Wonderstruck, it’s harder to say because it’s a vast amount of music. It’s 80 minutes of music, playing through different time periods and different characters, trying to tie it together in some ways, but also trying to lead the audience down a path that’s filled with mysteries and unsolved puzzles.
One thing that really did help, and is sort of distinctive about the score, is the use of percussion as the lead instrument, the melodic instrument for the kids. I thought it ended up working out really well, and it makes the score somewhat distinctive, that sound.
Three Billboards isn’t a Western in the most literal sense, but is discussed as such. Is your main theme for that film Western-inspired?
It is. In the second scene in the movie, Fran McDormand’s character decides to go to war with the police—this conflict is set up right away. It’s sort of like the lone sheep farmer, in a county that’s entirely cattle farmers. So it is like a western.
One of my early ideas when I read the script was maybe treating it more like the [Ennio] Morricone Spaghetti Westerns, where each character has his own disparate motif. I tried that a little bit—Martin thought it was too arch. It sounded like I was commenting on the film, rather than really being in the film, so I had to pull back on that idea. But you can definitely call it a Western.
Wonderstruck features a separate theme for each of the two children the story follows, both of whom are deaf. How did you conceive of those pieces?
At the very beginning of the film, with Ben—the boy who lives in 1977—his thematic material is very ambiguous, honestly. I don’t think you hear a real distinctive melody for him until he’s actually running away from home. He becomes deaf, and the music is playing ambiently for him. Then, the music explores the disorientation that occurs for him when he loses his hearing.
Whereas for the girl, right from the beginning, we see her making things with her hands, and cutting stuff out of newspapers. She’s clearly trying to solve a puzzle for herself. We don’t know exactly what the puzzle is, but something’s missing. It turns out, in the end, that both these characters are missing parents. She’s very manipulative with her hands from the beginning, so that percussion seemed to help her physicality of what she’s doing.
It also really helped later on in the film, because percussion is, by its nature, not sentimental. It’s a very emotional film, but it was very helpful to know that, to the extent that I was relying on percussion, I didn’t have to worry too much about falling into a trap of sentimentality.
How would you compare and contrast the use of percussion in Wonderstruck and Three Billboards? Your scores for these films are both highly propulsive and rhythmic.
In the opening of Three Billboards, we see Fran’s character driving on a road. She sees these three blank billboards and gets this idea. The next time we see her, her hair is up, she’s wearing these overalls—it’s like a costume she puts on when she goes to war. There’s a piece of music that comes along with that costume, which involves this clap-stomp thing you’ll hear at a Baptist church.
But here, it’s played more like a martial rhythm for her, when she dresses in her war paint. It’s very propulsive, and it reaches a high point around the middle of the film when the billboards are on fire, and she’s trying to put them out. That’s probably the biggest piece of music in the film. She stops being a house mom and becomes this soldier, so the music’s playing that change.
In Wonderstruck, the music is propulsive to the extent that these kids are both motivated by loss. Interestingly, so is Fran’s character in Three Billboards. But they’re always taking action: The two kids, Ben and Rose, they’re both missing family, and go in search of family. That’s the propulsiveness—they’re the kind of people who will, you assume the rest of their lives, just be taking action. They’re the type of people that are solving problems. They’re making things, and the very making of things is part of their solution.
The Wonderstruck score seems to employ non-instrumental, mechanical sounds at various points. What inspired that choice?
In Wonderstruck, there are areas where, as part of our percussion ensemble, we use things like dreadlock combs, and anything you can make a sound with, basically. We would use pieces of jewelry, keys. There are also times when Leslie Shatz, the sound designer, would take a mechanical sound and play it in a place where you would have a sound effect, but it’s never naturalistic. Like, you might see a horse go by, but he plays a mechanical sound for it. Because of course, Rose’s character is deaf, so she can’t actually hear a horse. But you want some sound to go along with the visual, and Leslie did a lot of experimentation with what those sounds would be.
Sometimes they’re musical-ish, metallic sounds—the derailleur of a bicycle is used for certain sounds. So sometimes, that’s us and the percussionists working outside the box, and sometimes it’s Leslie, and it’s not easy to tell, necessarily.
But that is stuff I’ve used. Back on Raising Arizona, we did a scene—I think it’s a fight that takes place in a trailer home, in a space that’s 8 feet by 8 feet. It was entirely scored with pots and pans, and jars, and vacuum cleaner tubes—stuff like that. I definitely like to have the opportunity to go in new sonic areas when it’s possible.
In that film, you also get instruments that you won’t necessarily hear in a traditional, classical score—among them, harp and organ.
The organ happens in the scene in 1927, in the silent part of the film, when the character goes into a silent movie. Now, she’s deaf, so she can’t hear the organ, but just to put the silent movie era truly in perspective, I wrote this organ piece for those scenes. It’s really there, just as I said, to put you in that period. The movie itself, like all of Todd’s movies, is to some extent about movies. He’s that kind of filmmaker, so that organ is there to just bring us back to that period.
The harp, that’s more about finding this mix of sounds that work with the percussion. So the harp is typically there—it’s harp, piano, marimba, glockenspiel, allophone, which is this tuned aluminum instrument. I was looking for a collection of instruments that would play off of each other and work to my ears, and harp fit well in with that, even though it’s not technically a percussion instrument. The others are technically percussion instruments—even piano is a percussion instrument—but it definitely fit in there.
In these scores, you often go very deep in the register with piano, bass and other instruments. What is the intent there?
In Wonderstruck, a lot of times it’s reserved for particular moments. A perfect example is at the end of the film—Julianne Moore’s character is taking Ben out to Queens to show him the Panorama, but he has no idea where he’s going, and we don’t know where they’re going. They’re in New York, in Manhattan, and there’s a cut to them walking by the Unisphere from the World’s Fair, 1965. It’s this enormous thing that’s emblematic of a particular period in New York’s history. At that moment, suddenly, we reach for that bottom octave.
But I think we tried to choose those moments carefully. It’s 1977 in New York, and that’s also when New York had this very famous blackout, so when that happens at the very end of the film, we again reach for that lower octave. There’s something about double basses hitting that low C, when they have the extension on the double bass, that’s a beautiful sound, and you hear it also when she goes to the silent movies, where there’s a emotional reason for that, which is that the character she sees on screen has an emotional meaning that we don’t understand, but will be explained.
If I’m not mistaken, that low C is also the opening note in [Richard] Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, at the beginning of 2001, which also has its own musical presence in the film. It’s the lowest note in the orchestra, so there is something special about that.
Three Billboards and Wonderstruck are both frequently dark or melancholic, but you hear more discordance in the latter film. Why is that?
In Three Billboards, the story itself is so discordant that I don’t need to go there, honestly. It’s not something that I have to think about. In Wonderstruck, the music is so naked that you have to choose your discordances carefully, and you’re right—they’re there. Usually, the melodies in Wonderstruck are all very simple, but they get their emotional complexity from the way that the strings or woodwinds work around the melodies. I love that, when a simple method gives you complicated, complex results. I love that, as a composer.