Not long after he joined Twitter for what seemed to be the express purpose of enthusing about his favorite things, Guillermo Del Toro dropped some kind words about Carter Burwell, citing him as one of his favorite composers before concisely summing up why: “The voice of the Coens. Majestic Melancholy. Music of images and moods. Sublime defeat and crushed hopes.”
Whether Del Toro had just come across “Fargo” or “Blood Simple” on TV or was just walking out of any one of the three films Burwell has in theaters this fall when this thought occurred to him, it was an all-too-rare acknowledgment of the versatile and exceptionally talented composer’s work. Never even nominated for an Oscar, Burwell has set the tone for a number of films that have won one, burrowing deep into any given story’s time and place to create emotional undercurrents that express what the characters cannot through dialogue as they are usually only somewhat aware of their trappings. In Brian Helgeland’s “Legend,” he taps into the go-go sound of the 1960s to underline how a young woman (Emily Browning) gets swept up in the gangster underworld of the Kray twins (Tom Hardy), while he pulls back considerably in Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa” to provide the grace notes that suggest the world outside that it’s main character (David Thewlis) has largely neglected.
Yet Burwell’s most thrilling score this year may be his work for Todd Haynes’ romance “Carol,” wherein he uses a transitional point in American culture and music in the early 1950s to mix the lush grandeur associated with the timeless nature of a great love affair, in this case between the titular, dutiful housewife (Cate Blanchett) and a young store clerk named Therese (Rooney Mara), with the promise of something exciting and new, casually dropping in hints at the jazz and rock ‘n’ roll that would soon overtake the world. In a film where feelings between the two leads are often only communicated through furtive glances, Burwell’s score is relied upon to supply no small part of their complex inner lives, leaving sounds in the air that play out as clues towards a grander picture that the characters have not quite figured out for themselves.
It’s the kind of bold work that comes from a trust between longtime collaborators, which Burwell and Haynes have been since first partnering on “Velvet Goldmine” in 1998, and surprisingly emerged from a small ensemble of musicians that at first, was just a string quartet with bass, harp, piano and clarinet before doubling in size to create the multilayered sonic experience “Carol” becomes to reflect the duality of the lives its characters are forced to lead. As the film makes its way into theaters across the country, Burwell spoke about the influences for the score, which can be listened to in full here, as well as how he could musically pace the relationship between Carol and Therese and the incredible year he’s had.
Todd was actually brought onto the film. Cate was already attached and [producer] Liz Karlsen had developed it, so when Todd knew that it was actually going to happen, he called me and said, “I’m going to shoot this movie in Cincinnati” and he sent me the script. I read it while he was shooting. He and Randy Poster, the music supervisor, also started collecting songs from the period. Todd, like myself, really enjoys the research part of things, and he was researching the look of the period from what photojournalists were doing at the time. None of us knew whether that would inform the score or not, but it was interesting and it certainly gave me a feel for the period.
It’s an odd period, actually. Post-war, but before rock ‘n’ roll has happened. I think there’s one song on the soundtrack where you hear Les Paul playing electric guitar. That’s a completely new instrument that no one had ever heard before. In the end, none of that actually has any great relevance to the score, but it was fun. Then when Todd finally came back to New York and he was editing, he had a rough cut of the whole film, and we finally sat and watched it. That’s really when I began my work.
Were there specific ideas that the two of you talked about in terms of the score?
No, honestly, I don’t think so. I may have said, “I think it should be lush because of the look of the film,” as opposed to just two naked solo instruments, so there should be some sense of being set in a lush environment. But we didn’t talk that much about it, partly because we have worked before, so Todd is certainly trusting, and the fact is, it is many ways just more productive to have the music there and talk about it then. We look at the music, try it against the scene and see what’s it doing. At that point, we can really talk in detail.
You mention the electric guitar – were there any instruments that immediately came to mind for this?
I had one very simple idea after first seeing it, which is just there really are just these two people in the movie. There’s other people wandering in and out of the story, but it’s about how do those two people get together? So my idea was, “We could have two solo instruments. Maybe two woodwinds and have lines that can be separate, but also interweave.” The rest of the instrumentation really developed more from trying things out.
I began at the beginning of the movie. The opening scene, none of the characters are really in it. It’s painting the time and the place. We’re in New York City, it’s nighttime and you just sense the hustle and bustle. It’s mysterious, it’s dark, so I thought, “Okay, sort of a string rhythm” though I write the parts sometimes without even knowing what instrument is going to play it. I wrote this rhythmic harmony that I knew would be woodwinds, but when I started doing this counter rhythm, I thought, “Okay, well that really is going to have to be a percussion instrument,” so that became piano.
It’s like a puzzle really. I orchestrated this score, which means I am the one who deciding who plays every note. Some scores, especially if you’ve heard a lot of music in a short time, I don’t have time to orchestrate them, but this score, I did, so I could be very careful and had time to pick it all apart and say, “Okay, if that’s piano, that’s got to be harp. That’s harp, then this is going to be …” That’s part of the fun of doing this.
I wanted to ask specifically about the piano at the beginning, when you’re seeing Rooney Mara’s character Therese for the first time, you can feel her loneliness in the city just in how there’s a way you echo a piano key being struck. How did you get to that sound?
Again, we don’t know that much about these characters when that scene happens – Therese is in a taxi going somewhere and she sees a woman on the street wearing a mink coat with blond hair and she’s thinking of Carol, But we may or may not associate that person with the blonde, so that’s really about memory. That echo, I thought, was suggestive of memory, and I don’t know if you can hear it in the film, but the echo of the piano actually happens before the piano – it’s an echo and an echo and then finally the piano actually plays. Since we don’t know exactly what’s going on, it’s intriguing and mysterious, which I thought worked for that scene.
When you’re working on a score that has a strong central theme like “Carol” has, is that something you work from, figuring it out first and building everything around it, or work towards?
That was one of the first parts. It’s the kind of film where it’s a great canvas to work on and it was easy to come up with lots of different ideas. I had a few different concepts of what might be the main theme of the movie and I used Todd for as a sounding board. Others were more complex [than what ended up in the film] and he didn’t want that complexity. He felt very strongly, “Yeah, that’s the energy. It’s a good tune” and had the things that he wanted. Todd is very astute musically and I really take advantage of the fact that I can send him even rough stuff, and get a pretty sophisticated response from him.
There are actually three themes that occur through the film. In terms of my writing, I didn’t really so much think of it in terms of acts, but these themes mean slightly different things because what you’ve gone through. There’s one that’s over the cityscape at first, which in fact become the main theme of their love. There are a couple important thing in that theme – one is the energy. There are also these conflicting polyrhythms that occur in it that play with the fact that there’s nothing easy about this relationship. That’s the also the theme in which the clarinet and oboe and sometimes French horn interweave.
There’s another theme for when they’re in the car together that’s different, then another for when they are apart, [communicating] the feeling of loss. I think of the first one as action. The second one is fascination – the feeling of being infatuated with someone. And the last one is that feeling of that pain you feel when you’re not with the one you love. They appear throughout the film and develop in their own ways.
The rhythm of their relationship would seem to be dictated by the score as much as any other aspect. Are you actually able to dictate that pace or does the film, as you receive it, tell you what’s it’s going to be?
By and large, I’m working to the cut of the film, though there are times when it can become the other way around. There were a couple of scenes where I said, “If you could give me another half-second here, I could really bring the music to a more satisfying conclusion” or something like that. It definitely comes up when I work with the Coen Brothers because they edit their movies themselves, so it’s quite common for me to say, “Could you give me eight more frames of that shot because it would really just help the music to land more smoothly.” Sometimes they’ll have to say, “No,” but sometimes they’ll accommodate me.
But writing to the cut doesn’t mean that the pacing isn’t necessarily dictated by the cut. In “Carol,” the scene in which [Therese and Carol] are making love, it’s a big moment and they are expressing their own erotic desires, but the camerawork is still very restrained and performed with the same restraint that a lot of the rest of the film is, so the question of how to play that – how excited and how mounting the music should be – is an open question. In that case, Todd encouraged me to go beyond the pacing that we see and in the end, the tempo of the music is in is much faster than what I originally thought. It’s probably one of the most reworked pieces in the movie, trying to find the right pace so I’m not ahead of the characters and that every step they take, I’m right there with them. I’m also playing internal feelings that maybe you’re not seeing visually. Sometimes the pacing of the film does not dictate the music, but most of the time, it does.
You can never be sure when all these things will land, but if you look back at the calendar, you’ve had an incredible and diverse year with this and “Anomalisa,” “Mr. Holmes” and “Legend.” What’s it been like?
It’s been great. I don’t get to choose … I can say “yes” or “no” to films, but it’s always a question of what people ask me to do. It just so happens that there was a really great crop of interesting things in the last year. We actually recorded “Carol” more than a year ago, so it’s a little bit of an illusion that that and “Anomalisa” all happened in the same year. But it’s been really wonderful. I love both those films so much and I think they’re films that will live on. That’s what I hope for in my work that I’ll do films that people still talk about in years down the line will have meaning.
“Carol” is now in theaters.