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Composer Carter Burwell says most directors don't care if a score is 'good' or 'interesting'

Composer Carter Burwell attends
Composer Carter Burwell attends "The Family Fang" premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
Jeremy Chan/Getty Images
Composer Carter Burwell attends
Director Todd Haynes (L) and composer Carter Burwell attend the reception for the premiere of "Carol" during the 53rd New York Film Festival.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

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Composer Carter Burwell got his start in the film industry scoring original music for the Coen Brothers, from their 1984 debut, “Blood Simple,” to their upcoming release, “Hail Caesar.”

But for the past 30 years, Burwell has grown into an in-demand composer for many top directors. This year alone he composed scores for five feature films, including Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and Charlie Kaufman's "Anomalisa."


You might think a director would be adamant that his or her film would also have really good music to accompany the story. But Burwell told The Frame host John Horn that, in his experience, most directors actually don’t care if a score contains “good” music.

Interview Highlights:

You kind of fell into film music. In the beginning, did the fact that you didn't know much about what goes into a film score help set you apart from other composers?

I hate to say it, but film music? There’s a lot of mediocrity in it. You can get by without doing much as long as the director’s happy and the film works. I’ve never had anyone come to me and say, “We want some really good music for this film.” No one’s ever asked me for that. They just want music that works. They want it to work.

Meaning there can be music that works that’s not good.

Absolutely. Honestly, I’m the only person who cares, typically, if the music is good. I’ve never heard a director say, “You know, this music is not that good. It’s not that interesting.” And I’ve never had anyone ask me for music that was interesting.

That sounds like a very odd situation to be in — where you care deeply about your work and your output, and you’re collaborating with someone who is not interested in you doing your best work.

Their job is to make sure that it makes a film. I have two jobs, basically. One is to, yes, be a filmmaker. But the other hat I wear is, I would like to try to write good music, if I can, within those constraints. But I’m the only person, really, who’s going to judge that or care about it.

So, as a composer, you’re judging your work on an absolute and relative scale: Is it absolutely the best work, or is it the best work relative to what I have to do?

That’s right. And it’s only fair to anyone who’s ever been a film composer — or who’s thinking of being a film composer — to add to that list [of considerations]: Within the time allowed. The schedules upon which we work are very tight. And that’s probably the most difficult part of the job, as far as I’m concerned.

The score for "Carol" is really beautiful. It’s also a little ominous. It also feels consistent with the period. So when you look at a film like that, about forbidden love at that point in time, how do those things coalesce into a theme?

I tend to look at film scoring as a problem-solving endeavor. So after seeing the film I think, on the one hand it’s urban — '50s New York is the setting — so a bit of that sense of activity and energy is a good thing. One of my initial thoughts was that, because it’s two characters, a couple of solo instruments — maybe solo woodwinds — would be a good thing, and then the rest is just background. At this point in the film, at the opening, you don’t see any of the main characters. So it really all is just foreshadowing . . .  So there is something a little bit ominous, you’re right. It’s a mystery. We don’t know any of these people. And then eventually, as that piece builds, the solo lines start to intertwine, which will take you all the way through the movie to the very end.

Sixty years ago, when somebody knocked on a door, you’d hear this music cue and they’d go, “That’s the bad guy!” It would really signal what was going to happen. You’re talking about tone, mood — things that are much more subtle than telegraphing. Is that where you see the role of music in film composing right now?

I worked on the last two “Twilight” movies with Bill Condon, who’s a wonderful director, but those films were pretty melodramatic. There was a fair amount of telegraphing. There was no feeling that went unexpressed. But that’s not honestly where I feel my skills lie, or my tastes. I would rather say less and let the audience be a little more uncertain.

I guess this is tricky. Say a director comes to you and says, “This scene isn’t funny or suspenseful enough. The screenwriter, editor and director haven’t solved this problem and now it’s your responsibility.” That’s gotta be a lonely place. There’s only so much music can do, right?

That’s right. Any problem that hasn’t been solved in any other way does fall into the composer’s lap. And they can be pretty odd. Sometimes it’s the kind of things you might imagine: The chemistry isn’t working, can we make these people seem more in love? And sometimes it’s very specific. 

You have another movie coming out, an animated film called “Anomalisa.” This is a stop-motion picture written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. You started working on this a long time ago when it was a play set to music. Can you describe the evolution of the music and this story?

When my second son was born, I decided I would just stop doing film-scoring. I asked myself what I would like to do with my time, and I asked some writers I knew for some texts that I could set to music. I called Joel and Ethan Coen, and I called Charlie Kaufman, and they each wrote a one-act play. Then we came to casting. Joel and Ethan asked their usual suspects. So the whole thing had just blown up. We did it a couple nights in Brooklyn, a couple nights in London. UCLA wanted to put it on, but Joel and Ethan wanted to move on to other things. So Charlie then wrote "Anomalisa" under a pseudonym to be a one-act at Royce Hall. That was almost exactly 10 years ago. We didn’t anticipate anything developing from it . . . In many ways, it’s a film that shouldn’t exist. And yet here it is, and it’s getting distributed by Paramount Pictures.

It’s a very difficult piece of music composition because it’s essentially a character having an existential crisis in a hotel room, which creates many music cues, many of which are really obvious, and many of which, which you’ve written, are not.

I think the main challenge was to keep the music as intimate and honest and vulnerable as Charlie’s writing, and as the performances of the actors. Like other great pieces of Charlie’s, he uses sometimes bizarre premises to get at the most sensitive and vulnerable aspects of humanity.

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