Directors want music to subtly enhance drama

“No Country for Old Men” posed a creative challenge for composer Carter Burwell: Should there be any music at all? And if so, what should it say?

Ultimately, Burwell — in concert with his longtime filmmaking collaborators, Joel and Ethan Coen — decided that a few low droning sounds might darken the mood or add suspense from time to time. But conventional scoring would damage the picture.

It’s a refrain being heard more and more among filmmakers and composers: “Less music, please.” Or at the very least, tread lightly and carefully in the application of music to support the drama.

“I’ve had to write a lot of scores that are very subtle because more and more directors are feeling that it’s better to pull than to push,” says John Powell, composer of this year’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “P.S. I Love You.”

“Music can create the mood around a story,” he adds, “to give you a view on it, sometimes a neutral view, sometimes a very specific view. That’s what music is for. Whether you do it in a style of music that is shouting at people, or just whispering, is really about taste.”

For Burwell, “No Country” wound up whispering. There is a surprising 12-15 minutes of music in the film, mostly sustaining tones without any melodic aspects.

“It almost always sneaks in under sound effects and often disappears under other sound effects,” says Burwell.

At one point the composer thought perhaps a simple, spare piece for guitar could help to illuminate what he calls the film’s “vast, impersonal, cruel landscape.” But the Coen brothers’ suggested that music for the end-title sequence instead.

Powell faced a quiet moment in “Bourne,” when Matt Damon and Julia Stiles exchange glances in a seedy hotel room while taking a brief respite from being chased all over Europe. “With a handheld camera in a room that seems to be lit by a single bulb, it’s almost like (the composer is) another actor in the room,” he says. “It becomes a threesome, and slightly awkward.”

Powell thought: “What’s the minimum I can do that actually gives me some sense of it being music? I just used a very simple (synth) pad, made it a bit haunting, and it seemed to be enough.”

Most of Mark Isham’s work this year involved low-budget films that dealt with sensitive subjects: a fateful decision that affects two families in “Reservation Road”; an Iraq war tragedy in “In the Valley of Elah”; and a highly charged political dialogue on war policy in “Lions for Lambs.”

“When Susan Sarandon is looking at the remains of her son, in one of the most heartfelt scenes I’ve ever seen, you can’t hit this over the head with a hammer,” says Isham about “Elah.” “You just have to follow suit. Eighty percent of that score has this tremendous restraint and not a lot of motion.”

Similarly, in “Lions for Lambs,” “you have Meryl Streep and you don’t want to get in her way,” says Isham. “It’s a very delicate balancing act as to what you can do to actually contribute, and not detract, that’s not going to be muzzled on the dubbing stage, but that supports the greatest actress of our time doing what she does best.”

In both cases Isham used small ensembles — in “Elah,” sometimes just a string quintet; in “Lions,” often just 20 or so players.

James Newton Howard has won praise for his understated music in “Michael Clayton” and “The Great Debaters” (the latter co-written with Peter Golub), and veteran David Shire returned to the scoring scene this year with a low-key but gripping effort for “Zodiac.”

“I call these ‘brain-surgery scores,'” says Shire. “It’s harder to find a key to unlock the way into these very special movies that need a score, but not the kind you go out whistling, or the kind that you’re necessarily going to notice.”

If anyone might doubt that a Spartan approach to movie music is the way to go, Burwell puts that to rest.

“There’s just too much music in movies,” he says, “almost always more than I think there should be. It’s either lack of confidence on the part of filmmakers or a tradition of scoring things. It’s always better to have less than to have more.”

Burwell’s most recent assignment was to collaborate with director Sidney Lumet, whose resume includes some of the most famous unscored films in history — “Fail-Safe,” “Network” and “Dog Day Afternoon.”

The film was “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and, ironically, Lumet’s mandate to Burwell was, “This is a melodrama and I want lots of score.”

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