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Carter Burwell Brings Musical Life to ‘Anomalisa,’ ‘Carol,’ ‘Legend’ and ‘Mr. Holmes’

Plus: What to expect from the Coen brothers' genre-hopping 'Hail, Caesar!'

Despite having conjured memorable music for some of the most iconic films in modern cinema, composer Carter Burwell has somehow never been nominated for an Oscar. That could finally change this year, as he has no less than four shots at it. In “Anomalisa,” “Carol,” “Legend” and “Mr. Holmes,” he proves as ever that he’s a versatile talent who can play to a wide range.

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There’s so much to talk about with you. You’re so prolific this year. Let’s dive in on “Carol,” though. The central theme of this is so sort of propulsive, but of course delicately so. It doesn’t build so much as it just keeps pushing forward. Does that make sense?

It does. And that’s for a number of reasons. One is I did actually write that score in order, so I didn’t begin with that first scene. And we’re in some urban setting, nighttime, people moving around. We have no idea who any of these characters are. Indeed we don’t see the main character of the film until the very last note of that opening piece of music. But I think Todd really wanted to set the film in motion. Also, the film itself is really so quiet and the characters are so often reticent in terms of their words. Their looks speak volumes but their words are, you know — it’s not a talking movie. And I wanted to be able to sometimes push the feelings, push the motion, push the development of this romance, and you’re right. The word “push” is probably perfect.

You’re using woodwinds there.

Right, it’s a clarinet.

That’s interesting to me, the choice of instrumentation. Woodwinds have a sort of reserved quality. “Muffled” is I guess the layman way to say what I meant, but that’s interesting given what you say of the reserved nature of the characters.

It’s a little hard for me to say exactly why I thought the clarinet was right. I did think the clarinet would be right partly because the lower registers of that instrument, they do have a sonorous quality. It still has a great deal of fluidity to it but it’s dark and rich in this way that suits the way that Todd [Haynes] and [cinematographer] Ed Lachman have presented the city, and also this romance which is happening within a context of sort of a threatening atmosphere. They’re falling in love but there’s a price to be paid for that and the audience isn’t quite sure what that is. And Therese doesn’t really know exactly what it is. So I don’t know, the clarinet seemed to be both emotional but also a bit dark and convey some of that threatening quality of the situation as well.

And you have this scaling two-note theme throughout as well. What brought you to that?

Well, you know, there’s a simplicity there. One of the things that Todd and I noticed as developing the themes was that things you could say were more complicated in terms of counterpoint or counter melodies and things like this, which I enjoy as a composer, but it usually didn’t feel right for the picture. It typically felt better the simpler things were, the simpler that the compositions were. And in that first piece there’s a lot going on but it is still pretty easy to dissect it down to some simple elements and that sort of two-note feeling, the two beats that the strings are playing in that rhythm and the two notes in the melody. And then occasionally the piano will play three against the two — what’s called polyrhythm — that makes things a little more obscure, a little more mysterious. But the score is by and large pretty simple.

Yes, and beautifully so. You mentioned that you did this in order. Is that typical?

No it’s not. Usually I will choose some theme that seems especially emblematic of the film and something where I think if I have a melody or if it will work on this scene then I’m pretty sure it’ll work everywhere. And I’ll usually begin with something like that. But I couldn’t really choose a scene like that out of this film. The film itself is sort of carefully paced development of this relationship, that every theme adds something to the situation, but there is no one critical scene. And so I just thought, yeah, start at the beginning and see if that suggests something.

Let’s switch gears here to “Anomalisa.” Your history with this material stretches back a decade to when you conceived of a series of sound plays from the Coen brothers and Charlie Kaufman, and this is what Kaufman initially created. What sparked the idea for that series to begin with?

Well, I was sick of film scoring, to put it in simple terms. My second child had just been born and really I was kind of just burned out, which is not an unusual situation for people who work in this business. And I thought I’m just going to take time off. Like a lot of parents I felt that I wasn’t either doing my job or my parenting as well as I could, because each of them sacrifices the other. So I thought I’m just going to stop working and be able to play with my kids and think of something else to do. But I wanted to come up basically with the situation where I could still be writing music. I really enjoyed writing music to interesting text but I wanted to be able to do it on my own terms and on my own schedule. So I approached my favorite writers, which were the Coen brothers and Charlie Kaufman, and proposed this idea that let’s do some plays where — and I didn’t even say it had to be plays. I just said, “Can I please have some text?” I thought maybe they’d have something lying around. Sometimes writers will write a scene but not fit it into a film. Just give me some text that I can set to music and that was all I was asking for. But Joel and Ethan ended up saying that they wanted to do a one-act play, and then Charlie said he wanted to do a one-act play.

How did your ideas for the music on this project develop? Was there anything lingering from then that you had in your head and carried through?

There are some ideas that carried through. I think the overture, basically this opening piece, is pretty similar to what it was then. But a lot of it had to change because the basic idea for those plays was that it was an auditory experience without any visuals. The actors were just sitting in chairs with their scripts. And there were no costumes or sets, no one moving around on stage, even. So now it’s a visual phenomenon, a visual medium, and not only that but an animated one. And Charlie and I really weren’t sure how that would change things, if the music would stay the same or not. We were pretty sure it would change a lot. That turned out to be true but figuring out where it needed to change and even why it needed to change, it took quite a while and we were both discovering it as we went along.

There’s a fragility to this score, I think. It’s not loud. It’s sort of lurking and even when it has like a kind of genre-y, mischievous kind of quality to it, it’s still very low key and fragile. Was that just something that happened unconsciously as you wrote it?

One of the challenges with the piece is that the audience is often uncomfortable, especially if we get to the sex scenes. The discomfort is intentional and I guess one way of looking at it is the discomfort presents a challenge. Once the audience is past it they now are on extremely intimate terms with these characters. I think that fragility allows the audience to feel like the characters are really revealing an intimate side of themselves, and that, I think, helps to draw the audience in. And even though they’re puppets, the music is really trying very hard to treat them exactly as humans, and very vulnerable humans. So that’s really the reason the music is like that.

And how about your choice of instruments?

I did try to use the same instruments — and same musicians, even — as we did 10 years ago. I guess you could say for sentimental terms as much as anything. It’s the same actors as before. The script is very similar to before and I just felt that it would be nice to get that group back together again. So at that time I had chosen eight instruments that were what you might call a cabaret-type ensemble, because out of these eight very different instruments you can kind of touch on all these different types of genres. These same eight players did all three of the plays that we presented 10 years ago. And the group is sort of a one-of-everything type of group. There’s one woodwind, one brass instrument, you know, one guitar, one percussion, one keyboard. You do have two strings — a violin and a cello — but otherwise the purpose of the group was just to have the small set of instruments that could do the broadest number of arrangements possible.

You’ve been a key ingredient in Kaufman’s films since “Being John Malkovich.” I’m curious about your thoughts on music and its relationship to Charlie Kaufman cinema.

You know I haven’t really thought about it in those terms but I will say one thing that Charlie’s movies typically have in common is that there’s one gigantic premise that pushes the surreality, but that once you’ve accepted that premise, once you’ve suspended your disbelief, the actual situations you’re faced with and the people are in fact very ordinary and mundane. He puts this big premise in front of you as though it’s sort of a threshold you have to, as an audience member, get across, and of course also amusing and entertaining and mind-bending. But once you have gotten across it, he’s dealing with just the same things that most storytellers and writers do. He’s dealing with love and loneliness and existential issues that everybody faces. I think that, as I implied for “Anomalisa,” the music is partly there to help you with that transition.

For instance, for “Being John Malkovich,” when Spike [Jonze] first approached me and I read the script, I said, “Wow, the music for this could be almost anything. The material is so varied that it doesn’t dictate any particular form.” But in the end we came to the conclusion that the thing that would actually challenge the audience the most would be if they could really believe in the humanity of these characters, that they were actually real. That you really were in someone else’s brain or that your brain could be occupied by other people. The more we could make it seem real and invest in the emotions and feelings that came from that, the more uncomfortable we would make the audience and the more challenged it would make the audience. We thought that was the best way to make a strong film out of this, rather than one that you could dismiss as, “Wow, that was a wild story.” We wanted to make it a little more involving. So that was our solution to “Malkovich,” and I look back now and I think, you know, it’s been a similar approach to the other things I’ve worked on with Charlie. Really the music plays the humanity of what’s going on and it largely ignores the strangeness of what’s going on.

Let’s touch briefly on “Legend.” This one is a bit different as there’s a lot of period-specific music so I imagine you have to bridge those gaps with your work a bit, too.

The movie is so much about that period. I mean that’s part of just the overall experience of the film and I think it’s one of the things that attracted Brian [Helgeland] to making the film. So I felt that the score should try to embrace that on some level. And the score isn’t largely rock and roll or anything like that. It’s not even, you know — it doesn’t specifically sound like pop music from the period, but a lot of the instruments, a lot of the sounds, a lot of the textures are coming from some form of popular music from the time. You know, they weren’t really rock and rollers, the Krays. That wouldn’t have been the kind of music they would listen to anyway. They were more like soul singers and Sinatra-type stuff. So it does go a bit in that direction and yeah, it’s the arrangements, and the general tone embraces that.

The theme itself is interesting. It swings a bit, you know? And the drumbeat gives it this other quality. It almost seemed to be taking a lead from Morricone and “The Untouchables,” even, some of that genre and era flavor.

Yes, that’s true. And also I think to sort of say something not just about the era but it’s also about somehow hintrying to play London as well, as if London were one of the characters. London in the ’60s is one of the characters, and then those opening shots are of London and you come down into the streets and then you’re in the car with the Krays. I wanted to really establish the theme for the town at that time. It’s both the time and the place.

And let’s wrap it up with “Mr. Holmes,” which I have to say might be my favorite of your works this year. It’s really robust comparatively. You’ve worked with Bill Condon from the very beginning, I think. So going into this one, what did he say he wanted out of the score?

[Laughs.] I laugh because we really had almost no conversation. We did spot some early version of the film together where he said, “Oh, we need music here.” But it was a pretty early version and the film continued to change after that. Bill was putting up a show on Broadway at the same time that I was working on the film. So we really hardly spoke. I sent him my sketches of things and then I think he would work around his rehearsals on Broadway. I’d hear, “Oh, Bill’s coming in at 10pm on Sunday and he’s going to hear what you’ve done,” or something. And then he might drop me an email. He was literally in the theater a few blocks away but he couldn’t leave. So there wasn’t actually a lot of conversation about it. I think I threw out ideas verbally when we spotted it but honestly it was probably as little intercourse with the director on that film as I ever had. But as you said, Bill and I have worked together so many times so I think I know him pretty well. I know how he likes to make movies and what he’s after in a story. So I don’t think that the work suffered in any way. He seemed very happy. I think he would have told me if there was anything he needed to discuss!

I’m sure that speaks to the trust here. But as I said, it’s quite robust. There’s a lot of layering going on.

I think it’s partly that, in a sense, the film is taking place in multiple times and multiple places. And in Holmes’ mind he’s having difficulty distinguishing what’s happening now from what happened in the past. He’s trying to recall things that happened in the past but his memory is faulty and he’s also not sure that he is entirely on top of what’s happening in the present. He’s 90 years old. So it’s taking place in multiple times and multiple places in his mind and he’s a complex man, you know? He’s a man of reason but he’s now kind of losing his reason. So there’s always some sense of loss but I think also I wanted to try to capture a bit of the feeling of a Sherlock Holmes movie, where he’s trying to solve the mystery, trying to put the pieces together. But at the same time he just can’t. They’re not going to come together and he’s reaching the end of his life. So it’s a complex situation and that’s what I was trying to get at with that.

I love in the Japan section where you work native instruments into the theme.

It’s called the shakuhachi. It’s a wooden flute. It has a relatively small number of what you would call notes, but a large number of sounds and a large number of many ways in which to play a note or to approach notes. The performance on that instrument mostly has to do with how you slide from one note to another or over-blow certain notes. Things like that. But you’re right. It’s very much a typical Japanese instrument. A lot of the score is wind-driven. A lot of it is driven by oboe, clarinet, bassoon. It seemed right that when we went to Japan we’d still stick with a woodwind instrument.

And finally, you’re working with the Coens yet again on “Hail, Caesar!” What should we expect from that? Anything new or exciting?

I’m just working on the soundtrack on that actually today. It’s a real grab bag musically. That’s the nature of the film. [In the film], we’re at a Hollywood studio and we move in and out of the various films that are being made at the studio. And then there are other aspects of the story that are not taking place in other films but it means that, you know, there are some parts that are like a Roman epic. There’s a part that’s a Western. There’s a part that’s film noir. And there’s like a Russian choir. I recorded a Russian choir at one point. It’s just extremely varied and that’s one of the challenges of trying to put the soundtrack album together. Like, how are we going to make it feel like the score to one movie? And I’m curious. I haven’t actually seen the finished film with everything mixed in. It’ll be interesting to see whether it really does hold together musically. But it’s certainly a lot of fun. It’s got all these different genres.

I can’t wait to see it. Well listen, I have to tell you I find it a little absurd that you haven’t been nominated for an Oscar yet. I hope that changes this year.

Thanks.

You have four shots on goal here so maybe your odds are great this year.

Too many! But we’ll see.

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