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Carter Burwell: ‘Carol’
Todd Haynes’ film about two women falling in love in New York of the early 1950s is all about restraint.
“The characters themselves are very restrained in the way they approach each other,” says composer Carter Burwell. “They don’t have a language or a model for the kind of relationship they’re going into; they’re just following their feelings. The music is often saying things they can’t say, but it can’t get ahead of the emotional state they’re in.”
Burwell’s chamber-styled score offers an intimate sound to match the storytelling; often just a string quartet, piano, harp and the occasional woodwind (clarinet, oboe, bassoon).
There are three main themes: One Burwell calls “fascination, that feeling of a heightened, altered state, which I do with a cloud of piano notes. Then there’s the theme at the opening and the end of the movie, which is more about the physical excitement, in which the strings are the rhythmic element. And one other, a theme of emptiness or loss, when one is apart from one’s beloved.”
Burwell’s card was full this year: the Ian McKellan starrer “Mr. Holmes,” the ’60s London crime story “Legend” and Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion animation “Anomalisa,” which needed just nine musicians. Jon Burlingame
Michael Giacchino: ‘Inside Out’
Composer Michael Giacchino’s fifth Pixar film, “Inside Out,” may have been his most challenging yet: creating music to match the emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, Anger) inside the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley.
“It was, at times, incredibly difficult, because the film does not pull any punches,” Giacchino says. “I have a 15-year-old daughter, who was 13 or 14 at the time we started this. Working on this film made me look at my relationship with my daughter in a way I hadn’t before.
“For me, usually, emotional music is the most quiet, simple music you can hear,” he adds — although he also used his 85-piece L.A. orchestra to create fun music for Riley’s imaginary pink-elephant friend, wild sounds for abstract thought, and dramatic variations for the more nightmarish moments inside Riley’s head.
Director Pete Docter (whose “Up” won the composer a score Oscar) says Giacchino saw a rough version of the film, “mostly on storyboards, and he just went off and started writing. He was so in tune with what I was looking for, and the film really spoke to him. He really captured what we were after.” Jon Burlingame
Thomas Newman: “Bridge of Spies’
When John Williams, due to health problems earlier this year, could not score “Bridge of Spies,” director Steven Spielberg — for only the second time in 41 years of filmmaking — turned to a different composer: Thomas Newman, whose legendary father, Alfred, hired a young Williams to play piano 60 years ago at Fox.
For the true story of James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer who negotiates the release of pilot Francis Gary Powers from the Russians in 1962, Newman painted with “American” and “Russian” colors — strong brass figures, warm piano, oboe and strings, providing a stark contrast with music for the Soviets that included balalaikas and a 24-voice male choir.
It proved a delicate balance, Newman says: “How do you not politicize the sense of what the film is saying? You want to be pro-idealism more than pro-American. Those are subtle shifts.” And when it came to those deep voices, “what you don’t want to say is, these are bad people. I hope it was suggestive more than demonstrative.”
Spielberg “was very clear about not wanting a ‘John Williams score.’ He was interested in my voice.” Jon Burlingame
Stephen Rennicks: ‘Room’
“Room” portrays one of the worst nightmares imaginable: a teenage girl, abducted and imprisoned, bears her captor’s son and raises him inside a cramped shed. In the dark soil of this bleak scenario, Stephen Rennicks’ score sprouts up like a flower — hopeful piano, childlike xylophones and sympathetic strings playing a graceful dance.
“When (son) Jack goes to this safe place — physically and emotionally — it was a big decision as to how that’s treated,” says Rennicks. “(Director Lenny Abrahamson) said ‘we can’t get into the forensic analysis of this.’ The music has to do with this fantasy that Ma and Jack have created. There was a decision to make it his music.”
The score begins to grow darker and more complex as Ma plots their escape. Once outside “Room,” it reflects her difficulty adjusting to the outside world (with manipulated piano and lonely woodwinds). It culminates in a soaring orchestral piece — a wallop of hopeful melody as the film fades to black.
“To make a story which is bearable and has hope, I think the music had to carry a lot of that … the feeling that you can go to this place in your head,” Rennicks says. Tim Greiving
Ryuichi Sakamoto: ‘The Revenant’
Director Alejandro G. Inarritu charted an unorthodox musical course in “Birdman,” with its solo drum score. So it’s no surprise he went off the beaten path for his wilderness survival epic “The Revenant” — tapping Ryuichi Sakamoto (“The Last Emperor”).
The 63-year-old Japanese composer hadn’t scored an American film since 1992’s “Wuthering Heights” and initially wasn’t sure he could handle the task.
“I had cancer last year and I was still in the recuperation process,” Sakamoto says. “But it was for Alejandro, whom I’ve admired since his debut.”
(German electronica artist Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner of the National contribute cues.)
Inarritu wanted “a mixture of electronic and acoustic sounds,” Sakamoto says, and “complex layers of sounds rather than melodies.” This came naturally for the composer, who started out in the early electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Combining the forces of a string ensemble and his Prophet 5 synthesizer, Sakamoto complemented the enormous scale and severity of “Revenant” with spare, understated music he describes as “minimal, ambient, atmospheric.” Tim Greiving
Brian Tyler: ‘Truth’
Better known for his high-octane scores for such films as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Furious 7,” Brian Tyler tackled a more down-to-earth topic with “Truth,” based on the “60 Minutes” reporting debacle that led to anchorman Dan Rather’s departure from CBS.
“I started with a very basic idea, music that could subconsciously evoke journalism’s investigative energy: the sounds of a typewriter. Anything you could play with the fingers,” Tyler says, became key: piano and harp, especially.
“Those run underneath, and the melodies would go on top — the emotion, the heart, the human souls in the middle of all this journalistic controversy.”
The theme for news producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is “almost disguised” at the start; “it sneaks up on you about two-thirds of the way through the film, and by the last scene, her theme is playing in a very melancholy way.”
Tyler felt a traditional 60-piece orchestra was the best way to score “Truth.” “It’s the most human way of communicating,” he says. “Instruments being played felt like the closest thing to what journalists do, going from the brain to the fingers to the page.” Jon Burlingame