ASCAP Henry Mancini Award
The ASCAP Henry Mancini Career Achievement Award in Film & Television Music is presented to CARTER BURWELL in recognition of his outstanding achievements and contributions to the music of film and television
Tonight's ASCAP Henry Mancini Award recipient has scored many of the most emblematic films of the past 25 years, working with such innovative directors as Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine), David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), and, especially Joel and Ethan Coen, the team he has been most identified with since Blood Simple in 1984, the first feature film for all three. A Manhattan native, Burwell was drafted into film scoring by the Coens from his budding rock & roll career in the downtown clubs of Manhattan. By training, Burwell is a Harvard-educated engineer and computer scientist who had hopes of becoming a maker of animated films. One of his early animation projects, Help, I'm Being Crushed to Death by a Black Rectangle (1979) was honored at two film festivals.
Burwell's film music career has found him embracing the odd and offbeat, but he has also scored a number of mainstream Hollywood projects, including the adventure film, Rob Roy, a movie sequel (Anthony Perkins's Psycho III), a Disney animated family film (The Goofy Movie), a Sidney Lumet-directed crime film (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) and last year's teen vampire blockbuster Twilight. Burwell recently sat down with ASCAP's Jim Steinblatt to speak about his life in film music, offering strong and honest opinions about the rewards and challenges of the movie music profession.
Carter Burwell with Sidney Lumet on the set of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
recording Blair Witch 2 in the bathtub
with John Lee Hancock on the set of The Alamo
with Julian Schnabel at the Venice Film Festival
Spike Jonze needs music for Adaptation
with Frances McDormand and Joel Coen at Cannes with Fargo
with the band The Same at CBGBs, 1981
In some ways, you had an advantage when you started out, in that you had been in the filmmaker's seat, unlike most beginning film composers.
There is no question that I had a great deal more experience with film than with music. I still look at what I do as an aspect of filmmaking. I feel like I wear two hats when I do this. One is that I'm a composer, the other is as a filmmaker. As a composer, I'm largely just doing it for my own satisfaction I've never heard a director say "I don't think this composition is fully realized." Very few directors critique the music as music. They critique it as regards its role in the film. That's where I put on the other hat as a filmmaker and try to think that way.
Your early experience working with the Coen Brothers since neither you nor they had feature film experience must have made for a good match.
I think that it did. Let's face it no one knew what they were doing with the music. I didn't know how to synchronize the music with the film technologically and they didn't either. The way we approached it was probably like a lot of people do on their first films. I had a stopwatch out and we would agree on 2½ minutes of music here and three minutes there. I created these set pieces not especially synchronized to picture, but for Blood Simple, that was fine. It was more about mood. We were all learning.
Did you prepare for Blood Simple by studying film noir scores?
When I was first approached about doing the film, I made some musical sketches based on what they showed me of the movie. My rough ideas were based on piano and tape effects kind of sampling before digital samplers existed. I really knew nothing about film scoring and thought I should try to pay attention to the way it's done. I opened TV Guide and saw that Hitchcock's The Birds was going to be on and I set my VCR to record it. I watched the film trying to pay very careful attention to the music, but as we got to the end of every important scene, I would realize that I forgot to pay attention to the music. I got to the end of the movie, realizing I hadn't learned anything about the music. I rewound the videotape and realized there was no instrumental score at all it had been scored with bird sounds and synthesized versions of bird sounds. That was a good first lesson. I learned that a score doesn't have to be any one thing it can be what the film requires rather than what the medium requires or what the industry requires. I always appreciate the fact that The Birds was the first film I ever studied as far as film scoring was concerned.
It's interesting to note that your second feature score was a sequel to a Hitchcock film.
That's true. You know, Joel and Ethan had warned me that Blood Simple would probably not get distribution, which is what usually happened with low budget features back then. Surprisingly, it did make the festival circuit back then and did get distribution. Tony Perkins saw the film. I guess Universal had been after him to make Psycho III. Tony was going to direct and I believe it was his first directing credential. He was given carte blanche and he called me to compose the score. That was my first "real" film scoring assignment within the industry. I came to live in Los Angeles for a few months and learned how the industry works. I sort of camped in Bert Berman's office (he was running Universal film music at the time). He introduced me to every little aspect of the business trade magazines, copyists, agents, orchestrators and contractors. I really knew nothing.
So you didn't flee back to the East Coast?
After three or four months in Los Angeles, I was perfectly ready to go back East. But I found it all very interesting and everyone was very nice. The Universal people knew I wasn't a trained film composer and that I had a rock & roll background. I was doing most of the work on a Synclavier and wanted to hire a boys' choir and some percussionists. In the end they were happy to accommodate me because all of my whims were much cheaper than anything a real Hollywood composer would have asked for. It was a time when MTV was relatively young and the studios thought having a video there would be free promotion for their film. They were insisting Tony put some kind of pop song in his film to make a video around. Tony was insistent that no pop song be in the film. Instead, he thought we should make a video of one of my tunes from the film. We basically made a video with me and Tony in it. I got the complete experience of the whole gestalt and was very satisfied when it was done and came back to New York.
After that, you could really look at yourself as a film composer.
It's true. Following Psycho III, Joel and Ethan asked me to do Raising Arizona. They weren't sure I'd want to do the film. I believe Ethan asked whether the film was "groovy enough" for me. They were right to worry, because the yodeling and banjos were not my background. But I loved the movie and I realized that I liked watching movies day in and day out and writing music to go along with them. I enthusiastically joined in on Raising Arizona and, as you say, left my day job at that point.
I like learning new things and one of the things I love about this job is learning about new musical genres, new instruments from other places. For me, it's been an opportunity to learn about orchestration, conducting. I've taken a back road so that my behavior is much more like the conservatory trained composers. I really enjoy that stuff. It took me years to get the confidence to learn it all but it wasn't through classes, but on the street
While I am sure you have agency representation, I imagine you don't need an agent to work on Coen Brothers films.
There is not a whole lot an agent can do on a Coen Brothers film. Ethan will say, "This is how much money we've got." And I will say, "OK." Nothing else is involved. The Coens are very honest and are very apologetic about their sometimes limited resources but we always make it work. Sometimes I am overpaid, like I was in the case of No Country for Old Men. Sometimes I am underpaid. It all averages out in the end.
While people mostly associate you with the films of the Coens, you have done quite a few "mainstream" films. Is there any commonality in the projects you choose to work on?
Typically, if there isn't a certain dark side to the proceedings, it's a little hard for me to get my imagination going.
So, even with comedy, as long as it has that other side to it
Yes, and with romance too. I am happy to score a romantic scene as long as there is at least the possibility that someone will be decapitated during it. That's real life to me there's always a dark edge of possibility. And there is also the certainty of death. I'm really not interested in writing for something that doesn't at least acknowledge that complexity.
In looking at your filmography, it certainly seems that you do choose projects on that basis. The film, Being John Malkovich, must have really been up your alley. It was different than anything I had seen before. Working with the Coen Brothers probably trained you for all the twists and turns of the Malkovich movie.
Now there is an interesting example of what we were just talking about. The dramatic approach to the score of Malkovich was to try to treat the characters as though they were real human characters with human feelings even though the experiences they were going through seemed completely fantastical and surreal. The director, Spike Jonze, and I both felt that the most disturbing thing to do with this movie was to let the audience feel that it was surreal rather than something that comes off as conceptual. With the music, I tried to take all the drama seriously and ignore the fantasy. It would have been difficult for me to do in a movie that was completely serious, but in this case, because of all the bizarre goings on, I was very happy to play the music that way. It made the film a richer experience. My ideal for film music and it can't always be realized is that it doesn't just echo what's on the screen but makes the movie a richer experience by adding new elements.
You added to the fun of A Knight's Tale by writing rock & roll for a film about knights in armor.
Yes, that was a high musical concept that Brian Helgeland, the film's writer and director, came up with. A lot of the pop songs in that film are, I'm told, regularly played in sports arenas (Queen's "We Are the Champions," Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business"). My job was somehow to make that believable as part of a medieval jousting experience. My music shades back and forth between rock & roll and a faux medieval sound. The most fun example of that was a ballroom dancing scene where David Bowie's "Golden Years" was playing. We were given permission to go back into Bowie's multi-tracks and put elements of my medieval stuff in there so we could segue between his song and the score. Mr. Bowie came by to visit while we did that.
When you have time, you also work on theater and dance music projects.
It varies unpredictably. After my second child was born five years ago, I actually stopped doing film music for a couple of years. The schedules are grueling and it was taking me away from my family more than I felt was acceptable. For two years, I didn't do film music but worked on other things. There was a choreography commission and a project of my own. I asked the Coen Brothers and Charlie Kaufman to write some texts which I could set to music. At first, I thought I'd ask about a dozen writers to submit things so I would have a folio of pieces of text to set to music. One of the things I enjoy about what I do in film is setting good writing to musical composition. Well, both the Coens and Charlie Kaufman were much more ambitious than I expected and offered to write one-act plays. I ended up wearing a producer's hat for a while. I hated being a producer I don't like being on the phone; I like making stuff myself and not browbeating others to make it for me.
So we had the two one-act plays which were performed kind of like radio plays. The actors were on stage but not moving around, with no sets, no costumes, but with microphones and music stands in front of them. Then the musicians stood behind them with their instruments and music stands, and I was on stage conducting. We called it "Theater for the New Ear" and performed it in London, New York and in L.A. It was a lot of fun. My basic idea was that I wanted to do a project where I controlled the schedule and do the whole thing in a more humane way.
On your web site, I saw your statement about viewing mid-20th Century "B" movie scores as part of a "Golden Age" rather than the famous big orchestral scores of the 1930s and 40s.
I am much happier watching those 1950s films and much more admiring of their scores. The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet especially the sci fi films I love that stuff and I wish there were more people making that stuff. The great success of John Williams with Star Wars scoring a sci fi film as if it were a Western really put a nail in the coffin of this other sci fi music. Sci fi is a political, philosophical and paranoiac kind of exercise. Great film scores came from it.
Would you like to comment on your upcoming film projects?
Yes. We just finished remixing Where the Wild Things Are, a film based on the Maurice Sendak book. The music in the movie breaks down as 50% songs by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and 50% my score. The film doesn't come out until October and I have this worried feeling in my stomach that I'll still be revisiting that score. And we are recording the score of the new Coen Brothers movie the week of the ASCAP Awards.
Is working on the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are a more challenging experience than some of your other projects, being that it is a children's movie?
It has its own difficulties, like every film does. But Spike Jonze, who is the director and writer of Where the Wild Things Are, saw this as not being so much a kids' movie, but rather a film about serious adult issues children have to deal with. Being scared of your own emotions, finding out what you're capable of, getting along with others when they're awful, learning to like yourself. All these things, if you approach them honestly, are a bit scary. The film Spike has delivered walks a fine line between being dark and scary and, at the same time, being life-affirming and upbeat. The whole score has walked that same line. It has been very challenging to find exactly the right tone. You can easily go too melancholy or too hopeful. Spike wants it always to be containing all the possibilities never to be just happy or just sad; never to be just having fun, but there also to be the risk of danger. It's very challenging, but in a good way.
By now, you've done many kinds of film scores on a small scale to using a big orchestra. Many composers enter film scoring because of the opportunity to work with an orchestra.
I love working with an orchestra. It is easier for me as a composer to do something novel with a smaller ensemble and a smaller film. There are two reasons for that. One is that with a smaller budget, there's more freedom in that you don't need to sell quite as many tickets on the other side and you don't have to convince a studio that your film will appeal to a broad demographic. Right there, that frees you. Also, a symphony orchestra is a standardized instrumentthere are a lot of things you can do with it, obviously. The history of music shows us the wide variety of what can be done. But I often find, from an orchestrator's point of view, that it's easier for me to assemble a smaller group of instruments to get particular colors, and I also love those sessions because every single musician knows he or she will be heard. They are all painfully aware that they can't hide and I love the pressure and sense of responsibility that comes with that. That's different than a symphony orchestra situation, as well.
Do you ever collaborate with a lyricist on songs?
I'd like to, but it hasn't come up except for songs that I co-wrote with an old bandmate for Tony Perkins's Psycho III. The question of putting songs in movies is so loaded because studios see it as a source of revenue. I basically keep out of it. It involves so many commercial criteria that aren't about the film. I'd be happy to sit and write songs with a lyricist someday. Nobody's asked because the studios are looking for pop songs that are going to sell records. There's no reason to believe any pop song I write would ever sell many records.
You've amassed a distinguished filmography. Perhaps you don't love every single one of the films, but love every score.
I loved them all at first. When it's all said I don't like to watch the films or listen to the score again after the film's premiere. I think a lot of it's good. Perhaps in my dotage, I'll watch the films again.
How do you relate to the music of the man your award is named for Henry Mancini?
I admire his work tremendously. I've always been a sucker for melody. I think he was really a master of that. One of the black arts of music is coming up with a catchy melody and he was one of the wizards of that black art. Also, I love his approach to sound. The instruments he would choose were often unexpected. What we'd now call a cheesy electric organ sound or what we'd now call world music instrumentation, put together with a jazz ensemble. I love his work it's always interesting.