The Ballad of Carter Burwell
By Sarah Finegold • December 6, 2018
Composer Carter Burwell has earned acclaim and accolades for his detailed, highly personal scores for films like Carol, Where the Wild Things Are and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But he is perhaps best known for his longtime partnership with cult-favorite directors The Coen brothers. Burwell is one of their most frequent collaborators, having scored 17 of their films. Their most recent collaboration, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, has a few key differences from the rest of their oeuvre. The collection of Western vignettes is their first joint venture done as separate short films. It is also Burwell and the Coens’ first team-up with a streaming platform – after an exclusive limited theatrical engagement, Buster Scruggs made its official debut on Netflix on November 16. We were lucky enough to chat with Carter about his score for the movie, his longtime collaborators and the genre he’s itching to score for.
You scored the Coen brothers’ earlier Western film True Grit, and your music for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri evoked a lot of classic Westerns. Do you have a personal relationship with that genre?
Like many people, when I was learning about the history of American film, I saw a lot of Westerns – Red River and The Searchers and all the classics. Stagecoach. But I have no particular interest or personal history with it, nor do I have a particular interest in country and western music. So basically, the answer is no. [LAUGHS]
Did you find scoring with folk ballads, and all of those conventions that come with music for Westerns, particularly challenging or did you feel comfortable within that space?
As you say, I have addressed that type of score in one way or another before, but they’ve always been very different. Like True Grit, the score for that is based on Protestant hymns and that has to do with the story. And Three Billboards was an attempt to find in American idiomatic music the right sounds for Frances McDormand’s character, really.
In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we’re doing six different short Westerns, each with their own tone and each with their own character and look and story. So it was really the challenge of finding the right voice for each film. Some of them are intentionally old fashioned and they’re supposed to sound sort of like ‘40s or ‘50s Western scores, and others have no particular reference. The decision is really based on what each film required.
It’s structured as these six vignettes, but I understand there was a discussion of an underlying theme that you needed to unite them into one cohesive piece. Can you talk about the elements you used to make them seem like separate stories, and then tie them together as one film?
Sure. The Coen brothers had asked me, before they left to shoot the film, whether there was some way to tie it together. Well, there were a variety of possibilities we just threw out there as concepts. For instance, you could take maybe just a fraction of a melody or three notes that could appear in each piece but with different orchestrations or different arrangements. There were lots of different approaches you could take but it wasn’t obvious that any of them would work.
When they came back from shooting, they really wanted to find some way to tie it all together. They were concerned that people weren’t going to see it as a single film; people were going to perceive it as being six separate films.
So that was the first thing I did, was try to find that way to tie them all together. And I have to say, in the end, that I failed to do so. I really couldn’t – they’re all so different and they’re so intentionally different in their look, in their story, in their tone that I really couldn’t find anything musically that could appear in all six of them. If we had done that, it would have just felt like we were trying to force a musical thread through something that it didn’t belong in.
In the end, I had to abandon that idea after trying very hard. Instead I used the interstitial “transitional” areas between each of the six films as a way to lead you from one to the other. And, in that sense, the music is making it less jarring and is kind of creating the illusion that one story leads to the next.
The final thing I did was use the song that a character played by Brendan Gleeson sings in the film. I used that song to play the opening titles and the ending titles of the film, to bookend it and, again, create the illusion that there’s an overall context for the film, even though it’s kind of loose.
It’s a folk song, “The Unfortunate Lad,” right?
This movie is, in so many ways, about music. Sometimes overtly like the Buster Scruggs vignette, and then sometimes it’s a little bit more indirect. And the movie is also full of these musical greats, both behind the scenes – like the songs written by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings – and then there are those incredible on-screen performances by Tom Waits and Tim Blake Nelson. There were so many wonderful voices and beautiful ideas being contributed. What was the collaborative process like with all these musicians?
Well, you’re right and it’s really Joel and Ethan’s concept for the film. They really wanted there to be songs in the film. And, of course, there are – there’s a tradition of Hollywood Westerns having often a single-featured song that might be either in the titles or somewhere in the middle of the film. They wanted to work off of that, at least as an excuse to get songs into the film.
I hadn’t personally worked with these artists before but, of course, Dave and Gillian worked on O Brother, Where Art Thou? which is also an extremely music-driven film. So it was a similar thing here where Joel and Ethan knew that they wanted songs and they had Gillian and Dave write one. They found other folk songs from the period, from the late 19th century. Sometimes they rewrote the words to a song so that it would match something that’s happening in the film. But that was really coming from them and, honestly, I only had to interact musically with those songs, for instance writing a choral part for Gillian and Dave's song as Buster ascends to heaven. I wasn’t involved in writing them or recording them.
So I don’t know if this is like picking a favorite child, but do you have a favorite of the vignettes? Did any of them prove particularly challenging?
You know, I think that my favorite as a piece of music is the theme that I came up with for “The Wingless Thrush,” the one with the orator who performs Shakespeare.
That crushed me.
Exactly, yeah. It’s a very bleak story, the bleakest of a bunch of bleak stories, but I did want the music to kind of suggest that character’s desire to bring some beauty to the frontier in his recitation. So I’m especially fond of that piece of music.
And I also like the very last one in the stagecoach – the first half of that last story is thick with dialogue and there’s really no place for music, but in the last half there’s no dialogue and the music sort of carries you to the end of what’s essentially a ghost story. And I’m fond of that also because the music has so much work to do at the end.
I want to talk to you about working with the Coens. So this is your seventeenth film with them?
I think that’s correct.
What do you love about working with them? What makes you such great collaborators? And did Buster Scruggs, in particular, brought something new to your collaboration?
I’m just a fan, to begin with. I love watching their films and I love reading their screenplays. But you know, we’ve also been working together since their first film, and we just have very similar sensibilities. I think the way that we see film is very similar. I think the way we see life is not dissimilar. You know, it’s really not like work at all. It’s really like a bunch of people getting together and all making one thing. On some films you feel like you’re trying to force your ideas in there but they’re not necessarily meshing with other people’s ideas. And that doesn’t come up too often with them. It’s really a very easygoing relationship.
And you know, people don’t talk about [this] that much when they talk about their films, [but] they’re simply honest, decent interesting people and it’s always fun to work with people like that. Not all directors are those things, but the Coens are. It’s entirely a pleasure.
That’s really wonderful to hear that it’s as fulfilling for you guys as it is for the audience. I was thinking as I looked through your filmography that a lot of the stuff is vastly different. There seems to be a bit of almost everything in there. Is there a type of music or type of movie that you haven’t done yet that you would be really excited to jump into?
[LAUGHS] Well, you know, yes, there is. When I was a child growing up I loved the science fiction films that were being made back then – back then being like the ‘60s. There was a wonderful crop of experimental scores – Forbidden Planet is, by any definition, an experimental score – or The Day the Earth Stood Still. There are so many of them, even coming up to Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien. And it’s a genre I love and it’s a genre in which people have done really interesting musical work. So that is one that I hope someday to get to address.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re working on now?
Sure. I finished a film for the animation studio Laika called Missing Link that’s coming out in April, I believe. And I’m working right now on a film with Bill Condon called The Good Liar, but I don’t think that comes out until the end of next year.
Find out more about Carter Burwell at www.carterburwell.com