We Create Music Blog
November 19, 2015

Film Music Friday: Carter Burwell on Carol

Carter Burwell<br>Photo by Tycho Burwell

Carter Burwell
Photo by Tycho Burwell

The film Carol is an evocative love story between two women in the socially conservative America of the 1950s. It’s a movie about intimacy, told intimately by director Todd Haynes. The camera lavishes its attention on tiny details - the texture of a fur coat, the curve of a haircut - in the same way that everything becomes heightened in the throes of love.

The score, by ASCAP Henry Mancini Award winner Carter Burwell, is an essential part of Carol’s elegant tapestry. Burwell’s cues are composed of small musical gestures that hint at the passions underlying the film, without giving into sentimentality. It’s a perfect fit for Haynes’s filmmaking, which Burwell has gotten to know well through two previous collaborations, including the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce, which won Burwell an Emmy.

A week before Carol’s November 20 premiere, we sat down with Carter Burwell to talk about his luminous score.

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So much goes unsaid between the two main characters in Carol, so that every glance, every touch feels charged with meaning. Was it important that your music feel that same way? 

There’s a great restraint in the film and in the characters. It’s partly a matter of the style of Todd Haynes’s filmmaking, it’s also partly that the period they’re living in, 1950s New York, hasn’t given them them vocabulary, necessarily. The language with which to describe the feelings that they’re having, the desires, to even know what they want from the relationship that’s taking place. So the music does a lot of speaking for these characters. There’s a lot that is unsaid in the film - if you counted the words in the script, it’s not that many. The script is fantastic, but a lot is told visually, a lot is told through costume, production design and makeup, even. All of these non-verbal aspects of the film take on such weight, because there’s so much space around them. 

And the music, the same thing. There are sometimes very few notes in a scene; sometimes the feelings of the characters get so heightened, sometimes the notes come up in piles. Piles of notes take over. But because of the way that Todd shoots, and the nature of the story, every little thing means something. There’s never a throwaway line, a throwaway note. That care develops a sense of tension so that, hopefully, you really want to know what the next scene is. Even though the pacing is very careful, very graduated, there’s a sense of tension and expectation that comes from doling it out so carefully. 

Two of the recurring themes are built of simple motifs of two notes, or a couple chords. Is there a significance to the simplicity of your themes? 

I’m a simple composer, an un-trained composer. One of the things that most of my work has, at its core, is trying to get the most out of simple elements. This goes back to my first work, in Blood Simple or Raising Arizona, trying to get the most out of a banjo or a yodeller. In this movie, you have a small string ensemble. 

Part of the challenge, and also the pleasure, of orchestrating this score was to get the most out of a small number of musicians. It’s a very small budget. But part of that was saying “What are the important things?” I wanted there to be two melody lines that could play for the two characters. Typically they’re woodwinds, a clarinet and an oboe, but the strings mostly play the role of a rhythm instrument in this score. Because of the restraint, which is emblematic of this film, even though the film is a romance there’s never a moment where the strings well up and play the melody. It’s not that kind of thing. These aren’t those kinds of people; it’s not that kind of film. The strings are really just this rhythm instruments, playing these two beats, back and forth. 

I will say, it’s pretty emblematic of most of my work that I’m trying to get the most I can out of simple instruments. And those are the scores that I love. Morricone’s spaghetti westerns. I just love  that you can get so much out of just four or five sounds. That was always very inspiring to me as I was growing up. I try to still do that. 

There must have been plenty of that minimalism in the music that surrounded you when you were coming up in New York.

Well yeah. I would never have become a musician, probably, if it weren’t for the fact that I graduated from college in the punk rock era. I graduated in 1977, and some friends said “Why don’t we just go to New York and be a band?” No one cared if you knew what you were doing. Indeed, it was a special badge of honor if you didn’t know what you were doing, and that fit me perfectly. That was the period that I came out of. If you can say it with one chord, that’s what you should do. 

Todd Haynes’s past films have centered on music and music creators, and music plays a small role in the plot to Carol, too. What’s it like scoring for a director who has his own fascinations with music?

One of the reasons I love working with Todd Haynes is that he takes music very seriously. It means a lot to him - some of his movies have been about music or about musicians. It means that when he has something to say about music, I take it very seriously. This film is the same way. One of the characters does actually sit at the piano and play, at one point, and it’s a beautiful moment. 

One of the things I know about Todd is that I can send him things - even very rough things - and he will understand what I’m getting at. He won’t criticize the things that aren’t real in this sketch I’ve sent him. He’ll talk about it in terms of its musical meaning, which is great - he won’t say “I didn’t understand. Was that a clarinet?” or “Why am I hearing all these strange sounds?” in my synth sketches. He’s a semiotician. He’ll go right to the meaning of the music, and we can discuss it at that level, which is great. 

Does he ever give you specific feedback about the motifs you’ve written, or the formal parts of the music? 

You can see that he enjoys the music as music, and will comment on it in that way. He knows how to direct actors - you don’t tell them how to say their lines. And he’s not gonna do that to me either. He’s not gonna say “That clarinet line - shouldn’t that go down instead of up?” He’s very sensitive. Even though he might have a great idea about what the clarinet line should do, he knows that that’s not a director’s job to tell a composer that. Instead, he will talk about the drama, the emotional moment in the film. We have extensive discussions about those kinds of things. And even though I know he’s perfectly capable of taking the music apart, and saying “This viola line - isn’t it too busy?” He’s nice enough, polite enough and skilled enough a director that it never gets to that level. 

A few of your recent projects are set in the mid-20th century and the scores use a similar sound palette - winds, strings, harp. Do you have a particular fondness for that instrumentation? 

I try to be agnostic about the instrumentation in my scores. It’s true that this year, I have Mr. Holmes, Carol, and they’re both set around the same period. In fact next year I have this movie The Finest Hours, which also takes place in the ‘50s. And Hail, Caesar!, the [forthcoming] Coen brothers movie, takes place in the ‘50s. So I’m working in a similar time frame in a lot of these films this year. That means that a lot of the scores have something to do with not only the music of that period, but the film music of that period. 

In Mr. Holmes, Sherlock Holmes goes to see a Sherlock Holmes movie at one point. The Coen brothers movie is about the film industry, so it’s part of the pop culture of that time, that people were seeing music, that people were hearing Hollywood scores performed with strings and winds. So that vocabulary does enter into all these scores. But I personally try not to have preconceptions about what a film score should be. It’s not always possible, but I try to look for some new thing I can do with each film. Each film is its own sonic world. 

The [upcoming Charlie Kaufman] film Anomalisa - yes, there’s a violin, and a cello, but there’s also an electric guitar, and a trumpet, and a bass clarinet and timpani. I try to find new colors if I can. I think that’s one of the fun things about doing your own orchestrations. Like a lot of film composers, if I have to write 100 minutes of music in six weeks, I can’t orchestrate. But I find it a fascinating learning experience, and exploration, to try to do that. With some small budget - because most of my movies are small budget - choose the six instruments or 16 instruments that will give a unique sound. That’s one of the things I love about this. 

Cate Blanchett’s character has this great quote in the film - something like “Talent is what people tell you that you’re good at.” When did you get the sense that you were a talented composer? 

When I started making music, it was really just for myself. I would sit at the piano and improvise - that’s still the only thing that interests me in music. I do not sit and play written compositions - I don’t sit and play my own written compositions. I’m not interested in that. I really am only interested in expressing something about how I feel at the moment, or what’s going on. It took some years before I thought “this is something I would actually perform in front of someone. It really took friends saying “Yeah, we should all do this together” before I would even think to do that. That didn’t involve calling myself a composer. That was just playing in bands, because that’s the only sane thing to do when you’re 20. 

After Blood Simple came out, people started calling me a film composer. Then it still took many, many films before I started to think that I was really a composer. I thought “I’m just the guy who makes things up, musically. I’m the music maker.” But as soon as Blood Simple came out, I realized that this music was really affecting people. It makes them feel things. People want me to help them with their films. 

Then I realized that, in a way, it’s a public responsibility. I’m not just doing it for myself now - I’m also trying to make collaborative work, and provide something that moves people in certain ways. It’s not up to me to say how, happily, but it does move people in certain ways. And that’s interesting. Because I’m a very solitary person - I actually spend most of my days by myself in a room. It’s interesting to create this thing, send it out there, and it has an effect on people. I love that.

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Carol was released in theaters on December 20, 2015. Find out more at carolfilm.com.

Carter Burwell on the web: carterburwell.com

Read our career-spanning interview with Carter Burwell from 2009