Carter Burwell, the Coen Brothers' Go-To Composer, Scores Fast | JOB HACKS

How do you get to do such films 'Carol,' 'The Big Lebowski,' 'Fargo,' and 'Anomalisa'? Says Burwell: "There's no straightforward way into that world."


Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.

Name: Carter Burwell

Original hometown: Stamford, Connecticut

Job: Burwell is a lauded composer known for scoring such films as The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, Being John Malkovich, True Grit, In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, The Kids Are All Right, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Where the Wild Things Are, Legend, A Serious Man, Carol and others.

How did you get your start?

When I graduated college, I moved to New York City, mostly because I wanted to be where the punk rock and new classical music were — and were overlapping. I also wanted to start a band with some friends, just for fun. I do think that the best thing people can do in their 20s is be in a band. Out of that, I got introduced to the Coen brothers, who were looking for a composer for their first film, Blood Simple. That’s how, in a word, I got into this one score.

When you start composing each film, do the Coen brothers usually just let you go? Or do they tell you what they’re looking for?

It really varies enormously for them. They’ll sometimes write a script knowing a lot about what the music should be. A film like O Brother, Where Art Thou? would be an extreme example where a lot of the songs are written right into the script. There’s some of that in The Big Lebowski too.

And sometimes they’ll write a film and have no idea what the music is going to be. Fargo would be an example of that, or True Grit. For myself, the times when they have no idea are the most fun because then I get explore creative possibilities. Those are the films I most look forward to.

Do you have a favorite film you’ve worked on?

Fargo is certainly a favorite. I like everything about it. I feel like the script, the acting, the music — it all comes together into something that’s special and unique. Their movies are all funny on some level and they’re all dark on some level. The way the darkness and the humor knits in that one is special. Barton Fink is another one of theirs that I like a lot.

In the instances where they don’t have an idea of what the music is and you have the ultimate freedom to explore, how do you begin that process?

I usually will read the script first. If it’s a director that I don’t know, I’m reading the script to decide if it’s a project I’m even interested in. If it’s a director I do know, like the Coen brothers or Todd Haynes or Spike Jonze, the odds are I’m going to work on the film regardless. But I read the script really because it’s an interesting form of literature. I’ll read just for the entertainment value. I don’t actually write music until there’s some cut of the film.

For the Coen brothers, because we do know each other very well, we’ll usually have discussions about the film or what the general feeling or direction is. They’ll sometimes show me just one scene — whatever they have cut together. Most directors are more shy. A lot of times, composers are the first person who has seen the film other than the director. They haven’t even shown it to producers yet when I see it. It’s a potentially embarrassing moment when the composer sees something and goes, “Nah, I don’t think I’m interested either.” They get very shy about that, and I understand that.

A lot of people will try to develop a film to a pretty good director’s cut before they’ll show it to me. The downside of that is, a lot of time is going by when they are perfecting their cut while I would like to be working on music. But I understand this reluctance to show. Especially if I don’t know the director and we don’t have a relationship, they’re reluctant to show me as well.

Does that happen often — they show you a scene and you say, “Maybe not”?

Oh yeah, it happens with some regularity. I’m lucky when I can make a judgement call like that — because the actors and directors have to commit themselves when all there really is is a script. They may have an idea of who’s involved, but they’re all basically going on a script. I can go, “I don’t really like the script,” especially if it’s a first time director and they don’t really know what they’re doing. I can say, “Show it to me when you have a rough cut,” and I can decide then whether I’m going to work on it or not.

So what’s your criteria for deciding to work on a film?

There’s no one set of criteria. It has a lot to do with where I am in my life. If I’ve just done a quirky comedy, I’m not going to want to do a quirky comedy next; I’d feel like I’ve gotten that out of my system. Or if it’s very dark, or in a dark psychological place, I would rather not follow that with the same thing. It’s really so personal and so much about the moment, there is no single set of criteria. But at the same time, I always try to be true and see if it’s something I would actually want to see — something that would inspire me to write music. If I read the script and I feel music, that’s a good sign I’ll probably work on it.

Many of the films you’ve done navigate between two genres or tones; they’re hard to put in a box. The Coen brothers’ films all alternate between light and dark; the same can be said for Martin McDonagh’s — In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are comedic yet sad, fast-paced yet contemplative. How do you decide how to use the music to emphasize the mood of the scene when the scene dances between different moods?

I will say that when I’m talking about criteria, that kind of film is my cup of tea. Something where the light and dark are balanced in some way: The dark aspects of life, death, fear, and horror are balanced by the lighter side of life, human fragility, and humor. That’s the kind of film I will say generally I do like to work on. What I liked about the In Bruges script and the film was the actual fragility of these hard men.

They have all the outward signs of being tough guys; they are in fact hired murderers, but this film delves into their fragility and existential crises. They don’t really have the language to pursue the issues they’re faced with, so they’re almost like kids faced with existential issues. They’re just trying to figure it out the best they can with the few resources they have. There’s something endearing about that. I wanted the main theme to be something very delicate, something completely unlike the surface of those guys that went somehow to the heart of who they really were.

Did you have much dialogue about it with Martin McDonagh, or did he leave you to your own devices?

He mostly left me to my devices. It was his first feature film. I know that when I started writing and delivering sketches of it to him, he then would play them for the producers of the film. I guess the producers had something completely different in mind as to what it should be. They started to say, “Tell Carter to do this.” I think Martin liked what I was doing, so he didn’t tell me what the producers were telling him to tell me. Finally, they just insisted on sending me their emails. He would say, “I don’t agree with the instructions for this, but here are emails from the producers.” They were just driving him crazy.

But he didn’t give me a great deal of feedback. Towards the end of the film, it does become chases with gunplay, and he had some ideas of what he thought some of those would be, it would be completely different from things we already established and almost become this punk rock chase scene from an action film. But for the overall tone of the film, he did mostly leave that up to me.

Would you say that’s one of the more difficult part of the job — answering to those who want something different than what you’re going?

Yes. I love writing music, I’m happy to do it for free. I basically do it every day, whether I have a job or not. I get paid for dealing with directors and producers and studio heads and balancing their opinions. I have a rule I try to establish where I just talk to the director. Other people have their opinions — but they should communicate their opinions to the director. That way, everything gets filtered through a single viewpoint. Whereas, if I had to listen to five people and actually take direction from five people, I just don’t think you’d end up with a very good film. You’d end up with something that wouldn’t represent your one point of view. It wouldn’t represent your creative vision.

Burwell and Rooney Mara at a 'Carol' screening 


Have you ever done a film where the producers intervened, and as a result, the end product was much different than where you started?

Yeah, I have. The extreme example is when I’ve worked on a film and my music didn’t end up in there at all. They went in a completely different direction, hiring a different composer — that’s happened a couple times. There there are times when it’s not just an issue with the music, it’s a film produced or moving too slowly or the overall feeling is just dour. They’ll have some thought about the overall direction of the film and they’ll try to fix that by adding something to the music, adding electronic drums or just having someone come in a rewrite some of it. It’s a kind of artform where hundreds of people are involved and lots of different creative and commercial issues can arise, so sometimes it can go off the rails. I’ve done lots of movies, so I’ve seen issues in one way or another.

Aside from that, what are some of the more challenging parts of your job?

The schedule is, without question, the most challenging part of my job. It’s an average of about six weeks to write a feature film score. That’s not a lot of time to explore lots of ideas, come up with a creative solution, and then write 40 minutes of music. That’s definitely, for me, the biggest challenge. I don’t really get much sleep when I’m doing it, so it’s a little physically and psychologically draining. But that comes with the territory. They schedule films pretty tightly because they would like to stop paying people and get the film out there so they can start making money. Schedules are all as abbreviated as they can make them.

What’s the most challenging project you’ve worked on?

One of the most challenging ones was The Hudsucker Proxy. It was [the Coen brothers’] first studio film; they were normally independent. We made it in an independent way, no one could really tell us what to do. They approved the script, the casting, gave the money to shoot it. They liked the idea of working with a bigger budget and doing bigger scenes and effects.

They also had to do something musically that’s standard practice in Hollywood, but something they’ve never done before, which is put in a temp score. What that means is, while the film is being made and edited, they’re finding pieces of music from other places and slot them into the scenes. That allows them to show the film to a producers with music in it, even though the score hasn’t been written yet.

That’s standard practice for a number of reasons. One is that it lets directors try out lots of music ideas and focus their ideas if they need it. Another is it allows them to test their films on an audience, even while the film is still being made. The downside for me is, they’ll often find a temp score and fall in love with it. It sort of robs the composer of the creative aspect of their jobs, and a lot of times it’ll end up with them saying, “The temp score is great!” Meaning, that’s what the final score should sound like. I try to always avoid that; I try to ask them to not put any temp score if they can. Joel usually avoids either putting it in or playing it for me.

But in the case of Hucksucker Proxy, they had a temp score that was really good. In many scenes it worked so well that I’ve never been able to do anything better. I tried, but it was really perfect, such a subtle tone. This guy is from Armenia, and the music takes place in a city like New York in the ‘50s, and something about the music was just right. But for me, it was frustrating to not find the music solution myself. In the movie, half the music is mine — maybe more than half — but I still wish I was able to find a solution for those scenes. That was maybe my most frustrating moment.

What was one of your most rewarding experiences?

I love writing music and working on films and writing music for films, so by and large it’s a rewarding experience. One of mine that’s just coming out called Carol is the one on my mind right now. That was an extremely rewarding experience. When I finally saw the film at the New York Film Festival in September, that was my first time seeing it all together and I was really so pleased how the music was integrated into the cinematography and the acting and the direction, the makeup — it just really felt like that film had all of these elements that came together in a way that’s hard.

The film doesn’t follow an easy formula. In a way it’s easy, because it’s two people falling in love, but somehow it also establishes this tension and suspense around this simple story. It’s really the skill of Todd Haynes, the director, and how he put this group together. But in the end it really came out better than I imagined.

What advice would you give to a young person getting into composition?

It’s sort of obvious that there’s no straightforward way into that world. It’s not like getting a law degree and joining a law firm. It’s really a question of getting your work out into the world. Getting it heard is the most important thing. If you wait until you get a commission or get a job on a film, you could wait a very long time. The good thing about being a musician is you really don’t need a lot of money to get your work heard. I started in New York City playing in clubs. You could play in the subway. If you were an architect or something, that wouldn’t be true. You’d need someone to give you a million dollars to begin your work. But as a musician, you have the benefit of do it yourself, if that’s what you need to do. Start doing your work, and do it in a public way so people can hear it. Then, maybe someone will come up to you as they did to me and ask you to put your music in a more public venue.

What personality traits makes someone a good film composer? It sounds like you have to have patience to deal with conflicting demands from directors and producers …

It does require some people skills. It’s not like all composers are great at that — some composers are known for not having people skills. Bernard Herrmann, from the great Hitchcock scores, is known for not having great people skills. But it does help, especially at the beginning of your career, if you’re willing to put ego aside and work together with a group of people you don’t know very well to make something. Also, to be able to deal with stress. Being able to accept and maybe even learn to enjoy a certain amount of stress.

I’ve known composers who tried film scoring and in the end, couldn’t do it because the stress of having to write right that minute. Sometimes you’ll be at a recording and there’s 80 musicians there, it’s costing thousands of dollars a minute, and you have to write. Someone says, “Yeah that’s alright, but I think it should be different from bars 30-40,” and you have to be able to write in that situation while people are standing around waiting for you. I wish I could say that being creative is the important thing — but honestly, it’s probably secondary to these other traits of dealing with people and stress.

Do you ever get distracted when you go see a movie in your spare time and the score is not great? Does it hinder your own enjoyment?

I don’t typically notice the music in a movie more than anyone else. But sometimes the music is really bad and can pull me right out of the film. That can happen. And sometimes music is just stupendous. If I went to see Lawrence of Arabia, I would be blown away by the music, but so would everybody else. I don’t think I’m any more sensitive to music than any other person who goes to films.

Who are some of your own favorite composers?

Tom Newman is definitely one. Alexandre Desplat is very good. I was very impressed with the score than Steven Price did for the movie Gravity. I don’t know any of his other work as a musician, but I thought that was great.

What’s next for you?

I just finished recording the next Coen brothers film a few weeks ago. Hail, Caesar! is going to open in early February. I also did a Disney film that’s the true story of a Coast Guard rescue, called The Finest Hours and that’s opening in late January. I also did Anomalisa. It’s an R-rated stop-motion animation that’s really quite brilliant. I don’t really know how much of an audience there is for that, but I hope there’s a good audience for it because it’s a great film.

What’s the most important thing you think music can do for a film?

The most important thing music can do in film is to tell you something you wouldn’t otherwise know. It could say something that’s not really obvious or not on the screen. People imagine that film music is echoing what you see on screen, and some of it does do that, but I always hope that I’m doing something different. I’m trying to find some piece of information — something that might not be obvious — and focusing on that.