by Dan Goldwasser
Published: December 12, 1999
Carter Burwell has for a long time been associated with the Coen Brothers, having worked on such films as Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Fargo. In addition he has also worked on Rob Roy, The Corruptor, Conspiracy Theory, and The Spanish Prisoner. Recently his work can be found in the critically acclaimed films Three Kings and Being John Malkovich. Dan Goldwasser and David Koran recently had an opportunity to pose some questions to this highly original composer.
What was your best composer/director working relationship?
My work with Joel and Ethan Coen has been strikingly enjoyable, partly because they're entertaining, but mostly because they don't presuppose what music can accomplish in their films. Also, they never seem to be put off by my not knowing what I'm doing.
After working with the Coen brothers for so long, in 1995 you scored Rob Roy, a sharp departure form the off-kilter scores fans and listeners were used to. Could you tell us a bit about the experience working on that?
I had worked with Michael Caton-Jones twice before, on Doc Hollywood and This Boy's Life, and we got along quite well. More relevant, perhaps, I'd felt a strong affection for Scotland since my first visit about ten years before, and was excited to work with that cultural/geographical background.
The working process was not unusual. Once I'd come up with the main themes, which I did during jury duty in New York City (we sent a guy up the river for stealing 100 lbs of mozzarella), I proceeded pretty much as I usually do, working out arrangements, variations, and finally cues, and recording the orchestra in London. When we got to Dublin to record the indigenous instruments I had to quickly learn what could and could not be done with such tools as the Uillean pipe, which is featured in the score. The players we worked with were amazing and always game to try anything, and the flow of Guiness into the studio was inspirational as well as nutritive.
The film is unlike anything I'd done before, in that it's a romantic epic with virtually no sense of irony about it, and that was the most difficult aspect of the project from my point of view. I prefer a life in which we don't take ourselves too seriously, and the film rather does the opposite. This didn't make the music harder to write, but it made it made me feel a little strained thematically by the end. Regardless of this, the CD version of the score is, I think, my favorite of my works, at least partly because of the Gaelic players.
Most of your music has incorporated rather unique orchestrations and musical arrangements. From the use of the oriental and Arabic influences in scores such as Storyville and Three Kings to more conventional uses of jazz in Conspiracy Theory. How do you approach incorporating these types of styles into the films you work on?
Hopefully each film can be given a musical voice of its own, which is not to say that the instrumentation is always unique, but that the relationship between the sound and the image is unique. I don't have a systematic way of making these choices - a lot of free association goes into them - but after the fact I can look back and rationalize them. The Mancini feel in Conspiracy Theory makes sense to me because Mel Gibson's character thinks he's in a spy/detective movie. The audience thinks he's out of his gourd, and this "out of sync" feeling is hopefully bespoken by contrasting 50's jazz against 90's New York.
In Storyville there's a Vietnamese sub-plot, although the film takes place in New Orleans. I thought that what Vietnam and New Orleans have in common is the river delta - the tangle of rivulets and vines like the tangle of the story line. So David Torn raised the strings on his guitar up to where it sounded more like a koto and we played that and gamelan bells against delta rhythms. The important point in this film, as in Three Kings is that you're not in a place you recognize - even if the locale looks familiar - there's something unseen going on.
One of the more recognizable pieces of music you've written was Raising Arizona. The opening sequence and voice over by Nicholas Cage when accompanied by the banjo and yodeling was a hallmark of "odd". How did you ever think of writing it the way you did.
I can happily put this responsibility on the Coen brothers' shoulders. I believe it was Joel who said he'd been listening to yodeling while he was cutting the film. The actual melody there is an old cowboy tune called "Way Out There". We found it on a Pete Seeger recording, and he credits it to the Sons of the Pioneers, and they credit it as "traditional", meaning we don't really know who first yodeled that melody.
Of course in New York it took a little time to find a yodeler, not to mention the right yodeler. But I suppose the other important thing about the piece was the decision to keep it as simple as it is. There really is no instrumentation beyond the yodeler (sometimes whistling or humming) and banjo. In other parts of the score we have guitar, percussion and synths, but it was important that the score was generally very intimate - all the rough edges show.
Are there any projects you specifically lobby for to try and score? Your work on Being John Malkovich returns you to the "cinema of the absurd" to try to wrangle in the music that can frame the abstract. Is it something you enjoy doing, or are you being typecast due to your previous work.
Generally I don't find myself lobbying for projects - the filmmakers almost always come to me. The few times I have lobbied, I haven't found that it did me any good. That said, there is the danger of being typecast. Ethan Coen said that after Raising Arizona I'd get a lot of calls from "farm comedies". I laughed, but believe it or not there really are farm comedies out there, and I heard from them.
On Being John Malkovich and the cinema of the absurd - I do enjoy it. I wish there were more like it. The very fact that there can't be more like it is one of the reasons it's admirable.
In 1993 you scored a deeply emotional film And The Band Played On about the discovery and search for the cure for AIDS. Could you explain how you became involved in the project and how it was to work on such a controversial film.
As is often the case, I don't know exactly how I became involved. The producers called me around the same time that the director was departing the project. I immediately liked the project - the book is a classic of activist journalism. The book and the film are unusual in that they attempt to capture the machinations of politics and science as well as the personal stories. The weakness of the film, in my opinion, is that it simplifies a lot of these issues in an attempt to create a story of good versus bad.
The musical danger in a project like this, in which many people are seen to succumb to illness and death, is that it will be unbearably morose, especially if it sentimentalizes the characters. My hope was that I could play the epidemic instead on the larger stage. Death is always around the corner, but often our society gives it inordinate help, and this epidemic is a case in point. When the systems we expect to help us actually hurt us we have tragedy, and that was the way I looked at it, and wrote it. A systemic tragedy, not a personal one.
As I mentioned before, you have a unique ability to incorporate many "world beat" styles and instrumentation in your scores. What was your original musical training (you have a background in Computer Science) and how did those types of influences find their way into your work?
My "training" such as it was, came from playing in bands, many of which did have non-Western instrumentation, and from studying electronic music. When I started writing music for films I knew more about sound than I did about music - meaning I'd read books on psychoacoustics and circuit design but not on harmony. Of course by now I know a little bit more.
Ivan Tcherepnin was nice enough to let me use the electronic music studio at Harvard, although I wasn't really a music student, and his relationship to the systems he designed has always been an inspiration to me - organic, subtle, and hallucinogenic. I studied at the Media Lab at MIT before it was called that, and had the opportunity to see early digital audio technology, and later wrote digital editing code at the New York Institute of Technology. It was when I was working there, and playing in bands at night, that Skip Lievsay, the sound designer on Blood Simple, asked me if I'd like to meet with the Coens to discuss scoring the picture.
If not bliss, ignorance can at least be fun, and I look back on those early projects with great fondness. I think the climate in which I entered music, that of the late 70's, isn't so much an influence as an instigation. If it weren't for the "punk" encouragement to pick up an instrument and play because you couldn't possibly have less to say than the Rolling Stones, I wouldn't have chosen to join a band. If it weren't for the fact that serialism had so strangled the academic and concert scene that contemporary composers like Philip Glass were playing in the same clubs as the punk bands, I would never have dared call myself a composer. The environment was extremely stimulating.
Do you find it difficult writing scores in New York, as opposed to LA? What prompted you to stay on the East Coast? (Not that I blame you!)
There are of course tradeoffs involved in living in New York while the industry is in Los Angeles. I have to be willing to travel a lot and spend weeks at a time away from home. I can't generally have a casual meeting with a director - one of us has to fly thousands of miles. But for myself, I'm quite glad I don't have to be involved in the "social" aspect of the business. I don't enjoy business lunches or parties; I like business and personal life to be distinct, and geography helps with that.
Los Angeles is an industry town, and the benefit is that it's got great facilities and personnel. The disadvantage is that everyone there seems to talk about the same subject matter a lot of the time. When I run into someone on the streets of New York it's unlikely we'll immediately start discussing "entertainment". And, while we're on the subject, I like being on the streets. Or in the subways. Brushing elbows with thousands of people I'll never know - the strangeness of that physical intimacy and personal anonymity. The noise and confusion. And finally, I like the fact that New York looks a bit backwards, toward the Old World, rather than resolutely forwards. New Yorkers may think they're on some cutting edge, but that's not especially true. It is, however, the most exciting heterogeneous mess of a town I've ever seen.
You did some work on Mercury Rising - which John Barry was scoring. What were the circumstances behind your involvement in that project?
Brian Grazer, the producer of the film, called me and asked if I'd be willing to write about six cues for the film, which was pretty much finished. I'd never done that before - ghostwriting - and at that moment the thought of writing a few cues for a lot of money with no credit seemed kind of liberating. On the other hand, there was the fact that I'd be replacing some of John Barry's score.
Barry was the first film composer I was aware of - as a teenager I owned several of his Bond soundtracks - and there was something Oedipal about replacing him in the audio bed of the film. This was both intriguing and disturbing, but the filmmakers made it clear that they were replacing his work with or without me, and we reached a deal. Part of that arrangement was that I wouldn't have to work with Barry's themes - I wasn't interested in being an arranger - I would write only "action" cues while Barry's were the "personal" ones. I did make an effort to use orchestral arrangements that would match his - the distinctive harmonies in the low winds, for instance, and unisons in the percussion.
In the end, I have mixed feelings about the experience. I don't mind that my name isn't on the film - no one seeing the film would know what I'd done anyway - and there was a concomitant freedom to be shameless in these "action" scenes, more so than I might be in work credited as mine. And yet I also wish people could hear my pieces and know they were mine. Of course, there's the larger question of whether any score should be put together this way. I've had my own scores thrown out of films before, or mangled after the recording, so I know that it happens and no composer can really control it. The only thing one could do to try to avoid it is to carefully execute every instruction given to you by the director, producer, and studio. Needless to say, that would be a life not worth living.
Your work on The Spanish Prisoner, Fargo, and Being John Malkovich all seem like rather straightforward scores on the surface, but upon further listening it appears that there are some very unique orchestrations which seem to be common to all these scores - can you tell me a little about your approach to scoring these films?
It would take quite a bit of space to discuss those three films in detail. They each present interesting cases. One thing they do have in common are my orchestrations. Sonny Kompanek, who has often been my orchestrator since Miller's Crossing, helped with The Spanish Prisoner - working on the "action" cues - but the other ones were orchestrated and conducted by myself. It may indeed be my lack of formal orchestrational education that explains their "uniqueness".
What projects are you working on now? Are you working on the next Coen Brother's project?
Right now I'm scoring a film called What Planet Are You From?, directed by Mike Nichols. Alien sex comedy.
The next Coen Brothers' film is a difficult project for me, because it has a huge number of old-timey songs written into it. I'm hoping there's something I can contribute to it, but it's possible there won't be any place for me.
What would your "dream" project be?
I think that if you can put your finger on it, it's not really a dream. But I would like to do a science fiction film some day. Star Wars seems really to have destroyed the genre, which at one time offered great musical opportunities - Forbidden Planet, Alien, The Day The Earth Stood Still. I'd like to try my hand at it, if anyone ever does a sci-fi film that isn't really some other genre mascarading as such.
Three Kings is available exclusively through CDNow, and includes about 15 minutes of Burwell's score. Astralwerks is releasing the soundtrack to Being John Malkovich on December 14th.