How composer Carter Burwell helped craft the love story of 'Carol'

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally: A little more than a week away, the Academy Awards recognize the many elements both seen and unseen that go into filmmaking.

One of those is the musical score.

Jeffrey Brown visited Oscar-nominated film composer Carter Burwell recently in his New York studio to see how he creates the soundtracks to the movies.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's one of the elements of film that often goes unnoticed, unless it's very bad, or, in the case of "Carol," very good, the musical score.

CARTER BURWELL, Composer, "Carol": You know, I think of that theme as being about the heart-beating excitement and mystery of seeing someone and feeling that tug.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carter Burwell has been composing music for movies for more than 30 years. And for the first time, he's been nominated for an Oscar for his work on the film directed by Todd Haynes about two women falling in love in postwar America.

CARTER BURWELL: I don't want there to be music in the scene, or in the film, just because it's expected, I want it to be there to say something, and ideally to say something that you wouldn't otherwise — that wouldn't otherwise be said.

You know, "Carol" is a perfect example of this, because it's very sparse for dialogue to begin with, and also it's a love story between two women at a time when that actually couldn't be spoken of openly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Literally unspoken.

CARTER BURWELL: Literally unspoken. And the music is saying a lot that the characters either can't or won't say.

JEFFREY BROWN: A one-time architecture student and punk rocker, Burwell has composed music for more than 80 films, beginning with the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple" in 1984.

Since then, he's done most of their major films, including the just-released "Hail, Caesar!." He's also worked on commercial giants, like the "Twilight" saga, and this year composed music for the Oscar-nominated stop-motion picture "Anomalisa."

Burwell often begins by reading a script to determine, with the director, what kind of music, if any, might be appropriate.

CARTER BURWELL: If it is early in the process, we can have a conversation that at least suggests what type of instrumentation there might be. In other words, how expensive might this music be? Is there going to be a symphony orchestra? Is it going to be a guy with a ukulele?

JEFFREY BROWN: Wait a minute. So that's the first thing, is how expensive it is, not the — what are we looking for here, what kind of sound, what kind of…

CARTER BURWELL: Well, you know, they go hand in hand, but, early on, honestly, figuring out the budget is — especially, you know, I work on a lot of low-budget films, and squeezing everything and fitting it as tightly as you can is important.

JEFFREY BROWN: He doesn't begin writing music until he watches early cuts of the scenes, using visual cues, the look the director is after, to determine his musical ones.

In the case of "Carol," he created individual instrumental voices, both woodwinds, for the two women.

CARTER BURWELL: I thought they would be capable of the fluidity that would seem feminine, and also appropriate to the look of the film.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is before we have even met the two women in the film. Right?

CARTER BURWELL: Exactly, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you have introduced the characters.

CARTER BURWELL: That's right. I have introduced — that's right, exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another example, this time with the piano filling in the dialogue, comes in a key scene in which the two women drive to "Carol"'s house.

CARTER BURWELL: The left hand of the piano is playing a rhythm, but it goes into these echoes that pile up and pile up, so that you kind of lose the rhythm. The right hand of the piano is different. It's crystal-clear, and sort of pointillistic, and very simple.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we're inside a different universe now, right, in the car.

CARTER BURWELL: Exactly, and the way it's shot, it gets more and more subjective. It's just a little fur, a glove, something like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: With "Carol," Burwell had eight weeks to craft the music, but, in this world, even that is longer than usual.

CARTER BURWELL: It's deadline composing. That's — there are a lot of qualities that maybe make you a film composer, but dealing with deadlines and that kind of stress is certainly an essential one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another key to this aspect of filmmaking, Burwell says, is to think of music like any other tool of storytelling.

CARTER BURWELL: As a viewer and listener, I prefer to be a little less informed. I prefer that feeling of discomfort and uncertainty about, I'm not sure what's going on. I — what's happening here in this scene?

Music, no matter what specific thing it's saying, it does lend a certain emotional comfort. And if you withhold that — like, the perfect example is the movie "No Country For Old Men." We realized that whenever we put anything that sounded like music in the movie, the tension evaporated, or lessened anyway. And that movie's all tension.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have done scores for 80 or 90 films.

CARTER BURWELL: Apparently.

JEFFREY BROWN: Apparently, yes. Never won an Oscar.

CARTER BURWELL: Apparently.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: So, are you anticipating, excited by, or trying to stay away from the whole thing, or what?

CARTER BURWELL: You know, I love this work, and I have great admiration for my — you know, my peers.

But it's also not — the industry is not — mainstream awards are not the most important thing to me. But I think it's great. No, keep your Oscar.

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER BURWELL: No, I'm looking forward to it. It will be — it's going to be fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carter Burwell, congratulations, and good luck, and thank you.

CARTER BURWELL: Well, thanks a lot.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Lower Manhattan, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."

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