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Composer Carter Burwell Illuminates His Process on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

February 21, 2018 | By
Carter Burwell - photo credit Tycho Burwell

Carter Burwell. Photo by Tyro Burwell.

From the Coen Bros. to Charlie Kaufman and now Martin McDonagh, Carter Burwell is known for his unique sensibility and flawless scores. In the spirit of his generosity of self this busy Awards Season, Below the Line presents an uncut Q & A session with the master Composer and lets the love flow.

Below the Line: When you start out on a film do you first create an aural template/overall sound?

Carter Burwell: I don’t usually start out with that. First, I try to figure out what the concepts are, and in an effort to musically express those concepts certain sounds come out. After reading the script [for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri] Martin McDonagh and I talked about sounds that would suggest something about middle America.

BtL: I wanted to ask you about that, the regional sound of it.

CB: Yeah exactly, Ebbing Missouri isn’t a real town, but Martin wanted to give the town a look and sound that was immediately familiar. That’s where that guitar and mandolin come in, they tell you pretty quickly where you are in the world. You could easily imagine a group of people getting together on a street corner playing these things.

BtL: It’s a very funny movie, yet your score sets a sorrowful tone. How did you go about finding that tone?

CB: Well in films with dark humor and violence, I tend to find that the humor is actually accented by a serious tone in the music. When the music takes things seriously, it helps bring out the irony and makes us laugh at something horrible. Three Billboards was a very tricky tone because the characters change alliances frequently. Characters who were friends become enemies and vise versa. Characters you like do things you don’t like. There is a fair amount of death and loss in the film which hopefully makes you sympathetic to Fran’s [Frances McDormand] character even when she is doing things later in the film which you might find morally repugnant. Also, there is different thematic material that comes in when she goes to war with the cops and Martin really wanted there to be a feeling of going to war. She puts on a particular outfit and puts her hair up, the music becomes like that – like the clothes she puts on.

BtL: Yeah, it takes on a more vengeful aspect.

CB: Exactly, like a lot of classic westerns, it walks the line between justice and vengeance.

BtL: You have scored to Frances McDormand multiple times now and that got me thinking about the way performances affect the way you score a film. Do you play more to performances or to overall themes?

CB: Well it’s hard for me to separate the two things, there are overall themes, but you’re right – a different actor will perform those in a different way. Usually I’m not playing the thing you SEE in the actor on the screen, but rather playing to what is inside of them or behind them.

BtL: Yeah, more sub textual.

CB: Exactly. Martin wrote the character for Fran, and it’s perfect Fran.

BtL: And there is so much going on with her at any given time… so how do you figure out which emotions to accent?

CB: Generally, what I tried to do, was that when she was acting tough, I’d play against that to remind you of why she was acting that way (the death of her daughter), but there were other times that I would play right along with her, so it varies. Sometimes a performer brings out a particular feel in the music, for instance the first film I ever did was also Fran’s first film [Blood Simple] and in that case she takes a story that was otherwise a thiller/black comedy/film noir and brings out a humanity and warmth that is very emotionally involving, so in the end the music did shade towards her performance which is something that Joel and Ethan [Coen] did not plan, but definitely came out in the music.

BtL: That’s interesting, that despite the emotions being displayed on screen by an actor sometimes your score is there to provide a sort of through line.

CB: Yes, in particular when it’s an aspect of the story that wasn’t in the script, like in Miller’s Crossing, Gabriel Byrne’s character who is so unexpressive. I thought it would be interesting to score that in a way to suggest that there was a warm, soft, sappy center inside of him.

BtL: What’s the most challenging aspect of what you do? What do you struggle with the most?

CB: Well at a very prosaic level, there is always a challenge with schedule – I’m almost never given enough time. I always wish I had another week. On this film the challenge was identifying the musical themes. When I first read the script, I felt the score should be like a spaghetti western where every character is so vivid that they each have a little four note theme that’s played on a particular instrument.

BtL: Which you did not do.

CB: That’s right, because, for instance Sam Rockwell’s character didn’t have any scored scenes till the second half of the film, so I couldn’t really assign him a theme, or Woody Harrelson’s character who is there in the first half and then disappears. So the realities of the film dictate what you can and cannot do with the music.

BtL: You’ve worked with the Coens a lot and also Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, and now Martin McDonagh on all his films. You really seem to have cornered the market on black comedy – why do you think that is? Is it just typecasting or do you have a “certain set of skills” that lends itself to that area of film?

CB: Well, the industry is prone to typecasting, so I’m sure that’s a part of it, but to be honest that really is just my outlook on life, so that does bring with it a “certain set of skills.” No one has to explain to me why it’s funny that there is a leg sticking out of a wood chipper in Fargo.

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