Composer Carter Burwell on 'Carol' and the Coen Brothers

“The characters don’t have the vocabulary to describe their feelings, so that job falls to the music," the award-winner says

A preview of the soundtrack for Todd Haynes' 'Carol,' including excerpts of Carter Burwell's score for the film.

I've never done one of these press days before," Carter Burwell says into the phone, the composer's allegro voice inflected with the curious enthusiasm of a kid playing the first level of a new videogame. "Interview after interview — I'm enjoying the novelty of it, I’ll say that."

Something doesn’t compute about this. Burwell isn't exactly new to the movie business. On the contrary, the man has scored more than 90 films since the Coen brothers first hired him to write the music for their debut, 1984's Blood Simple. He's worked with major filmmakers like Spike Jonze, Sidney Lumet, and David O. Russell, and he's done a number of more broadly commercial gigs — he scored Twilight, for God's sake. How the hell has he avoided us for so long? Burwell laughs: "I basically try to live as far from the film industry as I can without leaving the United States."

So why is the composer sitting with a publicist in a Los Angeles hotel room, more than 3,000 miles from his Long Island home? Why is he finally playing the game for the first time, more than 30 years into one of the most illustrious composing careers the movies have ever known? 

In a word: Carol. "I saw the response to the film and the score out of Cannes and I thought 'Hmm, if I'm ever going to do this thing, if I'm ever going to hire a publicist — which I've never done before — and if I'm ever going to pursue the 'recognition' aspect of the industry, maybe this is the time to do it."

There's no maybe about it. Todd Haynes' new film, adapted from Patricia Highsmith's pseudo-autobiographical 1952 novel about the romance that erupts between a shopgirl (Rooney Mara) and a housewife (Cate Blanchett), strides onto the streets of mid-century Manhattan with a seesaw of violins and the flutter of a hand brushing along the strings of a harp. It's the kind of opening musical salvo that wraps its fingers around your heart and pulls you into the movie by your ribcage. As the mutual crush between Carol's dual heroines blossoms into forbidden love, the score is there to voice all the things that these women can't say to each other. "The characters don’t have the vocabulary to describe their feelings, so that job falls to the music," Burwell says. "It's an enjoyable canvas to write for, because the film is shot so subjectively. We're not in a time and place in many of the scenes; we're in someone's head."

While Haynes and the cast were off shooting the film, the 60-year-old composer was at home poring over the script, waiting to see a rough cut before he started filtering his ideas. You can still hear his first instincts in the finished pieces: "One of my initial thoughts was that we should have two solo instruments, as there are really only two characters, and everyone else just passes through." As the young woman, Therese, and her titular object of affection tentatively flirt with one another, the placid blush of a clarinet swirls around the low hum of an oboe like two wrestlers looking for a weak spot. And when Therese gets into Carol's car for the first time — a public courtship moving somewhere private — Burwell drapes the scene with a tumbling chill of piano notes: "Those solos are very processed and there are all these delays so that the notes pile up into a cloud," he observes. 

It's his ability to make music that compliments a scene rather than eclipse it that has made him an invaluable creative partner to filmmakers who work in such intense melodramatic registers, and Burwell is emphatic that his scores aren't responsible for all of the emotional heavy-lifting. "As a listener, I do not like being instructed," he says, emphatically. "It riles me when the music tells me something before I can figure it out for myself. In fact, I enjoy the discomfort of not being sure how to take something." It's the reason why he loathes listening to the temp music that directors often attach to rough cuts in order to point composers in the right direction.

It's Burwell's affection for ambiguity that undoubtedly makes him so simpatico with the Coens; the brothers hate to discuss the meaning of their movies or interpret them for other people, and that holds true for the man who wrote the iconic scores for Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, and A Serious Man. During the making of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), the Coens had decided against using a score of any kind for their drama about the Greenwich Village folk scene circa 1961. But when they ran into a creative dead end, they called the longtime collaborator for directions. "They were having trouble with the second act when Llewyn goes on the road," he says, "and they would call me and say 'Carter, can you help?' I'd go over and watch [the footage], and the only help I could give them was to have that conversation that they hate to have, to ask 'What is this really about? What's missing?'"

Though he's happily tried his hand at every conceivable genre from broad comedy to brooding horror, Burwell says he's dying to write a score for science fiction film. So when he learned that the Coens' upcoming movie, Hail Caesar!, would weave its way through a classic movie studio and touch upon their full slate of pictures, he figured he would finally get his chance. "Sci-fi is the one genre they left out of it," Burwell yowls. "There's a water ballet, there's a roman swords-and-sandals epic — but it breaks my heart that there's no science-fiction film in there."

Fortunately, the forthcoming comedy — which stars Josh Brolin as a Hollywood "fixer" who's hired to rescue kidnapped matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) — touches on a number of other milieus that Burwell has been eager to explore. "I particularly like sex comedies from the Fifties," he elaborates, "ones where Rock Hudson is the alpha male. They're often bad movies that have perfect scores, which are of course bad scores, but they're great for that bad movie." But writing great scores for great movies is more fun, right? "Absolutely," he declares.

It's easy to wonder how the composer manages to harmonize with so many different filmmakers, particularly the idiosyncratic auteurs to whom Burwell is drawn to (this year alone he’s provided music for Bill Condon's fanciful Sherlock fan-fiction Mr. Holmes, Brian Helgeland's gangster biopic Legend, and Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's stop-motion animation opus Anomalisa). "Honestly, there isn't that much of a difference," he claims. "When I do another film with the Coen brothers, we're all the same — but we're all trying to do something that's different from the last thing we did. So the differences between me and the director are a trivial thing compared to the differences between films."