Keeping Score – Carter Burwell on Branching Out with “Missing Link”

The Great Composer for Human Drama Finds His Way Back to The World of Animation

Jul 11, 2019 Web Exclusive
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Composer Carter Burwell has been fortunate. Now, this is not to suggest that his career as one of the great writers of film music in the modern era has been built on anything as capricious as chance. Over the last thirty-five years, Burwell’s gracefully attentive compositions have dignified the films he’s written for time and again, adding refinement to the odd and the awe-inspiring. It’s the contour he gives to scene and character that makes his work enduring, but the road to Burwell’s venerable position has had its share of fortuitous turns.

Consider first his serendipitous entre into one of the coolest professions in the world, with a submission of slow bleeding synth and manipulated piano sketches to two young sibling directors who would go on to become iconic auteurs. On an episode of the Film Music Media podcast last year, Burwell recounted how as an active member of New York’s band scene during the ‘80s, a musician friend recommended him for composer on a small film he was sound editing. That film was the Coen brothers’ first: Blood Simple. What an auspicious beginning. “I always enjoyed moving from one thing to another, whatever interested me,” recalled Burwell of that period. “I’ve always been lucky that interesting things would just appear. Certainly, film scoring was never even close to something I was thinking about.”

Yet, so began the unusual and unpredictable four-decade run of writing original music for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen; Not a bad track to branch off from on independent pursuits along the way. One of those pursuits led unexpectedly to a film franchise that ranks among the most successful of all time in Twilight, with Burwell lending elegance to both romance and drama on the first and the last two chapters of that saga. So yes, you could say that Carter Burwell has been fortunate. But it’s what he has made of that fortune that has distinguished him.

If you ask Burwell how he has benefited most from his good choices, he might say that they have brought him to that desirable stage in a career where one can be discriminating in selecting projects. I would imagine that Burwell can now wait for the ones he’s really interested in. When presented with an invitation to score the latest Laika Studios animated feature Missing Link, Burwell must have seen it as another stroke of good fortune, and he pounced.

During the days preceding the nights when his bands played NYC venues in the ‘80s, Burwell was an animator by trade and he has never stopped appreciating the art form. He has kept up with animated features over the years and the stop-action films coming out of Laika, beginning with 2009’s Coraline, are some of his favorites. With Missing Link, the nineteenth century period tale of a Brittish explorer determined to verify the existence of the mythical creature Sasquatch, Burwell was given the opportunity to merge his fascination of artistic disciplines.

There’s a soft power swirling in the darkness of a theater with a wonderfully and carefully made animated film on its screen. It’s a sort of relief found in the refuge of bountiful imagination given form. Those who wisely decided to see Spiderverse on the big screen last summer know what I’m talking about. A weight is lifted, your eyes widen as a smile forms unwittingly.

This was the feeling you got as you were swept into the visual spectacle of Missing Link. Accordingly, the score Burwell created for it is light on its toes. In the globetrotting, family-friendly adventure that was directly inspired by the classic of the canon – the best picture of 1957, Around the World in 80 Days – Burwell covers perhaps the most thematic ground he ever has on a film. The aim was to revitalize the grandiose orchestral style of old fashioned Hollywood and draw from the musical traditions of the geographical destinations reached throughout the film’s journey. The scope ranged from old western to far eastern and allowed Burwell the chance to jump all over the musical map, as it were. The clean, connecting melodic lines of string, and wind instruments for which Burwell is known, enlivened by expressive timpani drums, bound and lift as if just as excited to hit the road as the characters they escort.

Many cues rush you like the winds of the various forms of transport taken by our explorer protagonist Sir Lionel Frost and his new 8 foot tall, furry partner in quest, Mr. Link [or Susan]. Some pieces augment the fun and others, the dangers.

Carter Burwell proclaims a subservience to the objectives of a film, which informs the often measured application of his stamping. There’s a woven-in subtlety to his scores for films like The Kids are All Right, and Carol for instance. On many occasions, Burwell’s themes will beautifully underscore human plight and its resultant emotional tension. However, for the purposes of his first work for an animated feature in nearly twenty-five years [since 1995’s A Goofy Movie] Burwell’s mark needed to be more noticeable and more obvious, so as to bring humanity to the fabricated figures come to life. In a conversation with Mr. Burwell where I found myself feeling a little too much like a fanboy, we got into the differences in writing music for animation and how Missing Link brought fresh scenery on his path of prosperity.

Charles Steinberg [Keeping Score]: I’m curious to know if your background in animation had to do with your interest in this project.  You haven’t scored an animated feature since A Goofy Movie is that right?

Carter Burwell: Yeah, that’s true. I did do a film a couple of years ago called Anomalisa (animated figures similar to the puppets in Being John Malkovich) but that came out of the fact that Charlie Kauffman and I had developed that as a play originally. That had a much more odd and unique backstory to it. In this case, Laika sought me ought, which is generally how I get any of the work I do and I don’t know what caused them to think of me. With the first few Laika films, the subject matter was on the dark side. I can imagine you might call me about films like that because that’s the sort of [area] I’ve addressed in live action. But Missing Link is much more of a family-friendly romp of a film. I don’t think of myself as that kind of composer but when I heard that Laika wanted to talk to me, of course, I was very eager because I really do like their films. Ever since Coraline, I’ve loved their work. I was an animator in and out of college. When I first started scoring films my day job was in animation, so I’m always fascinated in how that medium is progressing. And anyone who follows that follows Laika because their work is so unique. But to this day, I really don’t know exactly what made them think I was the right person to score this film [Laughs].  But it was novel for me and I always like doing something new.

And [Director] Chris Butler was a fan of yours, to the point of having only you in mind to score this. What did he communicate to you about why he wanted you specifically?

He felt that I was good at playing more than one thing at a time in my writing and that he wanted that. He wanted adventure but also insecurity; action but also friendship. It’s true that I like to be communicating more that one thing at a time.

Have there been any animated feature scores you’ve really enjoyed and that may have inspired your writing here?

You know, I honestly don't pay much attention to the music in them [laughs] It may sound strange. I watch them out of interest in the animation. One that stood out was Michael Giacchino’s music for The Incredibles. I thought that was striking. Animated films so often have a very distinct point of view because they have to choose how to represent their world. They have to make all these choices that live action films don’t have to make. They are working from the ground up and have a strong point of view because of that. Yet I think a lot of the time the music doesn’t have that strong a point of view. But when one like The Incredibles comes along with a strong point of view, it jumps out at me.

Do you see the animation platform like this as an opportunity to be more liberal and bold with your concepts? Certainly, with this kind of story, there was a lot of territory to move into.

There was a lot of territory. In this case, and I don’t know if this is true with all animated films because I haven't done that many of them, but you have to play these characters as human and you sort of have to overplay that because they are, after all, made of silicone or plastic or whatever. You sometimes have to push a little bit more on the emotions because their faces just don’t have all the subtleties of an actual human expression. Stop-motion animation is basically created on a table top. With this film, Laika was very much trying to get of off the tabletop and create a film that was sweeping in its action and panoramic in the visuals. But it’s basically animation that’s going on and they’re using tricks to make it bigger. So I think the music in this film is trying especially hard to have that sort of sweeping grandeur because the characters are eleven inches tall. [So my job] was to push the humanity of these characters and to push the scale of the adventure and amplify both of those.

The old west, frontier instrumentation that you’ve used on occasion came back into play at the beginning where you find yourself in the Pacific Northwest but then you had to stretch your palette a little when the voyage headed to the far east and into the Himalayas. Talk about the choices in style.

This music was fairly traditional scoring, that’s what Chris wanted. He referenced the film Around the World in Eighty Days. I remember the theme from that. He had that in mind when he was writing this. He liked the idea of going back to that travelog action-adventure that’s also a comedy and has romance. He wanted a strong melody that would carry you along on this journey and he also wanted distinctive instrumentation that would capture all of the different locales that you find yourself in. With live action ...well, I was going to say that with live action it might have seemed a little silly to find yourself in India with a sitar and a tabla playing but of course in Around the World in Eighty Days they did that. Part of the fun and comedy of this movie is that every time you go into a new situation you put on new clothes and put on the music for that locale.

I heard a Tanpura for instance.

That’s right. The Tanpura is an absolutely necessary instrument because it creates the pedal tone that you always have in Indian music. There’s always some drone against which all the other melodic activity takes place.

Was that the first opportunity to play into those areas and traditions? You’ve said you embrace research and actively exploring the backgrounds of different genres for your projects.

Well, as it so happens in my previous life as a musician, I was pretty familiar with Indian instruments. For the sitar, which was playing the melody, I wasn’t certain how easily that translated to Western notation, which is what I was writing in. But we recorded in London and, of course, there are so many skilled sitar players that it went very smoothly and was a lot of fun. [Indian] Raaga is typically an improvised form of music. There’s a mode of raaga, as they call it, and they improvise melodies within that, but of course, that’s not going to work so well in a film where you have to follow second by second and frame by frame what’s going on. So, I'm not sure how they do it in Bollywood [Laughs] but it was very easy in London for the sitar player to work off the notation of mine and work off the track I created to bond the action in the film.

One cue, in particular, I thought was playful and experimental more than others was “Dinner with Gamu”. It seemed like a fun place to play with indigenous instrumentation and sound.

[Laughs] Yeah. That whole area of the film. They’re not specific about what country they’re in. You feel sort of like you’re in Mongolia or Tibet. And there’s so much more with Mongolian music also, it can get quite wild with the vocal and the Jew’s harp, which they use. The music is so much in the harmonics. The Jew’s harp by nature only plays one note, but in Mongolia – and they do this with the voices too – The melody is between the harmonics of that one note. It results in these odd timbres and I went to town a little in that scene and explored that for comedic purposes.

How did your familiarity with Indian and East Asian music begin?

In the ‘80s I was a member of a group called The Harmonic Choir where we did overtone singing. There were maybe four or five of us and eight at the most. We’d listen to other world traditions that used overtones in that way. The most well-known ones were Mongolia, Tuva, and Tibet. At another point, I took a couple of raaga lessons with a North Indian singer named Shiva Dar. We were exploring different things and that’s how I came to that.

Was that the first opportunity you’ve had to visit these musical styles in a score?

Yeah, that’s true. It’s kind of funny that it should come up in an animated comedy but yeah, that was the first time [I played around with those things].

What I’ve found to be recurring in your style are these clean harmonic strings and woodwinds and things like timpani drums at dramatic spots for emphasis. Is it fair to say these are trademark Carter Burwell moves and how conscious are you about that when writing for new directors and projects? Your work reveals a desire to break out of the mold you find yourself comfortable in.

Yes, and my success, or lack of it, in trying to do that is unpredictable. I might take on projects with an ambition to approach a musicological tradition or instrumentation. I might put that forward, but in the end, can’t quite sell the director or producer on it. The way I think of it is: If I can come out of a project smarter than when I went in and having learned something along the way, that’s wonderful. That’s what I like about this work: there is that possibility. That said, it’s a very conservative medium, [working in] feature filmmaking because it’s so expensive. Feature film music is even more conservative because [pause] all anybody really cares about, besides maybe the composer, is that the music serves the film. If you have an orchestra and symphonic score and it serves the film, everybody’s happy. No one is ever going to say, “Gee, that score wasn’t very inventive or imaginative.” Nobody cares except the composer him or herself. So I do care about that and a lot of the composers I admire do as well...it’s just not an actual part of the business that anybody else is going to be interested in. It’s in the same way cinematographers try to push themselves to find new lighting and lens tricks. Like Roger Deakins is always trying some new lens or whatever, but that’s him. You’re not going to find any producers who care about that.

So if you aim to be smarter at the end of each project, what did this one teach you, in particular. Where there maybe some habits you were leaning on that this broke you out of?

Well, one of the things that this film had that almost none of the films I did before had are these sequences that are just action. Think of the ice cliff at the end, it was basically ten minutes of all action. You reach one climax and there’s another climax after, and then another climax coming after that. Of course, there are a lot of films that are made like that, like Mission Impossible films. That’s an entire genre of filmmaking, but it’s not one I’ve addressed. Those aren’t the types of films people usually ask me to do nor are they the types that are usually that interesting for me to do but here it was. I learned a set of tools that are de rigueur for the Hans Zimmer school – you know, keep the action going. Make it feel like the tempo is constantly increasing when you can’t actually keep increasing the tempo. You have to use tricks to make it seem like you’ve upped the ante again and again. You never have a chance to pause or catch your breath and as I say, that’s just stuff that doesn’t come up in the films that I work on but I did have to learn how to do that. Now I have some experience with that that I didn’t have before the film.

I can think of a few films in the past where you’ve been called upon by directors to be subtle and minimal and compliment the source music. Like in The Kids are All Right for instance.

It is true that the score in The Kids are All Right is trying to come from the same world that the songs are, like from guitar bands. There isn’t anything in there that isn’t a band instrument; electric guitars and drums and things like that.

Yet with this film, there was a lot of opportunity for your music to take a front seat. The music seemed so important to the interaction between characters and the momentum, and just the sheer amount of geographical ground that was covered. Here it seems that your music was more in command and influential to the progression of the story.

I think that’s right. More typically the types films I’m asked to do and indeed the composing that I like to do is where I’m not so demonstrative, where you actually want the audience to feel uninformed and uncomfortable. Like should I view the scene this way or that way? You have characters that might have competing aspirations. For one person it’s their dream come true and for another, it’s their nightmare and it’s all happening at the same time and how do you play that music? Those are the situations that I tend to like; playing ambiguity and insecurity and discomfort. This is not that type of film. Most of the time, you know what’s going on and what the intention is and the music is mostly helping to make that clear.

What I love about having these talks is that I get to go back over the music of a composer and realize that I’m not as familiar with the body of work as I thought I was. I hadn’t seen Blood Simple in a long time and I suppose that score was made at a time in your life when you were mainly into electronic music.

Yes, that’s right.

Some of my favorite composers come from an electronic music background, like Hans Zimmer and Trent Reznor, and I’m wondering what you think might be an advantage of coming from that background, one that’s not as studied and rooted in formal sheet music.

I think it’s true that there are pluses and minuses to not being a classically trained composer and most of the minuses would be obvious. I haven’t written any serial music and I don’t have a body of string quartets and Bach chorales, which are all things that people do in the process of getting those degrees. The musical language that I’m familiar with is smaller. I guess maybe if there’s an advantage, it’s the fact that I’ve had to create that language myself. I can’t fall back on those traditions. Hopefully, In some ways, that’s informed having my own voice as a composer, which might be harder if I had come out of a strong academic tradition. There’s a decision I’ve made and I kind of make again every year – I could go back to school and study music [but] I’ve just chosen to make it more intuitive. As I said, I do like learning new things but the traditions of conservatory training are just not that interesting to me.

Do you see yourself going back to a project with an electronic score like Blood Simple? Is that something you’d want to return to?

Yes. In fact, with this thing that I’m working on right now for Apple, I have started putting more and more electronics into it than in anything else I’ve done probably in a few decades. Working with more distortion and things like that. I’m enjoying it. I’ve been working on it for months now and a lot of that time I’m spending on sound design in a way that I haven’t in a very long time. For Twilight I did some of that but otherwise, it hasn’t come up and it’s fun. I really do like going back to that. But the whole thing has changed. The composers for Stranger Things are using machines that I used back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They’re going back to a tradition that I’ve done already. I loved them then but don’t especially want to [revisit] them now. But now so much exists in the form of software and I’ve really been enjoying that and seeing what sorts of new sounds are possible.

When you’re taking on a project of this ambitious musical scale where there are full orchestral pieces with a lot of instrumentation that requires conducting, do you find that there are gaps that you still must leap because of the absence of formal training?

At this point there’s been enough on the job training [laughs] I do a lot of my own orchestration where I’m conducting. For any composer, there are going to be things that you’re stronger at and weaker at. I have very good command of woodwinds and strings and percussion. I’m not as good at brass. People who write great brass charts is a specific thing and I don’t have much experience with that. I do that but I’m aware that it would be pretty easy to find somebody better at it than me. But to do that, you’d have to be doing more stuff in jazz and big band. That’s where a lot of the inventive stuff for those instruments is happening. But I don’t feel that my ignorance is that much of a handicap these days.

It seems too that you’re very comfortable saying you have an idea for something and can hand it over pretty willingly to people who have better command of that particular language.

And that’s one of the reasons I really like conducting. I’m face to face with the musicians and it’s very easy to say to the trumpet player or bassoon player, “What do you think of this part? Do we do something different with it? Is it easy to play? Is it better in a different key?” It allows me very quickly to learn in the best possible way because I’m dealing with the people who play the instruments and will always know the instrument more intimately than I do. With conducting, I’m out there in the fray and even just overhearing the musicians talking to each other, I immediately hear if something I’ve written is creating an issue or how they’re solving those issues.

Was this the largest group of instrumentalists you’ve conducted?

It’s not but I appreciate that it sounds that way. We used various tricks to make it sound that way. We were in a relatively small room in Abbey Road, Studio 2, which is where the Beatles recorded. Through experience, I’ve picked up some tricks and of course, I mostly work on films with pretty modest budgets, so you use tricks to make things sound big. On the Cohen brothers’ film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we were sometimes trying to make it sound like the ‘40s Hollywood western, which would probably have had eighty players, but of course, we only had forty players. But you can come up with ways to make it sound bigger and Missing Link was like that.

(carterburwell.com)


Missing Link arriving on Digital July 9 and Blu-ray and DVD July 23.


 



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