You may not know Carter Burwell by name but odds are you’ve heard his music in any number of the feature films for which he’s composed the score. Burwell is a frequent collaborator the Coen Brothers, providing the scores for their movies since their debut Blood Simple. Another frequent collaborator with Burwell is director Todd Haynes, the composer earning an Oscar nomination for his magnificent score for Haynes’ Carol. Now Haynes and Burwell are back together with Wonderstruck, a tale of two children in search of answers to the mysteries at the heart of their separate lives. The film takes place between two time lines presented in different visual styles, and Burwells score, possibly his finest work to date, also weaves between styles seamlessly as the story bounces between the two eras. I recently got to speak with Burwell about his work on Wonderstuck, the influences and challenges presented by a film that doesn’t feature much dialogue, and the composer even dropped a few details on the Coen Brothers’ next project, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
“I think it’s almost all a benefit. You can imagine there being some kind of downside to him being so attuned to music, but it’s almost a good thing because he’s very articulate and can put into words, you know, what’s happening in the music, how the music is affecting the picture and vice versa in ways that do help me sometimes,” Burwell says of Haynes’ musical inclinations. “This film is – the role of music in this film is unusual in that a lot of times music is the only sound you’re hearing. There are no sound effects or dialogue for long stretches of the film. Figuring out how to do that without having the music be overwhelming or over-informative was hard for both of us. It took a while. We knew it was going to be a challenge in many ways but neither of us knew the solution until we were well into it.”
Wonderstruck presented Burwell with a unique challenge because a majority of the film unfolds without dialogue due to the fact that its two central characters are each deaf. “No. I haven’t,” the composer said when asked if he’d ever scored anything so reliant on silence.
“There’s 80 minutes of score in this which is a good deal more than I’ve done before, and I realize that to a filmgoer that number doesn’t mean anything,” Burwell continued. “You know, when you’re writing it and for every note that appears on the screen I’ve probably thrown out 20 different versions before that. So at a certain point for a composer quantity does have an effect on your life and that was challenging, but I think that by the end – we actually recorded it in March at Abbey Road and even after recording it we continued, Todd and I, talking about the scenes and whether there were things we could do differently in certain scenes. We even went back and rerecorded a couple of things in August as a culmination of our reflection on the film. But I feel the way it ended up in the end it was worth all that trial and error.”
The story and its divergent styles of Wonderstruck require practically two separate scores, as one half takes place in 1927 and the other in 1977. “In terms of the influences, Todd and I are both about the same age and have some similar influences in terms of the experimental pop music from the ‘70s. We both love people like Brian Eno, Brian Ferry, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie,” Burwell said of the influences behind the ‘70s portion of the score.
“So in the film you see the boy, Ben, you see his mother playing David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” in addition to there being a theme in the film about stars and outer space that sound of that song, which sort of had a lot of odd sounds in it – distortions and non-harmonic sounds. I thought that was a good touchstone for the boy, listening to his mom play this and listen to her play music like that. So I began with that as a sound for him, which was guitars, electric bass, synthesizers and things like that,” he continued.
“As for the girl Rose, who’s living in 1927 and the silent, black and white film, I decided not to try to make her part of the film sound like a silent film. You could’ve done that, but aesthetically we’re really not actually trying to do the melodrama that silent film music typically played. In a way, I’m trying to do the opposite. Rather than melodrama, where the music takes you hand-by-hand with the drama of the story. Because this story is so much a mystery, you’re wondering what connects these kids and the kids themselves are trying to solve puzzles about what’s missing in their lives, the parents that are missing in their lives. The music is doing the opposite of telling you stuff, it’s actually withholding information and keeping you in a state of anticipation. I didn’t try to do silent music for her,” Burwell explained.
“In the end what I did was relied, to a great extent, on percussion. There’s certainly strings and woodwinds. There’s also very prominent use of marimba and metal instruments like glockenspiel and there’s an instrument called allophone. That sort of seemed right just for kids. A lot of these things like woodblocks are sounds that you probably played when you were in kindergarten,” the composer elaborated. “But also it seemed to fit her characters because she’s always making things and assembling things and folding things and cutting things, and she’s also problem solving. So anyways, the percussion seemed immediately to work for her once I put it against her and really one of the touchstones of the sound of the score.”
Aside from Wonderstruck, Carter Burwell has provided the score for a couple other movies due out in 2017, Simon Curtis’ Goodbye Christopher Robin and Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Don’t expect Burwell to take an extended break. The composer is already setting up work on his next projects.
“The Coen Brothers just wrapped production on a film this week and are going into the editing room this week. That’ll be the next thing. It’s called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Burwell said of his next collaboration with the Coens. “It’s actually an anthology film, six stories that take place in the old west. They’re very different stories. They’re told in different styles. They’re gonna be shot in different styles. I’m assuming the music is going to be different for each of them. I haven’t actually seen any of it yet because they’ve been away shooting. I’ve read the script and we’ve had some talks based on the script, but I don’t exactly know what I’m getting into.”
As for other projects, “I’m doing this long-term project with the stop-motion animation studio, they’re called Laika up in Portland, Oregon,” Burwell said. “I have a long-term project I’m doing with them but that process of making those film is so time consuming that exactly when that will come to fruition is anyone’s guess.”
Wonderstuck lands in theaters on October 20, 2017.