How Martin McDonagh and the Coen Brothers Make You Laugh, Even When You Know You Shouldn’t
“It’s usually a safe bet to say that people contact me because of something I’ve done with the Coen brothers,” says composer Carter Burwell. Since 1984’s Blood Simple—the feature-film debut for Burwell as well as the writer-director brothers and star Frances McDormand—Burwell has provided the music that guides Coen movies across that signature razor’s edge of comedy and humor. As Burwell puts it, if you’re inclined to laugh when you see a socked foot sticking out of a wood chipper, he’s helping make that happen.
But Burwell has established several other long-running relationships with directors across his career, including Todd Haynes—whose 2015 film, Carol, earned Burwell his first Oscar nomination—and Martin McDonagh, who reunited with Burwell for this year’s heavyweight awards contender The Banshees of Inisherin. With its bloody humor and swerves from lightness to despair, Banshees is classic McDonagh, and his first feature film set in his native Ireland; but as Burwell explains, McDonagh was entirely against using Irish music, leaving the composer to create a score that feels derived from a fairy tale.
Ahead, Burwell looks back at his three Oscar nominations, his long-running collaborations with the Coens, Haynes, and McDonagh, and his theory for why it took him so long to finally get that first nomination.
(Oscar nomination for best original score)
Vanity Fair: Carol was your first Oscar nomination, which I think surprises a lot of people. But I wanted to talk about Todd Haynes and your relationship with him. I believe the first film you did with him was Velvet Goldmine**. How did that relationship start?**
Carter Burwell: He and Christine Vachon, his producer, reached out to me. But as to what made them think to reach out to me, I’m not certain. Maybe he knew that I had played around the city in bands back in the eighties, could be that. It’s usually a safe bet to say that people contact me because of something I’ve done with the Coen Brothers. It goes without saying, they were also looking for someone who would work for a very, very, very little money, and they had the right person.
Do you get a sense when working with a director that it might be a longer term partnership, like what you have with Todd Haynes, the Coens, and Martin McDonagh?
You never really know. Sometimes it’s pretty clear, almost explicit. I think after Miller’s Crossing, which was my third film with the Coens, we said, “Well, I guess we’ll just keep doing this, it’s going pretty well.” And Martin McDonagh also, I think, after our first film, he was very happy. He said, “Well, I hope to do one of these about every four or five years, so I’ll be giving you a call.”
But, there are also directors out there who like to constantly change it up. And I understand that. They may feel like they learn something new from different composers, or alternatively they’re not comfortable with long-term relationships. I don’t know. My wife always says that Joel and Ethan keep working with me because they’re just so shy, and they don’t want to have to meet any other composers.
With Todd, we certainly got along. I have a huge respect for his musicality. He really hears everything so carefully and can put things in cultural context so thoroughly, that I always learn things from working with him.
You’ve said that you don’t really look back at your own music for new projects, like True Grit didn’t lead to Three Billboards or anything. But when you’re working with the same director, does that happen? Like, does Mildred Pierce lead to Carol**?**
Well, I guess I’m going to say the influence is almost a negative one. For instance, True Grit, Joel and Ethan knew they were going to shoot that for a couple of years before they did it. Whenever we would see each other, or we were working on something, we would occasionally say, “So, what do you think about the music for True Grit?” Because we all don’t want to repeat ourselves. It’s not going to be old-timey, because we’ve done that with O Brother, Where Art Thou? And it’s not going to be banjos and yodeling, because we did that with Raising Arizona. What would it be? And I think it’s the same with Mildred Pierce and Carol Frances.
Mildred Pierce, we were very openly making a melodrama. With Carol, I think Todd didn’t want it to just be interpreted that way, and he was trying to be more mannered in the way that he shot it. With Mildred, the music was almost period, it was written, and using those types of instruments, what I imagined would’ve been the instrument she would’ve imagined she’d score her life with. Whereas with Carol, it happens in some film netherworld. It’s not the sound of those particular characters, but does speak for them, but speaks for them in abstract language that Todd and I developed together.