Composing With Carter Burwell

The man behind the music for Carol talks about his first Oscar nomination and what he has in store for the silver screen


Carter Burwell has been making music in Hollywood for quite some time. Finally recognized for his talents with a best score nomination for the romance drama Carol, Burwell’s other notable films include Fargo, Twilight, True Grit, Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, The Blind Side, Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men and several other critically acclaimed hits. But it is his open-mindedness in choosing a film and a long-working relationship with the Coen brothers that has kept him musically busy.

“The Coen brothers talked to a lot of other composers [for Blood Simple], and I didn’t intend to be a film composer but after that film came out, Joel and Ethan asked me to do Raising Arizona,” said Burwell, who has scored 17 of the Coen brothers’ films.

When choosing music for a movie, Burwell always reads the script first, which he enjoys doing. He said it helps him decide whether or not he is going to work on a film.

“I don’t write music based on the script because the script doesn’t really tell you about the mood of the film. There’s so many things you can’t get from the script,” he said. “I usually wait until there’s something to look at. People show me a rough cut of the whole film, just to get my mind going and see where the music has to go.”

As for his involvement in Carol, Burwell previously worked with director Todd Haynes twice before and was more than happy to come back for a third film. The hauntingly beautiful score had plenty of room to shine in the film, since the dialogue is fairly minimal.

Photo by Dean Parker
Photo by Dean Parker

“Most of the time, the characters are not talking about what’s really going on,” said Burwell of the love story. “They live in a time where a culture hasn’t given them a vocabulary for what they’re feeling.”

In the case of Carol, Burwell said that the score speaks for the attraction between the women, their fascination with each other, and Therese Belivet’s (Rooney Mara’s character) unfocused intoxication of Carol.

Carol is a bit aloof and mysterious in the beginning and the music suggests how vague and nonspecific her fascination is,” he said. “The music is also telling you that there is something serious and dark happening at the same time. It’s a romance, but the music tells you about all the things that can go wrong because that’s the nature of two people falling in love.”

Burwell believes that music can direct the story, which is what he considers when he sits down to compose.

“I’ll watch the film and talk to the director, but in the case of Carol, I had very little conversation before I started writing,” said Burwell, who spent a great deal of time at his piano in Amagansett, staring at the ocean and being drawn into the story. “I’m thinking ‘what’s the role of music and what can I contribute that you don’t already have on film?’”

The moment Burwell got the call that he could now add Academy Award nominee to his résumé was a sweet one he’ll always remember.

“I was making lunch for my 4-year-old daughter to take to school. It was just the two of us and my agent called and told me I was nominated. The only person I could tell was my daughter and she didn’t understand what was going on,” said Burwell. “After I dropped her off, I went to the nearest coffee shop and blabbed to the guy behind the counter.”


But just because Burwell is a talented veteran doesn’t mean his road to the Oscars was easy. The composer said he has been working for any recognition for the score since the movie premiered.

“It was an affirmation that running an Oscar campaign can get something done,” he said. “I’m really, really happy that it has been nominated, especially with small independent films, Oscar nominations really are important.”

While Hollywood’s biggest night of the year is sure to be wrought with gold all around, Burwell also has another film to cheer for: Anomalisa, which is up for best animated feature film, was scored by Burwell as well.

With four films currently in release (Carol, Anomalisa, Hail Caesar! and The Finest Hours), Burwell has been the master of time management when it comes to composing.

Listen to the Carter Burwell’s opening theme to Carol.

“I’ve been working for the last year and a half a little too much, but they are all interesting movies and different from each other,” said Burwell. “I would not want to have to turn down anything. I work in the morning after I get the kids to school and at home after everyone has gone to bed at night.”

Burwell may not get much sleep, but he seems OK with that. Time will tell if the composer will be taking home his first Academy Award, but no matter what film he is nominated for, it will be a well-deserved win.

“I’ve been scoring movies for 30 years. I’m very proud of Carol,” he said. “In the end, I thought that all of the elements added up to a great film…makeup and costumes to editing and music and acting and directing. It all came together and that doesn’t always happen.”

For more on Carter Burwell, see Music To His Ears and Carter Burwell’s Favorite Scores.

Carter Burwell’s Favorite Scores

Jennifer Fauci
Jennifer Fauci is the former managing editor of Long Island Weekly, Anton Media Group's award-winning special sections and Anton’s local magazines. Her passion for literature, travel and the arts lend to the unique content in her publications. In her time at Anton, she has received first place in the Folio Awards, second place for the NYPA awards and is the recipient of six PCLI awards.

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