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Carter Burwell

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By Claire Walla

Over the course of a 28-year career, the film composer and Amagansett resident has written music for more than 75 feature-length films including “Twilight” and nearly every film ever made by the Coen Brothers.

At what point in the filming process will you come onboard?

Generally, I don’t actually write anything until a film has actually been shot. But, there are some exceptions.

In the movie I’m working on right now, which is “Breaking Dawn: Part II,” they needed Rob Pattinson and the actress who plays his daughter to play piano onscreen. I had to write this duet before they shot the film so they could actually learn the parts. Rob is a musician, so he prides himself on working out the fingering for these correctly.


So before the movie is finished filming, but after you’ve discussed the mood of the film with the directors, do you start to research and gather sounds?

I do. Actually, it’s an interesting thing. The question of mood doesn’t really come up that much. A typical thing we would discuss would be the motivation of the main character.


Is there an example from a movie you’ve worked on recently, like maybe “True Grit”?

Yes. The insight Ethan [Coen] and I had into the music was that it needed to play the protagonist’s church [going] background. When you read the book, you can see that on every page this is one of the things that’s motivating her, driving her to make her choices. But in the movie, you don’t hear her inner voice. So, we both thought: Why don’t we use hymns? While they were off shooting, I was trying to reacquaint myself with 19th century protestant hymns.


I imagine that whole process — having not only had a previous movie but a book to draw more inspiration and more information from — is totally different than working on a film like “Adaptation,” which is not only fictional—well I guess it was based on a book…

[laughs] There was a book, but it was based on it in a very unique way.


Yeah, very loosely…

But you’re right, it is very different. One of the things that Spike [Jonze] was doing when he was shooting the movie was rearranging some of the scenes because the film doesn’t have a plot, exactly. During the course of making the movie he rearranged the scenes in every conceivable fashion to see what would happen. So, I also sort of wrote the music in a similar way. The one thing we knew was that it was going to end by becoming everything it says it’s not going to be: a cheap thriller.

And, as, honestly, often is the case, my personal life entered into it, too, in that I was about to have a baby and I could see that Spike was going to edit this movie forever. So, I also had to write the music in such a way that I could say to Spike: I’m going to leave on this date, so I’m going to give you the music for your movie, even though you haven’t finished editing it, and I’m going to give it to you in such a way that you can keep playing with it as long as you want.

It’s strange. Those kinds of exterior constraints, or involvements, I’ve noticed come up in my work quite a bit… I’ve noticed my personal life keeps having a lot to do with the way I write the music.


Well, it seems pretty relevant for that movie, anyway.

Yeah, right… Exactly.


So, I understand the creative process, the idea of trying to find a character’s motivation. But, how do you even start to put music to it?

I’ll first watch the movie enough to get a definite idea of what I think it wants: there’s a story element that needs a theme, or there’s a character that needs a theme. I’ll have these thoughts in mind, and then I’ll go and play the piano without the movie there and that’s what I do. I’ll sit at the piano for as long as it takes — and hopefully it doesn’t take too long because they don’t give you that much time!


Have you always played piano?

I took lessons as a kid — I really hated it — and came back to it later when I was in my high school years because a friend showed me how to improvise on piano. Playing written music, which is of course what I was doing when I had lessons as a kid, is not really interesting to me. I don’t even like playing my own music once it’s written down.


Have you always been able to associate emotions with sound? For instance, to know what a character’s motivation is, and then easily get to the piano and play it out?

What you just brought up is the hardest thing. To find what that relationship is between sound and emotion, and to do it in some non-cliché way is still a bit of a mystery to me. The only way I can usually do it is to just try many, many, many things… but that’s what I enjoy doing on piano. I make random mutations in a melody, or a theme, and then I perform selections by choosing ones I think are getting me somewhere.


Are there any other films where you’ve taken a specific song, or a specific musical genre, and sort of mutated it, like you said, to kind of make it form to a particular film?

Yes. An easy example is “Fargo.” Based on the script, I thought that there might be something in Scandinavian music that might be helpful. So, I found an old Norwegian folk tune, called “The Lost Sheep,” that had later been turned into a hymn. And then took it out of that context and put it into the context of a film noir.

To do that I would listen to a lot of film noir scores. Miklós Rósza is the composer I listened to to get a sense of how to orchestrate the film noir genre… the use of low woodwinds and percussion, and not so much strings.

I basically took a tune out of the Scandinavian context and put it into a Hollywood film noir context, and that was the essence of the idea for the music for “Fargo.”


The first movie you ever worked on was the Coen brothers’ first film, “Blood Simple,” in 1984. Was it intimidating the first time you were faced with these pictures that you were solely responsible for giving a soundtrack?

Um, it’s not. It probably should be [laughs]. The only part that’s intimidating, really, is the schedule. I might have somewhere between three and eight weeks to write an hour of music, or 50 pieces. It’s just a ton to do if you actually expect to have any other life. And I try to make sure that it’s always a little bit intimidating because a little bit of fear of the deadline is what keeps me going every morning.

But, I don’t find the creative part intimidating. Again, maybe I should, but I enjoy it. I really do.

Carter Burwell gives an Artist talk at the Ross School’s Senior Building Lecture Hall (18 Goodfriend Drive, East Hampton) on Friday, January 20 at 7 p.m. A screening of the film “Twilight” will follow.