Blessed with some of the year’s best reviews, Carol is expected to become a major Oscar player across multiple categories — including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Score. And should that last nomination happen, it would be a first for legendary composer Carter Burwell. The man who has scored 16 Coen brothers films, plus worked with directors like David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, and Sidney Lumet, has never been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Based on the book The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith and directed by Todd Haynes, Carol tells the story of the title character, played by Cate Blanchett, and her clandestine relationship with a young shopgirl named Therese (Rooney Mara) in 1950s New York. The film is lush and melancholy, a simple love story complicated by the prejudice and confusion of the era. All throughout, Burwell’s music floats in like the steam that blankets the streets of New York at the film’s beginning, a long take that follows neither Carol or Therese, but a businessman headed to a hotel bar after work.
“I began at the opening scene,” Burwell says of creating his score. “It’s an odd choice, looking back, because none of the main characters appear in that scene. At the same time, I felt it was important that whatever I did for the movie would work there. It would suggest something about the feeling of the film and those characters who you haven’t even met yet. That was my goal. I wrote several different ideas for that and sent them all to Todd. I find Todd very musically astute. It’s not true for all directors but I really trust his judgement on these things. That was the one he thought was definitely the right feeling and level of excitement.”
Woodwinds play a key role in Burwell’s score for Carol, and in an era of heavy brass and even heavier drums, the instruments set the film’s music apart.
“There’s something about woodwinds — B-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon — all of these things have a period, urban quality,” Burwell says. “I don’t know why I say that because I’m not referencing any particular score, but it felt like the look of the film. That opening scene is at nighttime and you see steam coming out of the street. Something about that felt like it wanted a string rhythm and woodwind melody. Why is that? I can’t say.”
Listen to the track, titled “Opening,” below
For Burwell, Carol provided a “fantastic canvas” on which to create because of its quiet nature. “There’s not a great deal of dialogue,” he says. “A lot of what the characters want to say to each other, they can’t. It’s the kind of thing that’s a delight to work on.”
That style is evident in the first scene after the opening, when Therese is in a cab and sees a woman who reminds her of Carol. “It’s very simple and spare,” Burwell says of the queue that accompanies the moment, which leads to an extended flashback that occupies most of the movie that follows. “Although it does use echoes, because what’s happening in that scene is Therese remembering Carol. I’m using echoes on the piano in that scene to suggest the past creeping up on her and overtaking her thought. At this point we don’t really know what the movie is about yet. We’re setting up a mystery of what we’re going to experience.”
Listen to the track, “Taxi,” below.
With so many memorably scores under his belt, it might seem that Burwell would know a winner like Carol while writing it, but that’s not always the case.
“It’s only when I see the film finished,” Burwell says. “I saw Carol a month ago, and at that point I realized it was all working together. The music by itself never gives me that feeling. The important thing is the way the film comes together: if I write fantastic music and it doesn’t work with the film, it doesn’t matter. In this case, everything is working together. I’m very pleased.”
Carol is out in limited release on Nov. 20.