No one person has made a bigger impact on how this year’s crop of critically acclaimed Oscar contenders sound as Carter Burwell. The composer wrote the scores for three awards hopefuls: Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Simon Curtis’ Goodbye Christopher Robin.
“It’s a good year,” Burwell, who has previously composed scores for Joel and Ethan Coen (including Fargo and True Grit), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are), as well as the Twilight franchise, tells EW. “You don’t have any control of the release, but sometimes it all works out.”
Ahead, Burwell discusses what went into creating the trio of buzzworthy scores.
Haynes’ drama is the fourth collaboration between the two men, following Velvet Goldmine, the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and 2015’s Carol, which netted Burwell his only Oscar nomination thus far. The film — which unfolds like a mystery — focuses on Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a young woman who is deaf and travels to 1927 New York looking for a silent film star (Julianne Moore). Wonderstruck also tells the story of Ben (Oakes Fegley), a young boy who has recently become deaf after an accident, who travels to New York in 1977 looking for answers about his father.
“Our conversation began with the script, which Todd gave me as soon as he knew it was really happening. He was hinting at it as we were promoting Carol a few years ago,” Burwell says. After Amazon signed on to produce and distribute Wonderstruck, the pair began discussing the film in earnest — including how to handle the sequences set in 1927, which are shot in black-and-white and appear as silent in the finished film save for Burwell’s score.
According to the composer, he and Haynes talked about how much the music should convey something about deafness and the specific time periods. “Todd and I both enjoyed those conversations — we had many before he started shooting, as he was shooting,” Burwell says, adding, “I was also trying to convince Amazon that we wanted a real orchestral score. They hadn’t really made a narrative feature film from the ground up before, so there was also the process of teaching them how much it cost, what the schedule is like. It took quite a while. Todd and I made three films including the HBO miniseries. But all those things were done on a minimum budget, basically. They all came out well but they were all created in the independent film tradition of getting as much as you can out of pennies. But I really felt this one the music was going to be such a major factor that it would be better not to do it that way. It would be better for Todd and me to embark on film scoring in the traditional way with an orchestra and a great studio. We went to Abbey Road to record it.”
As Burwell explains, “Wonderstruck is just, formally, a very unusual type of film. A third or more of it is silent, but we’re not really living in a silent film era. So it couldn’t really be scored the same way you would score a film 100 years ago. The aesthetics are different. I didn’t want it to be melodramatic in the way that most of the film scores that have survived from that time are. The music is carrying you through the drama and informing you about the characters and the story. Wonderstruck, for one thing, is kind of a mystery. The film is leading the audience in a state of suspense and anticipation a lot of the time. The two characters are searching for things but you don’t know when they’re going to find them — if they ever are. It was just as important for the music in Wonderstruck to be withholding the information as it was for the music to be telling the audience things. That makes it very different than the scores from 100 years ago.”
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Burwell has a tendency to work with directors multiple times and that includes McDonagh — the pair previously collaborated on In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.
“Martin really wanted the film and the music to feel like it’s from a specific place, which is somewhere in the middle of the country — the southern-middle of the U.S.,” Burwell says of the duo’s latest film. “That’s why the film has that really long title. It seemed right from the beginning that the music was going to somehow be idiomatic with regard to American folk music or folk instruments. It’s based on guitar, mandolins, those are fundamental instruments to the score. In some of the emotional scenes, it has more orchestral.”
Three Billboards tells the story of Mildred (Frances McDormand) who wages war with the police department after her daughter is brutally raped and murdered in their small town and no suspects are arrested. Sam Rockwell costars as a racist and abusive police officer whose character has a complicated arc that bends toward some level of shaky redemption.
“I think the main thing that music is doing here is helping you in those areas where people are acting out and their behavior goes beyond the point where you can forgive them for what they just did,” Burwell says. “The music is there to remind you why these things are happening; to remind you of the loss that Fran’s character has experienced; to remind you of the family situation of Sam’s character [whose mother is an abusive racist]. The music is there to bring a little compassion to these characters who are often doing almost unforgivable things. That’s one of the things that’s really special about this film is that Martin uses violence and dark humor to shine a compassionate light on humanity. Those are not the tools you expect to be used in that way.”
Goodbye Christopher Robin
Simon Curtis’ film stars Domhnall Gleeson as author A.A. Milne, who created Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin, a character based on his son. But despite the cheery underpinnings of a beloved children’s story, Goodbye Christopher Robin deals with PTSD and parental neglect and tells a much darker story.
“For me, as a composer, I find it difficult to write carefree music. There are parts of Goodbye Christopher Robin where the way it’s shot, it looks like a carefree and warm children’s tale,” says Burwell “What makes it possible for me as a composer to find a way in is that, in fact, it’s a very dark story. That physical setting and the fact that everyone is trying to do the nicest things for each other still results in this horrible situation for Christopher Robin. So, part of the trick of the music is that the movie comes in two halves — the first half in which there is this PTSD aspect for A.A. Milne and everything works nice and pastoral. The writing for me has this English pastoral quality. The main theme of the movie is withheld until after Winnie-the-Pooh arrives and you’re halfway through the film. And then everything is kind of downhill from there because everything goes off the rails with his fame and the fame of that fictional character and the fame of Christopher Robin who is unfortunately not a fictional character. It’s sort of a magic trick to make you feel like it’s a beautiful magical setting where nothing could go wrong, but despite everyone’s attempts things do go wrong for this man.”
Combined, the three films give Burwell a great chance of adding a second Oscar nomination to his résumé.
“It’s wonderful to have people hear your music and that’s what I’m really out there doing,” Burwell says about the awards race. “I’m trying to make sure the members of the music branch, and the Academy, see the films — and I actually believe in the films so I think that’s a fair thing to be pushing.”
All three films are in theaters now.