Interview with Carter Burwell

(Photo by Tycho Burwell)

Since a Texas wife and boyfriend conspired to do dastardly deeds to her vile husband in 1984’s “Blood Simple,” Carter Burwell has often been boiling musical toil and trouble for a filmmaking team best known as The Coen Brothers. Whether it was the Irish mob in “Miller’s Crossing,” a schlemiel unleashing a chain of murders in “Fargo” or a sap caught in a noir web for “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” Burwell’s tell-tale orchestrations of impending doom, tolling bells of ill fate and bleakly whimsical black humor have been very much part of the team’s creative lifeblood. 

Composer Carter Burwell (Photo courtesy of Apple Portraits)

Now Burwell gets to work his transfixingly ominous magic for Joel Coen as he goes his own way with “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Shakespeare’s cursed power trip gets an immediately identifiable, yet distinctive musical treatment that radiates a Coen’s talent for spelling out a chain of brooding doom, as channeled through rich Elizabethan language for a tale of murder gone wrong as old as time. Shot in stark black and white with striking production design as expressionist as it is noir, Burwell brings twisted strings, war-drumming percussion and bewitched tones to dialogue as delivered by the likes of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the royal conspirators, while stirring nerve-rending clouds of violin doom for Kathryn Hunter’s witches who own this version. Burwell’s “Tragedy of Macbeth” is very much in the tradition of his Coen stormy crime scores, while casting its own malefic atmosphere of growing madness for the most notorious writer who knew that crime did not pay, as told by a composer whose voice stands as one of film scoring’s most distinctive Greek choruses to lead lethally ambitious characters to ill portent.

Did Shakespeare play a part in your creative development?

Not in any significant way.  I grew up not far from the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, CT, and went to plays there every year, but I can’t say I’m aware of any influence they had on me.

Before “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” you’d scored Michael Almereyda’s modern NYC-set adaptation of “Hamlet” in 2000. What was that experience like, and how do you think it set the tone for “Macbeth” 21 years later?

Michael’s adaptation takes place in New York City in the present, and this gave me license to use contemporary sounds in the score.  For instance, Hamlet assembles a video instead of a staged play to provoke his uncle, and the back-and-forth of the editing of his video suggested the use of loops in the music, which then helped suggest his “spinning wheels” and inability to act. However I can’t say that this experience informed my work on “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” because I try to take every film as its own world. So even though they have a similar ancestry I don’t really see them having much in common. Michael’s “Hamlet” is very specific in its physical context – a battle for control of a multinational corporation.  Joel’s “Macbeth” is deliberately not specific – it takes place in a castle shrouded in mist that is clearly unreal in its design. It stresses its illusory, theatrical quality.  

As there’s a musicality to Shakespeare’s dialogue, what importance does that place on the score?

In one of my first discussions with Joel, we discussed that.  It led us to the idea that the dialogue was often the melody and the score its accompaniment.  Even as the music is doing its dramatic job, helping cue the audience to what’s going on, it’s also trying to stay out of the way of the dialogue. Thus a lot of the score exists in the bottom two octaves of the orchestra, where it doesn’t interfere with the voices, and it’s only in the spaces between speech that it rises up and has more to say melodically.

Director Joel Coen and star / wife Frances McDormand

Talk about how you and Joel wanted to musically spot “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

I should mention that Joel and I were never in the same room, or even the same state, during the making of the film.  The spotting was done by video conference but only after I’d already been working on the film for quite a while.  The biggest question always was when to have music accompany dialogue and why. In Joel and Ethan’s films we just don’t do wall-to-wall music – there needs to be a reason for its presence, and you can generally guess from reading their scripts where the music will go.  For “Macbeth” we never ended up with an “overall” solution to that question – right up until the recording we were still playing with music’s presence or absence in various scenes.  

Kathryn Hunter’s one-in-three witches steal the film. How did you want to play that sole character in a way that would let you hear that her far bigger resonance?

The performance is so striking that I ended up mostly framing it rather than playing during it. A strange fiddle-like violin introduces the witches at the start of the film and comes back to haunt the story right until the end, but Kathryn Hunter’s voice is an instrument unto itself and I usually stepped to the side when it was present.  The exception is the cauldron scene, and there I slid into horror movie territory: violin accompanied by theremin and distorted basses.

Would you say that the way you approached “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is in the same manner that you’d tackle a Coen Brothers movie about criminally ill-fated characters?

That’s a fair way to look at it. Joel and I began from the thriller elements of the story: two people plot a murder and the repercussions mount.  Although if it were a Coen Brothers story something tells me there’d be more laughs.

With this being Joel’s first movie apart from Ethan, did you get an understanding on what each brother separately brings to their collaboration?

I’m not going to speculate a whole lot on that.  Together they do many things – write, produce, direct, edit – and they both participate in each of those things.  But those of us who work with them know they each have their particular interests.

Tell us about the orchestration of “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” particularly in its use of piercing strings, as well as the kind of tolling, fateful bells that often show up in your scores.

The strings are partly a result of my own associations. When I see a claustrophobic thriller shot in silky gray, I think of “Psycho” and Bernard Herrmann’s striking string score. And when I played strings against this picture they did seem to fit the gray sand, the gray blood, and the gray fog.  But there’s also a sadly practical aspect to the choice. We were recording during the COVID pandemic, in March 2021, and string players can wear masks, unlike woodwinds or brass.

The solo violin began as an attempt to capture the witches’ birdlike nature musically – a high, weird bird song.  I wanted it to have the rough and timeless quality of a folk instrument – a fiddle – but we were committed to not placing the film in Scotland, or any other real place.  So I had to develop an approach that was fiddle-like but not Gaelic, not Balkan, not Appalachian. Finding a player who was comfortable going “off the page” was important, and I was very lucky to get Tim Fain to play the part.

As to the bells – there are bells in Shakespeare’s text and Joel added some at the start of the film.  And then I added more.  They do play fate pretty well. In the end I can’t tell you exactly which bells came from the sound department and which came from me, although we did make sure they were all in the same key.

How did you want to thematically track Macbeth’s transformation from a relatively sympathetic character to one consumed by tyrannical madness?

In truth I always play him sympathetically. Don’t forget, he delivers his magnificent “Out, out, brief candle” paean to his wife almost at the end of the play. As a composer I feel the appalling characters need my sympathy more than the ones who are abiding by the rules. As Norman Bates said, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” I think Denzel does a great job of appearing sometimes in control and sometimes not, but as a composer I think it’s always best to sympathize.

Did you have a particular favorite soliloquy to score?

The one I just mentioned is probably my favorite.  It’s so short and the score is only 12 measures, but it’s a piece of literature unto itself.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of Macbeth

Did you want to reflect the story’s location, time and the idea of royalty at all?

Not really. Joel insisted from the start that the film is not set in Scotland, and the time is also unclear.  I came to feel that its location is psychological not physical.

Tell us about scoring the climactic swordfight, especially given the lust for revenge that’s been brewing to that point?

I’m not an action composer. I don’t particularly look forward to those scenes, and even considered not having music there, but as I ventured into it I could see that referencing themes from early parts of the story, while emphasizing the physical action, helped to reinforce the emotional import as well. And that made the “coup de grace” all the more powerful.

How did you want to prepare the album in a way that would feature Shakespeare excerpts?

The idea that the dialogue sometimes serves as melody suggested that the soundtrack album wouldn’t be complete without it. The result is an audio artifact of the project – integrating various monologues with their scores.  Different than the film but related.  Of course my mix may indulge the music a bit more than the film mix does.  I appreciate the fact that the actors gave their permission without knowing exactly what the end result would be.

I believe that “Macbeth” was shut down for a while because of the pandemic. How did it affect your scoring of the film?

Yes, they were most of the way through the shoot when, on Friday the 13th of March 2020, they were shut down. No one knew when, or if, it would be completed. During the months that followed Joel cut what he had and this gave me a chance to start writing.  And with no delivery date I had time to try a lot of different directions, from playing it as a witch story to a love story. Time is usually the greatest constraint in film scoring, and this was a uniquely relaxed schedule.  But even though our work may have benefitted, one has to acknowledge that this gift for our film was also a disaster for our species.

What do you think this “The Tragedy of Macbeth” brings to the lineage of the filmed Scottish plays before it, and Shakespearean adaptations in general?

I believe I counted about 40 feature film versions of “Macbeth” on IMDB, which means one is made about every 2 or 3 years.  Someone is probably prepping one even as we open this one. This one is exquisitely beautiful, and about as propulsive as can be.  At a more subtle level, the interpretations of the characters are deep and compelling. But do we need more “Macbeth’s?” Personally it’s not my favorite of Shakespeare’s works. I don’t find ambition to be an interesting subject.  But the language is exceptional and there will always be actors and directors who want to bring it to life.

In that respect, how do you think “Macbeth” shows how your work for the Coens has evolved through the years?

Has it evolved?  I’m not sure.  As a thriller this film certainly has parallels to “Blood Simple,” our first film. But I think there is more precision, more confidence, in the way we work now. I know more about when to underplay and when to overplay – how to shape an entire score with its own arc. And in 1983 I didn’t really know how to write for any instrument whereas now I’m comfortable writing, orchestrating and conducting orchestral music so maybe that’s some kind of evolution. That said, I feel there’s something special about “Blood Simple.”  Speaking for myself, I’ll never be able to recapture that lack of knowledge about how to score a film.

After all of this darkness, how would you imagine scoring one of Shakespeare’s comedies?

I score comedies exactly as I score tragedies – it’s all the same.  If you took “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and dubbed in the dialogue from “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, it would work. Or at least it would be interesting. I’d watch it.

Watch “The Tragedy of Macbeth” in select theaters and on Apple TV+ Buy Carter Burwell’s score on Milan Records HERE