The film Carol, is set in 1950s New York, and focuses on two women, one a young department store clerk, named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), and the other, an alluring woman trapped in a loveless, convenient marriage named Carol (Cate Blanchett). An immediate connection sparks between them. But, as conventional norms of the time challenge their undeniable attraction, an honest story emerges to reveal the resilience of the heart in the face of change.
Released by The Weinstein Company, the film has earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Cinematography, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Costume Design, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score for Carter Burwell. SSN had the pleasure of sitting down with Burwell for an exclusive chat about his process and how he approached this elegant and passionately tender love story. You can click here to listen to the score.
Carter Burwell didn’t begin his career as a composer. After graduating from Harvard where he studied animation and electronic music, Burwell worked at the New York Institute of Technology where he began as a computer modeler and animator. It was some time before he plunged full time into music. “I still had a day job for at least the first three or four films I did. After the first four films, I realized I could give it a go and it seemed like more fun than computer programming.” He’s since scored many films including Rob Roy, Fargo, Gods and Monsters, Adaptation, The Kids Are All Right and True Grit. In fact, four films featuring his score have been released this year including Hail Caesar!, The Finest Hours, Anomalisa and of course Carol.
His process on Carol began when the director, Todd Haynes, sent him the script right before going into production. But, unlike many composers, Burwell didn’t begin even writing a note until there was an assembly cut. “I don’t start writing music until I see the film,” said Burwell. “There’s so many ways to shoot the script that the script itself doesn’t give me enough information to start writing music.”
Haynes and the music supervisor, did however, send hundreds of pieces of music from 1951 and 1952 as inspiration. He found the music from that period matched the tone of the story. “There really isn’t anything that’s typical of the period, it’s really a very transitional time. It’s after WWII, after the big band era, but before even a hint of rock n’ roll and the prosperity of the 50’s. That fits the look and feel of the movie too, it’s a time when things are neither here nor there.”
Carol is at its core, a love story. But the path to true love never did run smooth, especially for two people who decided to venture off the prescribed path and follow their hearts. “My goal is generally as a composer is not to just play one emotional note, but to kind of create a richer, more complex mood,” said Burwell. “Mystery and trepidation is always there when two people are falling in love.” But as the love between Carol and Therese threatened their ways of life, he also added more to the score. “I tried to always keep a sense of something lurking underneath, a hint of darkness.”
This particular love story in the shadows gave Burwell the opportunity to spread his wings. “The film presents a great canvas for the composer because there’s not a lot of dialogue. You’re not fighting sound effects. Because the music is so present it did mean that Todd and I fussed over every note. Our general method was to simplify and remove things so the music was never saying too much.”
This project also allowed Burwell to stretch his creativity and try something new. “There’s one scene where Carol and Therese are together and no one else is around. The scene is shot in Therese’s increasingly subjective point of view and focuses on Carol’s fur coat, a bit of the car or Carol’s mouth moving. It’s mostly a piano solo, but the left hand of the piano became a cloud of notes- a blur, to show Therese’s loss of contact about where she is.”
There was also another side to the scene, described Burwell. “At the same time on the right hand I wanted it to be extremely crystal clear and to have those notes linger for a long time. So the only way to achieve this was to play the piano part myself and process the left and right hand parts separately so the left hand part gets delays that create this miasma of notes and the right hand part is processed to extend the decay of each note.”
That expansion of creativity was possible with a partner like Haynes said Burwell. “He’s very creative and the films he makes are these complete worlds.” Burwell says his key questions when working with a director are often: Is the score changing the film? What’s the score bringing to it? What’s going wrong? Hayne’s clear answers elevated his art explained Burwell. “Todd’s very good about expressing in words things that are hard for a lot of other people to express. For instance, how a piece of music effects a film. It’s one of his gifts, to look at some abstract thing and be able to say what it means or how the music has shifted the meaning of a scene. That’s a very special skill.”
Burwell finished the score in eight weeks. While he concedes that time is fairly generous given the amount of music needed, the project presented other challenges. “We had a very small budget. The largest ensemble we ever used was 17 players but most of the time it was around seven. The challenge was mostly orchestrating it so it sounded as rich as possible given the small number of instruments. But, that intimate feeling seems appropriate to the film.”
When asked what this Oscar nomination meant to Burwell, his answer was simple. “What really means the most to me is that other composers value what I’ve done because they actually know what it means to write music for a film, the challenges and constraints.”
On what a win would mean, Burwell says it’s more than just a statue. “It’s validation for the work I’ve been doing all these years and the appreciation of my peers.” Validation for the work on Carol, that was at once luxe, enigmatic, trepid, alluring and conveyed what the characters in that time could not, their love.
“The characters themselves can’t express themselves or don’t have the language to express what they’re feeling,” Burwell poignantly said. “The music is a character in the film to speak for them.”