Composer Carter Burwell Reflects On "The Tragedy of Macbeth"
Carter Burwell (photo by Tycho Burwell)
Film marks Joel Coen's solo directorial debut and a continuation of their collaborative relationship

Composer Carter Burwell is a two-time Oscar nominee for Best Original Score--in 2016 for director Todd Haynes’ Carol and two years later for Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Burwell has a collaborative track record with both McDonagh and Haynes. For the latter’s Mildred Pierce miniseries, Burwell won an Emmy for Original Dramatic Score and was nominated for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music.

Also among the composer’s longstanding collaborative relationships is a most notable one with the Coen brothers. Burwell has scored 17 of Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies, including Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Intolerable Cruelty, A Serious Man, True Grit, Burn After Reading, The Ladykillers, Hail, Caesar! and O Brother, Where Art Thou? But amazingly Burwell is yet to garner an Oscar nod for any of his films with the Coen brothers. That could change--at least partially--as Burwell is very much in the awards season conversation for The Tragedy of Macbeth (A24). The “partial” reference comes from Macbeth marking the solo directorial debut of Joel Coen. So if Burwell does end up with an Academy Award nod, it won’t be for a Coen brothers film but rather a film written and directed by just one of the siblings.

The Tragedy of Macbeth stars Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. McDormand helped bring the project to fruition, having long wanted to do the Shakespeare play with her husband, Joel Coen, directing, possibly on the stage. But Coen saw it as a film, penning an adapted screenplay and enlisting cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to lens it in stirring black and white.

The film also continued Burwell’s string of collaborations with McDormand, not only on Coen brothers’ fare but also on the aforementioned Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri--for which McDormand won the Best Leading Actress Oscar--as well as the Lisa Cholodenko-directed Olive Kitteridge miniseries. McDormand’s portrayal of title character Kitteridge earned her an Emmy.

Burwell has composed the music for more than 90 feature films including Being John Malkovich, Rob Roy, Gods and Monsters, Velvet Goldmine, Three Kings, Adaptation, Before Night Falls, A Knight’s Tale, In Bruges, Twilight, Where the Wild Things Are, The Blind Side, The Kids Are All Right, Mr. Holmes, Anomalisa, Missing Link, Goodbye Christopher Robin, The Founder and The Good Liar

Beyond Mildred Pierce and Olive Kitteridge, Burwell’s credits on the television side include The Morning Show and Space Force.

SHOOT connected with Burwell to gain insights into his work on The Tragedy of Macbeth. His remarks are edited for clarity and brevity.

SHOOT: What was the nature of your working relationship with Joel Coen on The Tragedy of Macbeth?

Burwell: I’ve worked with him for so long. He gives me scripts well before he shoots a film. 

They were shooting (The Tragedy of Macbeth) and almost done when COVID shut down the production. The pandemic meant that the postproduction schedule was very very long. Theaters weren’t asking for the film to be delivered. We had the luxury of time to try things out. Joel didn’t know exactly what he wanted (for The Tragedy of Macbeth). When I work with the Coens, they either know exactly what they want or not. For Inside Llewyn Davis, they knew going in the folk music they wanted. By contrast, they didn’t know what they wanted for Fargo, for example.

For The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel sent his adaptation to me. He used Shakespeare’s language but wrote his own script for it. When you read the script, it feels like a film. We spoke about genre. Macbeth has been interpreted on film many times. Joel wanted it to have the sense of pace and urgency that a thriller has. Two people plot a murder and you follow the psychological ramifications of this--like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity. The thriller is always pushing forward.

At the same time, there’s almost a tenderness between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, a great sense of support between them. I tried for instance writing (the music) from that point of view. But that didn’t survive. It became a little distracting from the rushing forward like a thriller does. We tried many things. We had the luxury of time to try different approaches. Ultimately it was probably more about mood, the sense of an irresistible force or fate pushing things forward.

SHOOT: Is this your first time taking on Shakespeare?

Burwell: I did a version for Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet which took place in contemporary time. That is my only previous experience with Shakespeare.

Macbeth is William Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. There are not a lot of places without dialogue. The “average” Coen brothers film will have visuals to tell the story. Shakespeare doesn’t quite work the same way. 

You normally don’t (musically) score language that much. In a typical Coen brothers film you let the dialogue carry itself and the music play between sections of dialogue. That’s not the Shakespeare structure. You do not want to get in the way of the dialogue. The audience has to be able to take the time to understand what’s being said. The solution was to keep most of the music in the lower octaves of the orchestra so you’re not interfering with the dialogue. You keep the melody fairly sparse. You’re melodic only in-between moving from one dialogue into the dialogue in the  next scene. The way we put it together, the dialogue would be the melody and the orchestra would accompany it.

SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on The Tragedy of Macbeth?

Burwell: There’s no way to ignore the fact that part of this was done during a global pandemic. I will always remember it that way. 

The score is mostly strings. You are able to record strings. Musicians can wear masks while playing--unlike woodwinds, brass, the chorus. We had to be conscious of how many people we had in a room at the same time. We did manage to pull off an orchestral recording in Manhattan in March of 2021. 

Even setting the pandemic aside, I hear strings when I see a thriller, blood rendered in beautiful black and white. I invariably think of Psycho and Bernard Herrmann’s score to that. The combination of that and practicalities during the pandemic led to strings.

SHOOT: What’s next for you?

Burwell: Another medieval feature but nothing like Macbeth--Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy (based on the novel by Karen Cushman), which is set in medieval England.

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