Scoring An Oscar Nomination For "The Banshees of Inisherin"
Carter Burwell (photo by James Gillham/courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)
Composer Carter Burwell garners his 3rd career Academy Award nod, the 2nd for his work with writer-director Martin McDonagh

The Banshees of Inisherin (Searchlight Pictures) marks the fourth feature on which composer Carter Burwell has collaborated with Martin McDonagh, dating back to the writer-director’s feature debut, In Bruges, followed by Seven Psychopaths and then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The latter earned Burwell his second career Oscar nomination for Best Original Score, two years after his first nod came in 2016 for director Todd Haynes’ Carol.

Just last week, Burwell garnered his third Oscar nomination for Original Score on the strength of The Banshees of Inisherin. This latest nom is gratifying for usual and not-so-usual reasons. On the former front, Burwell considers it a high honor to be voted as nomination-worthy by his peers in the Academy’s Music Branch--namely “other composers who  know what it’s like to do this work.”

As for the atypical aspect, Burwell observed, “I don’t think any of us were expecting it [Banshees] to be a crowd pleaser. It was designed to be the opposite of that--sad and odd as a film. I’m thrilled at the response it has gotten."

Set on a small fictional island--Inisherin, off the west coast of Ireland--the film introduces us to Pádraic (portrayed by Colin Farrell), a kind-hearted man who lives with his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon). Though seemingly mundane, life is good for Pádraic who’s content to enjoy the companionship of his sister, care for his donkey, and to meet daily at a pub with his best friend, Colm (Brendan Gleeson). But one fateful day, Pádraic discovers that Colm no longer likes and doesn’t even want to talk to him anymore. This sea change is unprovoked--and maddening to Pádraic who can’t fathom what he did to deserve this. Thus begins a downward spiral of self-doubt, depression and anger, in essence a waking nightmare for Pádraic which impacts others as well. But in the torment there is also humor just as kindness occasionally emerges from mean spiritedness.

As with all their collaborations, Burwell was brought in early during the script stage--which makes for a score that’s part of the process from the project’s inception, lending an invaluable dimension to how music facilitates and helps tell the story. There was another practical consideration that necessitated early dialogue between Burwell and McDonagh on Banshees in that during the course of the film’s story, Gleeson’s character Colm is composing a piece of music for the fiddle. McDonagh wondered if Burwell should create that music or if Gleeson, as he preferred, should take on that responsibility. Gleeson is in real life a fiddler, and Burwell thought it might be a good idea to let the actor display his musical chops--the benefits including Gleeson being able to delve even more deeply into the character, which would benefit the overall film. 

In the end, Burwell said that he and McDonagh liked what Gleeson wrote. Beyond deciding whether Gleeson should compose, Burwell and McDonagh had a brief but telling conversation during that early juncture about what the rest of the score should be like. Given its decidedly Irish bent, Burwell initially assumed the music should too be Irish--an idea to which McDonagh was emphatically opposed. 

Knowing clearly at that point that the music wouldn’t be Irish, Burwell contemplated what shape it would take, ultimately opting for fable-like and seemingly simple yet actually quite complex--reflecting the characters, particularly Padraic, who at first blush appears to be a simple fellow but emerges to be far more complex as we get to know him.

Burwell said that having a fable feel wasn’t top of mind for him initially but about halfway through he saw that’s how the score had evolved and that it was working. Why it was working in part was that it made certain parts of the physical unpleasantness exhibited--particularly Colm’s behavioral response to Padraic’s talking to him--a bit more palatable. “If you view it as a fable, you’re not so off put by that physical reality. You view it a little more allegorically--that’s one of the reasons it worked for me."

As for simplicity that’s complicated, Burwell noted that he wanted an almost childlike score to reflect Padraic as a simple soul, deploying elementary school-type instruments (harp, glockenspiel, marimba). At the same time the musicological aspect of what Burwell created was not that simple in that the score, he explained, “doesn’t adhere to a major or minor scale. It goes all over the place," showing something more complicated going on musically than what is suggested the first time we see the character of Padraic.

Striking a simplicity at times posed one of the major challenges encountered by Burwell on Banshees. To attain that simplicity, related Burwell, “you have to pare back your writing. It’s a challenge at the same time to go off in different directions dramatically over a long scene if you’ve pared things down to three or four simple instruments. The challenge is to somehow make it a developed piece of music that maintains interest over a longer scene.”

Similarly it can be a challenge to cover a lot of emotional ground when you are restricted to a harp, celesta, percussion and a flute--such as the scene when Padraic’s sister Siobhan leaves the island. Burwell didn’t have a big string section to tug at the heartstrings. Rather the instruments he had in place were very cool in tone. He had to use them in such a way to convey the emotion of a moving scene.

As for his biggest takeaway or lessons learned from his experience on The Banshees of Inisherin, Burwell was struck by how well a movie that isn’t a tentpole superhero film has fared in the theatrical box office. At one point, he said that Banshees was playing in some 900 theaters. “It’s as much unlike a superhero movie as anything could be,” related Burwell who added, “It’s a very encouraging sign to me that a distributor would even do that [wide theater release] and that the movie has gotten such a big response.”

Burwell first connected with McDonagh when the director reached out to him for In Bruges. “I knew he was a playwright. I didn’t really know his plays," recalled Burwell. "Before meeting him, I read a bunch of his plays. He had also made a delightful short film--but not a feature before. He looked me up--I think it’s safe to say because of my work with the Coen brothers. To this day, In Bruges is one of my favorite films.”

Burwell has composed assorted films for Joel and Ethan Coen 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? He also scored The Tragedy of Macbeth which marked the solo directorial feature debut of Joel Coen.

Among other notable directors Burwell has a collaborative track record with is Todd Haynes, including not only the Best Original Score Oscar nomination for Carol but also on the TV side the lauded HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet. Burwell won an Emmy for Original Dramatic Score and was nominated for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music for Mildred Pierce.

This is the 13th installment of a 17-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print/PDF issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. The 95th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 12.

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