Saturday Night at the Movies: The Extraordinary Partnerships Behind Cinema's Greatest Scores

Saturday Night at the Movies: The Extraordinary Partnerships Behind Cinema's Greatest Scores

by Jennifer Nelson


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A powerful score can make a movie truly extraordinary. The alchemy between composer and director creates pure cinematic magic, with songs and melodies that are recognizable and memorable. So what is their secret? Saturday Night at the Movies goes behind the scenes to reveal 12 remarkable partnerships, and how they have created the music that has moved millions. Discover how these collaborations began and what makes them so effective: the dynamic personalities, the creative chemistry, the flashes of genius. The best scores come from sound and image working together to bring the director’s vision to life, but many scores also stand alone as towering achievements of composition that have shaped the face of modern music. Featuring such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer, and James Horner and James Cameron, this book explores the creation of film favorites such as Back to the Future, Fargo, Edward Scissorhands and more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783963669
Publisher: Elliott & Thompson
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Nelson is executive producer at Classic FM. 

Read an Excerpt



'Carter is never the problem'

There are movies and then there are Coen Brothers movies. Joel and Ethan Coen have written, directed, produced and edited seventeen films in over three decades and each one is unique, with characters, settings and plot twists that are unlikely to be found elsewhere at the cinema. This is precisely what defines their work: their films are stand-alone oddities that may be funny or gruesome or unpredictable – often all three at the same time – as they jump between genres and play with cinematic conventions. From cult favourites such as The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona to box-office hits like True Grit and the Academy Award-winning Fargo and No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan – working so closely they have been referred to as the 'two-headed director' – make films that can entertain and baffle in equal measure. When accepting the Oscar for Best Director, Joel described their early attempts at filming with a Super 8 camera in the local shopping mall when younger brother Ethan was eleven or twelve, declaring, 'Honestly, what we do now doesn't feel that much different from what we were doing then', before acknowledging their standing within the left field of Hollywood: 'We're very thankful to all of you out there for letting us continue to play in our corner of the sandbox.'

Whether comedy, film noir, western or a gangster movie, composer Carter Burwell has joined them in the sandbox for fifteen films, with T Bone Burnett taking over the music supervisor and producer roles on the folk and country-music soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis. Since getting his break on their debut feature, Blood Simple, in 1984, Burwell has gone on to score around a hundred films. He received his first Academy Award nomination in 2016 for Todd Haynes's Carol, and his second followed soon after in 2018 for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri directed by Martin McDonagh.

Describing the composer, Ethan – generally the more upbeat of the two – has said, 'By Hollywood terms, he's unbelievably normal and well balanced. It's almost alarmingly normal.' Joel, with his more sombre and laconic delivery, agreed: 'He's refreshingly not a lunatic.' Ethan continued, 'We were talking about musicians and T Bone was talking about a drummer called Bill Maxwell and he said, "Bill is never the problem." You so much know what he means because everyone else always can be. Carter is never the problem.'

* * *

Carter Burwell met the Coen Brothers through another long-standing collaborator, Skip Lievsay, who has served as sound editor on all of their feature films. The brothers were preparing to make their first feature, Blood Simple (1984), a violent and stylish black comedy starring Frances McDormand, who would go on to appear in many more of their films (and who married Joel the year the film came out). According to Joel, 'Carter at the time was not a practising movie composer, or really a music composer of any sort. He had a musical background but at the time I think he may have been, or had been, working in a science lab in Long Island, which is one of his other interests. But Skip said, "This guy could definitely do this", and of course, we were all just kids at the time! We met Carter, we went over to a loft that he had, with this big old peeling [piano] and talked about what we were doing, or what we wanted to do, and Carter went off from there.'

The composer has a slightly different recollection: 'Years later I asked Joel why they had hired me or what that process had been like ... He said he had done a lot of interviews with composers and they were looking for someone who knew what they were doing. That would not have been me at the time, I had no experience of film music and no knowledge of it!

'He said that these are still among the strangest interviews that he's ever done. They've auditioned hundreds of actors over the years but he felt that the composers were the oddest bunch, so I guess apparently out of that odd bunch I count as being normal! ... Joel and Ethan and I see each other as having the same sensibilities, coming from a similar view of cinema and humour, so in that sense we see each other as normal. We simply have similar tastes and we'll see the same awful story and laugh at it, and that's important in their films to be able to do that.'

With simple piano motifs and electronic effects, the score for Blood Simple could be described as 'minimal', although Ethan is quick to clarify 'minimal by choice and by necessity 'cos there wasn't any money!' It remains one of Burwell's favourite scores, 'partly because I didn't know what I was doing, so I just ignored the entire film-making process and wrote some little pieces of music that I liked. I can't really do that any more because I'm now expected to be a film composer, but with Blood Simple I didn't know how it was supposed to work, and Joel and Ethan didn't really know how it was supposed to work, so there's a certain innocence that comes with that that you can't really recapture.'

* * *

The Coens' roster of long-time collaborators includes cinematographers Barry Sonnenfeld and Roger Deakins, set decorator Nancy Haigh, production designer Dennis Gassner, co-editor Tricia Cooke, storyboard artist J. Todd Anderson, costume designer Mary Zophres, and Peter Kurland, who has worked in the production sound department of all of their films. With their 'hands-on' approach to film-making, it's no surprise that the brothers stick to working with people they trust, and over the decades they have built up a select group of actors who have made regular appearances in their films, such as John Turturro, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi.

Burwell, meanwhile, has formed regular partnerships with other directors. He has worked with Bill Condon on six films, including Mr Holmes and Gods and Monsters, and with Spike Jonze, Todd Haynes and Martin McDonagh on three. You could argue that the quirky style of In Bruges by McDonagh or Jonze's Being John Malkovich isn't a million miles away from Coen Brothers' fare, but Burwell has proved he can also turn his talents to mainstream blockbusters, scoring three of the five films in the teen vampire-romance franchise Twilight.

The Burwell–Coen partnership is the only trio collaboration within this book, and Carter notes the effect of an additional person on the dynamic: 'It does balance out the ego a little bit, the fact that there are two of them. They generally present themselves almost as being one mind, but that's easily overstated because in fact they're very individual people and I've seen the two of them disagree about the music in the films, about the role of it or what it should be doing, so it's not exactly true that they always come from one place. But by the time I'm involved, they've written the film together, and they generally have a clear understanding and agreement of what they're trying to make.'

On the balance of egos between composer and director, Burwell is typically down to earth: 'Well, I know that I'm not the best composer in the world, so it's not that difficult for me! But I certainly know film composers who have egos, so it is possible to have an ego and still be a successful film composer. For myself, I really feel I'm still learning all the time ... and taking that point of view brings a certain humility with it.'

The Burwell–Coen relationship seems pretty secure but, even with a hit rate of fifteen out of seventeen films, they still approach collaboration on a film-by-film basis. As Joel points out, 'There's a sort of distinction that has to be made between most of the movies. Almost every one of the movies that we've made, we've made with Carter. The exceptions are that we've made a number of movies that have minimal score or no score, and are essentially driven by source music or performed music in the movie itself. With those movies we often have at least a partial idea of what the music is going to be because it's drawn from either popular music or folk music. With the stuff with Carter, it's a little different. Sometimes we know in a general feeling kind of way and sometimes we don't.'

The composer describes the general pattern of the scoring process: 'It always starts with a script. They'll give me a script sometimes well in advance of their shooting – it could be more than a year before they shoot – but if they have good reason to believe it's actually going to get shot, they'll give me a script so if nothing else we can at least talk about budgets because it helps them formulate one if we decide it's four players, or it's eighty players. But we'll also throw around ideas about what the music is going to do ... most of the time, there's no expectation that we're really going to figure it out at the script stage, but other times the problem of the music is a big one and is something we really do throw around early on.'

Both directors and composer used True Grit (2010), the revisionist western adaptation of the 1968 book by Charles Portis, as an example of tackling the music early on in the film-making process. As Burwell explains, 'There had already been a film of True Grit, so the question was: "What are we going to do that distinguishes our film from that? What's going to be different from it?" Joel and Ethan had already made films that featured authentic country music (see O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and they didn't really want to do a western score or a faux western score' – or, in Joel's words, 'We didn't want twangy guitars or Ennio Morricone.'

The story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old farm girl who hires Deputy US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, to track down the outlaw who killed her father, True Grit required a certain kind of music to set it apart from the 1969 original (with John Wayne as Cogburn), which, as Burwell acknowledges, 'had a wonderful Elmer Bernstein score', so the composer turned to the main character for inspiration. 'I had read the book, I had read the screenplay, and we got together just before they left to shoot. I said that my thought was that the book is narrated by the girl and her voice is present on every page, and you're constantly hearing references to the Bible, church, sin, judgement, and her church background sort of explains why she does what she does, but that's not so present in the movie. So I thought that one thing that would help was if the music emphasised this church background, and if we worked from hymns for the score in some way, whether it was sung or played orchestrally or on a different instrument – and Ethan said he'd been thinking about the same thing!' From Ethan's point of view, 'That's why Carter's great. He always knows it's about the characters and that's where I'm going mentally first to think about the score.'

While the brothers were shooting the film, the composer was trawling through nineteenth-century hymnals and collecting Protestant hymns, such as 'The Glory-Land Way' and 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus', to reorchestrate or reference in the final score. One highlight is 'The Wicked Flee', a simple piano tune based on the hymn 'Leaning on the Everlasting Arms', which is elevated by soaring strings in the final thirty seconds. The same infectious refrain, used as Mattie Ross's theme, features in other cues like 'Ride to Death' and 'River Crossing'. Due to the presence of pre-composed hymns, Burwell's score was deemed ineligible for the Academy Award for Best Original Score, but True Grit received ten nominations in total, including Best Director, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. It went home empty-handed, but remains the Coen Brothers' highest-grossing film to date.

* * *

Burwell is keen to point out that working with the Coens can be very different from working with other directors, which can be a big advantage when it comes to the score: 'It doesn't really get concrete until they show me some footage. With Joel and Ethan, unlike most directors, they're happy to show me a rough scene put together. Because we know each other so well, and because they write and produce and direct and edit their films, we all have a pretty good idea of what it's going to be. There isn't really any uncertainty, there aren't any other personalities that are going to suddenly appear and change the film. If we're talking about what we think it's going to be, that's what it's going to be.

'What I've just said might seem obvious to some people but in fact film isn't typically done that way. Probably most feature films involve a lot of unpredictable input from producers and executives, and they test the films in front of audiences and those tests can result in changes, so it's not necessarily true that once you've read the script or even once you've seen the first rough cut that you actually know what the film in the end is going to be – but with Joel and Ethan, typically you do.'

* * *

Returning to the start of their partnership and careers, the Coens followed Blood Simple with Raising Arizona (1987), a kidnapping comedy which was by all accounts a conscious decision to create something lighter and with more sympathetic characters – although a violent and unpredictable streak remains in this tale of Hi and Ed, a childless couple who steal a baby. Burwell tried out new sounds and styles, and the main title, 'Way Out There', is a gloriously bonkers musical journey, starting ominously before introducing a frenetic banjo, wistful whistling, and finally some spritely yodelling – all in under two minutes. Burwell's detailed website provides information and composer's notes about his scores, and it states that the music for Raising Arizona was largely 'improvised using household objects – vacuum cleaner hoses, hubcaps, peanut butter jars'.

Displaying a tendency to leap across form and genre – it's quite common for the Coens' films to alternate between light-hearted and darker tones – their next project was the neo-noir gangster film Miller's Crossing (1990). This was their third collaboration and the composer's first orchestral score: 'No one other than the Coen Brothers would've hired me to do an orchestral score knowing that I knew nothing about orchestral music!' It was certainly a leap from the banjo, but the large orchestra allowed for a more traditional sound to fit the Prohibition-era setting. Burwell based most of the score around Irish folk ballads to complement the story of double- crossing Irish mobsters and the stirring end titles, based on 'Lament for Limerick', provide a beautiful contrast to his earlier scores. By this stage, the composer had proved his versatility and appetite for new styles, instruments and performers, which has only continued throughout their partnership.

* * *

Their sixth collaboration, Fargo (1996), was the brothers' breakout film. A critical and commercial success, it won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress, for Frances McDormand, from a total of seven nominations, including Best Picture. Fargo premiered at the 1996 Cannes film festival and Joel won the Prix de la mise en scène, the Best Director Award – a solo winner despite the fact the brothers work as a pair, because up until The Ladykillers (2004), Joel was credited as director and Ethan as producer. Fargo's enduring popularity is evident in the Emmy Award-winning television series of the same name, set in the same fictional universe and executive produced by the Coen Brothers.

The dark comedy crime thriller following a pregnant police chief investigating roadside homicides opens with this perfectly pitched text: 'This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.' As you read this on the screen, you hear the gentle harp of 'Fargo, North Dakota', which leads you from the black background to a white wall of snow, gradually building until you can make out a car driving towards you. It's a simple scene of a car towing a trailer, but in Burwell's hands, complete with dramatic drums and crescendos, the tone is austere and spellbinding.

Burwell chose this, along with Blood Simple, as his favourite Coen Brothers' score: 'I'm certainly very proud of Fargo for a variety of reasons. Both the score and the film are very good and very individual. They're not really like anything else. I'm also proud because I think that was one of the first scores I orchestrated myself, and conducted, so it was a big step for me.' He based the main musical motif on a Norwegian folk song called 'The Lost Sheep', and used a traditional Scandinavian instrument, the Hardanger fiddle, to add fragility and 'a shimmering glowing drone to the played notes'. There is sadness and depth throughout – the perfect foil to the dark humour – and the elegant melancholy of 'Safe Keeping' could easily play bedfellow to Burwell's later Academy Award-nominated score for Carol.


Excerpted from "Saturday Night at the Movies"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jennifer Nelson.
Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
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Table of Contents

J.J. Abrams & Michael Giacchino
Kenneth Branagh & Patrick Doyle
Tim Burton & Danny Elfman
James Cameron & James Horner
The Coen Brothers & Carter Burwell
Alfred Hitchcock & Bernard Herrmann
Peter Jackson & Howard Shore
David Lean & Maurice Jarre
Sam Mendes & Thomas Newman
Christopher Nolan & Hans Zimmer
Steven Spielberg & John Williams
Robert Zemeckis & Alan Silvestri

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