Carter Burwell, principal composer for a majority of the Coen Brothers movie scores, has teamed up with Chris Butler (screenwriter for Travis Knight‘s Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) and the writer/director behind 2012’s ParaNorman) to produce the next entry for the stop-motion animation studio, Laika. With his film Missing Link (2019) Butler brought audiences the story of an adventurer seeking to solve the riddle of Bigfoot. Sir Lionel (Hugh Jackman) is adventurous to a fault, often courting peril at the expense of those around him. He is willing to steal, lie, do some light breaking and entering, and even sell out his friends in order to achieve what he seeks most: notoriety for discovering a cryptid, whether it’s Nessie, the Fiji mermaid, or in this case, Bigfoot.
The flawed protagonist archetype, emotionally distant, not letting anyone get close to him, is interesting to watch in a family film, and is something we’re more used to seeing in prestige television shows like HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007), AMC’s Mad Men (2007-15), or FX’s Breaking Bad (2008-13). But on closer inspection although animated, Missing Link is not really a kid’s film. You can tell the writers and the cast are trying to tell a fairly straightforward, not especially zippy and cartoony adventure narrative, with some comic relief from Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis), a one-of-a-kind Sasquatch whose his long, lost relation, the Yeti). It’s better to read Missing Link as a PG adventure film whose chosen aesthetic is stop-motion animation. Even the musical score, which becomes the final touch that sets the tone in a story, supports this assessment.
“I don’t think there’s anything about the music that would have been different had it been a live action film of the same story,” Burwell says. Imagine actor Zach Galifianakis in a kind of Groot-like CGI suit, standing in front of live action Hugh Jackman in his cave, with the same score playing. It could work, but Laika does stop-motion animation; it’s their form. “Even though you’re dealing with the Sasquatch, the emotions are completely true.”
Missing Link is not Burwell’s first foray into animation. He studied animation in college while holding a day job as an animator at a studio at the time that he began doing composition. He composed the music for the Charlie Kaufman stop motion film, Anomalisa (2015), after originally developing it from an audio play that he also composed. Other than that, Burwell says the “cartooniest” film he has scored is probably 1987’s Raising Arizona, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. He had not scored an animated children’s film before Missing Link, when Butler sought Burwell, the composer of the Coen Brothers’ 1999 film, Fargo and Miller’s Crossing (1990), Oscar nominee for Todd Hayne’s Carol (2015) and Martin McDonagh’s 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, to do the soundtrack for Missing Link.
“I’m not sure what made them think I was the right person for it, but Chris seemed quite certain,” he says. This tends to be how it goes for Burwell, a director seeks him out, rather than the other way around. “I don’t think I’ve ever successfully pursued a project and it worked out. From the point of view of the composer, it’s fairly passive. I wait for people to offer me projects, and I either say yes or I say no.”
The pursuit of Burwell’s compositional talents started early. In 1984, around the time that he was in a punk band opening gigs at CBGB’s in Manhattan, someone asked him (animator by day, musician by night) to throw his hat in the ring to be the film composer for a low-budget, independently-financed film by two nobodies named Joel and Ethan Coen. The film was Blood Simple (1984). The person who asked him was their sound editor.
“I said, sure, why not? And surprisingly Joel and Ethan hired me, and surprisingly the film came out and surprisingly other people called because they’d seen it. So it’s entirely due to that series of surprises that I’m doing something I never aspired to do.”
After recording wrapped on Blood Simple, Burwell moved to Tokyo for a few months to work on a film as an animator. However, he’s happy to stay in New York, even if it costs him some opportunities he might have if he lived in L.A. Directors may prefer to have someone who will be on site with them, to be easily accessible, and that might weed him out of consideration for some projects, but if you look at his filmography, he’s not hurting for work. Burwell now struggles to think of a project he would move to L.A. for, especially now that he has kids in school.
When he returned from Tokyo, he heard from Anthony Perkins, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic, Pscyho (1960), a film with one of the most iconic scores in Hollywood history (composed by one of Burwell’s icons, Bernard Herrmann, a distinctive orchestral master). Perkins was helming the third sequel to Psycho , and in an effort to try something new and different, he sought out Burwell, a Hollywood outsider. By the time that was done the Coens were producing Raising Arizona, and so they booked him for that film. For Raising Arizona, Burwell drew inspiration from the innovations of Ennio Morricone, who proved that with only a handful of instruments you could make a very distinctive score on a slim budget.
Soon Burwell was doing so much film work that it became clear this was the path for him, and everything else fell by the wayside. He tells the story of composing the score to Miller’s Crossing as if he was the third director on the set. “By Miller’s Crossing, we were all trying to be grown-ups and work with an orchestra. Suddenly we had all these people, and we were trying to make a movie the way other people made movies.” He wasn’t the one instructing the actors about their motivation, but remember, as the composer, Burwell is the curator of emotion.
“They showed me the film when it had no music against it, to begin the discussion. It’s kind of cold and brutal to see that movie without any music. Gabriel Byrne is getting kicked in the head the whole time. And he is so taciturn you don’t know what’s motivating him at any one time. I felt that what was motivating him was his love for Albert Finney, even when he ostensibly turns against him. … I thought ,if I could think of a sort of a sappy Irish tune that would express that love at the very beginning of the movie, then when the two break up, you could carry that tune around Gabriel Byrne, and it would help remind you that his heart is still with the Irish gang and Albert Finney.”
“I had listened to a lot of Irish music and found this traditional tune called ‘Limerick’s Lamentation’, where the element of that melody comes from, like the six first notes or whatever, and I put that on oboe, and put a little orchestral backing to it.” When he pitched this to Joel and Ethan, they were skeptical at first, but when he played it for them, they realized what he was going for, and it stayed. “It came from a concept of using sentimental music against these extremely unsentimental characters and extremely unsentimental situation to give it some depth and aspect that just wasn’t on the screen and see what that would do.
Burwell had no hesitancy to do an animated film and was looking forward to it. Burwell has an eight-year-old daughter, and this was a chance to win credibility with her. He describes her wandering into his studio and being unenthused with the dailies he’s using as a reference, and walking out. But seeing the dailies for Missing Link was very exciting for her, which won Burwell some dad points. “It’s hard for me, generally speaking, as a film composer. I enjoy working on material that’s darker and more disturbing, more philosophical; however you’d like to put it. Usually, material where’s there’s more of a tense mix of psychological experiences. This one tends to be more on the brighter side. So for me, that’s a challenge….”
He’d rely on Butler to guide him through the emotional aspects of the film, as well as the storyline during the three-year production process. Typically in a live action film, he’s able to reference dailies, and it comes quite naturally to him. However, Burwell maintains that each project comes with its own rules and its limitations. He may work with the same directors frequently, whether it’s the Coens, or Martin McDonough, or Bill Condon, but it doesn’t change the fact that each film is its own animal (if you’re doing it right).
The completed score for Missing Link is emotional — from perilous to light-heartedness — without being whimsical, like the soundtrack for a cartoon. When Butler made his pitch to Burwell, he noted that his frame of reference for this film was Michael Anderson and John Farrow’s film, Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). The score of that film has a sweeping quality that Burwell wanted to evoke in Missing Link. If you play the two scores back to back, they sound nothing like each other, but you do get the road-movie aspect of the story, and that comes through in the score. This also allowed him to add instrumental flares to provide a texture for the local flavor of each location the characters were visiting in the story, whether it be the Pacific Northwest, the American War Southwest, India, or the Himalayas.
If you take the time to look at Burwell’s 90+ film titles, you’ll notice that during a 25-year career, he’s always keeping his spoon in many pots, averaging three-to-five titles per year. When pressed to explain the slow down in 2018, with the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs being his only credit, he reiterates that he’s actually been working on Missing Link for three years.
“You can’t always tell when things are going to be released,” he says, “I’m just a tiny part of that process.” He compares feature films to a freight train or an oil tanker. “You can’t stop them or move them easily; they have their own momentum.” Carol, for example, was wrapped up and his part in the film was completed, but it didn’t release or another year, because the filmmakers wanted to premier it at Cannes, which had already passed, so they had to wait until the next Cannes. Meanwhile, he had moved on to his next project.
Adaptable to genres, some present difficulty for Burwell, such as the romantic comedy. “I’m rarely asked to do them, but I find [that genre] challenging. I obviously don’t mind doing comedy, and I can also do romance, but if the whole thing is so light that there’s no threat of death, it’s hard for me to get interested.” He thinks Marvel films would be an interesting challenge and praises the work singer, songwriter and composer Mark Mothersbaugh did in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017).
Committing to a superhero film like Thor: Ragnaork could be daunting. “I basically work by myself, I don’t have a stable of people around me who help, and that’s the way I like it. I love being able to be hands-on, touching every note, conducting the recordings is important to me. You can’t really do that with something like a Marvel movie, there wouldn’t be the time … You’d need a team of people. if I say yes to a movie like that, I’m basically saying I’m not going to do another thing with my life for the next six months, and that’s more demanding. You’d have to do 90 minutes of music.” (True Grit, for example, had about 35 minutes of music; Where the Wild Things Are: 26.)
As a composer and a sometimes movie-goer, he notices the Marvel film scores and finds that they generally avoid big musical themes. Typically, he can lose himself in a story if the score is working as it’s supposed to. But he generally only notices if it’s really good or really bad. “If it’s been spotted … (spotting is the process where you decide where music’s going to be placed in the film) if the spotting is unusual, like there’s a piece of music happening in a place where you wouldn’t expect it, or, in particular, where there’s no music happening in a scene where you’d expect there to be music, that will catch my ear, I’ll say, ya know that’s an interesting choice not to score this dramatic scene.”
In 2017, Jordan Hoffman for The Guardian posed the question, “Have we reached peak Zimmer?” His credits and techniques dominate, and he tours internationally and plays the festival circuits. With some amusement, Burwell points out that if one studies the history of film composing, there will always be trends that disrupt and dominate the industry, whether it’s the work of composer John Williams and filmmakers doing similar work to his, or synthy scores, as in Martin Brest’s 1984 film, Beverly Hills Cop. “We live in a Hans Zimmer period and, yeah, there are so many films that are basically scored with his tools, not necessarily his brilliance, but with his tools, his approach to strings and percussion and electronics and the way that he uses the tools to amp all that up. To multitracking, and synths strings to real strings to make it bigger than real life, these are all like tools that Hans uses but they’ve been so successful that people are doing it all the time. It’s what’s expected. That’s not Hans’s fault, that’s just the way that it is.” As Burwell works he sometimes considers, “What would Hans do?” Even on Missing Link, during its climactic confrontation in a collapsing ice bridge, with peril after peril: what would Hans do?
Burwell sees his contemporaries as Danny Elfman, or Thomas Newman, composers who are doing interesting and creative projects and are allowed to be themselves with their work. He laments that often a composer is asked to simply do what someone else has done before, to put on “a hat”, e.g., “I’m looking for something like this, can you do something like this?” “I’ve always tried to avoid those types of projects, and I feel like Dan and Tom have as well. They definitely have their own sound and their own way of thinking about music in film, and I admire them for that.
Missing Link released April, and his next film score will be heard in November’s The Good Liar, directed by another of his frequent collaborators, Bill Condon. He is also scoring original content for Apple TV in a series that could go on seemingly indefinitely, which is a new experience for him. When pressed to confess his dream project, his wish is easy to understand. “I’ve always wished that there was something in the sci-fi realm that I could do,” he says. “Those films from my childhood were so important to me, films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951) and The Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956). They had extraordinary scores because the films themselves were taking place in a different realm. The music could be different, it didn’t have to be a traditional orchestral score.”
He looks forward to the future, as new innovative independent filmmakers and studios are making interesting speculative sci-fi films again, that ask the audience to think and feel, Ex-Machina (Alex Garland, 2015), Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016), Annihilation (Garland, 2018). “So maybe someday before I die I’ll get a chance to try one. That’s the one thing I’ve never done that I kind of wish I had the opportunity to do.”