Exclusive: Carter Burwell on Scoring ‘Space Force’ and ‘The Morning Show’, Working with the Coen Brothers

     June 24, 2020

Carter Burwell is not only one of the best film composers working today, he’s also one of the most in-demand. Looking at his filmography, the list of directors he works with time and again is incredible: Joel and Ethan Coen, Todd Haynes, Martin McDonagh, Spike Jonze, Bill Condon—the list goes on. Which is why it was such a big deal that Burwell made the jump to episodic television recently with two very different projects. First, Burwell composed the score for Apple TV+’s star-studded drama series The Morning Show, starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Then he switched gears and composed the score for Greg Daniels’ (The Office) original half-hour Netflix comedy series Space Force starring Steve Carell.

Both scores are different, but unmistakably Burwell’s. As he told me in a recent interview about his work on both shows, Burwell “loves a tune,” and that ear for melody is what makes his work so irresistible. So when I got the chance to interview Burwell about his TV scores, I was delighted to dig into his process and why he felt now was the time to jump into episodic television.

Burwell talked about how his processed changed to write music for episodic television, and how his approach to The Morning Show was about keeping the show away from melodrama. He also talked about working with Greg Daniels on Space Force, and the specific approach he took to backing Steve Carell’s beleaguered General Naird as he tries to get the titular military branch off the ground.

We also discussed Burwell’s long relationship with the Coen Brothers, and how they usually work together despite the fact that the Coens are loathe to analyze their own work. We talked specifically about the unique approach to music in No Country for Old Men, and what it’s been like working with just Joel Coen on the upcoming film Macbeth, which Ethan opted out of co-directing.

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Photo by Tycho Burwell

Burwell is as delightful and eloquent as you’d expect, and I think this full conversation offers some invaluable insight into his process, how the world of film composing is changing as studios favor more IP-driven films, and how composers like Burwell—who veer more towards human drama stories—are making the leap to streaming services to keep telling the kinds of stories that interest them. Check out the interview below.

I know you’ve scored a couple of miniseries before, but The Morning Show and Space Force are both full series commitments. What made you finally take the leap into TV?

CARTER BURWELL: Yeah, well, that’s a good question. The Morning Show is the first one that I did, and it was partly the awareness that theatrical film was becoming more limited in terms of what makes it out into the theaters. I’m not saying anything that isn’t obvious here, but there just seemed to be less space in the theaters for the types of films that I like to do. And it was also obvious that streaming is the future and a lot of interesting filmmakers are working there. So I thought it was perhaps a chance to start to dip my toe into that water. And then also just because Apple was starting something from scratch, it was sort of exciting to be there with them while they did that. So it was a variety of things. I found the script interesting and they’re not simple, and so it seemed like something that would be worth doing.

It’s interesting that you say that, I feel like a movie like Carol, which is incredible and really wasn’t that long ago, it feels like would that movie even get made today? It’s just kind of hard to know.

BURWELL: I know, that’s right. If it got made today it would probably be made by Netflix or Amazon.

Yeah.

BURWELL: It’s true, things are changing fast and no one knows exactly where it’s going to go, but there’s a definite direction, which is towards streaming. So I thought it was good to start to work in that area.

Well, and I assume someone of your stature and given how great your work is, you probably had been offered these big superhero movies and stuff like that, but that doesn’t really seem to interest you?

BURWELL: Honestly I don’t think it’s something that I would be good at. What can I say? Maybe there’s some value in embracing the way things are rather than the way you want them to be, and maybe it would be worth doing that someday. But I don’t know, that kind of music seems so exhausting to turnout. A hundred minutes of nonstop action music, I would find it very difficult. I’m probably not the right person for that.

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Image via Apple

Speaking specifically about The Morning Show, which is a show I really enjoyed, what were the early stages of working on that show? What direction were you given and how did you find the transition into writing not just a theme, but episodic television? You’re doing, I don’t know, what is it, 10 hours? Is that 10 episodes, I think?

BURWELL: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, 10 hours. That was definitely the surprising part to me, is looking at 10 hours of television and obviously that’s not all music, but there’s probably 25 minutes of music in each episode. So you’re talking about more than four hours of music. My first question really was, honestly, why are you even calling me? Because it’s not obvious to me why I would be the right person for that show, but they felt that there was humor in the show that was hidden behind drama. And that it maybe had to do with pacing, maybe had to do with putting an ironic spin on things, and that apparently is the reason why they hired me.

In the end I think what we decided was the best angle on that and how to find humor in what are often tragic situations was that these characters basically take themselves so seriously. Sometimes that is where the silliness comes from, the characters themselves take themselves far too seriously, and to find humor by viewing that with a particular perspective, where the music doesn’t take it quite as seriously as they themselves do. So that led to a certain amount of bounce in the music so that even when things are going, if you look at it from the point of view of the characters, things are going very badly, and if you keep some propulsion going, because they also live in a world where nothing ever stops, it’s like constant motion, constantly new information coming in. And that also I think was able to bring out a little bit of the humor and even if it didn’t bring out humor, it at least lightened the dramatic load so we managed to stay away from melodrama. And then we also just basically right from the first episode, mainly between ourselves, made a rule that we weren’t going to use strings. Yes, there are sometimes really heavy things going on, but every once in a while a little bit of strings come in, but by and large we really wanted to stay away from that. And that was one of the ways to try to stay away from melodrama, which the story could lend itself to, and we tried our best to avoid.

I I think it worked really well. And that was one of the questions I had. The show is not entirely dissimilar from a film like Broadcast News, which is a film that I love, but there’s this diversity of tone. It is pulsing and quick and sometimes very funny, but also incredibly dramatic and goes to some very serious and dark places. You said you were kind of there to add some levity and avoid melodrama, but what was your approach to some of the really dark and serious subject matter when you are having to move from a scene that’s light and bubbly to a scene like that?

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Image via Apple

BURWELL: Well, we usually went with less is more on the dark stuff, and that again might be one of the reasons why they called me, because that’s something that I do. That’s just part of my voice as a composer. And I think that that did help, because they have amazing actors and great directors and they really don’t need the music to push those emotions. You could of course, that’s perfectly valid, but in this case the view was that we really don’t want to do that. That’s not what the show is about. I hardly ever played the darkness with more than one or two notes. That always seems to be the best way, I’ve heard.

Given that this was your first foray into episodic television, did your workflow change at all? Did you find that you had to change your approach and how you usually write?

BURWELL: Yes. Of course one of the big differences between a film and episodic television is that a film is a self contained story with a beginning and an end. And this one, they didn’t give me the script for the final episode when we started the show. I didn’t really know what the ending was going to be. I think I’m sure that people had an inkling as to what it was going to be, but I didn’t really know. Of course, the show is being written and produced at the same time that the Me Too movement was growing and taking root in our culture. So the show is tracking something in almost real time. So I didn’t have that benefit of having seen the whole thing. So this is where I start, this is where we end and this is the effect I wanted to have on people by the time the whole thing ends.

And that’s the way I look at a film. I look at it as a single whole statement. It’s not possible to do that, I think, typically in episodic TV. It certainly wasn’t the case here, you instead are looking at it episode by episode and trying to maintain some consistency to the characters, to the tone, but I felt like every episode has kind of distinctive tones. Some are more comedic, some are more tragic, some are more of that intrigue. So yeah, it really, for me, is certainly very different. It wasn’t having one strong concept that carries through. It was having a concept that’s sufficiently flexible, that whatever comes up in the next episode, we can bend the concept to make it work and not know what’s coming, that’s just very different.

I know they’ve already started working on Season 2. Have you begun writing for it yet? Or is that still a little ways off?

BURWELL: No, I’ve I read a few scripts and I think they had shot, what I heard was that they had shot two episodes before the pandemic shut everything down. So that’s where it stands right now. And considering how… I’m just extemporizing, no one has told me this, but considering the way that the first season happened to manage to be right on this wave that was breaking about Me Too, I kind of wonder whether they’re going to rewrite some of this the second season to take on the pandemic. And so many other things. George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. There’s so many things, and it’s a news show, so you kind of want it to encompass what’s going on in the world. And that’s one of the opportunities for this, but I have no idea how they’re handling it.

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Image via Apple TV+

Are you excited to go back for another season? Again, episodic television is new for you, and I know you’ve done sequels before, but coming back and doing another season of the same show is unique.

BURWELL: I am kind of excited about it. The hardest part of The Morning Show was getting the pilot done. The first episode, we labored on that for months. Because just getting the tone right was very complicated. And then there are also I don’t know how many producers involved, there’s all the producers that I was working with, but then there are people at Apple that I’ll probably never meet, who all had their opinions, and Reese and Jennifer are also producers, and they have their opinions. Finding a musical approach that everybody could finally agree on just took a really long time. And I hadn’t gone through that. I kind look forward to the opportunity to maybe the second season can be a little bit more less grueling, but we’ll see.

Yeah, you have a foundation laid there. So that should help things along. And then I am also a fan of your work on Space Force, which is a show that I really enjoyed. And it’s very different from The Morning Show. You’ve got this hopeful, somewhat patriotic music, but it’s also a satire. The tone is very tricky in that show. What was that process like?

BURWELL: Well, for that one, [showrunner] Greg [Daniels] sent me the first episode. I don’t think it had music on it. I’m not certain. And also he wasn’t finished at the point he sent it to me, but there’s also a situation where Netflix had a release date and because of Netflix’s policy of posting all of the episodes at once so people can binge it, it meant there was actually a very tight schedule there. You have to have them all done at once. So they needed a start on the music ASAP. So we had a quick conversation, I pitched this idea that Steve Carell is, he’s funny, but in fact he’s got a serious mission here and that the humor might actually benefit from just taking the mission itself kind of seriously. And that would point up the occasional silliness, but also allow you to get drawn up in the excitement of launching a rocket and stuff like that.

So that was the way I proposed. It was sort of a Copeland-esque fanfare for the common man type of thing, where it’s Americana and it’s patriotic and it paints Carell’s character as a fully rounded human being rather than just a comedic figure. And Greg liked that. Greg also, when I said that, Greg then says, well can we do an orchestral recording? That’s not a normal part of doing a half hour television comedy. I think The Simpsons did that for years, but I think they were the only one doing it for years. And we went to Netflix to see if they would put up the bill for that, and to their credit, they said they would. So that kind of made it what it is, the fact that we were allowed to do an orchestral recording, was great.

I interviewed Greg about the show and we were talking about your music, and he was just so excited that you guys got to use an orchestral score on it. He was very, very excited about it.

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Image via Aaron Epstein/Netflix

BURWELL: Yeah, it was a great thing. There were times we recorded in Nashville and there were times I’d hear the music and hear the full brass section, I was like, this really doesn’t sound like half hour comedy. It’s exciting. But yeah, it was great. And of course that’s part of the moment that we are in in this business, is there’s so much money flooding the creation of streaming content right now, and these companies are battling each other. So I don’t know if this moment will still be there in five years, and it certainly wasn’t around five years ago, but at this moment, they’re willing to spend money on production value and on recordings. It’s really kind of amazing.

You look at the production value of both of these shows and they do not feel like what was on network TV even five years ago. Even though they are episodic, they feel very cinematic. And I think that is a testament to bringing you on to do the score, this very accomplished film composer.

BURWELL: Well, thank you. Yeah, it is interesting. It is this particular moment, and I honestly don’t know if all these companies can afford to keep spending money in this way, but while they’re doing it, it’s really quite wonderful.

What was it like working with Greg? I’m very fascinated by him because he’s been behind some of the most iconic shows of the 21st century.

BURWELL: Yeah. That was my interest in doing it, honestly. As soon as my agent said it was Greg Daniels doing a show, I said, well, yeah, definitely I’d be interested. I’ve never actually physically met Greg, because he’s in LA, I was in New York the whole time that we worked on this.

Oh wow.

BURWELL: We basically, we would talk on the phone and we would have least a Skype meeting each week, because we were basically doing an episode a week, and sometimes we’d speak more often than that. Then once it really started rolling, it was just once a week, but we would basically go through the episode, begin by saying, “So what’s this episode about?” Come up with some one sentence concept of this is what this episode is about, what we’re trying to achieve and then go through it and talk about it.

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Image via Netflix

Sometimes we’d be looking for how do we make this particular thing funny, but that doesn’t come up that often. It was more about how do we bring out the humanity in some situations, sometimes the situations are very silly and it would be easy to make comedy of them, but we were sometimes trying to do something different. I wouldn’t say the opposite, because it is a comedy, but we were trying to say, okay, so how can we make this read more real rather than just a comedy set up, that kind of thing. And Greg is also very open to input from everybody. So a lot of times I’d be on Skype with him, and on my Skype screen I maybe only saw half the people in the room, because the director, whatever episode is there, along with the editor and producers and music editor, and knows who else. And Greg allows everybody to say something, which on the one hand is wonderful, and I guess it’s part of how he makes the shows that he makes. For me as a composer, personally, it’s a lot easier if I have one person who is talked to rather than hearing ten different people about a piece of music, but that’s his method (laughs). And so I try to at least go along with whatever the director wants to do. That was the approach.

As I said, I’m a huge fan of your work and looking over all of the films that you’ve worked on, there’s this great diversity of different projects, whether it’s Twilight or Kinsey or Where The Wild Things Are or Anomalisa, but there does seem to be kind of a common thread in that you work with interesting filmmakers. I was just kind of curious how you choose which projects to work on. Is it kind of filmmaker driven? Is it story-driven or what sparks you to things?

BURWELL: Yeah. I’ve been very lucky about that and it is partly filmmaker driven, for instance as soon as I knew the Greg was doing this, I was like, yeah, I definitely want to be involved. And I would say I have a weakness for working with writer-directors, like Martin McDonagh, people who are both writing and directing, they really know what the point of the work is. I can ask some things about, so why is this happening? And what are we after here? So that’s definitely something that I take into account, but the project itself is also sometimes the thing that draws me to a project, the content or the story, although, now you ask that question, I’m trying to think what would be an example of that, and maybe that’s not so true. Maybe it is largely just filmmaker driven. If you take something like Twilight, I would never in a million years have thought to do that if Catherine Hardwicke hadn’t been the director and she hadn’t convinced me to do it. So to be honest, it is largely filmmaker driven.

And to that point, you have been a close collaborator with the Coen brothers who are, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say, some of the best American filmmakers who have ever lived. I was just curious, has your guys’ relationship evolved over the years? Have you guys developed a shorthand? Do you work very quickly together? What’s that relationship like now?

BURWELL: No, it hasn’t changed that much. If you’ve ever seen an interview, they don’t like to go on trying to explain their work (laughs).

No, they’re very enigmatic.

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Image via Universal Pictures

BURWELL: Yeah. So, personally, I don’t feel like they’re enigmatic. But we don’t sit around analyzing—sometimes we do, but that’s a last resort if something is not working. If we haven’t found a musical solution to a problem, we will sometimes sit in the editing room, say okay, so what’s this really about? They hate analyzing their work. Normally we don’t do that, and normally they’ll give me a script well before they shoot it. I’ll read it, think about it, we’ll have some chats about different approaches. And then once there’s actually some picture I will throw some music against that. Usually I’ll take it over to their editing room or they come to my studio, and throw it against the picture and usually we know right away whether it works or not. It’s really as simple as that.

It’s almost immediate that it’s either doing what the picture needs, it’s bringing something new to it or moving it in a good direction, whatever. But it’s almost always kind of obvious. It’s very rare that I present them with something and they don’t immediately know whether this is the right direction to go in, and that really hasn’t changed over the years at all. There isn’t a lot more to it than that. Like I say, because you don’t want to analyze the work.

Basically they give it to me and I write a bunch of stuff, but it helps, personally for me—and this could be true in any project—it helps me to have a conceptual framework. It doesn’t have to be the same framework that the filmmaker has. For myself I need to have some conceptual framework to hang my music on, this helps me write. So if it’s True Grit, the conceptual framework is these 19th century Protestant hymns and that will help explain the girls’ motivations, or things like that, or Ballad of Buster Scruggs, each of those six stories had its own little concept for why the music should be this and be that and some of them, like the Tom Waits one is intentionally sort of sappy and old fashioned, because that puts you in his mind. Then when the story gets really harsh, it’s much more effective having been lulled into a state of sappiness.

But having that conceptual framework helps me along. I never have to share it with the filmmakers. And then sometimes they don’t get what I’m showing them. And that definitely happens. It’s not an unusual thing, I’ll play something for people, they won’t understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. Then I can say, well, here’s my reasoning for doing this. Usually that buys me another week, in which case I can keep following that thread. It happens with everybody. It happens with the Coens and Bill Condon, Spike [Jonze]. Because we know each other, they’ll give me a fair amount of rope to go out, to try things with. And they won’t overreact when I present them with something that they weren’t expecting. But still in the end, at some point we have to all agree. And there have been times when I have to walk back an idea because I just haven’t been able to sell it, but that hasn’t really changed over the years. That’s always been the way it is.

That’s interesting. I’m still kind of amazed that No Country For Old Men won Best Picture, that film is so fascinating and thematically rich. Working on it, did it feel different? Did that one feel special? Was there any kind of feeling on it as you guys were crafting it?

BURWELL: Well, obviously it presented a particular musical challenge, which was that we found, I think it’s from the beginning Ethan was dubious that there would be any kind of music that would work there, but Joel really felt that the drama needed whatever it is that score brings to a movie, whatever you want to call that. But we did find that whenever you heard something that sounded like music, it didn’t help, it sort of let the tension go. It’s hard even to this day, I can’t exactly explain it, but when you heard anything that sounded remotely like score, it didn’t work. So we found other solutions to that problem. So that we were forced to basically sneak the music in underneath wind or the sound of cars and things like that. It had a special musical challenge, but I didn’t feel that the film itself was some special thing, indeed at the final mix, when we played back the final version of the film and at the end, everybody you care about is dead. I got up and I said to Joel, “Well, that’s a real crowd pleaser.” But it was a crowd pleaser! (laughs). It’s interesting. I’d be the first to say I’m a very poor judge of how the audience will receive films, and to this day, I think it’s a fabulous piece of filmmaking, but it still surprises me that that could actually be a financially successful film. I think that’s pretty interesting.

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Image via Miramax Films

Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I was curious what it’s been like working with only Joel on Macbeth, since he’s directing that one himself.

BURWELL: Well, we haven’t really worked on it yet. He managed to shoot two thirds of it before the pandemic shut down production.

Oh yeah.

BURWELL: So we’ve talked about it a little bit from a distance, but that’s it. In fact, he’s offered to send me some of the footage this week, so I’m probably going to start to look at it, and as you said, we all know the story. So the surprises won’t be in the story, but it’s about the way it’s shot and the things we choose to accentuate, and the angle we take with it. So we’re just beginning. It’s a little different, even just the conversations I’ve had with him. Yeah, it’s a little different to have one of the brothers there. And I know Ethan, I saw him towards the end of last year and Joel was out prepping the shoot in LA, he said it felt strange that Joel is out there getting ready to make a movie. But Ethan didn’t want to do it. He wants to do other things. So it’s going to be a little bit different for all of us, I think it’s safe to say, but I think it’ll still going to be very recognizable a voice that you’re familiar with, a look that you’re familiar with, I think. I think you’ll find that.

I’m very, very excited for that one.

BURWELL: Yeah, me too.

And then finally, I was kind of curious, I don’t know if you consider your work melodic, but it certainly feels pretty melodic. And I was just kind of curious how you felt about the shift in the film music world towards some more atmospheric scores or the blending of score with sound design.

BURWELL: Yeah. I think you’ve characterized both of those things accurately. It’s true that I’m a sucker for a tune, and in a film having a melody, even if it’s just three notes that is somehow memorable, it really is part of the joy for me as a viewer of that film. It could be take the simplest riff from a spaghetti Western, and that just brings a lot of pleasure to me as a film watcher. But there are definitely films, and for instance, No Country for Old Men would be an example where that’s not the right solution to the question of what the score should be. And I think that it’s interesting to see people finding those solutions, and you’re right, that that’s more common in the last 10, 15 years than it was before that.

I think it’s partly because of the digital tools that we have for crafting sounds that have nothing to do with real instruments or they may begin with real instruments, but then you distort and change and process the sounds to point where it doesn’t sound like one anymore. Those tools partly lend themselves to that. Also, of course, the sound designers are using the same tools that the composers are. So that also lends to the blurring of those boundaries. And I’m all for that. I think the sound designers and sound effects people and composers usually should work more closely together than they typically do. And Skip Lievsay and I do that on the Coen brothers films, but it hasn’t been a common part of, certainly of Hollywood filmmaking. So I’m all in favor of that. I don’t have an opinion about non melodic scores. I think a lot of times it is the right thing. And it’d be interesting to see how far we go in that direction.

Yeah, yeah. For sure. I think there’s room for both. Some films, like the work of Johan Johansson I think was perfect for a film like Sicario.

BURWELL: Right, exactly. Right, I agree. He’s a good example.

The Morning Show is currently streaming on Apple TV+ and Space Force is streaming on Netflix.

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