INTERVIEW: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Composer Carter Burwell Discusses Ghost Stories and Death on the Frontier

When you think back on the Coen Brothers, there is a melancholy song likely coursing through your mind. Yet despite that feeling, the sweeping scores show versatility and change, hardly ever repeating themes or sounding too similar. That credit goes to a legendary composer, Carter Burwell, who recently earned a spot on the Academy Shortlist for Original Score. The versatile musician has scored many of the best films of the past twenty-five years, including “Fargo,” “Carol,” and last year’s Oscar nominated “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Now he returns to the Coen Brothers for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” marking their 15th collaboration. This time, Burwell gets to venture into the West with an eclectic score that ties together a film that shifts tones faster than you can draw a pistol. Mr. Burwell sat down with me to discuss his latest collaboration with the famed directors. In the process, we discuss death in the West, crafting a score for an anthology film, writing six different themes, and having the versatility to write both hopeful and hopeless scores.

Alan French/Awards Circuit: When “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” was in development, there were rumors that it was supposed to be a television series. Clearly that was wrong, so when did you know it was going to be a film? 

Carter Burwell: Well Joel and Ethan [Coen] never described it to me as a television, just as an anthology film. We always were talking about making it believable as a cohesive feature film, not as separate bits and pieces. It wasn’t until we were almost done that we felt we had achieved that, but we do feel it now. It was an open question because this was not a normal form. Most feature films do not have six completely separate stories.

AF: What are some challenges you face when scoring an anthology film? 

CB: The biggest question becomes when there are no characters in common and the storylines don’t overlap, how do you tie it all together so you feel like you had one experience instead of six? When they came back from shooting, it became obvious that not only were the characters and stories disperate, but the look and feel of each chapter was very different. The colors, cutting, and camera placement was very different. I got the distinct impression they were hoping music would tie it all together. There wasn’t anything else besides the period and the location on the frontier that was in common. We discussed it quite a bit. Joel did say at one point, “Well one thing they do have in common is non-accidental way.” Indeed death, and the various ways that it hovered over frontier life, was a major theme of the score.

AF: One of the things I find so interesting about “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is that music is such an amazingly big part of the film instantaneously. Before we even get to the chapter on Scruggs, we get a nice shot of the book and your sweeping score. How was it to work on a film that prioritized your craft so well? 

CB: It’s always very gratifying because a lot of film scoring consists of putting the score in the background, like a subliminal character. In this film it’s right up front. We keep going back to the title and the book in between each chapter, and the music reasserts itself in your mind. In this case, the music helps to drive the stories, but also to tie it all together.

AF: Now you’ve worked with the Coen’s on Westerns before, with “True Grit” being a major one recently. How was it to jump back into the Western genre, and how did you make yours feel fresh? 

CB: In this case, we have six tries! We get six attempts to freshen the genre, but each of the stories is so different that they all required a different approach. Some of the stories are shot in a way that suggests ties to the history of filmed westerns. For instance, the James Franco story (“Near Algodones“) feels like an Italian Spaghetti Western. The Tom Waits one kind of looks like a John Ford or Howard Hawks Western. Not all of them do, but in some of them, the score adopts some of the feel of those periods. That’s why the “Near Algodones” score is very stripped down. It’s mostly slide guitar and timpani. On the Tom Waits one, I tried to be more sentimental and lush in terms of my orchestrations. The last chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” sort of feels like a Rod Serling Western. It’s all set in the stagecoach. But since that wasn’t really a genre and since those people didn’t really shoot westerns that way, I could start from scratch.

AF: A lot of the film feels like a “Peco Bill” storybook, and the music really does help bridge those gaps. With “Near Algodones” how do you go about composing something more minimalist in its approach? 

CB: I think we all knew we wanted something that had that minimalist quality. When I started out, the Enio Morricone scores for Sergio Leone were very inspiring for me. I had no money, and I had to get what I could out of a few instruments. For example, with “Raising Arizona” I used yodeling and banjos. If you choose them in a particular way, you can still get a very rich and distinctive score, even if you only have a few instruments. Sometimes they get big and lush, but then sometimes they strip down to just a harmonica, just a guitar. I wanted something that was just one or two sounds, but still extremely expressive. It needed to capture the loneliness and the cruelty of the situation.

AF: It juxtaposes nicely with the Waits section, “All Gold Canyon,” which feels like it fills up the valley. Tell me about your process in that section of the score. 

CB: Well there’s basically two themes in that. Normally in a feature, you have two or three themes that are associated with a character or story element. In this case, one of the themes is the beauty of nature before mankind intrudes. But once Tom Waits’ character arrives, he’s almost immediately singing. He’s singing “Mother Machree,” which is itself a cliche of a sentimental Irish tune. When he starts to dig, the score picks that up from him. That brings some of the sentimentality to a score like this. When he leaves, it goes back to the original sound of the pure nature, and that’s how we created an arc for the chapter.

AF: “The Girl Who Got Rattled” feels very different from the rest of the film. It’s adventurous in ways the others are not. What were you looking to bring out of this chapter? 

CB: Well if you would say that “Meal Ticket,” the tale of the armless & legless orator, is the most hopeless section of the film, “The Girl Who Got Rattled” is the most hopeful. I wanted you as an audience to believe that things might work out okay for these people. There’s just something about the wagon train going across the prairie that suggests the hopes and aspirations for the people of the time. We wanted that to be rousing and a little jaunty. People are constantly moving and we wanted there to be a hopeful, rousing, “America on the move,” attitude. Of course it doesn’t end up well, but sometimes it’s the job of the composers to mislead the audience. That’s one where I’m actively pushing you in a more optimistic direction.

AF: Now you also brought up the “Meal Ticket” section with the actor who has no arms or legs. I find it interesting that it is so stripped down, its almost entirely his oration and your score. How do you convey the hopelessness of the situation? 

CB: Well Joel and Ethan were always pushing the word bleak. You’re right, one of the key things in the story is that there are two characters, who seemingly spend all their time in each other’s company, but they don’t speak. There’s an emptiness there that the music fills. One thing I wanted to bring to it came from Henry Melling‘s character. He really believes in the value of art and that he’s bringing culture to these little communities. He sees it as something important. I saw this internal struggle in him, and there’s something about the sanctity of his delivery of poetry that I wanted the music to express. One of the things I like about that idea is that in the end, he’s replaced by a chicken. However, it’s that belief that his work is important that makes his replacement at the end feel funnier.

AF: I didn’t see that coming at all out of Melling. It’s a great surprise. You also brought up the last section, “The Mortal Remains,” earlier. It feels very dark and spooky. How did you begin to write that section? 

CB: Well that was the last one I read because it’s the final one they finished before they went to shoot. I read it and thought it was basically a ghost story. They agreed it was a good way to look at it,  and whatever is going on is creepy. It gets creepier when you realize that once they reach the hotel, the dialogue stops. The first two-third is dense with dialogue, so there is not much use for music. But once they reach the hotel, the music comes in and toys with the characters as they resist entering. They, of course, have no choice. It’s their fate. That was my approach to it, to create and maintain a sense of dread and movement. They could not stop, they had to eventually enter the hotel.

AF: What was the biggest challenge you faced on the film? 

CB: Well, the first thing we tried to do was come up with a theme that could tie all the themes together. Was there some group of notes, or some theme that could appear in all six chapters? I spent a lot of time on it, but ultimately there wasn’t. They were all too distinct, and whenever I tried to that, it felt like we were forcing a theme onto the film that it wasn’t going to accept. So while I was doing that, I was playing things for Joel and Ethan, I was coming up with themes that worked in some chapters. Through that process, we knew this would be good for the wagon train, this would be good for valley. But I got there backwards by trying to come up with an overall theme.

AF: One of the things I found so great about this film is you really see your versatility as a composer in each section. What section of this film do you like best? 

CB: Well I particularly like the last chapter. I like it for the last six minutes of that and the music carries the whole thing. The weirdness of the situation builds on the confusion of the characters well. You don’t know what is going on, but you know it is bad and you don’t really understand it. It gets rather deep into existential dread. I think all of that brings out the best in me as a composer. Rather than situations where the issues are well defined and you know exactly what’s going, I like mystery. As a film viewer or as a composer I don’t enjoy certainty. I like it when it’s a little hard to know what’s happening, and that last chapter is a good example of that.

AF: What’s up next for you? 

CB: Well I’ve already completed an animated film “Missing Link” for Laika Studios. That one should be coming out in April. Then there’s a new film with Bill Condon called “The Good Liar” with Helen Mirren and Ian McKellan. That one you’ll have to wait for a little big though, I believe it will be coming out in November.

AF: Thank you very much for your time and good luck in the Oscar hunt! 

CB: Thank you!

What do you think of “The Ballad of the Buster Scruggs” Score? Do you think it will get a nomination at Oscar? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

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Written by Alan French

Alan French is a movie buff, a TV lover, and a sports fanatic. His favorite TV shows are 'Parks and Recreation,' 'Rick and Morty' and 'Game of Thrones.' He's also a Spielberg fanatic. You can find him on Twitter and Medium @TheAlanFrench.

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