Carter Burwell: On Scoring Twilight, Breaking Dawn & Other Works and Workflows

TRIBECA, MANHATTAN: It was like a scene out of a movie. Film score composer Carter Burwell wrote the final cue to The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part I) at his piano in the country by the flickering light of an oil lamp.

“I was out at my place in Amagansett trying to finish up the score when Hurricane Irene hit and took out my power,” Burwell describes. “And it stayed out for four days. So I ended up writing the ending in this darkened, boarded up house.

“It was interesting and painful at the same time,” he says, with a laugh. “But it worked out.”

Being forced to compose the old-fashioned way is not as extreme an exercise for Burwell as it might be for another composer; he does write most of his themes at the piano. And the storm made a perfectly dark and romantic setting in which to conjure the final scene’s music, where Burwell reprises the soaring “Bella’s Lullaby” theme from the first Twilight, with liturgical sounds. Without spoiling the ending, it’s a heavy, most climactic scene.

Carter Burwell during "Breaking Dawn: Part I" mixing sessions at The Body Studio, NYC.

We met up with Burwell during Breaking Dawn mixing sessions at his studio in Tribeca – by contrast a very well-lit, and highly technical environment. He’d been to record the score with an orchestra at Abbey Road, and was now working through the final stages with his longtime mixer Mike Farrow and his assistant Dean Parker.

Burwell may be best known for his work with the Coen Brothers, having scored every film they’ve made since Blood Simple (1984).

Between the Coen Brothers films – including, most recently True Grit – and a number of other standouts such as And The Band Played On, The Spanish Prisoner, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, The Kids Are Alright and Mildred Pierce – Burwell’s scores span many eras of music, genres of film, and decades of critical acclaim.

Through it all, there is an authenticity to Burwell’s music that distinguishes his scores from the typical Hollywood fare. And as artists like Trent Reznor, Daft Punk, and Phoenix are signing onto score films nowadays, being an artist – living and working outside of the traditional movie studio system – may be coming more into favor. Directors want to collaborate with an artist. And Carter Burwell is an artist.

He took some time away from the mix to chat with SonicScoop about scoring for Twilight, and scoring in general…

Looking over your filmography, it seems like you haven’t scored a sequel before. You did the first Twilight but not the second and third. Can you tell me about how you came to do Breaking Dawn, the fourth of the Twilight films?

It’s true, I’ve never scored a sequel. But it’s pretty simple – I’ve worked with this director – Bill Condon – before [on Kinsey]. Bill wanted me to do the scores, but he wasn’t sure I would want to because they’re such huge melodramas, and that’s really very different than what I normally do. But he is entirely a pleasure to work with so I definitely wanted to do it.

When I was composing music for the first Twilight, I don’t think any of us knew that it would be that popular… that it would have this cultural resonance. There was such an enormous response. There have been thousands of emails people have written me, wanting to know how to play the themes on piano. And that has been really nice.

Oh that’s really cool – the fans genuinely engaging with the film’s score. Wow. So, in scoring this latest film, did you reprise any of those themes from the first? How did you continue that work you’d done on the first one, or did you not approach it like that at all?

Well, I did to some extent. The intervening two films were directed by different people and composed by different people and they didn’t use any of the musical themes from the first one.

But there’s this one love theme called “Bella’s Lullaby” that was on the Twilight soundtrack album and that’s the one that most people respond to from the first movie. And when I first talked to Bill Condon, he was excited to bring back “Bella’s Lullaby” – so we have brought it back, judiciously. There’s a hint of it here and there, and then in the last scene of this movie, we actually play it out. And it’s pretty dramatic.

Having worked with Bill Condon before, and having scored the first of this insanely successful series…how much actual direction did you get at the start of this project? How does it get started?

Well first we have the spotting session, where – on the one hand – we’re talking technically about where the music starts and ends. But honestly in a movie like this, it turns out that it really never ends. There’s 80 minutes of score in this movie, so the “where it starts and stops” conversation hardly entered into it. Really we spent that time talking about what is the point of this scene? What can the music say? What kind of theme can we use for this? There’s a lot of give and take in a conversation like that.

And for one thing, in a movie like this – there are (especially in the second half) a lot of special effects so when I’m looking at the screen, I won’t necessarily know what’s going on. So I have to depend on the director to say, ‘OK, here there are going to be wolves coming down this hill,’ because I cannot always tell what the important dramatic impact is when there are all these unfinished effects shots.

Burwell scoring "Mildred Pierce" at Avatar Studios, NYC. Photo by Dean Parker.

And from there, do you just start working? You have the job, so you’re not exactly pitching music…

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