Legendary composer Carter Burwell is best known for his 16 collaborations scoring the award-winning films of the Coen Brothers. Their work extends all the way back to Blood Simple straight up to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It will continue with the Coen’s upcoming take on Macbeth, starring Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington. That is, once it’s safe to film again.
In the duration, Burwell worked with several other filmmakers for both film and television. He received his first Emmy nomination and win in 2011 for Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Original Dramatic Score) for HBO’s Mildred Pierce. Burwell returns to television this Emmy season with scores for two major projects: Netflix’s Space Force and Apple TV+’s The Morning Show.
Carter Burwell speaks with Awards Daily about the two vastly different projects, including what in each series brought him back to television after a 5-year hiatus. Burwell talks about scoring the farce of Space Force and the drama of The Morning Show. Plus, how does one create a legitimate-sounding news theme for a fictional morning show?
Awards Daily: So, your Emmy submissions this year are both Space Force and The Morning Show. Have you marked off scoring all of Steve Carell’s recent television projects off of your bucket list?
Carter Burwell: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. Him and John Malkovich. Although I can’t really keep up with either one of them, they post their work faster than I can.
AD: You’ve collaborated with the Coen Brothers 16 times now with more to come. What have you taken away from that collaboration that you’re leveraging on other proejcts?
CB: One thing would be to make a real effort not to repeat myself. A lot of people feel that way, but with Joel and Ethan it’s been an active goal. To keep doing that is not always easy. Take True Grit for example. It’s a Western that’s already been a movie, so we had to try and figure out what we could do that was different for that movie that we didn’t already do for O Brother, Where Art Thou? So, that’s one thing. Another would be, since we’ve worked together for so long, I have no fear of presenting something to them that’s unexpected. I basically am that way with other projects too. Of course, I’m on the east coast, and these projects were based on the west coast. I’m sending stuff to projects where I can’t see their faces when I play it. I don’t really know how they’re reacting. So, I try to do what I think is best and not pay attention to what’s expected.
AD: You don’t often compose for television series. What was it about these two series specifically that brought you into them?
CB: I’ve never done episodic television until The Morning Show. There are a few different things that caused me to say yes to that. One, it’s fairly obvious that there is a narrower and narrower opening for interesting theatrical feature films. It’s just the way it is. Most of the theaters now are multiplexes showing franchise films. I find that most of the interesting work is moving to streaming. Second, it’s Apple, and they’re a household name. I thought it was interesting that they were venturing into this area, so I wanted to be there for their first big show. Finally, it’s something new. Something I haven’t done before. I’m not a television watcher, but without a question, it’s something new and it would give me a chance to learn about this medium. Also, the scripts were great, very rich and complex.
AD: Your score for Space Force sounds more like a score for a cinematic production due to its grand, lush sounds. What were some of your inspirations for a score of this scale?
CB: My first pitch to Greg (Daniels, co-creator with Steve Carell) when we first spoke – he’d shown me a rough cut of the first episode – was sort of an Aaron Copland, noble, “Fanfare for the Common Man” feeling would be good. Carell is silly sometimes, ridiculous sometimes, but he has real hopes and dreams and aspirations. He just has a really difficult job. I thought about playing up the nobility and possible glory of sending a rocket to the moon would both heighten the ridiculousness of what you see on-screen but also allow you to join in and feel the joy of getting the program going. Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which is brass, felt appropriate given the military context of the show.
AD: Space Force is a comic farce. From your composition perspective, do you approach something like this deliberately as a parody or do you score the scenes as you traditionally would?
CB: Well, moment by moment, the question was “Are we catching the comedy or are we over-emphasizing the comedy?” We didn’t want to let it fall through the cracks, but also, if you push the comedy too much, then it weakens the overall context of the show, which is that it’s happening in the real world. I have to say that on Space Force we were constantly toying with that balance.
AD: When approaching the polar opposite The Morning Show, what were your inspirations or intentions going into that series?
CB: If Space Force was two or three different things, then Morning Show is 8-10 different things. Each character faces their own challenges – sometimes comedic, sometimes ironic, sometimes tragic. There’s also the joy of working behind the scenes of a morning news show. The filmmakers, when I asked them why they hired me, said they felt there was humor there. It’s no means a comedy, but there’s humor in those characters and in those scripts. They felt I could find it. In the end, where I found that mostly is that they take themselves so seriously, so there’s comedy there. It also has a lot to do with pacing, and the way you manipulate audiences’ expectations can be where you find the comedy too. That was the biggest challenge. The story itself isn’t funny, but I was tasked with finding some irony within the series.
AD: The Morning Show feels more introspective, almost jazzy, in its scoring. How did the story influence your instrumentation selection?
CB: One of the places where the humor comes from is that these characters think of themselves as very worldly, hip New Yorkers, but clearly that’s what they thought of themselves 20 years ago and they still think of themselves that way, even though they’re not that at all. To say that the score is “jazzy,” to me it’s not real jazz. It’s fake jazz. That’s one of the things that lends humor to the series. The choices of the instrumentation are often entirely empirical. For example, when I put upright bass against Steve Carell’s character, it felt entirely perfect. I can’t always put to words exactly how that works, but it just does. Also, we hardly even had to try it before we decided not to have strings. The story is so emotional and veers toward tragic, so we didn’t want it to become melodramatic. We didn’t want to feel like we were reaching for those emotions because they’re right there on-screen. By keeping to bass and percussion, it meant we could avoid that pitfall.
AD: Talk to me about creating the Morning Show theme of the television show within the television show.
CB: Michael Ellenberg told me that he wanted me to write a suite that was something like what John Williams wrote for NBC News decades ago which they continue to use to this day. Something inspiring and grand. It would be as though the news division of this imaginary network had someone write this suite for them. That was actually one of the first things I did. It appears on the album as the very last cut, and it’s obviously something you don’t hear on the show. It’s orchestral and completely unlike the music of the show. We began with that, and then I would pull out three notes here and six notes there for the little intros and outros for the show within the show.
Space Force and The Morning Show are now streaming on Netflix and Apple TV+ respectively.