Though known primarily as the one-and-only composer to have worked with Joel and Ethan Coen, Carter Burwell amassed an impressive resume that included some of Hollywood's biggest films of the 1990s and 2000s. After launching his career with the haunting score for "Blood Simple" (1984) and the loopy banjo-laced compositions for "Raising Arizona" (1987), Burwell wrote music for a wide and varied slate of films that included everything from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1992) and "Wayne's World 2" (1993) to "Conspiracy Theory" (1997) and "In Bruges" (2008). Though in demand by Hollywood studios, Burwell and his quirky sensibilities fit best with directors like the Coen Brothers and Spike Jonze. From Norwegian folk songs in "Fargo" (1996) to the off-kilter tones of "Being John Malkovich" (1999) to fusing Beethoven sonatas with his own piano work in "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2002), Burwell often delivered his finest work for the Coens and Jonze. But while the directors earned numerous awards and critical acclaim, Burwell was typically left uncounted when nominations came rolling in. That all changed in 2009 when he finally received the recognition he deserved by way of his first Golden Globe nomination for his music in "Where the Wild Things Are" (2009), which seemed to promise greater things to come.
Born on Nov. 18, 1955 in New York City, Burwell began studying piano, with a particular eye toward Mozart, when he was seven years old. He attended the private Kings School in Stamford, CT, which he followed by receiving his bachelor's degree from Harvard University in 1977. While at the Ivy League school, he studied animation and electronic music while pursuing an independent study at the MIT Media Lab. Following his graduation, Burwell began working as a teaching assistant at the Harvard Electronic Music Studio. In 1979, he took his first steps into filmmaking by directing the animated "Help, I'm Being Crushed by a Black Rectangle," which won first place at the Jacksonville Film Festival and second place at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Also that year, he began working a regular nine-to-five job as a computer scientist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, where he wrote image processing and protein analysis software. In 1982, Burwell began a five-year stint working as an animator and computer modeler at the New York Institute of Technology, where he wound up switching jobs to become the director of digital sound research.
Though he maintained a steady job for several years, Burwell also pursued his musical ambitions, performing in several punk bands like The Same, Thick Pigeon, and Radiante. Just as it seemed he might end up a working stiff the rest of his life, along came the Coen Brothers, who saw Burwell's off-beat style as akin to their own quirky filmmaking sensibilities and hired him to score their first film, "Blood Simple" (1984). He next landed his first studio gig, scoring the music for the rather forgettable "Psycho III" (1986). But a reunion with the Coens on their second feature, "Raising Arizona" (1987) - in which he assigned each major character a distinctive theme, including the "Spanish rock opera" that greeted the arrival of the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse (Randall "Tex" Cobb) - allowed Burwell the opportunity to leave the day-job world and focus on scoring films for a living. In fact, he remained the resident composer for the Coen Brothers, working on every one of their films, while at the same time, branching out to write the music for some of Hollywood's biggest movies.
Burwell composed his first full orchestral score for "Miller's Crossing" (1990), the Coens' stylish excursion into the gangster film, where his lush melodies served as a counterpoint to the hard-boiled characters' clipped dialogue. For "Barton Fink" (1991), Burwell worked closely with sound designer Skip Lievsay to develop a minimalist score that melded with the other sound effects, resulting in only about 20 bars of actual music in the entire film. Also that year, he composed the scores for "Doc Hollywood" (1991), which he followed with the film version of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1992) and "Storyville" (1992). Following work on films like "Waterland" (1992), "Wayne's World 2" (1993) and the rock-themed "Airheads" (1994), Burwell teamed up again for the Coen Brothers' Capra-esque screwball comedy, "The Hudsucker Proxy" (1994), which was mostly inspired by Aram Khachaturian's ballet "Spartacus." After composing "Rob Roy" (1995) and "A Goofy Movie" (1995), he gave the Coens' "Fargo" (1996) a Norwegian flair by using the folk song "The Lost Sheep" as his main musical motif. Burwell moved on to score some rather big films at the close of the 20th century, including the tense thriller "Conspiracy Theory" (1997), the lyrical drama "Gods and Monsters" (1998) and the aptly off-kilter "Being John Malkovich" (1999), which marked the first of several collaborations with director Spike Jonze.
As his career progressed, Burwell added a wide variety of films to his resume; from big budget studio movies like "The General's Daughter" (1999) and "A Knight's Tale" (2001) to more independent-minded fare like "Before Night Falls" (2000) and a contemporary take on "Hamlet" (2000), starring Ethan Hawke. Though technically not credited with composing the music for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000), which mostly consisted of remixed folk and bluegrass music, he did write a few connecting pieces. He next fused together piano sonatas by Beethoven with his own work for the Coen Brothers' neo-noir "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2002), which he followed with the music for "Adaptation" (2002), his second teaming with Jonze. While continuing to churn out fine work for the Coen Brothers on "Intolerable Cruelty" (2003) and "The Ladykillers" (2004), Burwell found himself routinely left out of the several year-end award nominations, despite writing the music for award-winning films like "Kinsey" (2004), "No Country for Old Men" (2007), "In Bruges" (2008) and "Burn After Reading" (2008). His luck changed, however, following another collaboration with Jonze on the director's adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are" (2009), which earned Burwell his first Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score - Motion Picture. Also that year, he turned in more excellent work for the Coens on "A Serious Man" (2009), while scoring the music for the surprise hit Sandra Bullock drama, "The Blind Side" (2009).
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Provided computer graphics for Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Kazuyuki Hirokawa's "Lensman", an animated science fiction feature
Wrote first film score, for the Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple"
Composed first orchestral score, for the Coens' "Miller's Crossing"
First TV score for "Framed"
First minimalist score for "Barton Fink"; score melded with other sound elements; only about 20 bars of music in the film
Reteamed with the Coes brothers to score "Fargo"
Wrote the theme music for the UPN animated series "Dilbert"
Scored "Gods and Monsters"
Composed the music for "Where the Wild Things Are"; earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score