Alternately haunting and dark, whimsical and bright, experimental or pastoral, Oscar-nominated film composer Carter Burwell is closely associated with independent films due to his multiple collaborations with filmmakers such as Todd Haynes, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, Martin McDonagh, and particularly Joel and Ethan Coen, having scored all but one of their first 15 films. Burwell's first feature was the 1984 thriller Blood Simple, the debut of the Coen brothers. He also wrote the music for the feature-length debuts of Spike Jonze (1999's Being John Malkovich) and Martin McDonagh (2008's In Bruges). In 2008, his compositions could also be heard in the blockbuster teen romance Twilight. In 2011, he won an Emmy for the mini-series Mildred Pierce and returned to the Twilight Saga for Breaking Dawn, Pt. 1. Burwell's first Academy Award nomination was in recognition of his intimate chamber music for the 2015 Haynes drama Carol. A second Oscar nomination followed for his contributions to the folk-minded palette of McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).
Born November 18, 1954 in New York, Burwell took piano lessons as a child and learned to play blues guitar as a teenager. He studied architecture and fine arts at Harvard, but wasn't considering music as a career; upon graduating, he first worked in a biology lab, then as an animator, while playing in punk bands by night for fun.
A mutual friend referred him to the Coen brothers, who were seeking a composer for their 1984 debut feature, Blood Simple. They all hit it off, and Burwell was re-employed for the Coens' next project, the kidnapping caper Raising Arizona (1987), where Burwell blended samples with a variety of thematic source materials. The Coens' 1990 gangster film, Miller's Crossing, was Burwell's first fully orchestrated work, and he attracted more attention for 1991's groundbreaking Barton Fink. For that film, he composed only 20 bars of music, which were then treated with various sound effects and reshaped throughout the film by sound designer Skip Lievsay.
Burwell's workload increased steadily as the '90s progressed, and he began taking on more mainstream film projects: Doc Hollywood (1991), Wayne's World 2 (1993), and Airheads (1994), among others. He won wide acclaim for his work on 1995's Rob Roy, which kicked off the most prolific period of his career -- over 35 films in the next five years. Among the highlights were the thriller Conspiracy Theory (1997), Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters (1998), the fictionalized glam rock chronicle Velvet Goldmine (1998), Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich (1999), and the David O. Russell Gulf War epic Three Kings (1999). In addition to his film-scoring activities during the '90s, Burwell also played accordion and synthesizer with new age artists like Gabrielle Roth and David Hykes' Harmonic Choir.
Burwell remained in high demand throughout the 2000s, reteaming with Jonze on Adaptation (2002), scoring Sidney Lumet's final film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), and making his debut in the Twilight Saga with original installment Twilight (2008). He earned his first Golden Globe nomination for Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are (2009) and completed six more Coen brothers films during the decade.
The year 2010 saw the release of Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit, featuring music by Burwell, and he returned to the Twilight Saga for Breaking Dawn, Pt. 1 (2011) and Pt. 2 (2012), both directed by Bill Condon. He also reteamed with McDonagh for 2012's Seven Psychopaths and with Condon for 2013's The Fifth Estate and 2015's Mr. Holmes. Burwell earned his first Academy Award nomination for his score to the Todd Haynes romantic drama Carol (2015), based on the 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt. He reunited with the Coens for 2016's Hail, Caesar!, which consisted of a choral-orchestral Burwell score as well as songs he co-wrote with Henry Krieger and Willie Reale. Burwell composed the music for the 2017 Haynes mystery Wonderstruck before receiving his second Oscar nomination for his work on McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Released in 2018, the episodic The Ballad of Buster Scruggs marked the composer's 16th feature-length collaboration with the Coen brothers. ~ Marcy Donelson & Steve Huey