CMA Awards 2018

Inside the Long-Running Partnership Between Director Todd Haynes and His Favorite Composer

Benjamin Ealovega
Haynes (left) and Burwell.

Todd Haynes’ films are marked by a collaborative spirit, particularly evident in his latest and seventh feature, Wonderstruck. Haynes reunited with actresses Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, cinematographer Ed Lachmann and costume designer Sandy Powell for the film. But it's composer Carter Burwell, who scored Haynes’ Carol, Mildred Pierce, and Velvet Goldmine, whose work feels the most distinguished this time. Billboard sat down with Haynes and Burwell to talk about both their latest effort and past projects. 

Wonderstruck (2017)

Based on the children’s book by Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck weaves together two seemingly unrelated narratives. The story begins with Ben, a 12-year-old boy who, after the death of his mother, journeys to New York in the late '70s to find the father he never knew. His scenes are overset with Rose’s, a young deaf girl growing up in 1927 who also escapes her home for New York, in search of a revered silent film actress she worships.

One of the obvious challenges that accompanies a film like Wonderstruck, where capturing period detail becomes so essential, is its score. Haynes showcases two distinct time periods and, in Rose’s scenes, he borrows from the silent films that dominated the early aughts.

“There’s the need to have music going all of the time. Literally all of the time. Because there are no sound effects or dialogue in that section of the film, if the music wasn't there there would be this silence that would be kind of jarring. In No Country For Old Men we’d have quiet sections, but there was still the sound of air moving in the room,” explains Burwell, who also has a regular gig scoring for the Coen Brothers.

Nevertheless, the music didn't necessarily have to adhere to the same sort of time considerations as rest of the film. “Everything you see on screen has been so meticulously designed -- the costumes, production design, everything -- but music doesn't need to be telling about the actual physical world where the characters live. It’s really just about their inner lives,” continues Burwell.

Although Burwell’s score is less interested in adapting the music of the periods and more preoccupied with articulating the headspaces of Ben and specifically Rose, Haynes did stumble upon a thread linking the music of 1927 and 1977. 

“There’s all these opportunities, like the rag piano portion of the film that is interweaving their final walk, both kids, to the museum. They are still on the streets of New York. It’s a fairly long passage of piano, but it’s a rag piano. All of a sudden you are like, wow, rag piano? That’s something that came out of the 1920s, Scott Joplin. That kind of stuff was appropriated again in the '70s through The Sting. Scott Joplin became a radio figure again. There was a lot of nostalgia recycling in the 1970s. All of a sudden the rag, which also feels innocent, playful, jazzy, but not austere in any way, felt absolutely appropriate to both kids’ stories and also appropriate to both time periods.”

Carol (2015)

Before Wonderstruck, Haynes joined the league of directors adapting Patricia Highsmith novels, choosing to bring her romance novel The Price of Salt to the screen. Taking place during the rigid Eisenhower era, Carol is an aching love story between the titular character, a wealthy housewife, and Therese, a salesgirl at a department store. Burwell received an Oscar nomination for his score, which, as with Wonderstruck, is more concerned with capturing the interior than the 1950s. 

“It’s very subjective in Carol, completely. Sometimes when it plays you completely ignore what is going on in the world because it is playing what is happening in Carol’s mind,” Burwell says. 

Speaking about the score in his films at large, Haynes adds, "The score functions in ways that kind of permeate conscious to unconscious. In a way it’s the glue between those elements. I think that’s the ultimate realm of movies, something emotional and unconscious and something conscious and referential that’s a language.”

To explain this he alluded to a notable scene in Carol, an ethereal sequence with Therese that evidences the power of Burwell’s score. 

“It’s taking the song ‘You Belong to Me,’ a cover that they’re playing on the radio, it’s completely distorting it. We tried this [Brian] Eno thing on top of it and it just created some hybrid of consciousness, desire basically. You are aware of things that are happening beyond the material world around you. Patricia Highsmith describes when Carol puts her hand on Therese’s shoulder in the scene where she’s playing the piano in her living room. The feeling of the fingers on her shoulder burn through her skin. Right after that Carol kisses her on her head, but the feeling of the fingers burning through the shoulder is so loud that she misses the very thing she wanted to remember the most, which is her kissing her on the head! It’s like you are not even present for what you most want to experience when you are in love. Everything gets distorted by something else.”

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Although not a direct biography of David Bowie or any one particular figure of the glam rock movement, Haynes’ third feature sees the rise and fall of Brian Slade, a fictional figure in the early '70s scene. Velvet Goldmine is the first collaboration between Haynes and Burwell. Because the film is made up of popular music from the period, Burwell’s role is more minimal, but nevertheless significant.

“I really didn't want you to feel that you were hearing film score at any point. A lot of what I did takes the form of songs. The instrumentation is like that. We didn't have strings or anything that would take you out of the pop world. So much lives in that world.”

Haynes, who will next return to the '70s with a documentary on The Velvet Underground, used Velvet Goldmine to explain his directorial interests.

“I think the way I approach the idea of directing movies, or what my role as a director has always been is as an interpreter or curator. It’s not really about inventing original ideas. It’s never been something I’ve claimed for myself or that I have aspired to. It’s more about recombinations of cultural artifacts that exist historically, putting things in different combinations that make you look back at the world through different kinds of frames,” he says.

Of glam rock he adds, “It was a musical moment in popular culture that collided -- that’s what American music is, all of these musical influences colliding -- but it was a really interesting love affair between American and British strains coming out of the 1960s, rebelling against the Flower Power ideology of the '60s. Finding something very complex and sophisticated in this hybrid between British music culture transvestism and a dark, hardcore summation of '60s expression, which you see in The Stooges and The Velvet Underground and music like that.”

Harping on the idea of his films being about hybrids of culture, Haynes concludes by talking about The Velvet Underground and how he was approached by the multitalented artist Laurie Anderson, also the wife of the late Lou Reed, to make the documentary.

"I think great documentaries start here but end up here. You can’t really plan for where they end up. But because of the unbelievably rich and unique time that produced the Velvet Underground in mid-'60s avant garde culture mixing with popular culture mixing with music, fine art, and cinema all of these thing -- that is a visual hybrid, a visual and sonic time of incredible invention.” 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of Billboard.