How ‘Psycho’ inspired composer Carter Burwell’s ‘very bass-y’ score for ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Carter Burwell has been the Coen brothers’ longtime composer, but “The Tragedy of Macbeth” was a different undertaking on multiple fronts. For one, only half of the duo was involved as Joel Coen wrote and directed it without Ethan Coen. The Apple Original Films project was also made during COVID-19, and oh yeah, it was a Shakespeare adaptation. But while the language of Shakespeare might be unfamiliar to modern audiences, his themes are not.

“We talked before we shot about how the play, the story, fits traditional Hollywood genres, like it fits the genre of the thriller — a couple plot a murder and then you watch how the weight of that act destroys their relationship and their world,” Burwell tells Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: Composers panel (watch above). “It’s like ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ or ‘Double Indemnity,’ which are films that are right up our alley. But also, a little bit of a horror film — the witches and the supernatural — and certainly a psychological drama at the very least. We talked about how there’s certain genres of film that it does fit into.”

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The Oscar nominee was also inspired by another black-and-white classic, “Psycho” (1960), and Bernard Hermann‘s unmistakable string score. “I saw the picture and thought strings would just go so well with this,” he states. “And because of the specialness of this year, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Oh, string players could wear masks.’ That would help with the whole problem of how to record it.”

The result is a dark and “very bass-y” score that also does not overwhelm the grandiose Shakespearean dialogue. Coen wanted underscores during many, thought not all, dialogue and monologue scenes, and Burwell used Shakespeare’s prose to his advantage.

“Dialogue is very dense, can be a little challenging for a contemporary audience to understand and what are we gonna do? Is music gonna play under these monologues? And if so, how do we make it not distracting? He did want music to play under a lot of these monologues,” Burwell shares. “We settled on this idea that the dialogue is often really the melody and that the score is the accompaniment to that. So by viewing it that way and having the music in a whole set of octaves where it doesn’t interfere with the human voice, that helped just as a concept.”

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