When the Coens first showed me the rough cut of
Miller's Crossing without any music, it was a chilling, violent
experience. I suggested to them that perhaps it wanted a "warm" score.
Their reaction was "Well, I don't know..." "You're
thinking cold?" Their response: "How about neutral?"
Soon after the film has begun, Gabriel Byrne's
character betrays his boss, Albert Finney. His motivations are
hidden behind a handsome face of steel. I wanted to suggest with
the music that his actual motivation was his love for Finney, and
I proposed doing this with a sappy Irish melody arranged for orchestra.
From David Morgan's interview with Carter Burwell in Knowing
CB: Miller's Crossing was the first orchestral
score I did. No one other than the Coen Brothers would've hired
me to do an orchestral score knowing that I knew nothing about
From the time we read the script together, before
they even shot it, we all agreed it would be nice to use
a big orchestra. We didn't know what a really big orchestra was,
but something that sounds like one - big than a banjo!
So while they were shooting I was learning about orchestration
and how the whole thing works. It was really fun. I had an
excess of time, three months, to write the score, which is a lot
more than I usually get. And also, uniquely, they had money left
over after the shoot - they'd actually come in under budget on
the movie - so we could afford a large orchestra and could do everything
we wanted to do. So it was a great experience. I love whenever
this business gives you an opportunity to do something new.
The point of having a large orchestra was to get
a big, lush, traditional sound befitting the period and mind-set
of the characters. The music had to fit a visual environment that
was rich and maybe a little ostentatious - at least an Irish gangster's idea of
ostentation - big and sentimental and lush.
DM: And "Danny Boy" playing on the
record player under the attempted assassination of Albert Finney's
mob boss was obviously an Irish gangster's idea of relaxing mood
CB: Well, it's actually a little too obvious,
yes! The Coens knew something had to be playing on Finney's record
player when the assassins arrive and they stuck in "Danny
Boy" assuming we'd ultimately find something else because
it was just too obvious. And wouldn't it be nice if we found another
Irish piece that people weren't as familiar with? But they cut
the scene to "Danny Boy" and after trying lots of different
traditional pieces there, nothing was really quite as good.
Ethan looked up the singer of our version of "Danny
Boy", Frank Patterson, and asked if he would be interested
in performing the song to our scene. Frank was very interested;
he said "This film will introduce the song to a whole new
audience!" He didn't seem at all off-put by the actual content
of the scene, some guy getting his head blown off! He was very
excited by it.
Larry Wilcox did the arrangement and we recorded
it in this extremely old-fashioned approach. Frank would watch
the film with us, and Joel and Ethan would say, "Now if you
could hit the word 'bend' here and hold it until the car explodes..." He
memorized the visual cues, sang while watching the film, the conductor
followed Frank, and the orchestra followed the conductor. I think
Frank got it in two takes. It was kind of amazing.