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‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ Composer Says He Approached the Film Like a Fable



For Searchlight’s The Banshees of Inisherincomposer Carter Burwell reunited with Martin McDonagh after collaborating with the director on In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Using such instruments as the harp and the celesta, he began composing the score while focusing on Colin Farrell’s Pádraic, building upon the tragedy and sadness that his character encounters throughout the film. In total, the score took six to eight weeks to compose, although he’d already begun coming up with ideas for the music while McDonagh was filming. “In the end, it almost became more like a fairy tale,” Burwell tells THR. “The score pushed it into a world where it’s a little bit more an allegory than a story that might have truly happened.”

Carter Burwell

Carter Burwell

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

You have frequent collaborators, Martin McDonagh among them. What makes you want to work with a specific filmmaker again?

It really comes down to: They feel like I’m contributing something to their film, and I enjoy the process of doing that. I enjoy the films, but behind it all is a similar worldview … the ability to see sad, tragic, violent stories also having a comedic side, [which] is something ironic and funny about our species.

What was your approach to scoring Banshees?

I began largely with Colin Farrell’s character. We see most of the film from his point of view, and he’s this naive man-child. When we first see him, he’s got a big smile on his face because it’s another sunny day in Ireland, and you get the impression everything’s going great for him until exactly two minutes into the movie, when that stops being true. I started by playing with his childlike qualities. The way the melodies are structured, the harmonies are not totally straightforward, and it does suggest that there’s something that’s off or is going to go off in the story.

Did you draw any inspiration from fairy tales?

I noticed that at a certain point, it did seem a little bit like all the bell sounds from the celesta and the harp and generally the sparkly quality in a lot of the score. [was] fairy tale-like. One weekend, I was reading Grimms’ fairy tales to my daughter; [in] Cinderella, there’s a scene where the horrible stepmother has her daughters cut off parts of their feet in order to fit into the slipper. I thought, “Wow, that sounds familiar” [alluding to Brendan Gleeson’s Colm severing some of his fingers in Banshees]. It dawned on me that one way of looking at what I was writing already for Banshees was that I was turning it into a fable, and Martin liked that approach.

Was using the same instruments throughout the score as a throughline important to you?

I did keep basically the same set of sounds throughout the film, and it’s very simple: the celesta, harp, flutes and marimba, and then some low percussion-like tuned gamelan gongs. What happens is, because of the nature of the story, that same playing of innocence at the beginning of the film. [becomes lost innocence] at the end of the film. It plays the tragedy of what’s going on, but placing it in a sort of ironic way, which seems suited to the film and to Martin’s writing style.

The island of Inisherin isn’t real. What was it like crafting a score for a fictional place that has so much folklore and fables attached to it?

Everything about the design of the film — the photography, the costumes — sets you in a very specific place and time. But even before Martin shot it, he told me that he didn’t want the score to put you in Ireland, that despite every other aspect of the film being very specifically situated there, he didn’t want that in the score. He wanted the audience to be able to generalize the story. It’s not just about these characters in this place and time. The basic experience that goes on in the film is one that we’ve all had. The score doesn’t really take the geographical setting of Ireland or the cultural background of it into account.

What challenges did you face?

I sent Martin some early pieces about Colin’s character, and he thought I ended it on a somewhat positive, major-chord feeling, and he wanted it to be more ambiguous. In the end, I mostly avoided major or minor chords. Honestly, this film was pretty easy to put together because we both saw the film the same way, despite us not really talking about it that much.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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