‘Banshees of Inisherin’: How Grimm’s brother ‘Cinderella’ helped inspire the film’s music

When the filmmaker of “Banshees of Inisherin” Martin McDonagh first mentioned the film to the composer Carter Burwell, he kept the tone simple. “It’s about two guys breaking up.”

A few years later, McDonagh sent the script over and over again, he didn’t precede it by anything. Says Burwell, “He wanted my opinion because it involved screen music. Brendan [Gleenson’s] character, Colm, plays the violin.

Set in a quaint Irish coastal town, the story revolves around Colin Farrell as Padraic and Colm. After years of friendship, Colm decides he just doesn’t want to be friends with Pádraic anymore, but there’s also a theme of violence – albeit self-inflicted violence.

McDonagh made it clear that he did not want the score to sound like Irish film music. Burwell reveals: “He said, ‘I hate that deedle-dee, old world Irish film music and I knew it wasn’t going to be that. The composer behind “The Morning Show” and “Carol” says he didn’t know what the score would be at first and sat on the idea for a while.

Says Burwell, “I came with different directions. Colin’s character is so childish, and it was clear from the script. He’s like a Disney character. He even has a miniature donkey and he has these animals around him. So, I thought I’d try something with a childish look.

Burwell also considered the character’s journey that begins in a fairy tale location. But in the end, everything is “badly derailed”. Burwell illustrated this theme with “the celesta and the harp and those pretty tinkling sounds”.

McDonagh came to the table with a few sounds already in mind: Brahms’ “Lieder”; a Bulgarian coin used at the start of the film; and a piece of Indonesian gamelan.

“It was confusing to have an Indonesian piece on this Irish film,” Burwell admits, but the two liked it. “I worked on the gamelan gongs at the bottom of the score. They’re very low and not very obvious, and they give it an otherworldly quality.

However, when the score was completed, with character cues and the island sound, the gamelan gongs were unsuitable, so the composer rewrote a cue instead. “I used big metal gongs which give this dark mystery to the whole thing, even if what is happening upstairs with the bells and the harp is very pretty.”

Halfway through composing the film, Burwell read “Cinderella” by the Brothers Grimm to his 11-year-old daughter, which further helped him break the music. In the Grimm version of the familiar story, the stepsisters cut off pieces of their feet trying to fit into the glass slipper. Combining the horror of this version with a children’s fairy tale set the mood for the music he was working to compose. Burwell says, “It’s horrible, but it’s a fairy tale. I realized that it helped me get an overview of the score.

The fairy tale sound he had with bells, a harp and a flute was a base for him to make the sound darker as Brendan’s Colm started to hurt himself, and he knew he was going into the right direction with the score. Says Burwell, “It was going to make the film’s physical violence that Branden inflicts on himself a little more metaphorical.”

For the music Colm plays in the film, Gleeson, who also happens to be a real-life violin player, ended up composing the piece his character plays. Burwell says, “I never submitted a concept for this. Brendan on camera is writing his own piece and it was just perfect for the character.

Burwell gave Kerry Condon’s character, Siobhan, a theme that was an extension of Farrell’s character.

As Padriac’s unmarried sister, she turns out to be the emotional heart of the film, the logical voice in this argument between the men. Quick to question Colm about his decision, she is also supportive of her brother
Says Burwell, “His signal is mostly percussive with small marimbas and glockenspiels. For her, there is a bass flute, in particular, which has a dark tone. Bass flute and clarinet complete Siobhan’s theme with added strings and wind instruments. The idea was that his sound would be punctuated with a deeper, more emotional feeling.

As for the movie’s lighter comedic moments, Burwell says it was a balance between turning off the music and allowing the audience to laugh. Other times, he says, “Some of the funniest bits come from the music amplifying the horror of what’s going on or just a disjunction between how Colin’s character sees the world and how Brendan’s character sees the world.”