SFIFF: A Conversation with T Bone Burnett

My wife and I attended A Conversation with T Bone Burnett at the San Francisco International Film Festival yesterday evening. Critic Elvis Mitchell moderated, interviewing Burnett and, briefly at the end, taking reader questions. Every so often they would stop for clips from movies Burnett had worked on.

A singer, songwriter, musician, producer, and musical historian, Burnett has done just about every job in the music industry except work in a record store–and for all I tboneburnett know he’s done that, as well. But this being part of a film festival, the conversation stuck to his cinematic contributions, both as a songwriter and as a producer selecting already-written music.

Most of the clips highlighted that producer/historian job. We watched George Clooney sing (with someone else’s voice) “Man of Constant Sorrow” from O’ Brother, Where Art Thou, and Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon sing, in their own voices, from Walk the Line.

Mitchell started off asking about Burnett’s first film gig—as a singer and sort-of actor in Bob Dylan’s epic mess, Renaldo and Clara. “My first gig was with Bob Dylan in 1975,” Burnett recalled. “It’s all been downhill from there.”

He noted his first work for the Coen Brothers, The Big Lebowski (also the first clip shown), where he selected the songs to be played through the movie. They “all came out of The Dude,” he recalled, referring to the lead character played by Jeff Bridges.

Speaking of Bridges, they first worked together on Heaven’s Gate. Their most recent and extensive collaboration was last year’s Crazy Heart, which won both of them their first Oscars. “Jeffrey’s been in training for this part all his life.”

Some other interesting quotes I jotted down in the course of the evening:

  • “I want to be one of the storytellers. Each song serves a purpose and becomes part of the story.”
  • “Movies will either accept a piece of music or they won’t.”
  • “I like working with writer/directors because they have a real sense of the story.”

One final note: They discussed and showed a clip from Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain, for which Burnett extensively researched Civil War music. (“You can’t really understand America if you don’t understand the Civil War.”) Burnett isn’t the only person who worked on that movie speaking at the festival this weekend. So did editor Walter Murch, who gives the State of Cinema Address this afternoon.

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