Clint Mansell is a long ways away from his days as frontman of alt. rock band Pop Will Eat Itself. Since his first stab at it on Darren Aronofsky's “Pi,” he has forged a singular career as a film composer, working on productions as varied as “Knockaround Guys,” “Sahara,” Moon” and “Stoker.” But it seems whenever he comes back to the table with Aronofsky, that's when something magical happens.
Mansell has worked with Aronofsky on each of the director's features – “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain,” “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” and now “Noah” – and you can tell talking to Mansell that the creative rapport they've managed to sustain is rare. Mansell is pretty straight-forward about what he wants out of this gig, and Aronofsky has always come across the same way. So it certainly makes sense that they would keep coming back to the well.
We talked for a while and Mansell got refreshingly candid about all of this, so read through the back and forth below for an inside look at how he and Aronofsky first came together, the state of film music today and how “Noah” might even be a bit of a distant cousin of another of their collaborations, “The Fountain.”
“Noah” is now available on DVD/Blu-ray.
HitFix: There's an interesting sort of cadre of rockers-turned-composers. It's like you and Reznor and Elfman. Do you guys get together to commiserate?
Clint Mansell: [Laughs] No, I haven't seen either of those guys in ages, actually. I mean I used to see Trent. I basically used to live at his studio in New Orleans in the late-'90s. I was down there for like three years with him. But I rarely see him now.
Well, you've probably told this story a number of times but how did you get involved with film music composition in the first place?
I'd been playing in a band for the previous 10 years and I was sort of getting a bit old for that. I moved to New York in 1996 with this idea of, like, a solo electronic record, for want of a better description. Something a little less verse-chorus/band-oriented. I had a steady career at that point and, you know, rock and roll or whatever you want to call it is a young man's game, really. I was still a million dollars shy of being a millionaire and I didn't really want to be shoehorning myself into some leather trousers and trying to rock the circuit at 50 years of age, you know?
So it just felt like the right time to make a change or attempt something new. And at first it was a complete disaster, to be honest. Being in a band for 10 years and being on the road and drinking and God knows what else, you know, it was brilliant – I really enjoyed it – but it sort of leaves you depleted, shall we say, in the best possible ways. I was just exhausted and I always got depressed. It's like anybody when they change a job or change careers to some degree. What you've been doing has been your identity and it sort of leaves you a little bit lost at first. And whilst I was writing stuff I couldn't really get anything finished. I just didn't really know what I was doing, I think, was the honest assessment of the situation.
So Darren and “Pi” came into your life around this time.
Yeah, I met Darren through my then-girlfriend, who had worked with Darren's producing partner, Eric Watson. He used to work for the people who made videos and she was a PR person so she got to know those kind of people. And him and Darren had written this script for “Pi” and it was a very independent set-up. They had no backing, no industry. It ended up being financed purely by family and friends' donations, you know? And they didn't know anybody that could really write music for film. I mean Darren's original idea was that he was just going to use preexisting electronic music throughout the film. But they wanted an opening title piece. They had no money, though, so they couldn't really get the rights to any music anyway.
So I met Darren and we talked about music things that we liked and disliked. He showed me lots of research that he'd done about people with migraines and stuff like this. We talked about films that we liked. Specifically at the time we really liked John Carpenter. We thought “Halloween” was what film music ought to be, you know? These days I think film music is by and large terrible. It's just fucking wallpaper. It's gotten better, I think, but back then particularly we just thought it was awful. That's probably coming from a young punk attitude. You don't really have a great sort of cosmopolitan outlook in those days, which is kind of great, really, because it stops you from being wishy-washy, you know? We get older and tend to be more, you know, considerate, see other people's viewpoints, which is great, but you also end up being, like, this on-the-fence idiot, you know? Stand for something! Say you fucking hate it and you don't want to do that, you know? That's an important attitude to try and hold on to.
But like I said, it was stuff like Carpenter that we sort of bonded over early and our love of hip-hop and certain electronic stuff. So I don't know that we sort of hit it off entirely. I don't know if we're that kind of person, that you sort of instantly have this rapport with somebody. I mean it obviously came over time as we developed what we were doing. So I wrote something basically based on the script and just these reference points that he'd given me. And as I said, I was only supposed to really do an opening title piece, so I did this piece of music that was like an embryonic version of what “Pi” would become. It was almost like a pencil sketch of what the score would be.
What happened, which was very fortuitous for all of us, really – Darren was sort of editing the film when he could get free downtime from somebody. So the editing process was quite protracted. But what that did for me was it gave me a chance to learn what the hell I was doing, because I'd never done it before. And every time a piece of music dropped out that Darren couldn't get the rights to, I had to sort of write a piece to replace it. And what that did was, again, as we had nobody sort of telling us what to do and what not to do, we just went with what we responded to. The whole shape and complexion of the film changed musically because I ended up writing the full score.
And it's obviously developed into such a fruitful relationship. I love that score very much. It was a huge movie for me when I was about to go into film school.
It's a huge film for us all, really. I mean it was such an experience.
Before we get into “Noah,” I just want to gush for a moment. I've never talked to you before so just indulge me. “The Fountain” is seriously, to me, one of the great movies of the last decade and your score was absolutely transcendent. It was just one of the most penetrating scores I've ever heard. I don't actually know if there's a question here but that was just such underrated work and still is, so just hats off, I guess.
Well, thank you very much. I very much appreciate that. Darren got totally annihilated for that film. To me it's just the power of doing what you believe to be right and expressing yourself. Sometimes people don't get it, but that's kind of OK. To me it's certainly up there with my best work, if not my best. You don't tend to think about it but I know I'm really excited that I did it because I had an idea of what I wanted to do and it wasn't always easy. When you're just putting demos together people can't see what you're trying to achieve. They can only take it at face value. So you've got to ask people around you to trust in you that you're going to deliver.
Darren's always been like that for me. He's just let me do, not what I want, but in conjunction with where his ideas are going, you know, at the moment. He's perfectly happy for all his collaborators to come with the most outlandish, wackiest, whatever ideas and just work on them and see where they go. I know that it's hard for him, but he's always sort of cut out that space for me to do what I want to do. Without that support it would be very difficult to do it. There are certain films I've worked on that to me are art. I mean, yes, they have a tenuous commercial opportunity, shall we say, for want of other words, but to me they're about expressing yourself and doing something that you care about. I just wish there was more of it about, you know?
I bring it up, too, because unlike “Black Swan” or “The Wrestler,” which had music that went in completely different directions, the “Noah” score feels like it's working from a similar emotional spectrum to “The Fountain.”
Yes, very much so, to be honest. I don't know whether we'll ever get an opportunity to do part three but I feel that it's there somewhere. I mean there are sort of musical phrases, whilst not the same, but are related to stuff from “The Fountain,” and that was a very conscious choice, really. It felt of that world, you know? And yeah it would be cool to see if there was a third element.
You favor strings a lot in your compositions, I've noticed. Why is that?
To me they're so emotive, really, and I think the thing with “Noah” was it's sort of difficult to totally place them, whereas I think if you hear piano on the film score, it has a certain thing about it. There are so many sort of textural things you can do with strings, from being emotive to being jarring to being, you know, atonal. It feels like you've got quite a palette to play with.
Something like “Lux Æterna” from “Requiem for a Dream,” you compose something like that and it takes on such a life. I mean I feel like few composers know what that might feel like, to have something go off and ignite across pop culture like that. What has it felt like to hear that piece of music become so kind of ubiquitous, in a way?
It's very strange, really. I mean I've got to be honest, it doesn't really feel like much to do with me anymore. I've sort of described it as like having kids. You do what you can, you get them out there and then, you know, they're on their own living their own life. Hopefully you get a postcard from them once in a while saying that they're having a good time. It's almost like such an enormous coming together of moments. The simple fact of the rise of the Internet probably plays into it as much as the piece itself, the fact that it's accessible now to so many people. And they can do things like slap it on a video of a drunk guy trying to get beer out of a case and put it on YouTube, you know? Without that sort of technological advancement it may never have happened. I mean, yeah, it got used for “Lord of the Rings,” but it could've stopped there, you know what I mean? This sort of world that we now have that really has sort of come alive in the technological sense in the past, you know, decade, really. It's probably pushed it out into the channels more than could ever have been expected.
That's probably true. And it's interesting to look at your list of filmmaker collaborators. Aronofsky, Duncan Jones, Park Chan-wook, Joe Carnahan, Barbet Schroeder, it's sort of an eclectic group. What kinds of movies do you tend to like and how does the relationship of music to imagery matter to you as an audience member?
The movies that I like and the movies that I like to work on, I'm looking for somebody or something that's got its own voice. I mean there are movies I can watch, you know, “Indiana Jones” when it comes on cable, and absolutely thoroughly enjoy it. But that isn't the sort of film that I would probably want to work on because it needs to tick certain boxes musically. I can remember when we were doing “Noah,” I was in a hotel and I just happened to catch “Temple of Doom,” actually. But that whole film is driven by John Williams' score. You take that music out and you've got Harrison Ford pulling strange faces. The music does everything in that sort of old-fashioned way. And don't get me wrong. It's brilliant and I couldn't do it, I don't think. But it doesn't really hold that sort of interest for me, so I'm looking for stuff that allows me to draw upon my emotions and my experiences but actually brings something to the table that helps tell or support the filmmaker's world that he's creating.
And I know that I'm a bit of a difficult person to work with, because of all the things I don't like and I don't want to do. I'm not looking to please an audience, you know? I'm looking to actually do something. So that requires somebody who's on the same page as I am. I think there are a lot of film composers – and there's nothing wrong with this but, you know, one of my earlier agents just said to me, “Whatever a director says to you, just say 'yes.'” And I'm going, “How the hell could I be any help to him if I'm just agreeing with everything he fucking says?” I am not that person. You've really got the wrong guy if you want that. And if that means I can't be a film composer then so be it. I'm just not that person. If I'm writing music for a guy's film I need to understand where he's coming from. If it doesn't make any sense I'll say, “What? That's weird.”
I was working on this film once, very early in my career and the filmmaker will remain nameless but he has won an Oscar. He'd do all these different edits to the film as he's going through and sometimes beats of the story get lost. And I said after one, “Hey, what happened to so and so? That thread doesn't wrap up in the story.” And he said, “Oh, that's a refrigerator moment.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, you know, you go to the movie, you pay to see the movie, you watch the movie, you go home. You get home and you open the fridge to get a beer and you go, 'Hey!'” That's what we're doing now? You're fucking – that's what we're really doing? And I don't want to be coddled, actually. Fuck that.
So I look for people who are obviously smart and talented at what they do and they've got something that they need to get off their chest, if you like. It still may be an adventure movie but it's theirs. It's what they want to do. Then I'll be there in the trenches with them forever. I've done films, like say “Sahara” or something, that sort of fits into that sort of “Indiana Jones” type of idea. And yeah, you give it a go, but it's like, “Ah, who cares?” I mean you spend like three, four, five, six months or however long it might be working on the film that's just about trying to get some box office and ends up at the bottom of the DVD bargain bin, you know? I mean I've got better things to do in my time than that. And I'm not talking about making lots of money or anything like that. I just want do something that I care about, that I think other people will get something out of. That's a valuable way of spending my time.
Awesome. Well it looks like you definitely found something like that in Darren, so, great work so far in that filmography.
Yeah, you know, it's one of those things where you can look back on your life and say, you know, my life changed that day. I mean he would have still made these films had he not met me and he'd have a different composer and they may have been just what they are. They might have been better. But he'd have still gone on his way. I may not have. That's an undeniable moment, a fork in the road where things changed for me.
Do you have your next one lined up or are you taking some time off?
I've got a couple of things on the go but they're sort of long-term, really. I'm doing a sort of animated film, so there's a long way to go on that. And do you know Ben Wheatley?
I'm going to do “High Rise” with him next. So I'm excited about that.
Oh, OK. Great.
Well, it was a pleasure to finally talk to you. Maybe we'll meet face to face one of these days. In any case, good luck.
Yeah I look forward to that. All right man, thanks for calling. I appreciate it.