A quarter of a century since his band Pop Will Eat Itself first graced the UK singles chart, Clint Mansell has become the thinking-filmmaker’s composer of choice. From his end of the phone in Los Angeles, he reflects on a career change that happened almost by accident, one which now sees him scoring everything from biblical epics to crowdfunded films about his former record sleeve designers.
WHAT’S YOUR FIRST RECOLLECTION OF MUSIC AND IMAGERY HAVING AN EFFECT ON YOU? WERE YOU PART OF THE ORIGINAL “HIDING BEHIND THE SOFA FOR THR OPENING TITLES OF DOCTOR WHO” GENERATION?
I was definitely behind the settee for the Doctor Who theme; that really did unnerve my generation. But that’s the power of music. It can really evoke something. And then there were the effects on the doctor’s face in that sequence. They were very new things for young minds. Another musical cliché of my generation is Bowie’s performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops. Though it wasn’t film, it was very choreographed. From that night onwards I knew what I wanted to do. It spoke to me like nothing else had up to that point. But my dad was a film buff and he liked cowboy movies, and they always had great, rollicking themes.
I remember movies that would be independent now, such as Walkabout, which is John Barry’s score, and Parallax View, which is scored by Michael Small – both different, but powerful and evocative. I don’t recall thinking about it at that age, but it was undoubtedly becoming a part of me. A few years later we were into Twin Peaks, and in the interim there was Blade Runner – [these were] all things that were speaking to my generation. When I was in my band, we pilfered a lot of film soundtracks, for inspiration and homage, shall we say.
POP WILL EAT SELF, AND BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE, MADE QUITE OVERT CONNECTIONS BETWEEN THEIR MUSIC AND FILMS.
It was a fabulous time, [we were] on the cusp of something new. The sampler was a very new phenomenon for us, it opened up doors to things we could previously only have imagined. We had loads of cassettes of stuff we’d taped off TV or videos – voices or even background noises – and it imbued the music we were trying to make with a bit of a cinematic feel.
IT WAS A GREAT PERIOD FOR CROSS-POLLINATION, WITH POP MUSIC MAKING YOU SEEK OUT CINEMA YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT, AND VICE VERSA.
I’m not convinced we live in a time where that’s still happening, but it’s probably happening in different ways. We’ve perfected the marketing of both industries, both forms of expression, so well now that everything has to be a certain way; there doesn’t seem to be as much room [for crossover] – maybe I’m just talking about the mainstream. But I love the way that one art form can speak to another.
THE STORY ABOUT HOW YOU MOVED INTO MAKING MOVIE SOUNDTRACKS IS THAT YOU BUMPED INTO DARREN ARONOFSKY, PRETTY MUCH BY CHANCE, AND THEN WROTE MUSIC FOR PI. WAS IT REALLY AS SIMPLE AS THAT?
It was exactly as simple as that. I’d left the band and moved to New York. I had nothing going on, I was going to try and work on an instrumental electronic record, but I was confused as to where I was heading. My girlfriend at the time knew Darren’s producing partner Eric Watson, and he told her about a film they were trying to make; it needed music, and she said [to him], “You should talk to Clint, he loves film and he loves music.”
I had a meeting with Darren and Eric, we kind of agreed that music in film at that point had become very much like wallpaper, we were bemoaning the lack of modern film scores that could sit alongside the ones we had grown up liking. So we had a bit of a bond, but they had no money for the film, and it was all a bit of a long shot.
WHAT GAVE YOU THE CONFIDENCE TO DO IT? I IMAGINE IT’S A SUBSTANTIAL THING TO SET ABOUT SCORING A MOVIE FOR THE FIRST TIME?
Originally I was only going to write the opening title, and Darren was going to use pre-existing electronic music for the rest of the film. So at first I didn’t go “Fuck, I’ve got to write music for a whole film!” But the other fortuitous thing was that we didn’t have money, which meant that they couldn’t licence the tracks they wanted, so every time they lost a piece of music from the film they asked me to write a piece to replace it – so I got in there piecemeal if you like. And there was no industry involved, nobody looking over our shoulder; we were left to do what we liked, and by doing that our relationship developed. You learn to trust each other. And also from that we learned the power of a piece of music written specifically for a scene. Again, because there was no money it took a long time to edit the film, so I had plenty of time to figure out what the fuck I was doing. When you don’t know what you’re doing, you just follow your own path.
THE NEXT FILM YOU MADE TOGETHER WAS REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, AND THE MUSIC FOR THAT, ESPECIALLY “LUX AETERNA”, REALLY MOVED INTO PUBLIC CONSCIOUSNESS, INDEPENDENT OF FILM.
Again, I blame it on not really knowing what you’re doing. You have no fear because there’s nothing to fear. And getting it wrong is a really good thing. When you write music for a scene and it doesn’t work, you learn so much from that, it’s unreal. It makes you focus on what you need to be doing; Requiem was very much like that. With Darren
I always write before shooting starts – when we see the dailies, there’s some music to try. But once we start seeing the images it’s a whole different ball game. With Requiem we had the idea of reworking some classic hip-hop songs into the score, but it didn’t really work. I had some stuff I’d written for Darren prior to shooting, there was a CD with about 20 little sketches and we spent a weekend going through it. One of the [sketches] was this three-chord progression; when we dropped it in, it blended with the images, it was amazing – it just came alive. It wasn’t written to picture, but that’s the power of the synchronicity between the two: the music and the imagery give you that transcendence. But then it’s like a curse, you’re looking for it all the time, and honestly, you can’t make it happen, it just happens. If you try and calculate it, it comes out forced. We live in such over-analysed times, I subscribe to more of a Burroughs-type approach of randomness, that will throw it at you, and to me that feels more powerful.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCES BETWEEN WRITING SOUNDTRACK MUSIC AND POP MUSIC?
It might seem like film music has more constraints. If you’re writing for yourself you can do whatever you like, whereas writing for film is a bit more of an exercise – with a certain framework that you’ve got to fit into. But actually for me that focuses the mind more, so I found moving into film very liberating; I could focus on what was needed rather than thinking about all the other possibilities that might not be relevant.
Film Score Appreciation post!!!