With Black Swan out on home release, the film composer extraordinaire discusses being Darren Aronofsky’s right-hand man.
Very few musicians can make the jump from songwriting to feature film-scoring. Even fewer can claim to be one of the finest in the business. One man who can is former Pop Will Eat Itself member Clint Mansell. The once-dreadlocked pop-punk visionary of the 1980s gave LWLies a detailed breakdown of his extraordinary path towards becoming the most exciting film composer of the last decade recently, and discussed his unique long-term working relationship with Darren Aronofsky.
LWLies: Was your early work as a film composer kind of like trial by fire?
Mansell: Well yeah, I mean the original idea [for the Pi score] was that I was only going to write an opening title piece, sort of the main title piece. The concept was that they would use pre-existing electronic music throughout the film, and they had a whole list of songs that they wanted to use and they were pulling more ideas out. I did a piece on spec based on the conversation that Darren [Aronofsky] and I had had, and based upon the script. And it was basically a variant of the main theme that is now the main theme of Pi, but it really wasn’t it yet. But I was so nervous taking this idea into them, and with Darren being Darren, he wanted to get everybody round to listen to it, but everybody loved it.
I guess it was quite industrial sounding at the time, it was pretty dark, it had this sort of [hums a short motif] that sort of motif in it. I think it just gave it the identity that Darren had been talking about. And that’s sort of one of the things that’s continued throughout our relationship; me writing pieces of music in advance of him shooting, or when I’ve read the script, just trying to pull the atmosphere together. But the problem with that was that they had no money to license those tracks, and they had no real track record so no-one wanted to give them the use of them for nothing. So, every time a piece of music dropped out that they couldn’t license, I had to write a piece to replace it.
Did you find that quite difficult? Was that something quite difficult given what you’d been used to doing in your previous years in Pop Will Eat Itself?
I don’t remember actually, is the honest truth about. I was kinda at a strange place of my own at the time. I still thought of myself as a songwriter at the time, I wanted to write an album. So this was sort of like a distraction, plus I had the worst case of writers block in the world at the time of doing Pi. But Pi actually just liberated me and opened it up.
When you first met Darren, was it clear from your first meeting that you got on together in a collaborative sense?
Not overly I don’t think, we were both a little cagey. I’m not the easiest person to get to know, I’m very… not withdrawn… but reserved. In a collaborative sense, I’m quite reserved.
Was Requiem for a Dream a totally different beast to Pi? When Darren put the script together, how did he sell Requiem to you?
Well after we’d finished Pi, he said to me, he called me up one day, and I was still living in New York because by the time I did Requiem I was living in New Orleans. But before I left New York Darren called me up, and Pi hadn’t come out or anything by this point, and he said that I’d done a great job on Pi and that, ‘I think, if you wanted to, you could do this for a career.’ And I said that I’d never considered it, it was just a sidebar at the time, I suppose, even though I enjoyed doing it and I was happy that they’d got me out of my creative funk if you like. But you know, scoring films is one of those jobs that other people do, I was never going to get the chance to do that as much as I love movies and I love movie soundtracks, it just didn’t seem possible I suppose.
Afterwards we kept in touch and Pi went to Sundance and he won there, and it was all exciting and it came out in the summer after I left New York, and it seemed to be doing really well you know, people were talking about it. The I got a couple of calls for other films, just for random people that’d managed to get hold of me, nothing really came together but I though ‘Wow, people seem to like it, that’s pretty cool’. But he gave me the script of Requiem and he had a few other people interested in scoring it for him obviously, he said he wanted to go with me again and if I wanted to do it. So I said yeah.
How challenging was it for you being only the second film that you’d really got your teeth into?
There’s like a kind of blind naivety where you kind of hobble on. I mean, after a while, I realise this now but I didn’t realise it then, you raise the bar for yourself and you go ‘Okay, I know that’s not really good enough’ for whatever reason, sometimes you can’t respond to it and just have to say, ‘You know what? I’m not responding to that, it’s shit, I’ve got to do something more.’ And I’d again prior to Darren shooting the film, and reading the scrip, I’d done this CD, because we’d moved on from cassettes by this point, we were now able to burn our own CDs. I sent him something like an 18-track CD of musical ideas, and we got stuff that was working, there was no piece like what I brought in on Pi that really galvanised everything where you just knew you had the world that the film existed in. We didn’t have that with Requiem.
Compared with other directors you’ve worked with, is Darren not one of those people who’ll ever try to rein you in or say ‘I’m not really feeling this idea’, does he ever have those conversations with you?
Yeah, I never really got there to be honest, the only conversations we have about any sort of dilemma are always about time, and are we going to make it. Like with Black Swan we had a conversation about a month before we were due to score where he was asking, ‘Are we going to make it?’ And I say to him, ‘Yeah I think we are, but we’ll know more in a weeks time’, and that I need a good weeks work to get things through to a point where you can realise where I’m coming from. And it’s never that he doesn’t trust me or that he doesn’t like the ideas, it’s just have we got the time to get it done and to see these things through. I think he believes in it even if he doesn’t quite see what I’m doing. I mean he’s said himself sometimes, ‘I don’t really get that’ but he always lets me run with it, because, sometimes you know, my ideas at first probably don’t nail the idea that I’m working towards, but I want him to get an idea of what I do.
There was a six-year gap between Requiem and The Fountain. In that six years, there was a lot of work that you were doing on and off. Is that difficult?
Well yeah, we worked on The Fountain for like two years before they pulled it, it was six weeks out of the shooting stage. I had written a fair amount of music, not loads, but I’d written stuff that had much more of a tribal feel I guess would be the best way to describe what we were looking at. It was a much bigger picture at the time than what it ended up being, and it probably would have ended up being quite ethnic.
Did you and Darren find the process of working on that one more difficult than you would, say normally?
I imagine it was more difficult for Darren than it was for myself. We used to have production meetings once a week that I would go to, and obviously Darren was working on the film all week, but that was my main involvement, chipping away bits of music at a time. And obviously I was working on other films at the time as well as the fountain, but I would go to the meetings and we would talk about it, and Id have little sketches and we’d talk about the script. It would have been a lot more intense for Darren than it would’ve been for me. I was just sort of involved early enough to take on board what was going on and get in the mindset of it all, and to research ancient music, and we talked to a bunch of different people about that, so a lot of it was cerebral as opposed to anything else, we were just trying to discover the world of the movie more than anything else at that time. But they sot of went away, Darren toyed with a few other things, he just kept coming back to it and saying he wanted to do it.
He sort of re imagined it as a smaller piece, and that sort of changed the basis in which I was coming at it from. And it took in that time, six years is a long time after all, I had a lot of work with other directors, so built up a team of people who could really help in a bigger scope on Darren’s film, and I learnt a bit about working with orchestras, and what I liked, what I could do, what I didn’t like doing and you know just discovering myself in that time, myself in the context of the film scoring world. I did films that were very generic from my point of view, not the films themselves but my take on them, I did a couple of bigger films and did what I thought a couple of bigger films would sound like, and I completely misfired, it didn’t help me find my own voice in any way other than, ‘Ugh I don’t really want to do that again’.
With Darren we imagine there’s still a lot of precision and production for the bits that he’ll use on set. Could you just talk through some of those bits you do, because obviously they won’t be what people naturally hear when they see the finished product.
Well what I had to do, the major part of that, was to create the rehearsal pieces that you see in the film when there’s just a piano player playing, and there’s a piano and violin. We had to basically create the pieces that they would rehearse to. So I would do this then and then I’d work with Ben the choreographer, and he’d go ‘Okay this is the music, but what I need is this element or that element to be less or more… I need there to be a gap there.’ that sort of thing, so there was a fair amount of procedure to it even though they were pretty much sketches. Which we then had to go back and re-record when the film was finished. But I didn’t end up writing any actual music for them to use on the set over than this on camera stuff.
Why do you think there was the decision to bring that in this time perhaps rather that in other situations?
Well because it’s actually in the film, when you see the film you see the piano player playing, so that needed something to play. But we needed to have a constant if you like, if we had a constant piece of music that they were rehearsing to, then Andy the editor would always have something to cut to, and I had something, we all had a reference point of the same piece of music playing at the same tempo through all those scenes. So all our work would be choreographed from that, so it would be a necessary benchmark for us all.
Was Darren ever tempted to get you to cameo as the piano player?
[Laughs] He never asked me.
You weren’t a first choice then?
No, I did my cameo in Pi and my hands are in Requiem for a Dream, but I haven’t been asked back since.
Your hands are in requiem for a dream?
Yeah, there’s like a scene where Jared Leto’s character is meant to be doing something with vinyl on a turntable but that’s actually my hands not his.
The original proposal was that you were going to use the Swan Lake score, and obviously the links within the movie are all there for people to see, but when you’ve got something like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake score, how do you even begin something of that size and notoriety?
I’d seen Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake a few years back, and Darren had given me the idea, and something that I kind of believed, that nothing was sacred really. I thought about it a lot and I listened to it a lot and then I just thought there’s no point in me trying to pretend that I’m this classical appreciator, steeped in history, I know everything about this… I don’t. What I do know is it’s like Vincent Cassel’s character says at the start of the film, Swan Lake has been done to death, but not like this, stripped down, raw, and I though maybe that’s where I’ll start. Then it goes back to that sort of punk rock ethic of, ‘Yeah that was great old man but fuck you I’m gonna do it like this’. Which with the greatest of respect because it’s a fantastic piece of work and there’s such insanity in it it’s brilliant. But to do anything of value to it meant going okay, and thinking outside of the box, and I’ve got to bring myself to this and think what would I do if someone asked me to remix Swan Lake. What we did was we transcribed the entire ballet, so that I had all the parts, and I put them all on the computer so that any bit that Tchaikovsky has written I could have access through the computer, and I just started slipping stuff out. Listening to it, going through it and highlighting bits going ‘That feel dramatic’ or ‘That feels sad, that feels scary’. Then almost filing those away.
If Tchaikovsky has written a 16-bar passage with 144 notes in it, I would strip that down to a repetitive four-bar loop that now had maybe 24 notes in it or something. So the essence of his piece was there but it was now something different because if you took swan lake and used it as a modern film score it would be almost laughable, because it’s telling you everything that’s going on, like a silent movie score almost, you know, ‘Now I’m upset, now I’m grand’ so it’s all big grand gestures, which really isn’t the modern film score way if you like. There are particular moments when you can unleash that but most of the time it’s purely underscore. So really we were stripping it down to make Swan Lake a modern movie score, and you just start a bit at a time. There was a lot of work, it’s much more in line with the amount of work we did on The Fountain and not The Wrestler, that’s for sure.
Would you say that Black Swan also came with the same kinda of pressures and stress levels that you got with The Fountain or did you know where the bumps were going to be and were prepared for them I suppose?
Well it was very stressful recording the score for Swan Lake because while Fox really stepped up and gave us the money to do it the way I wanted to do it, we were still very time compressed, it was exhausting doing it. But it gets done and, Darren and I have worked together a lot so he knows that it’s going to get done and he trusts that the scenes that he’s been thinking about I’ve probably tweaked. But when you’re in a situation where you’re recording like that with an orchestra, every second count. And you’ve got like 80 musicians to read parts and the clocks ticking while you’re doing that, it can get quite high pressure while you’re doing that. You know, I wouldn’t say it was anything particularly out of the ordinary or even particularly noteworthy.
Where did the idea for using Swan Lake come from?
Well the thing was that because there’s the black and white swan in the story, and the film itself it about two opposite characters, it jut all started to fit together. The story that Swan Lake tells musically, we could perhaps rework that so that it follows the same arc, but use our score throughout the film, so it becomes a it’s like if the character is obsessed with Swan Lake then the music would be in their life all the time. So it’s almost like a physiological element, so as well as this score it’s almost haunting her or taunting her. It’s all started becoming organically wrapped up in itself, you know? It makes a lot of sense that that would be how the music would develop.
How do you feel about some of your other scores? Like Definitely, Maybe, for example…
I really like that score, it was a real challenge for me. It’s another example of working with someone, not just the director, but the producers who… you know I’d done Smokin’ Aces with Working Title, and then they came to me and asked if I would be interested in this film Definitely, Maybe, and Adam [Brooks], the director, he liked my work but knew that what I did in general was not going to be right for his film, but he was very, very direct, and he never changed his mind about what he needed from me, and he and the producers allowed me my time to find my style of doing that. And that was a really great experience. I like that score myself, it was a real different challenge for me, but working with really good people enabled me to find something new about what I did.
Black Swan is out now on DVD and Blur-ray.
This interview was conducted for Little White Lies