Clint Mansell has scored every one of Darren Aronofsky’s films: from early work such as Requiem for a Dream, where he threw electronica against the urgent and intense strings of the Kronos Quartet, to new films such as Black Swan, for which he re-worked bits of Tchaikovsky to fit the film’s frantic, unravelling narrative. This weekend, Mansell is coming to the Melbourne Festival to perform a suite of his works with a nine-piece band. We caught up with him to discuss changing careers and why he used to hate film scores.
Broadsheet: Prior to your film-score work, you were a pop star. How smooth was that transition?
Clint Mansell: It was very un-smooth. I was in British indie band Pop Will Eat Itself for over 10 years. Being in a band becomes your identity. It was my whole youth, and after that I was lost for a while. It was a fortuitous meeting with Darren that opened doors for me, but even then it was a few years before I really got a feel for it. I guess we were very fortunate to meet each other at a formative time, and we’ve grown and learnt together. It hasn’t always been an easy road.
BS: Do you have musical training?
CM: No. Other than the fact that I like and listen to a lot of music. But I’ve been writing my own stuff for years.
BS: Your early work, like Pi, was atypical and electronic. But by the time of Black Swan you were re-writing and re-arranging Tchaikovsky. That’s quite audacious for someone with no musical training.
CM: There’s 15 years between those, during which I grew in experience and confidence and probably arrogance.
BS: Do you have a process you go through every time?
CM: To some degree. It all grows organically. Every score starts with a very big blank piece of paper that has to be a full, multicoloured work of art at the end. If you think of it too much at the start you’ll go mad, so you find your way in. I spend time with the film, and work closely with the director whenever I can. Usually with Darren I see scripts way before they’re ready, so I can start thinking about it. I often work on ideas before shooting has started. That way he can work from my ideas as well.
BS: This music is designed for a purpose – how does it lend itself to performance, where it's the sole focus?
CM: Because it’s goooood. Also, for performance, I create new suites based on the scores. It’s different when they’re front and centre on stage; the compositions are given room to shine.
BS: What got you into film scores?
CM: I grew up watching a lot of films with my dad. There were a lot of great counter-cultural films being made in the ‘70s: challenging intellectually, but also musically. When I started discovering my own tastes, they were scores that weren’t just out of the box. Films like Blade Runner. That score is universally acknowledged as good, but hardly anyone does that sort of thing any more. Good scores are a character in their own right.
BS: People might think, in terms of outcome, your job is to underscore the emotional peaks, but otherwise keep out of the way – do you agree?
CM: Well, who was it that decided there was one way to make a film, and one way to score it? How fucking boring is that, you know? I want to have an emotional connection with the film.
A lot of film scores are just crap. The first thing Darren and I bonded over was that we hated film scores. Most of it is just sonic wallpaper. I’m interested in films by people like [Alejandro] Jodorowsky or [Werner] Herzog or Gaspar Noé – films that don’t adhere to that idea. Every sense ought to be stimulated by a film. John Carpenter is probably one of the best film composers ever. Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, for example – they might not be perfect films, but the scores elevate them.
BS: Have you ever had to make that sonic wallpaper?
CM: Yes, I have. It’s worth taking opportunities like that. You never know what you’re going to like. I’ve done a few romantic comedies, and I quite enjoyed them. Then I’ve done films like Sahara that are quite straightforward as well … but who fucking remembers that? Am I going to be lying on my deathbed thinking, ‘Well, Sahara was pretty good’? Being a film composer is one of the best jobs in the world. Why not make it even better by choosing really interesting projects?
BS: Where next?
CM: I’m really liking working with Ben Wheatley on his new film High-Rise [based on J.G. Ballard’s dystopian sci-fi novel]. Ballard isn’t the easiest to adapt, so it’s a wild ride and I’m given a lot of leeway. The needs of the film obviously come first, but I’m able to find that character that adds to it.
Clint Mansell plays the Melbourne Recital Centre this Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday afternoon he’ll appear in conversation at the NGV.