Feel First, Intellectualize Later: An Interview with Legendary Composer Clint Mansell

A symbiotic relationship between composer and director has always been of massive importance when creating a work that’s not only momentarily visceral and dynamic but has the staying power of something truly cinematic. And if there’s any modern composer that truly knows how to penetrate films with sonic accompaniment that haunts, excites, and transcends, it’s visionary English maestro of emotional sound, Clint Mansell. With an affinity for twisted psychological intensity, his compositions work like a drug to suck you into the world of the film and hit you straight in the gut—even with his most elegant melodies teeming with an undercurrent of unease and desperation that makes us cling to each note with pleasure. 

After departing from Pop Will Eat Itself in the mid-1990s, Mansell has been proving his tremendous ability to create a potent soundtrack, working with myriad directors from Darren Aronofsky to Duncan Jones, breathing life into their creative visions. And since the release of Aronfsky’s debut feature Pi, he and Mansell’s work have become synonymous with one another’s—intwined in such a way that one’s images conjure up the other’s sounds, while one’s sounds evoke a very specific movie of the mind. And as one of the most simpatico working relationships in the world of film today, the two have shaped many a vision together—from the iconic paranoid and heartbreaking score for Requiem for a Dream, to the classically harrowing sounds of Black Swan, and the music to come for the upcoming Noah

So although we’ve become quite accustomed to hearing Mansell’s sound in one very specific world over the years, it’s interesting and thrilling to see him lend his talents elsewhere—as he has recently with his incredible work on Moon and Stoker. And in a very rare treat, this week Clint Mansell will take to the stage at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle to play his first New York City performance. Live with a string quartet, full band, and video projection Mansell will be playing songs from Stoker, as well as a taste of everything we’ve grown to love and obsess over him for from Requiem for a Dream, to The Fountain, to Moon, and back around. 

A couple weeks ago, I got the chance to chat with Mansell about composing from gut feeling, the joke of 21st century filmmaking, and how mood’s overarching effect.

So do you find that live performance translates well to your music? Is performing something you still enjoy from your past when that was such a large part of your work as a musician?
I always enjoyed playing live when I was younger. But the experience of playing live, in a lot of respects, is a youthful thing. It’s sort of pleasing to me—and probably my family members—that I found a way to re-enter the live environment but doing it somewhat age appropriately without having to shoehorn myself back into a pair of leather pants to rock the house, you know? 

And it’s a wonderful space to perform in.
We played a church in London a few years ago and it was beautiful. Churches just have an ambiance of their own. With film music, there’s a lot of long quiet passages—which is not really what people usually go to gigs for, so it may require sitting down and being a bit attentive, but obviously a church would really lend itself to that, so I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t played a gig in New York since 1996 when I was part of something called Night of Nothing at Irving Plaza where I was a guest member of Nine Inch Nails for a few songs.

What originally struck me about your music is how psychologically rich it feels and how it transports you into the mental landscape of its characters so fully. How do you go about building these worlds of sounds for the films you score and do you have a certain process?
I’m not very analytical really; everything I do is based on gut feelings. I just spend a lot of time with the film and with the characters and allow it to consume me, I suppose, and completely absorb it so that you’re thinking about it on a subconscious level. A lot of the films I’ve done have tended to have a main character who is driving the story whose journey I have to support. Black Swan was probably an example of that. This character was totally obsessed with her work and getting the role, but the fact that it’s a ballet, that music would have haunting her and taunting her the whole time. You know what it’s like, the first thing in the morning you might hear a record on the radio, and you can’t get it out of your head all day. So I thought well, if you imagine that the music is actually part of what you’re doing and you’re listening to it all day, it will drive you insane. To a degree, it’s very similar to what I do. I listen to the same bit of music over and over again. I see my stuff as a very Burroughs type approach.

Like cutting-up of the work?
Yeah, I like to write a piece and move it to a place where it wasn’t written for—which is not exactly a revolutionary idea but it does bring in an element of chance, so things occur that you wouldn’t naturally gravitate towards or wouldn’t have occurred to you. You can get these ideas in with like a very violent scene but with music that’s very beautiful—you can juxtapose and it gives you so much more than just the one note of: oh here’s sex, here’s violence, here’s a kiss; you musically can bring in other layers. You can build up an idea of who these people are. My job is to embellish the universe that the filmmaker is trying to create with this story and images and performance; everything I do has to be true to that world. You don’t want something to happen musically to take you out of the movie. So I’ve constantly got to find my way into these characters’ heads and be aware of the fact that if something doesn’t ring true that I’ve got to do something about it. Like in the film Double Indemnity, Edward G. Robinson is an insurance claims adjustor guy and he can spot something’s off with an insurance claim because he gets this little man that gives him indigestion— that’s kind of what it’s like.

Do you tend to use the character as the musical conduit for the story? Like in Requiem for a Dream, there’s the song "Marion Barfs." A lot of the songs from that film sound like they’re scoring the entire scene or the specific chapter of the story but a song like that sounds like its scoring from her insides. 
I don’t think I would analyze it that deep really because it’s really a gut thing, it’s an emotional thing. I think the application of intellect, that comes after the fact—for me, anyways. I just respond to something and so I don’t know if I think about it in that linear kind of way.

Well that’s the best way to enjoy a film: to experience it and feel it first, then intellectualize later.
When I first get a film I watch it and watch it and then I kind of jam to that picture, just very rudimentarily on a piano whilst watching it. And believe you me, it’s very unmusical at that point. But what I’m getting is rhythm and momentum from the performance and feel like I can just respond to what’s going on emotionally and  build from there and get deeper and deeper. You can go in and color-coordinate, find out how these scenes fit together and do that on an intellectual basis. But I always tend to come from the emotional side—which is a gift and a curse. It may not always be the right way to go but you know, that’s how I do it. 

The beginnings of your career, playing with Pop Will Eat Itself, etc., that was a very different musical world than you’re in now. Did you make a conscious effort to move into scoring or was it more of an organic progression that happened from meeting Darren [Aronofsky]?
It was a completely fortuitous chain of events. I’ve always loved film, I’ve always loved film music, but my choices of what I like in film music are probably quite different. I come from more of John Carpenter, David Lynch school of film score appreciation and you know, John Williams, no offense but that’s not really my thing. So I was always interested in stuff like The Parallax View with Michael Small’s music—minimal really but really evocative. I also grew up watching cowboy movies with my dad and those have great rollicking scores to them as well. But then in my late teens, early 20s is when I discovered cinema of a lesser known nature, Blue Velvet, Betty Blue, etc. stuff like this. Those films all have much more interesting musical senses to me. To this day, I wouldn’t give you a round of drinks to what the score to Die Hard 5 is, I mean who fucking cares—no offense to anybody working on—that but who cares?

Well it’s completely different. With someone like Angelo Badalamenti, his music is like a character of its own in Lynch’s films.
Absolutely. Filmmaking, by in large in the 21st century, is a joke I think. It’s all basically the same thing designed to get 15-year-old boys to part with their money. So that was never really of interest to me. I spent a lot of time listening to music and movies that I was excited by and when I met Darren, these are the things that we bonded over really. He was getting the money together to do Pi and he had no real musical connections to people, and we were introduced through mutual friends.

Were you working down at Nothing Studios with Trent [Reznor] at that point?
No, I was living in NY at the time. If Darren had known someone with film experience, he may have preferred to go with someone with chops—but having said that, knowing Darren maybe he wouldn’t have either. You’d think that if you were making your first film you might want someone with experience opposed to some guy who was a long-haired alcoholic in a rock and roll band. 

But if you share a sensibility then that’s important.
We bonded over these different elements of filmmaking that we were excited by, and we were very fortunate in a lot of ways on Pi because it meant that we had no industry or nobody butting their noses in telling us what to do. We had time to figure out what we were doing, and originally Darren wanted to use pre-existing electronic music for Pi and I was just going to write a main theme, a snappy title. But then because he had no money and no real contacts, he couldn’t get a hold of the music and the rights, so every time they lost a piece I basically had to write the piece to replace it. And by doing that I needed up scoring the whole film. And by doing so, Darren and I figured out what we liked without anyone telling us we couldn’t do it this way or that way. We just didn’t know. Even when we did Requiem, we just didn’t know. We were just doing what we liked and that’s an invaluable, invaluable experience. 

Do you miss that sense of freedom?
To be honest, I still have a huge awareness over the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing and honestly, I think that’s an absolute benefit. Sometimes when I meet with a director, I tell them that the biggest ability for me is having the time to get it on, because you start off the film and it’s like a huge blank piece of paper and you’ve got all these choices and you make one or two and certainly your options have narrowed hugely. But that kind of vulnerability, I don’t know if people like that, they seem to like the sort of I’m here to solve all your problems! 

But that music, I’m sure would be pretty void of any authentic feeling.
Of course, it’s bullshit. You know how the movie industry works, people aren’t into vulnerability or actually having an emotional connection to something, they like trousers stuffed to the gills with confidence. I think that’s why we have so many poor products. And obviously I’ve scored a lot of films now, so I do have some knowledge about the process, but the feelings aside, to start every film is like, what the hell are we going to do with this? My most successful movies—and by successful I don’t mean box office, just my own personal preferences—are the ones that I’ve had to try hard and dig deep to find things and challenge myself. I mentioned John Williams earlier, I couldn’t do what he does; if someone said, we really want a John Williams or Hans Zimmer type, well, you better get someone else. I can do what I can do but I’m not a musician, per say, I’m not classically trained musician. I noodle around on piano and guitar and I have to find the emotional moment. I look for the moment in the story where everything comes together that’s bigger than all of those parts are, these moments of transcendence that just elevate you somewhere else. 

So yes, aside from working with Darren, you’re very selective about the films you take on. How do you go about choosing a project and how early on are you brought into the process?
It’s got to have to be something that appeals to me, something that makes me think I’d connect to the story. And there’s a time for everybody where you might just need a job, of course, but the one’s you’re really excited about like when I first read the script to Moon. It blew my mind—why aren’t scripts like this every day? It just had everything I love: isolation, loss, memory issues, just so intellectual while being deeply emotional. And you know, that’s exactly what I am looking for. I’ve been very fortunate in as much as a lot of my work has had a life outside of the film it’s been written for, which have afforded me the opportunity to not have to jump at every job that’s come my way. There was a time that I did so that I could learn my trade really, but in doing so, I also found the things that I don’t like or can’t do and areas where I can shine. Stoker was very much like that. 

And that was such a stunning soundtrack, but sonically that entire film was just mixed so well.
The sound of the film is just incredible. The balance between the sound design, the score, and the dialogue is just so finely tuned and elegant. I would never have thought to put any of my work in an elegant category but just everything on the film is just beautiful. That all comes from the director and their sensibility. Before I’d gotten offered the Stoker job I’d actually withdrawn from scoring for a while, because after Black Swan everything that was coming my way was crap. The film was successful, so bigger films that want to be successful think they can use you now because you have this proven hit factor or something. No, it doesn’t work like that and I was getting all these rubbish films. And I knew I was going to be doing Noah with Darren and I thought I’d just explore some other things for a while.

Where do you look to draw from for inspiration?
Music in general really. I definitely go through love/hate relationships with music. Sometimes I can’t bear to hear it and other times you just want to play it all day. That’s the fantastic thing about music for me: there are no right and no wrong answers, it’s just what it is and it’s people’s expressions of themselves and their feelings and you don’t when yesterday’s cacophony is going to be today’s sweet melody because you’re in different moods and different times. Again, I like this sort of Burroughs thing of random experience and if something happens to fall into your lap. There’s great music out there. It’s really that simple, I suppose. Some days everything works like a charm and other days it sucks; so, obviously my own moods play a big part it in.

So did you start working on Noah?
Yes, I haven’t been on it that long. I had written stuff in advance just based on the script and I went to Iceland to the shoot to just get a few for things. I’ve just been chipping away at it.

Well, I’m very excited for that one. But are there any favorite films you’ve worked on, ones that particularly allowed you to explore something new?
I tend to always like the later stuff I’ve done because I’m always just thrilled to have gotten through another film and actually had some meaningful music involved in it. But I did really enjoy Stoker and I just finished a film called Filth. But probably The Fountain and Moon are amongst the favorites of my own—but you’re kind of always hoping the next will be the best one.

I also always loved how your music works so well in the films and with the characters but it also can have a life of its own separate from the work. Personally, I listen to the Requiem soundtrack when I need to calm down, which is probably odd but I love it.
Does that help?

I must be pretty anxious if that’s going to relax me.
So it’s like the equivalent of giving hyper active kids Ritalin or something.

Precisely.

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