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.

Las Vegas New Year’s Eve: To Dance

Headliners of all stripes and styles are seizing the moment to take stages all around town, and that includes several major hotel performances. Whether they’re opening a hot new nightclub or just partying with old friends, musicians all over the city want to make it a night to remember.

At the Cosmopolitan, the legendary Stevie Wonder is kicking off 2012 at the Chelsea, while a potential heir to the piano crooner throne John Legend will be onstage at The Pearl at the Palms, followed by an afterparty at Moon. Also on piano, Bruno Mars is playing The Bank at the Bellagio, while Chris Brown’s show at Pure at Caesar’s Palace will be set to the backdrop of the Strip’s fireworks show. And throwback alert: Vanessa Williams will be taking the stage at the Riviera, performing her favorite old R&B hits.

The rockers of Guns N’ Roses are finishing off their farewell tour with a two and a half hour set at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel—singer/rapper Drake will kick off 2012 with a performance the following day. If you like your rock a little more alt, Franky Perez is playing a set at Rocks Lounge at the Red Rock Hotel; their other venues are hosting DJ BKNY at Lucky Bar, and Latin dance group Toto Zara at Onyx. Turntables more your speed? Steve Angello (the house DJ and one-third of DJ trio Swedish House Mafia will be spinning all night at XS Nightclub at Encore. And if “Party Rock” is your anthem of the year, LMFAO is coming to Haze at Aria for the midnight show.

In clubland, House of Blues at Mandalay Bay goes punk for the evening, with performances by Old Man Markley and NOFX, while producer and rapper B.o.B. takes over LAX at the Luxor. Poptart Fergie opens up the new outpost of 1OAK at the Mirage, while bandmate Will.i.am is spinning at Surrender at Encore with DJ Ammo. And for one of the biggest tickets of the night, R&B goddess Mary J. Blige opens RPM Nightclub at the Tropicana. Many VIP packages have already sold out, but the hotels are planning on making these concerts a party—even the cheap seats are sure to come along with a good time.

If you haven’t had enough (or, let’s face it, are still up the next day) dance out your hangover at Hyde, the new club opening at the Bellagio at 5pm on Jan. 1 with DJ88 spinning, snacks from Circo, and a special show by DJ Paul Oakenfold.

Las Vegas New Year’s Eve: To Drink

You may have noticed a significant omission in our last New Year’s Eve story—after all, how could we write a party round-up without including one of the biggest party cities of them all? But that’s only because what’s planned in Las Vegas for 2012 is so big, it required its own day. Herewith, our guide to the best of New Year’s Eve festivities in the hotels on the strip:

For a straight up club experience, the Spectacular Spectacular at The Palms sounds like it will be just that, with Paul Oakenfold playing at Rain, the John Legend afterparty (more on that later) at Moon, Miss Nevada USA hosting at Ghostbar, and a horde of Playboy bunnies taking over the Playboy Club. Naturally we’d suggest the VIP pass, for unlimited access to a selection of top-shelf liquor from 10pm to 1am at all the venues. At the Venetian and Palazzo, there’s a similarly comprehensive situation, with their five combined bars hosting Midnight Mix from 10pm to 2am, while DJ Sam Ronson spins on the terrace at Lavo, in the Palazzo, from 9pm to midnight, finishing up with a major fireworks display.

For a loungey experience, the heavenly bodies of Cirque du Soleil will be lighting up the room at Gold Lounge at the Aria Hotel, while the heavenly bodies of the Kardashian siblings will be spread around town, hosting (for better or worse) what are sure to be hot tickets: Kim at Tao at the Venetian, Kourtney and Scott at Chateau Gardens at Paris Las Vegas, and Rob at Tryst at the Wynn. And make room for some nostalgia: Pamela Anderson will host at Studio 54 at the MGM Grand, a big goodbye bash at the 14 –year-old venue, which will be closing early next year, while starlet Taryn Manning will be hosting at Tabu with DJ Kid Jay.

Stay tuned for our guide to Las Vegas’ most lavish eateries, up next…

Celebrating Our First Man On The Moon: A Vegas Party Spot, Vintage Shirts, Unearthed Audio

Forty years ago today, America landed on the moon. It was awesome. Fourty years later: it’s still awesome. How’re we gonna celebrate this historic occasion in human exploration? By getting drunk in Vegas, dressing for the occasion, and watching the BlackBook Exclusive *real* footage that was never previously released.

Partying: If there’s one appropriate place to be tonight, it’s the Moon. Or rather, Moon, in Vegas, at The Palms. It’s at the top of the hotel, above the Playboy Club—where the view’s pretty good—but gets better once you step in, where a retractable roof, a patio that looks over the Strip, a glowing dance floor, and a location where George Clooney picked up his last girlfriend sits pretty. Worth whatever you have to do to get in, it’ll be a great time, tonight.

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Commemorative Fashion: Okay, so maybe you shouldn’t wear this tonight—you’ll be like the guy who wears the band t-shirt to the band’s concert, and you should never be that guy—but HOMAGE, a T-Shirt company that boldly proclaims to “turn back the clock with shout outs to eclectic moments and personalities,” put together a pretty awesome Buzz Aldrin shirt, pictured below. The HOMAGE shirts are butter-soft, are perfect fits (not too big, not too tight), and get lots of looks. I would know, I bought their JCC Basketball last September, and it’s still in every laundry cycle, and it’s awesome, bright blue has faded just enough to look believably vintage. I still get asked about it. Pretend you were there when it happened and blow $40. Just don’t try to pass it off as authentic, craterface. Not cool.

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Googling: You can pretend to be an Astronaut, because Google turned their little Google Street Maps guy into one. Stupid, but strangely satisfying.

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Secret Video: We promised, and we delivered. The conspiracy that we didn’t land on the moon is patently ridiculous. The real conspiracy, however, is that the audio used for the moon landing that was subsequently dubbed over for the American Public. We present it to you here, for the first time. The audio’s a little NSFW, but the truth is NSFH (Not Safe For History). The Truth Is Out There, people.

Las Vegas: Home for the Holidays

Yesterday, our travel blogger Bryce Longton noted a few things to do while in Vegas for Thanksgiving. I appreciate the effort, since I’m headed there tomorrow. But I’m from Vegas. I was born there, raised there, went to school there. I lived there for 18 years and got the hell out as soon as I could. Some people like it! It’s never really that cold! The traffic isn’t so bad! You can make more money without a high school degree in Vegas than any other city in America! And there’s no state tax! I see it another way, though: It’s a cultureless hellhole where Innocence and Purity go to die; where people’s worst impulses (greed, lust, ego) are incessantly well-fed and encouraged; where they won’t legalize pot or gay marriage, but where you can still turn a trick (or buy one) legally an hour outside of town. And even though Vegas tourists keep the local economy alive, they’re by far the worst kind: drunk, unruly, stupid, and in town to spread their diseases (typically: venereal). That being said, there are a few places I have to drop in on each time I go home to make me feel … a little more at home. Some places in Vegas simply aren’t replaceable, and they’re the few that make going home actually kind of worth the trip. Besides, you know, family and friends.

Eats:

Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop – The best sandwiches in Vegas, I tend to hit the locations closer to home instead of the original West Sahara one, which is tended to by Office Jockeys and workers flooding right off The Strip, down the street. Then again, if you live anywhere in Vegas, it’s pretty hard not to find a location more than ten minutes from where you live, these days. Get a “Bobbie” and throw it in your fridge; one of the 20″ers will feed you for a week, and it’ll stay good that long, too.

In-N-Out Burger – People here in New York regularly freak out when talking about California burger chain In-N-Out, with good reason: (1) they refuse to expand past Arizona/Utah, (2) the Burger Wars here are brutal, with top-caliber chefs inanely devoting too much time and money to perfecting the art of The Fleeting Perfect Burger, and (3) once you find it, or the closest thing to it, you have to wait half an hour for it. In-N-Out never costs more than $10. The ingredients are fresh and amazing. They never take more than ten minutes. And yes, their burgers are perfect.

Mr. Lucky’s 24/7 – Coffee shops in hotel/casinos are both indistinguishable and everywhere. And I can’t say exactly what it is that makes Mr. Lucky’s so special to me, but I do know this: They’ve got the old, deconstructed Sahara sign hanging on the wall. I’m pretty sure that you can still smoke in there. The Hard Rock Hotel still, after all these years, manages to play decent music (despite barely booking any at The Joint anymore). The food’s decent, the coffee’s typically pretty great, they serve halved grapefruit in a bowl — which doesn’t sound too impressive or exclusive, but for whatever reason, feels incredibly right, there — and their waitstaff is typically pretty great looking, which certainly isn’t the norm for a 24-hour coffee shop in Vegas. Good vibes; go here all hours.

Todd’s Unique Dining – Family-run local bistro that — in regards to service, dependability, and quality of food — is better than almost everything else in Vegas. It’s also cheaper than everything else in Vegas that would be of its quality, but the owner (Todd) and his wife (Terri) are there, supervising the their product nightly to keep it top-notch. A hidden gem and relief from the complete Celeb Chef Name nonsense of the Strip, my parents will inevitably eat at this nu-Green Valley institution 12 to 13 times over the course of a week. I honestly can’t blame them.

Luv-It Frozen Custard – Frozen bananas. Frozen custard. Down the street from my old synagogue and a Catholic high school I went to for one semester. Nobody gave a shit whether or not it was Kosher or Without Sin. Know why? Because it’s so. Goddamn. Good.

Fun:

Green Valley Ranch – A locals’ casino with a decent spa, a nice pool, some decent restaurants, and a solid movie theater. The late, lamented Whiskey Sky lounge may be gone, but the remaining venues are still pretty slick. It’s always clean, the crowds there are only slightly decrepit, but beware of both the off-the-beaten-path tourist (What the hell are they doing there? Exactly.) and the nice Jewish bubbies sitting in the poker room. The latter will just creep you out, the former will roll you like the easy, stupid mark you are. Or so goes my experience, sheyner ponim.

Moon – My brother dragged me to this place, once. I don’t do clubs, I do bars, but for the Palms (home to The Real World: Vegas), it wasn’t really half bad. Beautiful view, not terribly priced drinks. Still: full of skanks. Full of ’em.

Las Vegas Gun Range – As a young man, I’m fond of loud noises. And while I don’t particularly like guns or what they stand for, I do like the fact that going home, you can basically do whatever the hell you want in regards to making loud noises. I mean, look at this! Christ! You can shoot an Uzi! Apparently, shooting a shotgun will make you feel like Dirty Harry. I’m in.

Callaway Golf Center – Besides the freedom to make loud noises, in Vegas, on the Strip, you can also hit things. Like your spouse! Kidding! Callaway Golf is right off of the strip by McCarran Airport — so if your swing is good enough, and you’re not distracted by 747s landing over your head, maybe you can knock out a window or two in the Mandalay Bay. But no, really, I once saw a guy choking his wife by the elevators there. Vegas — home — is crazy. Really.

Liberace Museum – Okay, so I’ve never actually been. But I like to tell people I’ve been. I’ll never go. Going home is nuts.