One thing that has prevented me from straying into interviews with musicians is my ignorance of all things formal regarding the one art form I seem to have no trouble enjoying but little ability to comprehend.
After listening to composer Clint Mansell talk in an interview about music being a fluid process, much like writing, that’s based more on feeling what works and what doesn’t, not even necessarily focusing on measurements or note placements, you feel like there could be a deeper understanding of film composing beyond the idea that it’s nothing more than gathering dozens of people in a room; as such, you’ve got to make sure you have that one guy with the thick fuzzy drum sticks hovering over many timpani. Clint just seemed like someone who is meeting old school film music with a nouveau approach that it sorely needed.
Just listen to the REQUIEM FOR A DREAM soundtrack. It bends your will in thinking this music is a note by note, blow-by-blow, audible journey that could only accompany Darren Aronofsky’s vision of descents into disintegration. It’s just as hardcore as the film and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t get what Clint does better than his more classically trained peers.
After receiving an award from the Chicago Film Critics Association recently for his work on THE FOUNTAIN, much respect has to go to The Kronos Quartet and Mogwai in the execution of Clint and Darren’s vision, he is also nominated for a Golden Globe that he way very well be picking up tonight should the stars, and Xibalba, be aligned in his favor.
Regardless, though, of whether he wins or loses I had the sense by the end of our conversation Clint honestly is a rare breed who believes in the work and in the process of work. There are far to may individuals who concern themselves with the quantity and profile of the jobs they take in his line of work, certainly he deserves to be one of those people should he want to tout his precision with PI or REQUIEM even THE FOUNTAIN and screw any notions of impropriety, but Clint makes you believe that there should be more collaborators out there who feel as close to other people as Clint does about working Darren. I wish other people were more kind about the professional relationships they keep but it’s nothing short of inspiring and emboldening to hear Clint talk about the real work that happens behind the screen in making two of the most complex and emotionally rewarding movies that have come out in the past decade.
To say that I’m disappointed with critics and viewers alike for their neglect of a film that had more heart than a comeback-kid who slaps on the gloves for “one more fight” would be a gross use of the word.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: First of all, congratulations, on the Chicago Film Critics award.
CLINT MANSELL: Thank you very much. I am pleased that the film, the score, is getting some kind of recognition. I guess we were all kind of disappointed, really, with some of the reactions to the film. I don’t suppose…maybe we weren’t that surprised in retrospect.
It’s just nice, though, that the film got recognized.
STIPP: To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, I interviewed Darren the morning after I saw the film and mentioned that it was his directing and your score that genuinely elevated the movie from something great to something transcendent; it was the perfect marriage of both the audio and visual components. These two work in concert so well, Kronos Quartet and Mogwai deserving a heap of credit too, and I am curious to know, you coming from a pop, punk, electronic background, what bug bit you to get into film composing?
MANSELL: I think it’s a natural progression for me, really, as a writer. I mean I wrote my first song about twenty years and I think writing is like a muscle, if you exercise it…it will grow and you’ll get better at doing it. It will take you places.
I’m excited by music by other people’s music, it influences me, and makes me want to do better and takes me to different places when I listen to it. That is reflected in the music I want to write. When you get to work with someone like Darren, who I really connect with on an artistic level, as well as on a friendship level, but when he explains and tells me his ideas I feel like my possibilities are unlimited, you know? I can’t do whatever I want but if I can make it work within the context of the film, if we know it’s right, I can pretty much do what I want. The last thing Darren wants is something that sounds like a regular movie score.
And like you were saying about the visuals and music working in concert…the way Darren tells his stories are not…the regular, run of the mill, act one, act two, act three type of events, you know, he’s looking to do something different and challenging if only to himself. I don’t think he’s particularly going, “The world needs me.” He’s going “Well, if I am going to do something it’s got to be worthwhile and say something to me and challenge me” knowing that’s what he instills in all of his collaborators.
We’re not just here trying to get the best table at fucking Spago’s or something. We’re here trying to do something. We went out and did something that we felt was valuable and that’s the excitement of what we do and, also, the downside to that is when people don’t see it the way we see it; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as they say, just move onwards and upwards.
STIPP: And you have the Golden Globes on Monday. I’m curious to know, on a personal level, how you look at these awards. Are they a popularity contest or is there something special to it all?
MANSELL: Well, who knows what the criteria is for these things. There’s a cynical way of looking at it and then there’s my view on it which is I’ve done something I’m really proud of with people I love and we did something that…for me, to get nominated or an award for this particular work I’ve done, given that the film wasn’t a critical success, wasn’t a box office success, it’s certainly not coming from a popularity contest point-of-view.
If I got this award for something like some other films I’ve done, like SAHARA, which I something I’m proud of as well, I did good work on those but maybe I’d look at it differently because they’re more straight-ahead kind of films. So, for me, to have been nominated and the work recognized, I take it as a fantastic form of credit for the work we all did on the film.
STIPP: Speaking to the point of how long this film took to come out can you talk about whether the ideas you had for this film’s score evolved as the project took its many turns? Did the score that’s in the movie end up being what you initially envisioned?
MANSELL: No, [the score] became something completely different…because the film changed so much; we started this right after REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. I mean, yes, I am very proud for what I did on REQUIEM FOR A DREAM but there is no way I could have written the music for THE FOUNTAIN that I have now written back then.
I mean I’ve done a lot of other work since then, some of it good, some of it pretty good, some of it has been shit…(laughs) It’s been a real learning experience; I’ve really exercised that creative muscle. And, also, because the film changed it became a much more intimate story on a much smaller scale.
When we started out it we knew it was going to be this epic…there were these big battle scenes…and everything happens for a reason. I think a movie, the way it was back then, it would’ve made the movie a different animal. I’m not saying that would have been better or worse I just personally think that everything that happened got us to a better place in the telling of the story. The scale got a lot smaller, it got a lot more intimate.
Eighteen months ago, during the editing process, we did the trailer, I wrote the trailer music for the first trailer, and that stuck more to the original guidelines of what we were thinking about; it was bigger, the music was bigger, the music was heavier, it was more epic. And that worked for the trailer because that’s the sort thing you want, you want it to leap off the screen, but when I took that music and then tried to cut it into the film just to try to see how it would work you could tell instantly that this was wrong. It was too big, it was too grand, it was too bombastic for the story we were now telling and that was when Kronos [Quartet] came back in again because I saw that I didn’t need a sixty piece orchestra, I just needed these four guys to do it.
STIPP: Was there a time when The Kronos Quartet wasn’t going to be involved at all?
MANSELL: I think, in our minds, we weren’t going to work with them because we didn’t think, REQUIEM worked so well, we just felt we weren’t going to top that. We thought maybe if we were lucky enough to make another two or three more pictures then we would go back to them but as the score developed and as it became more intimate and as I listened to bands like Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Ros it was sort of cinematic and orchestral but on a neo-classical level; it was a more modern approach to orchestrated music. And as I was blending the various elements it occurred to me to think about who would be the best in the world to play this and the answer is Kronos Quartet The answer is still the same, six years later. And although we hadn’t really been in touch with each other that much during that time, when I talked to David [Harrington] and the rest of Kronos it was weird…We had each gone off for six years and done different things but then when it was time to talk about THE FOUNTAIN we were all sort of converging on similar thoughts and when we showed them the movie and the music they got it instantly. It just seemed like the most organic thing. It was great.
STIPP: The first thing that I thought of when I listen to the lead track on the soundtrack “The Last Man” I am not only reminded of how exquisitely beautiful Kronos can be but it is also neo-classical in a way that makes me think that this is the kind of classical music which seems entirely appropriate to be played in a symphony hall as well as in a CD player.
MANSELL: Actually, Kronos is playing here on the 20th and they’re playing a suite from THE FOUNTAIN.
MANSELL: Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
STIPP: It translates perfectly, And as I was preparing for this interview I went back and listened to REQUIEM, the REQUIEM FOR A DREAM remix CD and then THE FOUNTAIN. I am struck by the capturing of mood on both the original REQUIEM and FOUNTAIN scores. REQUIEM, when I listen to it, is just haunting. There is no other emotion running through that work. Is that part of your writing, that you want to evoke something specific?
MANSELL: I’d love to say that there was such disciplined and focused thoughts about it but I don’t really work like that.
My way of working is just absorbing the film, absorbing what Darren’s saying to me…I just have to get to a place of really letting go. Some of the best things I’ve written, for me, have come at times when I have no recollection of writing them, if you know what I mean. It’s not like some kind of “Ooooh” spiritual transfer or anything like that but things happen when I give into it. That’s the only way I can describe it and that takes a lot of exposure to the film, to the work, which is why I think I do my best work with Darren. Not only because he’s a great filmmaker and he does things that inspire and challenge me but also, as well, I spend the most time in his world when we’re working on something.
I mean six years of working on THE FOUNTAIN, obviously not working on it every day, but being able to take the time to…the research you can do over six years of different kinds of music that you can then filter through yourself to come up with something just kicks the shit out of getting on a film for six weeks, banging out some music and off you go. It’s a whole different thing and that’s the way it works for me.
I mean I’m not classically trained, my musical theory is nothing really to write home about…it’s all about gut instinct and reaction and thoughts and absorbing the work. To me, that’s the only way it can be. I’m sure lots of other people work differently…there comes a point when you know what you’re doing right or wrong but if I’m in sort of sync with the film it’s telling me that it’s rubbish what I’m doing or it’s telling me that it’s right.
STIPP: I was going to bring that up myself as you’ve said in one interview that, at one point, “the film just said ‘no.’” Is it organic, the process of getting to this point, or is it someone like Darren telling you that it just doesn’t fit?
MANSELL: I think that it’s a learning experience.
When you write for yourself in a band you can do anything you want. On a film, though, it’s somebody else you’re collaborating with and you’ve got to lose that preciousness, that preciousness you get when you do something yourself. The first few times when the other person says something like, “Nah, I don’t like it,” at least for me anyway, it plays on your insecurities and self-doubt. I’ve been very fortunate with Darren because we work so well together and it has never come to that point, it only seems to happen to me with other people…going away and doing other films for those six years was really helpful for me.
I did a film, KNOCKAROUND GUYS, with these two great guys, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, both directors, and it was the first film I got because of PI, REQUIEM hadn’t come out yet and they were big fans of PI, and I was writing material for them. It was going really well, had a good time doing it, but there was this one piece of music that I kept saying, “No, no, no, it’s great.” And in the end it was Brian who eventually said, “Look, I know what you think it’s doing but believe you me it’s not doing it.” It was there I learned that if you rewrite something it’s always better than what you had before.
You just have to dig deeper sometimes.
If I don’t write for a while, the first few things I write about is shit because I’m writing on a very superficial level at that point but my memory is reminding me of things I’ve done which is better than what I’m doing right now and I’ve got to work harder, dig deeper…and I’m not saying it’s easy, because there are still times when I think I’ve done something I thought was pretty good and someone will say, “No.” But now I have the learned memory that that says, “Ok, you can do better, it will be better. You’ve just got to work harder.” If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. You’ve just got to get in there and not be frightened.
STIPP: How do you get to that point where you just accept that not everything out of the gate you do will be brilliant or do you still get that twinge when someone disagrees with how you initially feel about something?
MANSELL: I think that twinge goes hand in hand with the ego that’s necessary to think that you’ve got something to say and contribute anyway. If I was constantly going to go “No, no no. I think you’re right. It is shit” I would never do anything. There’s some basic desire that you’ve got stuff to put out there so when you’ve done something, and you’ve worked hard at it, and you get connected to it…I think there’s times when you can’t see the forest for the trees if somebody criticizes it but without that care and that passion maybe you wouldn’t be able to rise to the challenge anyway. I mean, I don’t know, I’m possibly making excuses for my own immaturity but part of the character that I am helps me create the music I do. Is there is a certain negative side to that? Yeah, I mean we all want to evolve and grow but at the same time that’s part of the equation, it helps me to do it in the first place.
STIPP: Has it helped you get to a point in your relationship with Darren, that you have a comfortable back and forth openness?
MANSELL: It’s funny because I think we argued more on this film than any other.
MANSELL: Yeah, I mean not in a bad way. The way the score is, when I was mocking it up in demo form, it didn’t come across like it does now. A lot of the stuff was done on piano, it wasn’t done with strings but then we got it to Kronos and their strings just brought it to life. The Mogwai elements, while written by me, they were sort of estimating a Mogwai-ishness if you like. And when you put together those disparate elements it takes a while for it to gel without it sounding, not hokey…but melodically and thematically we were just trying to get the right vibe. It’s hard work when you take two fantastic artists you’re effectively trying to replicate with a computer. It took a little time but I knew where I was trying to take it but Darren was having trouble envisioning it from what I was giving him at the time.
So what I did was I did the whole end part of the film, where the star explodes and [Hugh] accepts his death, we mocked it up and I sent it to Mogwai. They basically recorded it themselves on top of my string arrangements. So, suddenly, we had Mogwai playing the stuff for real and when Darren heard that he said, “I got it now.”
I could see it because I knew Mogwai were capable of but Darren’s obviously putting that trust in me to say, “Ok, show me.” I say that it’s very difficult to replicate an artist like Mogwai or Kronos in a computerized world but that all sort of dissipated when we heard it for real.
STIPP: I think there’s an enormous dependence on the score just because of the first ten to fifteen minutes being so vital in creating a moment.
MANSELL: Well, what we would do is that we were all in New York together for three months, Darren was editing across the hall, I was in the room opposite him, and every Friday we would watch a new cut of the film that they were working on all week, during the week they would give me the new edits and I would be re-working the music to those edits, writing new stuff, putting it in…And every Friday we would watch the film and go, “What’s working? What’s not working? Do we like this? Do we like that?” By doing that I think we really managed to get a groove between the edits and the music and the pace of the film and the growth of the film. It was pretty intense work but I think that really gave it its synchronicity.
STIPP: I know, as a writer, there’s some danger of not bring able to recreate that moment that started it all after you’ve spent so long on a piece. How did you stay fresh on that moment Darren explained what this movie was going to be about?
MANSELL: Well, I saw it evolving, going places.
Working with Darren it’s not like he’s constantly chipping away at the one thing that’s not making any difference. We don’t get bogged down in little things because they’re taken care of as we go along. I mean I have worked on films where that has been an absolute nightmare. Where they’re editing, re-editing it, to the point where it’s like a ten-thousand pound gorilla in the room that no one acknowledges…besides the fact that the film is shit you can cut this film any way you like and nothing is going to help it. But it’s not like that with Darren. I mean things move forward, ideas progress because his films are rich in ideas.
For me, there’s something new coming through that I need to address. I mean it’s questions like, “Have we made the link between this and that?” or “Between this scene and this scene?” We sit there with pens and colored paper, this color is this theme, that color is that theme, and we put it up against every scene in the film and judge the music accordingly. We constantly move things around, it’s like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, and eventually you get to a place you think is right.
One thing I wanted to get back to, about arguing, one thing that needs to be understood is here is how we worked: the studio wasn’t really privy to my developments of the score, they’d ask for it, but Darren won’t temp his films with other people’s work. So, it’s a slow process. We had a lot of music to draw from but, still. So, his stress levels were ten times more than mine were.
STIPP: I know you’ve mentioned you don’t really read sheet music and Darren mentioned in passing with me that he was amazed at how precise Kronos was with regard to their knowledge of precise musical movements. Was there a language barrier between you and them?
MANSELL: There was a little bit on REQUIEM but not with THE FOUNTAIN because I was more advanced than when I did REQUIEM. We were more aware of the process so we could present a much more musical job to them, if you like. Like, on REQUIEM we had a couple of issues of just getting it in sync with what I was trying to do, I mean we managed to do it, but it was done in an almost non-musical way. But the experience I’ve had on so many other films really helped me present a more professional approach, professional job to them.
STIPP: I realize you don’t need me to say it but good luck, genuinely, Monday night at the Golden Globes.
MANSELL: Thank you.
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