Unspoilt By Progress: A Conversation With Black Swan Composer Clint Mansell
, February 9th, 2011 09:11
While Black Swan cleans up at the box office, soundtrack composer Clint Mansell sits down to tell Kiran Acharya about art, Aronofsky, post rock and Public Enemy
Since the demise of Pop Will Eat Itself in 1996, Clint Mansell has been quietly making a name for himself as one of modern cinema's most expressive and inventive soundtrack composers. His work with director Darren Aronofsky can be heard in Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Wrestler and most recently Black Swan, films that restore the parity between what cinemagoers see, and what they hear.
Mansell's expansive compositions have succeeded in their own right. The music for Requiem For a Dream was adapted for a live collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, and in 2009 he brought the Sonus Quartet to London's Union Chapel. The soundtrack to Black Swan builds on Swan Lake, but sadly, the inclusion of Tchaikovsky's work makes Mansell's ineligible for any awards.
Garrulous yet slowly-spoken, he's as interested in exploring his own methods as he is in taking on new work for short films or computer game soundtracks. And despite time spent living in New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles his accent remains one hundred percent Stourbridge, the Dudley lilt making the word 'heart' sound precisely like 'art'.
Trent Reznor was awarded a Golden Globe for his score to The Social Network. Even though your score for Black Swan is ineligible for any awards, how does it feel to sit here amidst all the excitement about the film?
Clint Mansell: I've got to be honest, I try not to get too involved in it really. For me, it kind of shifts the goalposts of what you're actually trying to achieve. You get seduced by the bright lights, y'know? Before you know where you are somebody's opened the fridge door and you're tapdancing.
In fairness, I enjoy doing interviews but if you do too many you end up with a slightly strange frame of mind. For me, personally, it's not very healthy. It's nice to have people talking about the score but it's better for my personal safety that I don't get too wrapped up in it.
And already you're on to the next project. When did you finish Black Swan?
CM: We finished Black Swan in July 2010 and I've already done two films since. One called Last Night, and Faster. And I'm just about to start on another. Is that moving quickly or moving slowly? I don't know.
That's the beauty of it. You're not tied in to one schedule. It's great to be asked to be interviewed but obviously there's not a huge market for interviews with composers. It's not as if you're Natalie Portman, for instance. Where does it end for somebody like that? They could go on forever and ever. But I can finish a film and there might be a couple of people interested enough to talk to me about it, or interested in my work in general. But by and large I can get straight on to the next one.
Where do you compose and record? Does the location depend upon where the film is being produced?
CM: I work, generally, in my own studio in Los Angeles. The recording - if at all possible, if the budget allows - I like to do in London as I think the resources and musicians are the best. But that doesn't always work out. Darren lives in New York and I live in Los Angeles, and when we did The Fountain I was in New York for three months. But that's the only time we did it like that. For all the other films we've been in different cities. For Black Swan I think we got together only once, for a few days. I had to prepare music for them to actually film to, and then I started doing the demos and writing stuff. We did a lot through Skype. We watched the film online, talked about it online. Then he came out and spent two days with me, I think. Pretty much all the writing was done, and we conceptualized certain things, figured out what needed to happen where.
Other directors want you to go to the city they're in, which is kind of cool, but for me as an artist (for want of a better phrase) I like to be in my own zone where I feel comfortable, and do the things I do. I mean you can always argue 'take yourself out of your comfort zone' and that's cool too, but I quite like being at home to do it.
Your working relationship with Aronofsky has resulted in some of the most striking films of the last fifteen years. From Pi to Requiem For a Dream, on to The Fountain, The Wrestler and Black Swan... How did you meet in the first instance?
CM: I moved to New York in 1996, and my then-girlfriend knew Darren's then-producer. They were trying to make Pi. They didn't have any money, they didn't know anybody who could write any music, so they put the feelers out and we were introduced randomly. We hit it off, we had similar kinds of ideas; he told me about Pi, I read the script, he gave me a lot of the background research. Paintings by people who had migraines. Then I wrote a couple of pieces on spec, before he'd even started shooting, and he loved it. It went really well. And that's sort of how we've continued to this day. Just kicking ideas around even before he's got to a filming point. At the start of a project it's good just being around and absorbing ideas, thinking about stuff. Sometimes you'll be prepared. And then the film comes along. You can put some ideas up against the film and find it doesn't work at all. But even from that you learn a lot: you ask 'why didn't that work?' and 'what do I need to do?' So nothing's wasted, I don't think. It's all very informative stuff.
Does a film's production schedule dictate the way you work?
CM: I like to have as much time on a project as I can. I look to find whatever the film is saying to me, you know, and find that sound, that language, that voice, so I can draw on whatever it's bringing out of me to create the music. That takes time to do. I think that's undoubtedly why some of my best work has been with Darren. Not just because he's a great film-maker but because I have time to investigate and experiment.
What did you find Black Swan bringing out of you?
CM: Well, I've been asked whether that film represents 'the artistic condition'; trying to find that perfection. My reply is 'I can't really say', because some people think I work really hard, but I think I'm really lazy. I don't know if I'm already at that point of overdoing it. Black Swan just felt like, 'yeah, this is the normal state of affairs'. But I don't think it's easy to just write it and do it. You've gotta get invested in it, you've gotta live it a little bit, and you've gotta be thinking about it a lot. I guess there's a point where you have to know when to switch off, but you definitely need to absorb it, and try and find the parts of yourself that are in there. In Black Swan you have a young girl who's trying to become a woman, to a degree, and while that's not part of my experience I can identify with the desire to move forward, change, and become the things you'd really really love to be.
You do the best you can to get at them, and that does tend to leave other areas of your life wanting. So you identify with that double-edged sword, of really wanting to achieve things and do your best, while realising that there's a bit of an ache to the other parts of your life. I think that if you can find that, you can start helping to flesh out your own character.
On that point of character, when you look at Darren's films they've gone from Requiem, which follows a group, to The Wrestler and Black Swan which zero in on individuals. Does your sense of the characters inform the music?
CM: It depends on the focus of each film. For instance, with Requiem For a Dream, which Darren always described as a monster movie, every time one of the characters went off the rails it was described as a victory for the monster, the addiction. The monster was a central character and when something goes really bad, that's when you hear the music. Whereas in The Wrestler it's very much Mickey Rourke front-and-centre. What we needed to achieve with that was to not judge the character. The music had to empathise with him. We never wanted the music to say 'look at this sadsack, he's living in the back of his van', because, to him, living in the back of his van enabled him to do what he loved doing. So, y'know, it was all gravy, for him.
How do you actually achieve those effects? When you're scoring a film that's presenting a character like Rourke's in The Wrestler, are there things to avoid such as composing in a minor key?
CM: Well it is in a minor key, to a degree, but it's more of a gut thing. All my work's about how my gut responds, really. Whether I'm right or wrong I don't know. There are intellectual and conceptual reasons something might work, but I think when somebody's watching a film they're also going with their gut. It's an awful way to describe it but they respond, almost, to what they're being fed. But if they're into the film they're feeling what you're sending, and if my gut feeling is right, then I think I'm on the right path. We had the argument about which way to go, for instance, with The Wrestler. Darren really wanted to work with heavy metal. He wanted to really push it, and the original ending of the film was very heavy metal. But he said, 'ah shit... I've sent you down the wrong path. It's just too much. It seems comedic, like a parody almost.' And this was two days before we started recording.
But you follow these things, you try them out. It wasn't actually that much of a retreat, but you're always following your instincts, if you like. That's where, I think, you find the truth. You feel it and believe it yourself, and you have to be able to answer those uneasy questions: is this right, is that right... shit, no it's not right... we'll have to try something else. If you don't give up on that, and you listen to your instincts, you can find it.
So character can influence the compositions, but what about the cinematography, the palette, the colours?
CM: It's all, essentially, experience. If Darren decides to go hand-held and documentarian, it makes a certain kind of intellectual sense that what you do should feed in to that. Something a little more raw, shall we say. It sounds simple – and it mightn't always work – but it does seem to make more sense that if you're doing things on the fly then the score isn't probably going to be a polished piece of work. It needs to be something that captures or enhances or supports the decisions he's made along the way. I'd be fighting it if I came along and said 'yeah... this is a 100-piece brass band' and it's got nothing to do with what's on the screen. You've gotta be alive to what the film's doing.
Like what I was saying earlier about having all these conversations before you start shooting, working with the script, sketching stuff together, and getting some ideas... you can put something against the screen and it'll reject music instantly. It's just the way it works – you just know it's wrong. Now, I don't know if everybody thinks like that, or if it's just me and him. I don't know. You can do something and just go 'well... that sucks, doesn't it?' You ask why it doesn't work. 'Because it sucks' isn't a good enough answer. You have to ask what you've missed.
Requiem For a Dream is the perfect example. We were somewhat younger, then, and Darren had grown up surrounded by hip-hop. His first ideas for the music – and strangely enough it's almost like what we've done with Black Swan – he wanted me to take classic hip-hop records and be able to re-work them to use as a score. Because he'd grown up with hip-hop in Manhattan Beach and Coney Island, he wanted to capture that essence. I sent him this CD, about eighteen tracks, raw pieces I'd done while he was shooting and I was reading the script. He wanted them for when they started to put the edit together. There's a scene in Requiem where Sara Goldfarb takes the [weight-loss/amphetamine] pills for the first time and cleans the apartment, then they wear off and it all slows down...
The shot that moves through the whole apartment, from right to left...
CM: Yeah, it slows, meeeoowwwwww... like that. The first time he sent that to me he'd put 'She Watch Channel Zero?!' by Public Enemy under it. It was fantastic. Cinematically it was brilliant. But it didn't help tell the story – it was just cool. We knew it wasn't going to work because it wasn't saying anything else.
Anyway, I was living in New Orleans at the time and Darren came down to go through this CD of about eighteen tracks. We went through all the ideas and lined them up to the film, trying different things, and around number seventeen was what you now know as 'Requiem For a Dream'. We started putting it under scenes, like when Marion throws up after sleeping with the psychiatrist. And it just worked. It brought a whole other thing to the film. There's drama to it, tragedy to it, heart, soul... but oh my god, we didn't know that was what we were looking for. It was envisioned as a very different sort of film.
In Requiem there's a trace of the hip-hop, when Harry and Tyrone prosper. There's a montage as they hustle and make money; quick cuts to a beat with the sound of little cash registers and the soundbite 'naturally'.
CM: The roots of that are in the little transition pieces Public Enemy do on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. A minute, two-minute thing. That's an incredible record.
Did you read Hubert Selby Jr's book before working on Requiem? In a book, of course, a soundtrack isn't something you experience.
CM: I read Requiem..., but I have better memories of reading The Demon. I read it at a very unsettled time in my life. I was living in New York and it took me to dark areas I didn't want to go into. The Demon definitely hit me hard. Reading Requiem is a little lost in the mist of time. But Hubert Selby had written a script some years before, which he lost. Darren had written another when he found his original, so they talked about it on the phone and compared the two. They were doing very similar things, so they combined the elements.
But Requiem was Darren's baby, so to speak. It wasn't a script that had been kicking around for a couple of years looking for a director.
CM: No. It was a book Darren had read at college that really blew his mind. He was looking for something to follow Pi, and with Requiem being set in the place Darrren's from he really got excited about it. Darren's one of those guys that if somebody says no, he gets more excited about something. I think people thought Last Exit to Brooklyn [directed by Uli Edel] was a brutal watch – I mean Requiem is a brutal watch – but Darren does the things he wants to do.
From the score to Requiem, the track 'Lux Ӕterna' became about as big a hit as a piece for soundtrack can become. It was used internationally on the Lord of the Rings trailer, and in the UK you'd hear it on Saturday football shows. Does a soundtrack go out the same way a song by a band might, getting actively marketed and sold for use elsewhere?
CM: To a degree it's out of your hands. You kind of make this music and it goes off to live its life. Requiem got picked up and somebody did a re-orchestration for Lord of the Rings. From there, it got on Sky Sports News, it got on loads of different other trailers, and everyone on YouTube seems to think that if they use it they've suddenly got some epic [laughs]. If I knew how it was done I'd be doing it again, believe you me.
The re-orchestrated version, it's on iTunes. I don't know what name it goes under. Actually 'Requiem for a Tower', that's it. It's funny – I was in Los Angeles and I knew the trailer was playing in front of the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Punch-Drunk Love. I went to Grauman's Chinese Theatre in LA just to check out the trailer. Nobody else in the theatre, I'm watching as the trailer for Two Towers comes up. And it's unbelievable, this monster sound they've created. It was illuminating, to me, it made me realise that it's just music, at the end of the day, and it can be pitched in beautiful ways. You can make it bombastic, or you can make it intimate. It was quite an eye-opener.
Did you have to pay for your ticket?
CM: I did. I did, yeah.
Ten dollars for three minutes.
CM: Well I went in the afternoon and got it cheaper [laughs].
I was recently thinking of Requiem when watching a Scottish film, Peter Mullan's Neds. There's a fantastic almost surreal scene in which the main character, a young guy called John, cowps in a churchyard then has a fistfight with Jesus. It stands out the same way Requiem...'s 'conga' sequences do, which play over a distinct piece of the soundtrack.
CM: Actually, I ended up not doing that part. Brian Emrich did, he's the sound designer on all Darren's films. He put together a nine-piece band in New York and mapped out a conga vibe. They just went for it in the studio. Funnily enough they did it at a very young James Murphy's first studio in New York. Brian had played with the bands Foetus and Kid Congo Powers, so he knew a lot of musicians on that sort of... I wouldn't say lounge, but they did a lot of eclectic stuff, klezmer-type things. In a way that helps its 180 degrees to the rest of the score.
Speaking of old bands, and now that you've spent roughly an equal amount of time composing, what did your time leading Pop Will Eat Itself teach you? What skills have you taken with you, what new things have you had to learn?
CM: On the one hand I hope I've taken the desire to do my own thing, you know, within the reality of 'it's all been done before'. There's nothing new to be done, but if you can find your voice within it, you can tell it from your perspective. Hopefully this gives the music a different slant. And I hope I've taken the ability to enjoy it and appreciate it, because as any musician will tell you, to be able to make a living from this is a rare thing.
You don't think about those two things every day, and when they occur to you, it's good to remember. But application is everything. Especially when you're in a rock 'n' roll band, as there's not a lot of discipline flying around. You might not do as good a job as you could, or you might not be as prolific as you could be, y'know?
My experience of being in the band was 'I'm gonna have a good time all the time', whereas in the film-composing world I have a responsibility to other people. If somebody asks you to write music to their film, they don't even want to think about you spending four days in bed because you've been drunk out of your mind. Having the opportunity to find different ideas, different voices, and different melodies for somebody's film is fantastic, but you're not going to get a great job done if you don't put the effort in.
One of my earliest films that wasn't with Darren was a right lesson whereby I'd written the music for a scene, and I loved it. I was working with two directors on a film called Knockaround Guys. Really good guys, Brian Koppelman and David Levien wrote and directed it. It was a great experience but we had this piece of music and Brian said to me 'It doesn't really work... I'm not getting it'. I tried to explain it. In the end he said: 'Look Clint. I know you think you know what it's doing, but it ain't doing it.' At that point I thought 'Aww... god.' But I realised that that's what it's about. You re-write it, it works, and then you gain confidence. One of the biggest fears is 'shit, I've got an hour's worth of music to do – can I do it?' And once you have some confidence you realise you can. So you're not dismayed if somebody rejects something. You realise there's a great opportunity, and applying yourself is what people are after. I'm not one of these people that gives three, four, five different takes because that to me seems... not wishy-washy, but as you go on through a film I think your options should reduce. Yes, here's ten different ideas, they're a bit all over the map, I'm still finding the threads.
But as you get those threads your choices should be going like that [as if to the point of a triangle]. You can't get to that unless you really put a shift in. Being artistic and waiting for the muse is all well and good but somebody's clock's ticking and their money's running out. They need you to step up. Sometimes working hard when you've got no ideas can give you something. You think, that's interesting... then it sparks something else. You've just gotta put the time in.
The score for Black Swan builds on Tchaikovsky, but in places the scores to Moon and The Fountain are closer to post rock bands like Port-Royal or Tracer AMC. A track like 'Death is the Road to Awe' is like something John Erik Kaada might come up with, whereas 'We're Going Home' is atmospheric, lyricless, and holds off before bringing the drums in.
CM: Well I loved Godspeed You! Black Emperor, I thought their music was fantastic. It got me back into music when I was drifting, a little bit. When I think of the turn of the century, when England was alive or had been alive with Britpop, the music didn't really speak to me. I can appreciate the songs – there were some good songs – but I guess I like a certain poetry in my music, a certain emotion. Not necessarily lyrically, but I just want to be taken somewhere. Discovering Godspeed really gave that back to me. I was really excited by them. That led me to Mogwai, then Sigur Rós, and Múm.
There's something about that starting-small-end-up-huge that's been done a little bit now, but it led me to stuff like Max Richter, now, and the more modern classical stuff that's atmospheric and hypnotic. Great stuff that you can be influenced by, that you can run through your own filter. That's the great thing about music. There could always be something new around the corner that connects with you.
Which of your own scores and compositions do you find the most enjoyable? Do you listen back to analyse or to see what you can learn?
CM: I enjoyed it when we did the live shows, with a nine-piece band. There's a certain dynamic that really came to life. The Fountain was probably the first time that we went back in, re-arranging the music for a traditional album listen, I suppose, as with Requiem it was pretty much just the music out of the film. We wanted that. With the pieces in The Fountain, I thought we could probably make an album here, with a beginning, middle and end. Like a prog-rock album, for want of a better phrase. Hopefully it brings back all the things the film does, but takes you on a journey that's more suitable for an audio-only listener.
I did Last Night, which is coming out in a couple of months, and I'm really really pleased with it. It's mostly piano, but sort of hypnotic; the piano's effected and for the end scene I worked with Peter Broderick, who has this amazing voice. One piece he does is a kind of monotone, but he harmonises with himself. It was a pre-existing song of his that the director loved, and it fitted perfectly over one of the progressions I had. So Peter came in and re-recorded it with us. It's fantastic. It was something different. The film's an adult drama to a degree, like a Carnal Knowledge, showing what happens to two couples in one night.
But I don't spend a great deal of time going back over the scores. Sometimes I'll have a listen, usually when I'm far enough away from them. And maybe in the car I'll give one a blast so nobody can catch me.
Do you do much work for other outlets like computer games? Mike Patton, for example, has most recently voiced The Darkness.
CM: I'm doing a video game this year actually. Mass Effect 3. Funnily enough, talking about Mike, we've exchanged emails about the possibility of doing a show featuring the Quartet and people they've collaborated with. It'd be a Kronos show, with different rooms for other people to do their thing, then bringing it all together. It's pretty cool-sounding.
I'm definitely interested in different outlets – that's one of the reasons I get involved in short films. It's not so much that I can experiment as it is to be in a situation where nobody's looking over your shoulder. Short films are usually made by young people and they've got ideas I can bounce off. They can take me in a different direction.
So in a game, the character might arrive at a big boss and you have to have a piece that can quickly become dramatic.
CM: That's what I'm figuring. As I was saying about Public Enemy and re-working old hip-hop tunes for Requiem, and kind of re-working old ballet tunes for Black Swan, with something like Mass Effect you're more like a DJ, with all these elements. You've got the holding pattern, then the big explosion where you need the score to kick in. Then you need to take it off on a tangent. You've got all these different elements that change depending on what the player does. You have to figure out an overall symphony, but be able to break it down into component parts. You can bring the pain when required.
Which composers do you admire?
CM: The one I always go back to is John Carpenter. His films are probably seen as B-movies, but when I first saw stuff like Hallowe'en or Assault on Precinct 13 I thought, yes, these are the kind of sounds I want to hear. Electronic, very ominous, but melodic as well. They had a real quality that made me say 'OK: I'm into this film'. Carpenter's music was one of the first things Darren and I bonded over. I think Pi, looking at it now, is very Carpenteresque. We wanted something that hit you, we wanted a melody, we wanted something ominous, and we wanted this brooding nature.
What do you think is the best marriage of film and soundtrack?
CM: It's funny, one of the first films I really got into was Eraserhead. It was just so different. And back in those days I only had a VHS which went through the TV. You couldn't get your home theatre then. But, you could buy an LP version of the Eraserhead soundtrack, and I put that on and cranked it up at the same time as the film on TV. And except for the lady in the radiator, which you could kind of line up, you got this huge cinematic experience at home.
Your partnership with Darren is like that of Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch. And Lynch, who's what, sixty-something now, has released a couple of dance tracks.
CM: He put them out last month, yeah, and they're good! People said they sounded like Underworld, which is quite complimentary. Have a nice day, or have a good... 'Good Day Today', I think it was called. But he did that stuff with Dangermouse as well, and with the guy who was in Sparklehorse. Unrelated to music, I'm part of this exhibition in LA that gives a camera to a bunch of different people – Mogwai are doing it – people from all kinds of artistic backgrounds. You're asked to take pictures on your travels, pictures that make you think about how people live their lives. Four exhibitions in LA, called Ways and Means. That's a different experience – interesting stuff.
And Benjamin, who did the choreography for Black Swan, wants to talk about helping him with music for his ballet. I don't know if it'll come to fruition but it's interesting, seeing different people's views on things and being exposed to all that. Where do you start writing a ballet? I have no idea. Do you start with him going 'I want to be able to move like this,' or does he say, 'this is the story – write music for it'. Who knows?
Amongst all these different outlets, what about the role of the film soundtrack? If a score is working well it's probably inconspicuous, but in mainstream film the audio is sometimes thought of as secondary to the video. And with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino used eight extant Ennio Morricone tracks.
CM: Tarantino, god bless him, has been kind of ploughing the same furrow in that respect for a while. And while it's a good furrow, it ultimately can't have the kind of impact it initially had. But Reservoir Dogs re-energised that soundtrack-buying public, and he knows every movie under the sun. Vanishing Point, with the radio DJ, would undoubtedly have influenced him. He was bringing things to a whole new audience. The problem in that respect, going back to Reservoir Dogs, is that in those days we were all still going through crates of records and now you can get anything you want on the internet. Somebody who's developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and film, like Tarantino, is almost outpaced by some kid with Google. But Tarantino's seen them all, experienced them all, digested them all... and when I was a kid you'd pop something into the stereo and go 'who's that?' You'd actually have to go and look for it, and care, and find it in some backstreet record shop thinking 'whoa... this is brilliant'.
I kind of miss those days. But at the same time I like lying in bed looking at Amazon.com. Get me that, couple of clicks, I'm in. I love it but at the same time I know that it's taken out the leg-work and the desire that somebody like Tarantino had. It's diluted because people can have as much knowledge as they want with an afternoon's work on the computer. It's both good and bad.
Ultimately the position of the soundtrack will come down to the film. Certain films are a sensory experience on all levels, be it cinematically, visually, in terms of dialogue, performance, and music and sound design. Take for instance a film that divides everybody like The Brown Bunny, the Vincent Gallo film. Some of the musical choices in that are just beautiful even though they're needledrops. It's a strange film, and you can understand, the same as Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, when people ask 'fucking hell, what's going on here?' But in that simplicity there's a certain beauty, and all the elements help bring it to life. Even if those elements are somewhat sparse.
With the accessibility that the internet allows, and advances in available musical technology, do you think there's a chance that low-budget or independent film-makers will be more adventurous or creative with their soundtracks?
CM: Without a doubt. Some people moan as if 'that's not real music' or electronic music isn't real music, but I said this even to myself – I got an app for my iPhone that makes it look as if you've filmed things using Super-8. And you've got that Hipstamatic thing that everybody on Facebook's using for their photos. It's great, but once things become easily available they become overused. But this is where talent and individuality come in. Somebody takes a look and sees what's going on in the populace, and does something away from all that but is somehow as good as all that. Or is understanding of all that, and put into a new context. That's what'll happen – the four-track tape recorder came along just like that, and allowed our first band to multi-track ideas on a cassette and work out how to make songs. It was a fantastic development for us. Now kids have laptops they can record into. But talent is the one factor you can't buy. You've either got it inherently, or you're prepared to work at it until you create something that's good.
Having access can only mean that that can happen more. It's exciting when people just go for it, do their own thing, kind of fuck convention, try and find their voice and express themselves. That's how you get people like Darren Aronofsky, or Gaspar Noé, or Quentin Tarantino, or David Lynch. People doing their own thing, saying 'this is what's important to me'.
Black Swan is in cinemas now