At first glance, you wouldn’t associate Clint Mansell’s relaxed and chirpy attitude of today with the same man who fronted the infectious pop-punk electronic band Pop Will Eat Itself back in the 1980s and 90s. Having tired of waxing lyrical with the Stourbridge band, Mansell found himself alone, lost and wondering New York city in 1996 with nothing to write about and little money to live on.
Five long winter months of solitude later, Mansell’s life was turned around through a fortuitous meeting with up an coming director Darren Aronofsky. The collaboration for Aronofsky’s debut film Pi would catapult Mansell towards a new exciting career by combining his electronic background with the baton of the orchestra, to make him one of the most successful, modern and sought after composers of the last decade.
LWLies sat down with Mansell over a pint to chat about Duncan Jones's Moon, his bizarre love of romantic comedies and his upcoming involvement on Aronofsky's latest project, Black Swan.
LWLies: Joe Carnahan who you worked with on Smokin Ace’s described you as “The Man. All clutch. He's that freak from the bomb squad who sits, pliers perched, waiting for the countdown clock to hit '00:01' before he starts snipping wires” and apparently that during production you “liked it rough”. Fancy clearing that one up for us?
Mansell: I think that's the way Joe works to be honest, you didn't have any other choice and when it came down to the wire you just had to make it happen. That's how Joe is you know, he has a very romantic way of speaking as you can tell, and everything with him was full on, but that fitted in perfectly with Smokin Aces. That wasn't a normal way of working for me, we had three weeks to finish the film and everything descended into craziness but it turned out alright in the end and I really love that score, even if it was hectic making it. To be honest I find I work better left to my own devices to soldier along. The other thing is that I like to be around a project for a while and have an awareness of it, get time to understand it, think about it. I wont necessarily write anything but I like to have a good period to write and most the time I'll have about three months.
LWLies: With Moon you only became involved when the director’s cut was completed. Did you have to change your approach when it came to scoring the film?
Mansell: Duncan was fantastic because he just let me go about it and he trusted me, which was great. When he came to visit me in LA I'd done the first batch of writing, which was pretty much the main theme and a couple of the more emotional pieces. The songs might not have been 100% perfect, but I had enough so that when I sat down with Duncan and he explained this is going on here in the film, I could go ‘oh so you're meaning something like this’, so we’ll drop this melody on the top and it just fits. Kinda like a Jigsaw puzzle, you might think that a certain piece fits great in one place but when you sit with the director you see that it would be better somewhere else. So there's a lot of moving things around, but as long as you've got enough time to get the film if you like, it's fine, and on Moon I got it pretty quickly, in fact I loved it. I was thinking why don't I get scripts like this more often; it's thoughtful, it's funny, it's emotional, it makes me think and when you’ve got a film like that it's easy to write for it, no matter how much time they give you.
LWLies: You’ve often stated that you’ve found themes in the films you have worked on that have mirrored your own life which have helped you write the score. Working on Moon did you have any similar experiences that helped you with the writing process?
Mansell: Probably the isolation in the film and the whole theme of feeling alone, I mean living in Los Angeles I'm not exactly the world's most social butterfly and I live alone so the character of Sam really asked a lot of questions of me and it was something I really did connect with. There was such a beauty to it you know, the whole film was lonely and haunting and so inviting for me. Like when Sam Rockwell's trying to call home in the rover it cuts to the outside and there's this amazing shot looking at the earth from the moon. I mean you just can't fail to write something beautiful to stuff like that.
LWLies: The score seemed to have a repeated motif where patterns such as drum fills, piano bars and strings were recycled from one track to the next. What was the reasoning behind this choice?
Mansell: Well yeh that was a very subliminal part of the film to play on the cloning theme. At the same time you've only got one character in Sam, so with each song I tried to make it so that they feel the same but they've each got slight unique differences to them. There’s obviously a degree of repetition, but I tried to avoid that style being the wrong side of repetition, it’s a very fine line to walk to try and make the repetitiveness creative and not unimaginative.
LWLies: You write most of your work while watching the film and you always say that what you consider your best work is strangely what you never recall writing. Do you recall how you put together the iconic piano and drumbeat motif that is prominent throughout the film?
Mansell: Actually I do recall that one because it was done very simply. The main piano came from one of the first writing sessions, but I was thinking 'this needs to have a progression at some point', but nothing came. So I put it to one side and came back to it at a later date, which you have to do sometimes. Anyway, when it came to evolving the simple piano piece, I’d actually been listening to Portishead’s album Third and a track called The Rip which used these drums that come in about the middle of the song and I thought 'that’s cool', and when we played it with the film it just fit perfectly with the arrangement.
LWLies: Requiem for a Dream really catapulted you forward, but you’ve also worked on many other films. What do you consider the most important factor in your career?
Mansell: Well, after I did the first two films with Darren I knew he was gonna do The Fountain, and that took five years, but if it had moved forward the way it had been intended I might not have done the score because my experience was still pretty small to work at that level with that amount of money. So really I had to go out and I suppose kiss every frog there was and learn my trade and develop a team of people, so when I came to do something bigger I had this team of people behind me who could help me achieve what needed doing, outside of just writing the score . Back then if someone offered me something, I’d just say yes but now I can pick and choose what I want, not because I don’t like the films, but sometimes I don’t think I can shine in that particular film. Strangely though I really like doing romantic comedies and Definitely Maybe was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It was just a total escape for me really and channelling what was needed was very challenging and different to what I'd be doing for Darren or Duncan .
LWLies: Do you always find films like Definitely Maybe more enjoyable and easier to write for because of your pop/rock background?
Mansell: Well the thing is that those films are sometimes more of a challenge for me because like, well we were talking about repetition earlier, that works in a more psychological film like Moon or Requiem, but with more contemporary films like Definitely Maybe it won't work, because the score needs to change so quickly. And you know the studio stuck with me and they never went ‘oh this guy ain't got a fucking clue’. Most importantly they never changed their idea either because half the time the problem when writing a score is that people keep changing their mind and go like, 'we want it purple, now we want it black, now we want it to sound like a cascading river', you know, i'ts just so bloody annoying. But there’s a pleasantness to those films and I suppose that’s because it's inherent in romantic comedies that everything’s gonna be okay in the end.
LWLies: You mentioned before that directors tend to stick with the same team of people. Do you think Duncan Jones will give you a call for his upcoming film Source Code?
Mansell: Well I think Duncan is a terrific guy, he’s really talented and I’d love to do more films with him. I suppose the problem could be that you don’t know what the studio is gonna want and they might look at the the rest of his team, me included, and we might be seen as not having the experience that the studio is looking for. So it might be a case where Duncan has to do what it is he has to do so he can progress. He hasn’t done a big budget film with an A-list star, he might love that or he might think 'fuck this it ain’t for me I don’t wanna do it anymore', but he’s gotta find that out.
LWLies: You keep getting asked about Aronofsky's Robocop, but people seem to have forgotten that he’s first working on Black Swan. Without angering the boss too much, is there anything new you can tell us on how the project's going?
Mansell: Well it's all really embryonic at the moment, one of the main ideas we’ve got is building the entire score out of elements from Swan Lake. I mean it would have to be vastly screwed with, but that’s a starting point. Sometimes we’ve had ideas in the past and you put them into practice and they just suck, so we’ll see. Darren only just started shooting so for now it’s about doing the nuts and bolts really and providing him just what he needs to shoot with and in January I'll start to mess around with some of the things we’ve talked about.