The Current State of Film Score: An Interview With Clint Mansell (Part 1)

Most blog projects start with a specific path in mind, along with an end goal.

When I changed the focus of my blog, the mission was this: interview one of my favorite film composers. Among these are Eric Serra, Clint Mansell, and Maurice Jarre (RIP).

Film music was always a sort of gateway to daydreaming and more when I was a kid. The intro to Rescuers Down Under was such a thrill, I thought, that my dad recorded it onto tape cassette when we couldn’t find the soundtrack. It still makes me smile. The percussion!

Whereas Hans Zimmer’s score to The Lion King correlated directly to the first loss I experienced: my grandpa, Frank. The music is still very difficult for me to listen to.

As for the blog, I passed my other milestones and then, near enough to Halloween, reached out to a composer, Katherine Quittner, who had worked on some films that were monumental to my childhood. I felt a few steps closer to my blog goal, but had no inkling that this would be a bridge. Temp score was something I had never explored before. It was something I had never heard much about in college, or after. I found the discussion with Katherine to be very interesting, especially based on studies I had done years before on switching out scores from films to see how it impacted the audience’s interpreted narration of the scenes they were watching. I’ve always felt that the music in a film is crucial to the story, mood, characters, and more.

I’d interacted with Golden Globe and Grammy nominated composer, Clint Mansell, a few times via Twitter and, being that he is one of my favorite composers, always enjoy his perspective. He responded to the temp score piece I did, and I wanted to clear up any opinions. I also wanted to put some more questions out there, and learn about his process.

Mansell was kind enough to schedule a phone call with me, and here we approach part one of this hurdle in the LaParadiddle music career blog.

Part one? Yes. Because I want to be thorough. And with topics like working with Darren Aronofsky, classical training, the current state of the film industry, sound design, Requiem for a Dream, and more…I thought breaking this into two parts would be best. Enjoy! Questions and comments are welcome…after all, I sure had a lot.

You mentioned that you hate ‘filmmaking by committee’. That being said, what is the standard process when you are to score a film? For example, when you did The Wrestler or Black Swan? What is the start to finish process?

Well, before I answer that, let me just say that you know I don’t have any problem with music editors or whatever, that really wasn’t my gripe from the piece (my previous composer interview). It’s really just a case of now, the way movies are made, and a lot of things are…essentially lazy. But, you know, they are quick shortcuts to getting a result. But when you cut corners like that you get a sort of cheap fix of movie-going.

[It’s a ] quick fix that is commonplace in movie making these days, and mostly in the music department, because the music is the last thing to be finished. Usually the budget has been eaten up elsewhere and there are some compromises that are enforced on the music.

Why music?

One: laziness, and another…a lack of understanding, a lack of respect for what the music actually has. I think people think that music is music and that just anything will do, you know, and we know that is really not true…but for me the music in the film is as important as the casting of the leads. You know, it’s a vital character in the process.

And so the objection to temp score is…or do you have an objection to it?

I understand why people do it, but my problem with it is that it just becomes a [cycle], perpetuating the same ideas all of the time. You know, certain scores become temp friendly and people temping them all over town with those same scores, and what it does, it places a burden on the film before anyone’s even had a chance to explore the possibilities of what the score for that film could be.

When you start putting on a temp, you just close off so many avenues, and people fall in love with something that they can’t have.  You know, it doesn’t bare any relevance to the film they’re making , it’s just real artifice and people just wanting something before it’s actually ready.

For instance, I work on films that are temped, of course I do, you know. Do I listen to them? Initially, when I maybe just watch a film, to see what it’s all about. But after that, very little. Because I don’t want to be constrained by what somebody else’s idea of what the movie means is, you know? I want that to be my job. Now, all films are different, and, you know, if you’re working on…Fast and the Furious 19, the requirements for that film are probably very different from 12 Years a Slave. So, there are all different ways of approaching those. But, my real beef with it is, is the temping process because…

He trails off, and then brings it in focus to projects he was worked on.

Let’s take a Darren Aronofsky film. We don’t temp. He doesn’t temp his films with anything but my music.

Now what that does is, it just leaves the slate wide open. The board is completely clean, you’ve got no preconceptions coming from music that really has no relevance to your film, you know.

Photo from Darren Aronofsky's Twitter, Aronofsky and Mansell working n the score for the upcoming film, Noah.
Photo from Darren Aronofsky’s Twitter. Aronofsky and Mansell working on the score for the upcoming film, Noah.

I write from the script for Darren’s films, and I write from the rough assembly of stuff. And then by the time he’s getting to a place where the film is becoming something that is bit more than an assembly site, he starts using the bits that I’ve been playing with, just almost anywhere in the film to see what they say, what they speak to, and what comes to life from these different ideas, you know. That way, it stops limiting you before you have a full idea of what the film needs.

But when people temp,  I guess they temp with the same scores, because they’re good temp scores. They really work under a number of things. Then that starts dictating–for some people, that will dictate how that score’s going to be. You end up with this same voice going around all of the time. People imitating temps, people perpetuating that temp, using it again. So, you get all these different versions of, essentially, the same piece of music.

Film and music, to me, are things that are meant to educate and challenge, and sort of ask questions while also entertaining. And the modern movie making process has turned everything into a homogenized, industrialized farming technique…plomp, plomp, plomp! All the same.

I do know that music editors have put together great temp scores […] but also while working with the composers material and re-editing it to the film, if you like.

Mansell then refers to my previous post, and film scores he enjoys where the music editor has had a hefty role in the creation of the score.

That’s fantastic work. It works great in the film. I just want to hear more voices.

Mansell states that there is a worrying trend. There seems to be a current idea of making movies by committee, giving the people what they want…but do people really know what they want, if we stick to such a formula? If we don’t explore?

Every once in a while a film will come out of the blue…like say something like Black Swan, and people will go see it…for reasons people can’t define, if you like. Like, “the numbers never said this would happen”,  or this sort of stuff. But people are excited by stuff they’ve not seen before. And that’s what I want every film to be doing.

Honestly, I had never heard of temp score before, until I started to dig into it. It was strange to me.  I was surprised. It must be such a challenge for the temp score composer and other, credited composer. I’ve also noted the trend of film scores starting to sound alike. (Maybe you’ve read the recent articles sprouting up over the Inception score?)

Well, I think, you know…again, it’s a product of not having enough voices out there.

Mansell then refers to JJ Abrahms and his involvement with Star Trek and Star Wars.

Nothing against him. That’s great for him!


You get the same thing coming at you all the time from this one camp.

He delivers what people want from him, so that’s why they go back to that well, if you like. That’s not Abrams’s or (Zimmer’s) fault. They’re doing a good job.

I want to be challenged, I want to be prodded, but as well as entertained. And it worries me that people sort of seem okay with it. That’s my biggest problem, you know. I grew up in an era…early teens, if you like, in the seventies, watching films like The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Walkabout, you know. Films that were probably a bit too old for me, but they were challenging me…teaching me how to think and question things. And every generation feels that the generation coming behind them is really dropping the ball, you know, but the statistics seem to add up.

Also, do you work closely with sound designers? I noticed a lot of the scores you’ve done has so many interesting sounds weaved in on the soundtrack. Do you do that yourself as part of the score?

No, that’s the sound designers job. Yes, it becomes a bigger part of the process these days because so much can be done with sound. And there tends to be a lot of music in films these days, so it’s great that the soundscape can really be the cue at times. So, if you communicate with one another: “I’ve got a part for here I’d really like to focus on that, if you could sort of let me know what you’re doing with the sound, and vice versa”, they might come to me and go, “these sections, the director said, ‘ok, this I want to be more sound design than score’” Then they’d be sure to keep out of the way. It’s a team effort at the end of the day. It’s becoming more prevalent, directors are getting younger, and it’s a popular approach.

I noticed an interview I read about you, that it was mentioned that you are not classically trained, and I know you were in a band before. I know a good deal of people who have studied music at university or conservatories, but I don’t agree with this notion I have seen recently that self taught musicians, or non-classically trained musicians, don’t deserve to be in the same category. I have had a lot of trouble with this myself, but I don’t feel that someone has to be trained a certain way in order to be an artist. What do you think about this?

Well, I mean, at the end of the day, you should be judged on your ideas and the execution of those ideas. You could have all the training in the world, and know stuff inside out, and you might not have a creative mind. You might have a more technical mind. Don’t get me wrong–no, I am not classically trained.

I am completely aware and in awe, whenever I have toured with a live group of musicians. The amount of training and commitment…dedication that they have put into making sure that they are the best player they can be. They come into one of my sessions, and play my little simplistic tune and riffs, and make it sound completely f-ing awesome. And you know, amen for them doing that! Ok, so that wasn’t my chosen path. I went down the rock and roll road, if you like. And, you know, the training…I like to learn on the job.

Mansell says that he learned as he went, and the jobs got more demanding each time.

I imagine if you worked really hard, and trained, and you feel you are good at what you do, and you’ve got all the skills and all the chops…and then you see, some Johnny-come-lately (…) getting all of the jobs…

Essentially, he can understand how that would be disappointing. I certainly can, too.

At the end of the day, it comes down to opportunity, and the ideas. Because you don’t need to be classically trained to write music. It’s another one of these things. With music-to me-see, I don’t believe there’s a right or a wrong way of doing anything. Music’s there, like painting, as a way to express yourself. And if it sounds out of tune to somebody but you love it, then that’s up to you. So sometimes those trainings, those rules, can maybe inhibit your thinking a little bit now.

Of course, he adds, that could be a generalization.

But what I mean is, as much as something can be a benefit to you it can also be a hindrance at times. Would I like to have more skills in the sort of arrangement and just general knowledge of music? Sure I would. But the flip side of that is if I don’t know certain things, I just find my own way of doing it and I find something that’s me, if you like. And I’m sort of fortunate that people have liked my idiosyncrasies, and it’s a benefit to me, so…I can understand it, but there’s no right or wrong answers.

He does state that, honestly, nobody has ever given him a hard time. Nobody has ever had a problem with him not being classically trained or, as he says, ‘musically literate’.

The first time I ever worked with a live players was the Kronos Quartet for Requiem for a Dream, and I was almost embarrassed.

I’m surprised by this! After all, Lux Aeterna was such a critically acclaimed piece. And the music in Requiem adds so much to the emotional intensity of the film as a whole.

There were these fantastic musicians.

He explains, adding that they were all enthusiastic to be involved, and warm and friendly.

And that’s very humbling.

That’s awesome. I guess I had to teach myself a lot of stuff. I don’t know a ton of music theory. My instrument…I don’t need to play chords or anything like that. But I’ve come across some individuals recently, where it was sort of looked down upon. And I never thought of it that way before. Like painting, the output should be what counts.

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s an attitude you can find in any walk of life, really. Not specific to music.

Questions? Comments? Stay tuned for Part 2 to hear more about Lux Aeterna, the auteur theory, and Mansell’s career path.

Of course, special thank you to Mr. Mansell for his time!

UPDATE:  Part 2 is now posted here.


4 thoughts on “The Current State of Film Score: An Interview With Clint Mansell (Part 1)

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