“If you’re going to have a lot of music in a film, it’s got to really work, it can’t just be wallpaper, you know? It’s got to be a character in there.”
This interview is a continuation of part one from November 26, 2013.
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 two in this interview. Catch up from part one here.
Speaking of Requiem for a Dream, the main theme has been used for many pieces of content now. It is a great piece–what was your inspiration for it? When I first heard it, I started going through a lot of old requiem pieces, because I thought it sounded so much like something else I’d heard…but I hadn’t.
Well, you know…there you go. That’s a perfect example of me…basically playing it on the piano to begin with. But I can’t really play the piano. So, you know, I probably only do two or three note chords. And then, I just…whenever I noodle around with it, I’m just looking for something that resonates with me. And I often like things that can, you know, you can have a drone underneath that holds the note, the tonic […] I constantly look for something that resonates with me. And, obviously, that probably depends on what mood I’m in, or what film I’m working on, or whatever. But, to me, that’s it really. It’s about trying, and playing, and hitting some notes. And finding things that clash together in a certain way that makes you feel something. And then building on that. And I suppose it depends on what I’m looking for, what mood I’m in, as to what comes up.
Mansell explains how director Darren Aronofsky wanted a specific pace for the film’s musical ambiance.
At the time, Darren wanted stuff in Requiem to have a sort of hop-hop pace to it, a hip hop feel. So, you know, I was ranging around the 100 BPM thing, but then, if you dropped it to around 85…you get that sort like, slightly of melancholy feel to it, sort of a downbeat. That was probably about the only real prerequisite for it. The rest of it was just playing around until I found something I liked.
As we move on to the next question, he interjects with a laugh.
I know that sounds really boring, but that’s pretty much the truth!
Oh, no! And how old were you when you started composing for film? Was it for Pi?
Yeah. Um, about 35? Something like that.
But you know…I’d never even written that many songs at that point. I’d written the songs in my band, but suddenly I have to write, you know, 60 minutes of music. I just didn’t see how I could even possibly do it, but, you know, you never know. You get in there and you start swimming, as they say.
So, we already mentioned that you work a lot with Darren Aronofsky and, you know, if I Google your name, it shows on Google , ‘you may also want to look up Darren Aronofsky’…
It’s presented as hand in hand. And I think it’s great when directors and composers team up, and that’s part of the reason why I question the auteur theory. Not to sound like a total nerd, but people often say that the director is the auteur, and I thought if he or she uses the same composer…then a good example of being an auteur is being a composer, too.
So, what do you think about that?
Well, I’m from England. We don’t respond well to hierarchy.
But the business being as it is, everybody’s sort of like, it’s not like , “yes sir, yes sir, three bags full sir”. I can’t afford to be part of that because I can’t sort of be in awe of the director if you like, or not be able to be myself. Because that’s of no use to him because you’ve got to be honest and say what your opinion is and express yourself honestly through the music for the film, you know?
I mean, that’s how I feel. I don’t know. I mean, sometimes you get the impression that the composer’s job is to be a people pleaser, and…’ok, you want a bit of reggae now–here you go! You want a bit of jazz, a bit of light jazz, here you go!’…whereas I don’t see it like that at all. I’m coming to bring something to the equation. Like I say, the music is as vital as the lead role, the lead actors.
Obviously, I’m a musician, so I probably care about it abnormally more than most people who see a movie do. But that’s the way it is, that’s how I feel, that’s what I want to do, you know? That’s why I sort of don’t like temp, because it can really sort of close off possibilities. You never know what the film might respond to.
I don’t know who made this quote, but every time you do the obvious, you miss an opportunity to learn something. Because if you take a gamble…I mean, that’s what I say when I start a film. Your options are as wide as the ocean. But you write a few pieces and put it on the film and it instantly narrows it down what your options are, because you get a sense of what it doesn’t want. You can see things that will not work with this film, whether it’s the pacing or the instrumentation. Once you start doing a few things to the film, you start limiting opportunities. If you listen, and watch what it does when you play music…the film itself will pretty much guide you where you need to go…
Basically what had bothered me about the auteur theory was that I felt that a composer has just as much authorization to what’s going on in the film and impacting the direction of the film.
Well, you know, I mean, obviously it depends on the film. You look at, say, the impact that the music in Jaws has on the film. They say that Spielberg wanted to have more of the shark in the movie, but circumstances didn’t allow it. But, actually, it worked better now. And that’s not being an auteur, that’s benefiting from being there and working hard and trying stuff. But that’s just a random thing, and that’s what I love about movie making…those random things. Those moments of transcendence, that’s what we’re all looking for. And some of those things are planned out, but–but they are orchestrated, or they are made to happen by the process itself. It like sort of being an alchemist, you know? Creating something out of nothing.
The thing about my and Darren’s relationship, is that the music or the film kind of make room for one another. I mean, Darren’s films have always made room for music, he’s always wanted a lot of music in there. If you’re going to have a lot of music in a film, it’s got to really work, it can’t just be wallpaper, you know? It’s got to be a character in there.
This is another one of my pet peeves…it’s like, to do that takes a long time. And it takes a lot of understanding on all sides–the director, the studio, the composer. To find those threads and fine tune them and make them sing and dance so that every theme works with every lead line, and every progression works with every melody.
Not in a way that makes it boring, but in a way that leads you and tells the story. Enhances the story.
But so often now a composer will do six weeks work and bang it out, do another one and bang it out…I don’t understand why people don’t want to put the time in to do something well. I mean, I’ve been on Noah a year. And that’s what it takes, you know? That’s what it takes. And I get irritated when I see people taking shortcuts. And that’s sort of works for Darren and I. And I love that. Every film I’ve done with him has been a challenge to find that score.
Was it more of a challenge, or did it help your flow, to be working with Tchaikovsky’s music [for Black Swan]? Or did you initially know that you somehow wanted to interpret that theme? Well, obviously, because of Swan Lake.
Yeah, I mean, from the moment I read it. I had been to see Swan Lake a few years before.
And I had never been to the ballet before, and it blew my mind. I thought it was brililant. And I thought, ‘I would love to do something like that someday’, but I sort of meant in the live arena, with music, to some performance.
But then Darren came to me with this idea of Black Swan and I said, from the start, the score’s got to be built out of Swan Lake, because this girl is driving herself crazy, wanting this role. She’ll be rehearsing to it every day, she’ll be hearing the music every day, that’s all that will be going on in her head would be Swan Lake, all of the time. And then we can start to f— with it. Obviously, Tchaikovsky writes very, very different than me. But what I did was go into the score of Swan Lake, and I started finding patterns or four bar pieces, that if I just played them, or if I stripped down one of his phrases and use the progression without the melody…I could start building these new arrangements, but using his building blocks, his DNA. So, the music really would be of Tchaikovsky, but rearranged, or remixed, by me.
Mansell then describes the recording process for the film.
Classical musicians, they probably know Swan Lake back to front. And that music is written for those instruments. I’ll write orchestral parts, but I’m not classically trained, so I probably do things that, while interesting, is not really what the instrument is designed to do. Whereas Tchaikovsky wrote for those instruments. So when you heard that music played, it’s bigger and bolder than what we do now. But on top of that we have slightly newer arrangements now, so it sort of melted into something sort of different. I thought it was really cool.
I recently saw Moon, maybe a few months ago finally, and I really enjoyed how some of the scenes, where the music started to feel heavy and sad, then it would pick up with that percussion…I interpreted it as a good representation of Sam’s thoughts and optimism. Is that what you were going for?
My favorite sort of films to score really are those lone protagonist, and getting into his mind, or her mind…Black Swan is sort of like it, Pi is definitely like it, and Moon is definitely like it. Music, for me, just takes me on a journey. So, when I see scenes like, Sam is trying to phone home or he is looking back to Earth, and he is coming to the understanding with what he is. I’m just trying to write a piece of music that says that…but also allows the audience into it…not so they feel it, too, but so they empathize with him. And what doesn’t overwhelm the performance or the film, and doesn’t sound cheesy, I hope. Again, it’s hard work. And that’s the commitment.
Did you ever consider, since you were in a band before you were composing, another career path in anything other than music?
No, because I really had no other options. I was just hanging on, hoping something would work out. I mean, at some point, I would have had to. I was fortunate when I met Darren. I was getting by. I think I left the band in ‘96, and we started doing Pi in ‘97, I think? Yeah. And I worked on it through ‘97. And then I got to do Requiem, so things started picking up. It was something I was definitely having to face up to, but it really wasn’t enjoying the thought of it, so I was very lucky that I never would have to go there.
How did you meet Darren and get started on Pi?
My then girlfriend knew Darren’s writing and producing partner, and they worked in PR and stuff together.
The friends heard they were getting the script together, as well as some music, so Mansell’s girlfriend suggested him as a musician. As Darren chatted with him, they shared ideas, artwork, influences.
I wrote a piece of music based on the script and based on the things we talked about. Everybody really loved it. It was sort of a really nice galvanizing thing.
He and Darren continue that approach even today, and have worked together countless times since then.
I like to start with a bunch of ideas even before I’ve seen any footage…just to see where it goes. I just want to hear more voices, and see people take a chance. Excite us, you know?