While perhaps best known as Darren Aronofsky’s go-to
composer on works such as “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan,” composer
Clint Mansell has spent the past 15 years establishing one of the most
critically lauded bodies of work in the industry, both inside and outside his
collaborations with Aronofsky. With work ranging from Duncan Jones’ “Moon” to
Park Chan-wook’s American debut “Stoker,” Mansell has proven himself to be one
of the daring and audacious composers currently active; a fact acknowledged
time and time again during his talk earlier this week as a part of the BFI
London Film Festival’s masterclass series.
Held during the Festival’s run at the BFI Southbank theater, Mansell sat down in front of the packed house to discuss his extensive career. After beginning the evening with a
brief clip from 1973’s Bruce Lee classic “Enter the Dragon,” Mansell explained
how his technique has evolved since his first work on Aronofsky’s debut “Pi,” to his most recent compositions for Jon Baird’s “Filth” and Aronofsky’s “Noah,” as well as the constant necessity of collaboration throughout all of his
Below are ten highlights from Mansell’s talk.
Following the breakup of his band Pop Will Eat Itself, a chance meeting with Aronofsky led to his first composing job on “Pi.”
“After I left the band in 1996 I moved to New York in one of those ridiculous egocentric things. I was broke, depressed and i didn’t really flourish at all, but through a friend of a friend I met Darren Aronofsky. He had been to the American Film Institute… and to a degree we were maybe in similar sorts of places. We had worked on things before but we were both a bit lost to a certain degree. So he didn’t really know anyone else who knew music and I hadn’t written anything for film before, and in some respects if he had someone with some experience maybe he would have gone with them but that’s never really been Darren’s style.”
John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” score was the biggest influence on Mansell’s earliest work.
“It goes black, there were these red titles and then the music starts playing and I’m like 17 or 18 just thinking ‘this is the most amazing music I’ve ever heard in my life.’ The thing I like about Carpenter is that he just doesn’t care about ‘oh we need a bit of levity in the moment.’ I guess what it was was that I was at that age where it was just the music that spoke to me. Carpenter was our time and a huge influence on me and he helped me actually understand what music does in a film.”
“Perseverance and discipline” are the keys to beginning to compose a film.
“Trial and error is really the thing. There is really no substitute for actually doing it, trying things, writing stuff. For me it’s about finding a sound or a melody that for me connects with the film. It’s 99% perspiration to start with because your trying to find something to get you into the film and find the tone. Getting that first initial thing is really the difficult part and there is really no other way about it besides perseverance and discipline.”
Film editors are a composer’s best friend.
“Your best friend is really the film’s editor, because he’s dictating the pace and the feel of the movie. Yes you have the performances there, but this is the guy who you really have to be in sync with. Just getting in sync with him and getting that rhythm can really help you a lot because the first that does is make the film flow, so if you can get a piece of music that just ticks along nicely, everybody’s feeling good about it.”
The quartet-performed score for “Requiem” was originally conceived as a hip-hop score.
“Darren was a big hip-hop fan and his original idea was that we’d use hip-hop elements for the score. There’s a scene early in the film where Ellen Burstyn’s character first takes the diet pills and she’s vacuuming the room. It’s all fast and then it wears off and it all slows down. So then he put over it ‘Channel Zero’ by Public Enemy, and it war really incredible… but it doesn’t do anything besides being cool. It’s just visually and sonically interesting, but it didn’t help express anything about the film.”
Finding the music that a film rejects is just as important as finding the music that ultimately fits.
“If I’ve done work on a film and I’ve sketched some ideas… you put those up against the first cut and honestly the film will reject it out of hand if its not working. But I think that failure in that respect is a massive part of what I do. Someone a lot smarter than me said something like ‘every time you take the obvious route you lose the chance to learn something.’ Without that exploration, I don’t feel like I can really know the film.
Mansell still doesn’t know why “Lux Aeterna” (from “Requiem for a Dream”) connected with people the way it did.
“That piece of music has really just taken on a life of its own, it’s like having a kid and watching it go off. It just sort of connected with people in a way that I certainly can’t replicate and don’t know why it did what it did or how it did what it did, because if I did I’d obviously be doing it constantly. It just had something that people connect to.”
While working on this fall’s “Filth,” Mansell learned that the key to composing comedy is creating room for the humor to emerge.
“[Comic tone] just isn’t my instinct. I mean, I like a good laugh but musically I’ve never connected with anything that’s jolly. My instinct isn’t to go there so that kind of thing is very hard for me. We had to tread a very thin line with ‘Filth,’ because it is funny but it’s also a bit dark and very serious. So you need to create room for the humor to come through, but you really don’t want to take away from those moments… I don’t really have the gene though.”
Manselll doesn’t consider himself to be a musician.
“Whenever I work with an orchestra… I assume you know that my music is simplistic. I’m not a great musician, and I don’t even classify myself as a musician really. When you look out in the studio out the window into the live room, you think about how many hours all of these [musicians] have spent perfecting their instruments to make my riffs sound as good as they are. It’s incredible to get to work with musicians of that caliber, and it’s a great honor.”
Finding your unique voice is the most crucial thing to discovering your artistic potential.
“To me though, it always go back to this quote from ‘Trading Places,’ the Eddie Murphy film… ‘just be yourself, they can’t take that away from you.’ And that’s what writing music is to me. Find your voice, be yourself, and don’t worry about whether it’s going to be accepted or popular. Find your voice and believe in it because that’s what music is about. It’s about finding something you respond to, and if you respond to it someone else it probably going to as well.
“The only thing I can see as a success is doing a film where I think I’ve done a good job and the director’s happy with me and you’re both happy with it. Of course you want the film to be successful and the music to be loved, but you have no control over those things, so you’ve got to just do your best work in the things you’re working on and the best way to do that is just by being you.”