You might not know Clint Mansell’s name, but you’ll certainly be familiar with his work. Lux Aeterna, a piece he composed for the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream, has become part of the cultural fabric, featuring in adverts, film trailers and football matches, and he has composed scores for films as diverse as Smokin’ Aces, Doom and Moon. We recently had the chance to speak to the former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman where we discussed his career, the feeling of having his compositions become so ubiquitous, and his work with Park Chan-Wook on the soundtrack to Stoker.
We began by discussing the piano duet played by India (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie (Matthew Goode) midway through the film, a track that, as Mansell put it, “It needed to be done prior to shooting, so it could be reproduced on camera, so that was in place.”
HeyUGuys: How does that then impact the way you work, knowing there’s already something in the soundtrack?
Clint Mansell: To be honest, not as much as you think. It just becomes something that’s almost the same as –there’s information there already that you need to integrate into the world that I’m helping to create. Musically it needs to be cohesive with everything else that I’ve done; unless of course there’s some real reason where it needs to stand out as being particularly different or odd.
To some degree it’s almost like having a framework in place that’s got to be part of everything else that you’re bringing. It’s not necessarily that you have to stylistically match it, or use the same instrumentation, it just needs to be – in much the same way that Summer Wine was already there – it needs to make sense with the universe you’re creating. It needs to feel true.
Whether the music is written by me, or somebody else, a bit of source music, it’s all got to be cohesive; it’s all got to work together. It all adds up to the overall symphonic nature of the score, and the world of the music. To be honest, it’s just another thing that you work with. Fortunately in this case I had a bunch of great music already in place: Summer Wine, Duet, Emily [Wells} was working on her track; these were positives, not negatives in any way, shape or form. They’re great things to have to work with.
HeyUGuys: You’re responsible for your composition then, not for the overall feel of the soundtrack, or do you have some input into that?
CM: I’d have some input into it, [but] only as much as a sounding board. I would offer advice about those things, and I am involved because it affects my work to some degree, but my job – in the same way as if a director said to me, ‘I really want this score to be entirely played on ukulele’, I’d go, ‘OK, that’s an interesting project’, and if I decide I was going to do this film, that would be part of the framework I’d have to work within.
These other musical choices are very much like that, when it comes to the end of all the music making, and we’ve put the score together, we’ve recorded it, and put it in the film; you watch it, these all feel part of the world that you’re watching, and this family live in. It is a big part of it, but it’s just something I take on board really, I’ve just got to work my way with it, and blend in with it.
HeyUGuys: So we’re not likely to see a Clint Mansell score on a Ukulele then?
CM: It’s not my go to instrument, I must admit, but never say never.
HeyUGuys: I presume by the time you started composing the Stoker soundtrack, a lot of the sound editing was in place.
CM: I didn’t have very long to score Stoker, because there being a previous composer involved, so I came on quite late, so yes, a lot of it was already in place. But – were you going to ask about the sound on it?
HeyUGuys: It’s just, I don’t know if you’d noticed, but I personally think that Stoker has some rather remarkable sound editing. It’s astonishing that every moment of sound in the film has a purpose, and I’m curious how that works with your composition.
CM: Sound and score work very closely in most films these days. It’s something that, particularly with Darren’s films, we’ve been doing since Pi really [with] Darren’s sound designer, Brian Emrich, who is also a huge commercial sound guy. And it’s become more and more prevalent, I think, in movies. Such that you might know that a scene needs scoring, but it works out that it’s better scored by sound, than it is by music. There’s so much that can be done, but I’ve got to agree with you, when I saw the finished version of Stoker, I was blown away by the elegance of the sound to it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything this clear before, it was so good. They really did a beautiful job, beautiful.
HeyUGuys: Do you see common themes in your own work, running through from film to film?
CM: I suppose there is a certain inevitability about that really. I don’t particularly see myself as a film composer in maybe what is the traditional sense of a film composer. If you go back to people like Hanneman, and Miklós Rósza, a lot of those guys, when they would do live TV, and would actually score TV shows, those guys really were the real deal, in as much as they were, ‘OK, you want happy, here’s happy, you want sad, here’s sad’, whereas my work is probably much more – I go to a lot of films not so much thinking, obviously I do think about what the film needs, but I’m looking for if this film speaks to me, if it’s going to bring something out of me. With that, there are things that I like, there are certain progressions that hit me musically, that hit my ear, that hit my soul, if you like, that make sense to me; I’m sure I’m always looking for those structures that I respond to, and hopefully, while I hope they’re not always the same, I’m sure they have common traits that you could go, ‘that sounds like Clint Mansell’.
HeyUGuys: The one thing with film composition that you don’t tend to get with other popular music at the moment is that there is a feeling of a structure to an album. As a man who used to be a rather successful pop musician, I wonder how you feel about the death of the album, and the rise of the single-only culture.
CM: Actually, that’s one of the things that I love about film music, or my film music to be honest. One of the things that I’ve tried to do is, really since we did The Fountain – after we’d done Requiem For a Dream, which was effectively just all the music from the film laid out in this very tense, paranoid kind of way, I read a lot of reviews on Amazon for the requiem record, which was probably something you should never do, but everybody was saying, ‘it’s great, but it just gets going and it stops’, which I think was very true of the music in Requiem, and I think was probably right for that particular piece of work.
I then – we’re talking around 2000, at that point – I then started becoming aware of bands like Mogwai, Godspeed Your Black Emperor, that were like – to some degree they were making more progressive music than ten hit singles on an album, they were doing longer pieces of work, and I was really getting into this. And I thought maybe this was something we could start doing with the film music. We’ve got over an album’s worth of music every time I do a score, and I thought we could rework this so that you get a more traditional listen from the score CD, so that you don’t just get cue after cue after cue, you actually get tracks that embody all the elements of this particular theme, but reworked into a three, four, five minute listen, so that it feels satisfying. Effectively you can create an album then that gives you the feeling of the film, but is a standalone listen in itself.
That’s the generation I come from, is albums. Be it The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Bowie, it’s all albums, I guess I hark back to that. Kids today have a very different approach to it, they get their music differently to how we used to, but at the same time, I don’t think that negates the overall concept of listening to 50, 60 minutes of music. I think that’s the beauty, to some degree, of the changing world we have. Things rush on to something new, but after a while they sort of gravitate back towards the best of the old stuff as well, so when everything settles down you have a good blend of everything, and hopefully that’s where we’re heading. There’s a huge return to vinyl, everybody wants to know if Stoker is coming out on vinyl. People are picking the best things that work for them. That’s pretty cool, I think.
HeyUGuys: Is it coming out on Vinyl?
CM: Yes it is.
HeyUGuys: We’ve spoken about the film score becoming a symphony, but a lot of your work gets packaged into tiny little chunks and re-purposed. How do you feel when you hear something like Lux Aeterna on a football show?
CM: I’ve got to be honest with you, I feel great about it. It’s surprising, for sure, but I think it’s just the way things are moving. OK,I’m 50 now, but that’s probably relatively young in film composer terms, so I probably bring a different sensibility, and a different experience to how I got here, to a lot of other composers. As I said, I grew up with albums and punk rock and the Ramones, and maybe that feeds into what I look for, and the music I’m writing has, I won’t say a pop element to it, but I tend to deal in melodic themes.
Perhaps there’s just something of those you can just get your teeth into, and it works being re-purposed for other things. I find it kind of fascinating, I must admit, Darren’s not so sure about it, because for him it takes away from the film, because that’s where you would hear the music. But at the same time it’s a very interesting social experiment seeing where these things end up.
Stoker is out in UK cinemas now. You can see all our coverage including trailers, review and interviews here.