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Exclusive Interview: Clint Mansell on Making Movie Music

Composer Clint Mansell discusses his love of John Carpenter, working with Darren Aronofsky and how Van Gogh was the first punk rocker

This writer spent many a Friday night at smoky Toronto Goth bars high-kicking to UK band Pop Will Eat Itself’s anthemic anti-Nazi industrial stomper Ich Bin Ein Asulander, a punishing and dark dance floor fave that became one of the group’s biggest hits. But my attachment to that tune and that band was nothing compared to having my senses shredded watching director Darren Aronofsky‘s soul-smothering adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s depressing novel Requiem for a Dream, wherein Aronofsky flipped the tale of skid row addicts into a pulverizing horror story. I mention this connection because part of that movie’s dark power rests in former PWEI vocalist and co-founder Clint Mansell‘s nightmarish electronic score. Aided by the elegance of The Kronos Quartet, the music for Requiem is alternately sad, exciting and violent and the director had the savvy to crank the volume on Mansell’s soundscape, making it an overbearing presence that propels every frame of the film, much like it did on their first director/composer collaboration, the mesmerizing indie Pi.

Since then, Mansell and Aronofksy have made beautiful art together, collaborating on such films as The Fountain (my personal favorite), The Wrestler and Black Swan. Outside of his work with Aronofsky, however, Mansell has brought his signature sound to movies like DoomMoon, High-Rise and Netflix’s Black Mirror. His latest work is the stunning impressionist feature film Loving Vincent, a movie that tells the tragic story of the mental decline of painter Vincent Van Gogh, literally painting over its frames to mimic one of Van Gogh’s paintings. It’s a movie like no other and — once more — its Mansell’s music that glues it all together, with aural brush strokes just as moving as the dark, haunting mystery the film portrays.

We had the honor to speak with this contemporary icon of film scoring to discuss Loving Vincent, his work with Aronofsky, his idolization of the music of John Carpenter and how he almost collaborated with David Bowie.

ComingSoon.net: My point of entry for you as a composer was Requiem for a Dream, as I’m sure it was for many. But when was the first time you yourself actually noticed score in a film?

Clint Mansell: I grew up watching movies. I was a young kid in the seventies, a teenager in the eighties in England. Back in those days you only had three channels, so you would tend to see anything that was on that was halfway interesting. My dad was a big film buff, so I’d just see films on TV all the time. You go back to that era and it would be a lot of World War II movies and cowboy movies, John Wayne, How the West Was Won or Damnbusters. But if you think of TV shows at the time, musical scores to TV shows were huge: Lone Ranger, Batman, they all had music to them, an identity, if you like. I don’t even know if I particularly noticed it, but I think it just was there. I was used to something with an image, then when I started getting to the age where I noticed different things I was very fortunate again because the BBC in England at the time, which sort of showed movies on a Sunday or Monday night, they were quite contemporary, going from stuff like Klute or Don’t Look Now or Walkabout and of course the Spaghetti Westerns and these all had different but interesting music to my young mind. Then I heard John Carpenter and that kind of felt like my world. You hear John Carpenter and it’s so direct and minimal and classy and brooding but still totally sets the atmosphere and vibe for the movie. So that was where it probably became something more to me.

CS: It’s funny, you and I kind of crossed paths without really knowing it. We both wrote essays for the booklet for Death Waltz’s release of the Assault on Precinct 13 soundtrack on vinyl, you wrote one and I wrote one. My essay was kind of citing that I believed anyways, that Carpenter’s sound was essential to what would become I guess known as industrial, electronic rock. Do you agree with that?

Clint Mansell: Oh, totally. I think you can hear the Carpenter influence in the heart of a lot of that stuff from that era, from Depeche Mode to stuff now, the guy from Pye Corner Audio that does techno stuff that has a great Carpenter feel to it. When I first met Darren (Aronofsky) and we were going to do Pi, Carpenter was something we both connected on. A lot of film music had become very professional, like wallpaper to us and when you’re in your twenties and early thirties you have that punk rock vibe, you want something the way you think it should be and getting the opportunity to do that with a film was brilliant.

CS: I think that’s why so many of us responded to your collaboration with Darren and the sound you brought. Again, my point of entry was Requiem and finding a movie to me that I hadn’t seen since Suspiria, where the music was a character, just as much as anyone else in the film, was a revelation. Is that the kind of driving philosophy of how you approach cinema?

Clint Mansell: I think it is, really. I feel the score is the last element that can be added to a film that can really take it to another place, wherever you want that place to be. You know, it sort of supports and underlines this universe that you want this story told in; obviously story, design, performance, all these things combine and they’re all very connected. When you connect and glue all those together it sort of becomes the tone and the character of the film.

CS: Speaking of connecting and gluing, we talked about Carpenter. Now, if you listen to the score to The Fog or Christine or Escape From New York, they’re similar;  there’s a lot of motifs that travel from film to film and the same applies with you too. I can pick up on that distinct Clint Mansell sound but I can also detect when other people are borrowing from you, especially from The Fountain. I found The Fountain to be perhaps one of your most influential scores, would you agree?

Clint Mansell: I don’t know, to be honest. The stuff I listen to is I guess stuff that has been an influence on me, whether it’s The Stooges, Spaceman 3 through to Mogwai and Pye Corner Audio. I just like to come across things, I’m not an avid film school buff in modern times, I mean I like stuff but I just kind of like to go down my own path and see what’s exciting to me, so I really haven’t paid much attention which would be my short answer I guess.

CS: When I listen to the score of your new film, Loving Vincent – which is just superlative, and so is the movie – it’s incredibly odd and beautiful but I detect again, a lot of The Fountain in there. When filmmakers come to you do they say we want this or do they just give you carte blanche to sculpt whatever it is you’re going to sculpt?

Clint Mansell: It depends, really. I think the good ones are the ones that sort of, not necessarily are saying to me do what you do, or do this or do that, just the ones that are compatible, that comes together in the right way, the subject matter and the personalities in creating. I think when it works like that it allows me to I suppose complete my own thoughts or continue my own thoughts to some degree. I like to think a lot of my work is absolutely connected, hopefully not to the point of repetition and standing still but to the point of further exploration and development of my own qualities, good or bad I suppose.

CS: For Loving Vincent did you compose to the final film or did you supply cues or what was the process there?

Clint Mansell: It was a different process, just because of the time involved. It took I think nearly nine years from start to end but I was involved for two years, obviously that’s a luxury not afforded to composers very often but because they had to hand paint every frame, they shot the live action and had to lock the cut of that pretty early on so they could then paint the frames. I started with a cut of the film that was a lot of live action, some paintings, a blend but mostly towards the live action. So what I did, I could create sketches for the scenes and the themes and I could start one day on a particular scene and return to it six months later when it was now partially painted or fully painted and what I’ve learned from other areas of the film at that time I could start adding in. As I saw more paintings and more completed sections of the film, you get the movement of the paint then and the textures coming through and those were the sort of things I wanted to at least have a chance to respond to, see what we could do with them, how that would help transition from scene to scene. So I was lucky, really. I got to work with all aspects of the film and to grow with it, which was great. To have that time to sort of develop, contemplate and go back if you like, it was quite a unique approach.

CS: Do you ever miss being a rock star?

Clint Mansell: Well, whatever that might mean I don’t think I do, to be honest. I mean it was great, I was at the age where that was exactly what I wanted to do, play music, play in a band, since I was ten and we got to do that and had a great time, made a bunch of records. It was great, I wouldn’t change it but when I left I guess part of my mind had just moved on, really, I don’t think about it too much.

CS: Another question about Loving Vincent;  were you influenced by Van Gogh’s paintings at all when it came to sculpting a sound for the film?

Clint Mansell: Well, I mean I would say yes, I read the biography Van Gogh: The Life. Most people I knew of his work and that he cut his ear off, but when you read about him you see how difficult a time it was for him and he sort of represents the archetypal artist’s struggle, of being completely ignored and vilified but becoming arguably one of the biggest artists we’ve ever known. But the loneliness he felt, his moods, his melancholy and pretty much being ignored by his family except for his brother, it feels like a tragic life, really. But then you’ve got all this beauty in it as well so there’s a lot to be influenced by and I think his character and his passion are in his paintings. I realized at one point that a lot of people are obviously passionate about Van Gogh so what I’m writing really better hold up, you know? Van Gogh was the first punk rocker, really. He blazed his own trail, did his own thing, fuck it. That’s why I thought he’d be on board with a guy like me, just going out and doing what he feels, I think he’d be OK with it so that was my comfort blanket.

CS: You’ve already mentioned you yourself, one of the great composers, you’re not really a film score junkie but do you have a particular favorite film score?

Clint Mansell: There really are too many to mention, there have been so many great ones. The ones I suppose that have always been with me if you like, would be Assault on Precinct 13, Betty Blue – I love that one – Cape Fear is fantastic. I guess it’s a cliché to say The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, any of those.

CS: And your favorite band of all time Clint, which is probably even harder to answer, but there must be one that has carried with you your entire life?

Clint Mansell:  Again, it’s quite a few but artist wise it would be David Bowie because he was the first person I saw, he was doing Starman, that made me notice and go I love this, I want to do this and that just set me on the path, you know? I suppose band wise it would be The Ramones because they were my sort of footing into punk rock and everything else kind of went from there.

CS: You worked with his son on Moon, but did you ever get the chance to meet Bowie in your travels?

Clint Mansell: I did, yeah. We actually got together a few times because Darren had asked David if he would be interested in working with us on The Fountain and we had a few meetings and conversations about that but it never really came to fruition but it was still great to you know, get to know him a bit.

Loving Vincent is now playing in NYC and expanding Nationally over the coming weeks