Clint Mansell

Clint Mansell

‘My problem is I don’t have a poker face, so if anybody starts talking crap to me they can see exactly what I’m thinking': film composer Clint Mansell on life in Tinseltown.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 24 Mar 2016
  • min read
‘My problem is I don’t have a poker face, so if anybody starts talking crap to me they can see exactly what I’m thinking,’ says Grammy Award nominated film composer Clint Mansell.

He’s chatting about his experiences as a Brit in Hollywood, and although he’s become the go-to composer for some of the world’s savviest directors (Darren Aronofsky, Duncan James, Park Chan-Wook), it’s clear he’s not about to jump on the blockbuster bandwagon just yet.

‘It’s like the emperor’s new clothes - everybody telling each other they’re fucking great and me thinking, “Please, I’ll just stay at home”,’ he continues in his thick Midlands accent.

Once at the helm of Stourbridge indie-dance outfit Pop Will Eat Itself, Clint enjoyed a string of ephemeral top 40 hits and opened for hard-hitting US acts Public Enemy and Nine Inch Nails.

But that was back in the nineties, when a booze-fuelled Midlands rumpus also gave rise to likeminded bands The Wonderstuff and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin.

These days Clint a fully-fledged filmscore ace, with a Grammy Award nomination for the soundtrack to Darren Aranofky’s Black Swan under his belt.

Now he’s celebrating the release of his latest release – the score to Ben Wheatley’s long-awaited JG Ballard adaptation High Rise.

We caught up with the Hollywood-based composer ahead of his rare trip to the UK this month (including an appearance at BAFTA’s latest In Conversation series) to learn more about his musical beginnings and what it’s like for a British composer in LA...

When did you first get into music?

David Bowie came on Top of the Pops, when I was about nine, doing Starman. There’s that bit where he points down the camera and you think he’s pointing right at you! I was at my nan’s house. I don’t even remember if we had a black and white TV then, but I do know that it felt like the world suddenly became technicolour. It had the hugest impact on me…

I got the Ziggy Stardust album that weekend after and I played it to death. Obviously it was too mature for me, I didn’t really know what was going on. I know that it was weird sexual stuff in some ways, he was playing with gender and stuff like that, but it was just all very intriguing to my unformed mind at that time. I was very inquisitive, and it became something that I was just completely consumed by.

Was music around the house as you were growing up?

Nope, it was just me, really. My sister liked music, as teenagers do, but it was just something I wanted to do. I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to write songs, I wanted to make music. I inherited my anxieties from my mum. She didn’t like me to go out much so I had to play in the house a lot. I played on my own. It fuels your imagination I suppose. I was into comic books and stuff like that. It’s almost like a classic blue print really. Your imagination becomes the muscle that gets the most training I suppose, and that just led into making creative stuff of my own.

Clint Mansell
Did you try anything else, or has music and bands always been your calling?

No, I just played in bands; I just tried to make music. There never really was a plan B for me, really. I just wasn’t interested. I’m a bit of a contrary old whatsit. To me it’s about the expression, the self-expression, and one’s own journey. I know I work in film now, and that’s a very collaborative venture, I have to join in with other people’s visions if you like, but I try to only get involved in things that actually speak to me.

What do you remember most about the decade you were in Pop Will Eat Itself?

It was brilliant; people liked our records and our live shows so we got drunk and had a great time. I just remember laughing my way around the world, really.

What about when that ended?

It was a difficult time. By 1996 I’d spent a decade in the band, and like anybody that changes career or gets made redundant, your identity is wrapped up in what you do. When it ended I found myself at a real loss. I was rudderless.

So it was serendipitous, then, meeting Darren Aronofsky?

Absolutely. Meeting Darren set us both on a totally new path, particularly for me. Darren obviously could have found somebody else to score his movies, I was gven the opportunity to do my thing. It was a very big experience for me, and we’ve gone on to do a fair amount of work that we’re proud of.

Is there a still a massive learning experience every time you take on a score?

I think every film is different. For me, every new film is always daunting. You’re starting with a completely blank page and you need a multi-coloured masterpiece at the end of it, you know? So yes, there is a huge learning curve, mostly based on the fact that when you write songs and music for yourself you’ve only got yourself to please, you critique it yourself. When you write music for somebody else they’re going to tell you things you may not want to hear. You’ve got to learn to detach yourself from it, but at the same time be invested enough that you think it’s important. It’s a fine line. It can be tough.

How do you actually teach yourself to write scores?

At the end of the day it’s art and it’s expression, so I don’t believe that anybody can tell you what’s right or wrong, it’s just whether you like it or not. Obviously there are things you do learn, of course. Things like keeping out the way of the dialogue so you can hear what people are saying. Figuring out what rhythm and pace is needed. If the scene feels like it’s slow you need to be able to pick it up without feeling like you’re falsely accelerating it. But it’s also got to be in keeping with the general tone of your movie.

So yes you can learn stuff, but it’s like anything, you can learn anything in the world and just know everything about it, but if you haven’t got the vibe and the touch and a feel and a sense for it, then there’s always going to be a little bit of clunkiness there, you know?

What do you think people come to you for?

Hopefully something they can’t get somewhere else. I have an emotional quality, but also I have an unsettling quality. My stuff tends to be very thematic. I think my themes are strong. You can usually whistle the main theme or something from my films, they’ve usually got a tune to them.

Sometimes that’s too much for people. They like music that’s very transparent, shall we say? Which is fine, like I said there is no right or wrongs to scoring a film, I don’t think. Just what your chosen style is.

What films are you most attracted to?

I like films that speak to me, that drag something out of me that’s there. And working with people who challenge me to not to rest on my laurels. My scores aren’t really reliant on wallpaper - just stuff, filling up the soundscape. There needs to be a point to it, you know?

How do you get inside the films you score?

Overall it’s the vibe. What’s the subject matter? What’s the experience? Then is it any good? I don’t really pursue horror films. I’m not really interested in entertaining somebody, I suppose, although I want them to be entertained. It’s a different sort of experience. It’s not, ‘loud bangs and scares and didn’t we have a good time?’ Anybody can do that. I want something that’s going to get something out of me that I would not have expected, that I know was created purely because the film existed.

You’ve worked with some brilliant people over the years such as Darren, Duncan James and Ben Wheatley. Have all these meetings been by chance or do you think it’s a case of birds of a feather?

Well since working with Darren people have got to know my work so it’s easier to meet people. When I met Duncan he hadn’t made a film before, it was his first film, but that was just an amazing script. The most valuable analogy I’ve picked up is it’s easy to score a good film; it’s impossible to score a shit one.

Did your Grammy Award nomination for the Black Swan score change things for you?

I have no idea whether it changed anything really. I really don’t believe in awards, I think they’re the stupidest thing invented. Awards for art and creativity are so subjective, what does it matter? Effectively they’re just like the industry back slapping themselves.

How does it feel to be working in Hollywood? Do you slip into that world quite comfortably?

I’m very much on the outskirts. My problem is I don’t have a poker face, so if anybody starts talking crap to me they can see exactly what I’m thinking. It’s better that I don’t get involved in those types of things. I have no interest in it at all. I really don’t. I’m too opinionated.

It’s like the emperor’s new clothes - everybody telling each other they’re fucking great and me thinking, ‘Please, I’ll just stay at home.’

What scores have influenced you along the way?

The BBC would show Monday night films that would be quite adult, really, and quite smart. Things like The Parallax View or Don’t Look Now or Seven Days in May, Walkabout. I saw a lot of Nick Roeg films when I was younger. On a formative plane, they bring many questions to the table.

Then you’ve got Eraserhead and there’s hardly any music in that, it’s all sound design, so that’s really affecting. Then the music to Betty Blue is amazing. The music in the original Wicker Man was great, all the pagan folk songs. All these things were just things that made me gravitate towards character.

I just felt like, ‘Wow’, this is me. This is my world now. This isn’t my parents’ world or the movie-goers world, because these were independent films just doing their own thing.