He’s been described as “THE man”, “All clutch” and “That freak from the bomb squad who sits, pliers perched, waiting for the countdown clock to hit ’00:01′ before he starts snipping wires”. The former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell is arguably one of the most sought after film score composers of today. Since his first stab at it on Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi,” he has forged a singular career as a film composer, working on productions as varied as “Knockaround Guys,” “Sahara,” Moon” and “Stoker.” But it seems whenever he comes back to the table with Aronofsky, that’s when something magical happens.
Mansell has worked with Aronofsky on each of the director’s features — “Pi,” “The Fountain,” “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” and “Noah” but it is his work on “Requiem for a Dream” that most people will be aware of even if they don’t realise it. The music for the film is noted for its minimalist qualities in which it uses constant harmonies, a steady pulse, and often variation of musical phrases to drive a point. Aronofsky and Mansell both grew up listening to Hip-hop which they based a lot of their decision making on that type of music. Aronofsky saw Requiem as a “monster movie, only when something goes bad you hear the music.” All of the music in the film influenced the characters and goes with the drugs in the film. Even though none of the characters actually say the word “Heroin”, they still based the music around heroin and cravings.
The soundtrack has been widely praised, and in particular the track “Lux Aeterna” (which itself is much used in the film) has subsequently been used in various forms of media. “Lux Aeterna” (Latin for “eternal light”) is the leitmotif of the movie and the penultimate piece in the Requiem for a Dream score. The popularity of this piece led to its use in popular culture outside the film, most notably in film and teaser trailers, such as Sunshine, and multiple remixes and remakes by other producers. It was also used in the Top Gear: Polar Special episode. The theme was re-orchestrated for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers trailer and is known by the name “Requiem for a Tower”, presented by “Corner Stone Cues”. The theme has been featured in trailers for other films, including Babylon A.D, The Da Vinci Code, I Am Legend and Valley of Flowers. It also appeared in the video games “Total Miner: Forge” (Xbox Live Indie Game 2011), Assassin’s Creed and in numerous TV spots and advertisements, and at sporting events. Use of the theme has extended to the point where it is interchangeable with the name “Requiem for a Dream.”
Mansell, who was born and raised in Coventry, has lived and worked in Hollywood for 12 years now, but he hasn’t been swallowed up by the town’s brash self-confidence. “The thing is, I don’t really see myself as being a film composer,” he says. “I’m not the sort of guy who goes, ‘Oh, for this we need a John Williams sort of score, or a Bernard Herrmann sound.’ I hunt for the projects where I can bring something beneficial to the film and satisfy my own requirements at the same time. The successful films that I’ve done are probably not those that fit a traditional Hollywood perspective.”
Blame the ailing economy, perhaps, but the kind of films Mansell gravitates towards – daring, harrowing and psychological, like Duncan Jones’s 2009 sci-fi Moon – are not the kind of films the studios are taking a punt on. For instance, he signed up to score the 2012 videogame Mass Effect 3, which sounded promising. “But the bean-counters upstairs suddenly decided they didn’t want to spend the money on live musicians. The goalposts moved, shall we say.” So Mansell stepped back. “I felt like my fingers had been burnt, a little.” He did some remixes, a little commercial work. “And then Stoker came up.”
The first English-language production from Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, Stoker fits Mansell’s sensibility. A modern-day gothic thriller brimming with Hitchcockian suspense, it stars Mia Wasikowska as India, a troubled girl on the brink of womanhood who is thrown into turmoil when her father dies.Mansell joined Stoker late in the production cycle. “They’d had another composer, which didn’t work out,” says Mansell. “But I really liked the film, and I knew what it needed from me. Most of the films I tend to work on, when I think back, there seems to be a central character whose headspace I have to try to inhabit. In Black Swan, Nina became more and more unhinged, so that takes the music to another place. The thing about India, she’s got this almost detached sense of fascination. There doesn’t seem to be a malicious streak there; she’s like a kid pulling wings off flies.”
Mansell’s score meshes with the film’s ambitious sound design: the clack of a distant metronome, the thunderous crunch of shell as India rolls a hard-boiled egg in circles across a dinner table. “It’s the most elegant-sounding film I’ve worked on,” he says. “And that’s not something I’ve ever thought of my music being.” In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, India and her uncle Charlie play together at the piano, a composition specially written for the film by Philip Glass. “It’s the love scene in the movie, really. He’s the world’s greatest composer, and it’s a fantastic piece of work. That’s the sort of sensibility I’m always trying to find.” Ultimately, he says, you seek out people who inspire you: “If you’re a footballer, you want to be the worst player on the team. Because if you play with greater footballers, they drag you up. That’s how I feel. If I’m the smartest person in the room, we’re fucked, you know?”
Mansell originally found modest fame back in the 1980s as co-frontman in Stourbridge band Pop Will Eat Itself. PWEI were poster boys of “Grebo”, a short-lived West Midlands movement known for its big shorts, big beats and big guitars. Their songs – the likes of Beaver Patrol and Can U Dig It (not the same as The Mock Turtles) – won no prizes for elegance, but the Poppies’ first US tour did see Mansell forge a friendship with Trent Reznor of industrial rockers Nine Inch Nails, who signed them to his label, Nothing Records.
After the Poppies disintegrated in 1996, the two kept in touch. “I’d met Darren by then, and I was working on Pi,” he says. “But I was having a real hard time; I was a bit of a mess, to be honest. Trent had a studio in New Orleans, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come down, spend some time here and clear your head?’ He gave me my first Mac, my first Pro Tools set up, and introduced me to [Apple audio software] Logic, which I still use now. Basically, he took me under his wing. And I stayed for three years.”
At the time, Mansell was developing a fascination for a certain sort of expansive, instrumental post-rock: “Both Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor really had an influence on me. There was almost this sense that post-rock and film scoring were almost becoming interchangeable This kind of challenge is important for Mansell, who found that scoring films opened a new musical world compared to the one he occupied as the singer with Pop Will Eat Itself. As part of the group, he found there was almost an obligation to pay attention to musical moments that seem faddish when looked at almost twenty years later.
“This is what I prefer about my job now to my job in the band,” he says. “The world I live in now, musically, allows me to not react so strongly to a particular trend or a moment. There’s a broader palette that I can not only pull from, but which also feels relevant to what I’m trying to do.”