The cinematic world of American auteur Darren Aronofsky is populated with all manner of obsessives. He portrays addiction and its various forms, whether it’s a neuroscientist desperately trying to cure his wife’s brain tumor in The Fountain, junkies chasing their next score in Requiem for a Dream or Mickey Rourke as Randy the Ram refusing to hang up his boots in The Wrestler. These characters’ occupations aren’t typically relatable, but their struggles are, and the sense of intimacy and familiarity Aronofsky manages to create for each is indelibly augmented by the soundtrack work of Clint Mansell, who has scored every one of Aronofsky’s directorial efforts.
Born in Coventry and finding success in the early ’90s with Pop Will Eat Itself, Mansell quit the band in 1996 and moved to New York in what he now refers to as an ill-conceived attempt to produce a solo electronic record. It was in New York that Mansell met Aronofsky through a mutual friend, and the two immediately connected over a shared appreciation for John Carpenter and electronic music. It didn’t take long for the friendship to become a professional collaboration, with Mansell tapped to score Pi in 1997. They’ve been professionally inseparable ever since. It’s Mansell who’s responsible for the deathless strings of Requiem for a Dream’s “Lux Aeterna,” the subtle revisions of Tchaikovsky in Black Swan and The Wrestler’s haunting guitar motif, each providing key insight into the character’s personalities and eventual unravellings.
In a conversation ahead of Darren Aronofsky’s lecture in Toronto on September 10th, Mansell discussed their working relationship and professional shorthand with Aaron Gonsher.
I want to start by asking about the electronic music that appeared on the Pi soundtrack, which was the first film that you made with Darren. Who was responsible for those choices between you and Darren?
Those choices were nothing to do with me. That was really done between Darren and Eric Watson, and probably Sioux Zimmerman, who was the music supervisor on that film. The original idea had been for the whole film to be using pre-existing electronic music, but that was a bit of a logistical nightmare because we really didn’t have any money and not a lot of contacts for us to get the rights for some of those tracks. So every time one dropped out I would write a new piece of score to take its place. That’s how it built up. Darren had just wanted me to do an opening title piece from what I remember, and the rest of it was just going to be pre-existing electronic music, but the stuff that ended up in there were the ones that we could actually get a hold of.
When you first met Darren, did you share any particular musical tastes or preferences?
We both liked hip hop, and we both disliked modern film music. We thought, by and large, it was usually quite melody-free or thematically poor. Not very strong. There just seemed to be a lot more potent music going on. We cited John Carpenter movies like Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 as having really good, strong soundtracks. That’s what we were interested in pursuing or reviving.
Are you always scoring the films concurrent with production or are you doing it in post-production typically?
I usually write from the script stage onwards. I gather ideas so that when Darren is finished with the shoot and they put together the rough assembly they can use these demo ideas of mine to see how everything’s working, rather than putting together a temp score. I think that’s really one of the great secrets, not temping it with other things. Just trying to find the voice of the movie itself and not be influenced by other things, just listen purely to the mood of it.
Have you ever found that you read a script and came away with a different conception of what the theme of the movie was than Darren? Or are you usually pretty in tune with what he’s trying to achieve right off the bat?
I think we’re pretty in tune in what we’re aiming for. It can take some finding. You just know when it’s right and that takes a lot of experimentation and hard work to find out what the film needs. Darren’s films are always developed from the script stage. The script is like a floor map in the structure of what you’re going to get, what you’re aiming at, but obviously performances, and production, and music: those things take you far from the printed word. That’s part of the specialness of it, that sort of discovery, unwrapping and unfolding and finding out what this work means and what it is.
Can you talk a bit about the influence of Aguirre on the soundtrack for The Fountain? You mentioned that in previous interviews but not in-depth as to what you brought from that into the score.
I love Popol Vuh’s work anyway, but we had screened a number of films that we felt were of relevance to what we were trying to do with The Fountain, and Aguirre, Wrath of God was one of those. The opening scene with the theme tune, whatever it is that Popol Vuh used to start the film, is just this hypnotic, dream-like, otherworldly atmosphere that’s quite impactive but just beautiful.
I like films like Aguirre that have a transcendence to them. They have something going on emotionally that transcends the narrative of the film. You can really get lost in those works, and that was something I was just really heavily into at the time.
I felt that The Fountain was very otherworldly. A lot of people didn’t really understand it or what was going on, but I didn’t think it was that important to just follow the narrative. It’s one guy’s experience in a weird timeline but ultimately it’s a story of one man and you can just get so lost in there. Even in its miserableness, there was beauty in Aguirre and that was something I was excited about. I wanted to try and pursue an idea like that for The Fountain because it’s sort of a tragic tale with a lot of beauty in it.
Had Darren given you specific notes about how he felt the different timelines in The Fountain should sound or was he always assuming that it should all be unified musically? Were there little things that you wanted to insert to signal the switching timelines?
We toyed with every timeline having its own theme or its own sound. There is a little bit of that going on, but it’s mostly very streamlined, because doing it the other way felt very schizophrenic and, if anything, it sort of confused matters more. The fact that it’s taking place in different time zones, time periods, didn’t really matter.
I was working in one room, Darren was editing in another, so we would spend all week working on stuff and every Friday afternoon we would have a screening of the film and see where we were at, talk about the changes and whether they worked. So we had this very organic process of building the music into the film. Just trying stuff backwards and forwards. It was a great system for refining the film.
Is that the system that you use when you’re working on all of the films with Darren?
No, actually. Most of the films we’ve probably not been in the same city. I did Requiem in New Orleans. I did Black Swan, Noah and The Wrestler in Los Angeles. I’ve only done Pi and The Fountain in New York with Darren. We’ve been in other places a lot of the time. You can do it over Skype and stuff like that now, but I still think there’s something real about all being in the same room together and just brainstorming. You might end up with some crazy ideas sometimes, but you can find some magic as well.
Darren had once described the main theme of The Fountain as being about “coming to terms with your own death.” Had he relayed such a literal conception to you while making this score? What’s your creative process in terms of taking that sort of thematic directive and translating it into sound?
The first part is easy: I can’t remember. I’m sure he did say something to me. We usually talk about it and maybe some key words will come up to get us both thinking. For instance, on Noah the one word he said to me was “industrial.” That’s all he said. So we do do that, I just can’t remember what it was on The Fountain.
My process is sort of the same, really. Any given film that we’re doing, I’m probably in a certain headspace and I’m probably influenced by a certain sort of music. Or I’ve been listening to or playing with something that is my current interest. That’s where I’ll start. And then it’s a lot of experimenting and trying and writing stuff and being miserable because it’s all rubbish. And then finding one piece that you like and going, “That’s pretty cool.” That can inform some of the other things you’ve worked upon. Maybe that helps a couple of other ideas come together and you just start playing with it. Playing with the film. Playing with the music.
I like that search, even if it’s hard, because it makes me feel like if it’s not easy to score then you’ve got to dig deep and find something particular for it. And you can’t get away with anything too basic or too easy. You’ve got to really dig in and I think that’s when the magic can happen.
Could talk about that guitar riff that’s recurring throughout The Wrestler? How long did it take you to come up with that and was it actually Slash playing that throughout the score?
Slash played it, yeah. I wrote it. It probably took about as long to write it as it does to play it, to be honest, but it took me quite some time to get to the place where I could write it. It didn’t come easy. I think there’s only something like 12 minutes of original music in that film. Maybe a little more. It’s not a lot.
The reality of that was that I did write more music. And we experimented with music in different places, but with the way the film is shot and with Mickey’s performance it just didn’t gel. Every time we did something that you might have thought, “We could have a cue here,” you’d do it, it would come off the back of something Mickey had done, and it was like you’d just double underlined it with a big red felt pen. He really had it covered. So everything became about being very, very sparse. Very minimal. That was the experiment for that film. Trying to find what would work with it.
We thought guitar from the beginning, because he was a big metal fan. And the thing that had got me was he was from New Jersey and he’s obviously a sort of blue-collar guy. He’s a man that lives in his van most of the time, or half the time, and his taste would probably be manly, for want of a better phrase. But I was then trying to find out, “How do I represent his inner emotions without robbing him of who he is?” Trying to find an instrument that will speak to him and speak to his emotions without making him something he’s not. That led me to Jersey, and that led me to Springsteen, and that made me think of Springsteen’s Nebraska album. That’s very sparse, very minimal, just him and acoustic guitar for most of it.
A guy like this would probably like The Boss. He’d be able to probably take that album on board because it’s The Boss. And not wishing to be condescending to the character, I’m just trying to create a bit of musical space for him. So that eventually gave me my latitude to experiment with these styles of guitars and that was how we ended up getting there.
Did a similar reckoning with the character’s mindset and brain space feed into the conceptual inspiration for Black Swan where you were reworking Tchaikovsky? Had that idea come from you initially or was it something that Darren had suggested?
I think we both knew that the score had to reference Swan Lake, without a doubt. We knew that was going to be part of it, if only for the dance scenes. And there was going to be plenty of that. But then we talked about this idea, she being a ballerina who seemed incredibly dedicated and committed to her work. She’d been driving herself really hard because she wants these roles, she wants to be great in it. And all day she was going to be listening to the music from Swan Lake. All day, all day, all day. It ultimately would just be in her head all the time. As she gets stressed and overwhelmed those rhythms could be changing, tormenting her through the night and coming up in wrong places and making her feel agitated.
I got this idea of taking Tchaikovsky’s entire score and doing a remix of it, if you like. Going into the score and finding the passages of two bars or four bars that I could then repeat or mute some notes out of. And I could, from Tchaikovsky’s work, make it more my work. I’d go, “I like this rhythm. This is something I might have done.” And so I’ve taken Tchaikovsky’s work and put it through my own filter. And that was to really represent how it would be driving her insane, as she wouldn’t be able to escape that music. Everything that we did was borne out of Swan Lake and I would write and develop stuff on top of that. For me it just seemed like that was the only way you could approach it.
Who had initially thought of using music from The Chemical Brothers for the soundtrack for Black Swan?
We were both...well, I was approaching 50, Darren might be a little bit younger than me, but I said, “I don’t think that it’s a good idea that two guys that haven’t been near a nightclub in about 20 years try and write some sort of disco dance thing that the kids are going to get off on. I think we ought to try and get somebody who’s authentic in to help us with that part.” Otherwise you come up with something really stupid.
We reached out to different people to see who would be interested in helping us with our friend Mary Anne Hobbs in England. She helped us put together a little group of artists who did that whole session that starts off when the girls go out to eat and then they meet those guys, they do the E and then they go out to the club. That whole section is scored by different electronic artists that build up to The Chemical Brothers track kicking in in the club.
Requiem for a Dream
Can you talk about how Requiem was originally conceived as a hip-hop score? It’s interesting how it morphed into the iconic score it is now from something completely different initially.
Like with Black Swan, the idea of reusing some existing material was the idea for Requiem for a Dream: Here it was re-purposing hip hop tracks. Darren had done a scene that he sent me to have a look at. It’s the scene from Requiem for a Dream where Ellen Burstyn’s character first takes the speed tablets and she’s cleaning the living room and it’s all sped up, and then they wear off and it all slows down. And he put “She Watch Channel Zero” by Public Enemy underneath it and it was just fantastic. It was so cool, but it didn’t really say or do anything. It was just cool. It just didn’t really take it anywhere. So that was when we started thinking that we might need a bit of a rethink.
We always go into a film with a bit of an idea of what we’re aiming at and the film quite often tells you that you’re on the wrong path. It’s good to have a starting point, but then you’ve got to try and think of where to go next instead of where you thought you were going. I was living in New Orleans at the time, and Darren came down for a long weekend to just go through the musical ideas of what the film could be.
I’d given him a CD by the time they finished shooting the film. I think it had 20 ideas, some rough-honed demos. We were going through these and I always remember track 17. It was this piece that we tried after Jennifer Connelly’s character slept with the psychiatrist and she’s leaving his apartment. She’s got the camera strapped to her and the thunderstorm that has been brewing for the last hour of the film explodes, and she’s sick and we put this piece under there which eventually became “Lux Aeterna.” It just changed everything. We’re going, “What the fuck is this?” It just blew our minds, really. Then it sort of worked in every pivotal scene of the movie. It just changed everything for us.
Noah is arguably one of biggest and most conventional projects that you and Darren have worked on together. How did you approach the score with the Biblical subject material in mind, and what was his guidance for musical cues being added to such bombastic imagery?
Well again, it was another difficult journey to find. I’d written music ahead of time that we’d used in some animatics and stuff like that. But it was a much more fractured production time. The scale of a project like that meant that Darren and I worked in a slightly different way. We didn’t have as much time to experiment. And it was the first time we’d actually temped a movie with any music but mine. I think all those things just change your approach a little bit, so you probably second-guess a little bit more because it’s a new way of doing things. I like things to be organic and you kind of know where you’re going with it. A big production like that, with lots of people having their input, can slow that down.
Of all the films that you’ve made with Darren, is there a specific score that you find yourself returning to?
I never listen to my own stuff. Once in a while I will if I’ve got to remember something, but no. I mean, we play live and we perform the music from the films, and I really enjoy that. I really like “Death Is the Road to Awe” from The Fountain. We played Noah live as well and that goes over really well. Even Pi, which is harsh electronics, is fun to play live.
Is there anything that you want to say about what you think makes your and Darren’s ongoing collaboration so special? Or something that you think people don’t realize about your working relationship with him that has made it so fruitful?
It’s hard to say, isn’t it? It’s an anomaly for sure. There’s not many partnerships going around. I mean, there’s a few, but we’ve had a real good run of it. We’ve managed to complement one another. Something in his work speaks to me to help me create mine. So there’s some sort of synchronicity, some sort of connection that makes it possible for us to get things to a place where we and others can appreciate them. I don’t know. I wouldn’t question it. Some things just are, and long may it continue.