It’s reassuring to think that one of Hollywood’s most in-demand composers first gained fame as the dreadlocked, leather trouser-clad frontman of Black Country grebo gurus Pop Will Eat Itself, who crashed into the charts in the ‘80s and ‘90s with their weird, sample-driven blend of pop, rock and rap influences.
No one would have expected the hellraiser from Middle England to become a Grammy and Golden Globe-nominated Hollywood fixture – and all without diluting a drop of his personality as a composer. Mansell claims he’s never had any sort of plan for his career; he’s simply followed his instincts, just as he does when he’s writing scores for films like Black Swan, Moon, or his latest project, Ben Wheatley’s sumptuous adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise. “I don’t really intellectually analyse in that way,” he says as he ponders his process. “It’s like Bruce Lee, you know – don’t think, feel.”
Since Pop Will Eat Itself disbanded in 1996, Mansell has written scores for dozens of movies, from low-budget horrors like 2001’s The Hole to multi-million-dollar biblical epics like 2014’s Noah. He’s best known for his long-running relationship with American director Darren Aronofsky, scoring each of his six feature films, including 2000’s Requiem For A Dream, which produced a surprise hit in ‘Lux Aeterna’, a brooding orchestral number that has had a strange second life in trailers for films like Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
He may be one of the most in-demand composers in the industry, but he’s also one of the pickiest. In fact, he sort of hates films. “I live in Los Angeles, and I’m probably a bit of a sore thumb here because I really don’t like movies,” he admits proudly. “I say that because most movies are shit, so if you take it as a percentage, then I don’t really like them. The movies I like, I love, but the way they make movies out here I just can’t fucking stand. It’s bullshit. They just think they’re all so great and they’re just fucking wank, you know? So I’ve always been particular about the projects I try to choose, but High-Rise was one I really wanted, and when I got the call I was just so blown away.”
“When I first saw Assault on Precinct 13 I thought, yeah, this is my music – but I had no idea how you would get that gig”Clint Mansell
In the dystopian near-future of J. G. Ballard’s novel, the residents of a newly built, rapidly degenerating 40-storey tower are trapped, both physically and mentally, by the building; seemingly hell-bent on destroying their regimented middle-class lifestyles, they descend into mayhem and violence. It’s hard to think of a composer better suited to the project than Mansell, who has helped birth some of the most terrifying cinema experiences of his generation, as viewers of Requiem For A Dream will attest. He’s met his match in Wheatley, who along with his wife, screenwriter Amy Jump, has directed some of the most twisted films of the past decade, from the gruesome horror Kill List to the psychedelic civil war movie A Field In England.
Learning that Wheatley was working on a High-Rise adaptation, the composer was keen to land the job. “I’d read the book at school and I’d grown up in the West Midlands in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which is totally Ballardian,” he laughs. “I felt like I knew this work, and I knew that [producer] Jeremy Thomas had been trying to make it for 40 years.” He was also a fan of Wheatley’s work, and the feeling was mutual.
“I think what is interesting about Mansell’s music is there’s melody in it that is very seductive, but at the same time he’s discordant as well,” says Wheatley when I meet him a few weeks later. “So he’s unsettling – he’s selling you one thing and then he’s breaking it at the same time. All his stuff is very uneasy.”
“Me and Ben chatted for ages on Skype the first time,” says Mansell, “and really we’ve got such a similar palette of references, if you like, from comic books and movies and all that sort of stuff. Then they offered High-Rise to me and I was absolutely blown away.”
But just as the crew finished shooting, Mansell was dealt a tragic blow. “As I was about to start work on the film, my girlfriend died. I had to drop out of it, I just couldn’t do it.
“Later I was in England, I’d gone to see my parents, and I decided to meet up with Ben just to talk and maybe plan for the future. And of course, eight pints later I was doing the film. He just said, ‘What if we wait for you a couple of months? Do you think you might be in a better place to do it?’ This was just before Christmas and I thought, well, it’s going to be the new year, a new start, it’s a project I want to do. I can’t just bury my head in the sand. And I was moved and honoured that he would do that.
“It was probably the best experience I’ve had on a film, which is so weird because obviously it came at the time that was the worst moment in my life. So to me, that’s just a real testament to Ben and his family and his team.”
High-Rise has produced one of Mansell’s more flamboyantly orchestral scores, with a bright string motif lending an air of mannered sophistication to Ballard’s tower; as its insulated society collapses into mayhem and violence, the score grows increasingly weighty and oppressive.
“Ben and I would have liked to have done like a John Carpenter-type score, but you just can’t get that heavy that quickly,” says the composer. “By the time I saw the rough cut of the film, Ben had been using the classical pieces, the Bach, which set the tone – this idea of [the upper floor residents] all thinking they’re a bit better than the rest of us. It was really just trying to not get too dark too quickly. We wanted to get the sense of the building, obviously, and the sense that Laing maybe isn’t quite at full par because of the death of his sister. Then as the wheels come off I could go more, as Ben refers to it, ‘Mansellian’.”
Pressed on his compositional methods, he gives little away. “To be honest, I’m not a great analyser of things,” he says with a modesty that seem as ingrained as his Midlands accent, despite having lived for years in Los Angeles. “Everything I do is based on feel. I just feed off the film, really, and when pieces start feeling like they fit I follow their lead.
“This sounds really hippy-dippy and pretentious, so hold onto your hat – you know how the sculptor says you’ve got a block of stone but the statue is already in it, you’ve just got to get it out? I kind of feel that way about the music in a film. I feel that the music is there, I’ve just got to channel it. I know that sounds very pretentious, but what I mean is that the film, in my experience, is very much alive, and it’s going to tell you whether it likes what you’re doing or rejects it.”
“I had to personally write to ABBA – and I thanked them for the music at the end of my letter!”Ben Wheatley
High-Rise’s score hinges on two interpretations of ABBA’s much-covered pop classic ‘S.O.S.’ – a device Wheatley has used before, planting twin versions of ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Season of the Witch’ into his 2012 black comedy Sightseers. Mansell worked with composer Matt Dunkley to arrange ‘S.O.S.’ for strings, creating the backdrop to an ostentatious, Versailles-styled party in the architect’s luxurious penthouse. Stripped of its bleak lyrics, the song’s melody feels stridently chirpy, a mask of pleasure disguising internal breakdown. Later, as the building’s residents turn feral and indulge their most violent urges, Portishead’s goosebump-raising version of the pop song appears. Carpenter-esque synths hover like a fog as Beth Gibbons’ cracked voice exposes the song’s miserable sentiment: “When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on?”
“I’d love to take all the credit for that, but I had absolutely nothing to do with it,” laughs Mansell. “That was just Ben and Portishead. It was in before I’d written a note, so I’m thinking, oh, thanks – you know, as if I can live up to this!”
“Now I look back on it and I can’t quite believe it happened, there were so many unmovable forces involved,” remembers Wheatley. “I had to write to ABBA, I personally wrote to ABBA – and I thanked them for the music at the end of my letter! I was really chuffed with that. I was like, ‘I’m gonna do it, fuck it, I’m sending it!'”
A big fan of Portishead, Wheatley then went into the studio with Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley to see the song take shape. “That was just amazing, to see them all taking forever over one note. I was talking to Martin Pavey, the sound designer, and he said, ‘I don’t know what Geoff’s done here, it’s incredible – it just floats in the middle of the room.’ What was really beautiful about the experience was seeing the iterations – I mean, I’m a bit geeky about it, but to be able to see a Portishead track coming together and for it to turn up in my inbox, and then going, ‘God, is it different?’ And to hear their production decisions all the time, the subtle differences in the tone of the synths just making it richer and richer. I remember we did a screening the first time the song was in properly and it nearly made me cry.”
The song is also the first new material from Portishead in six years, as Wheatley delightedly points out. “And you won’t hear it anywhere but in the cinema, because they don’t want to release it. They want to make it special for the film,” he laughs. “I love the perversity of it – everyone knows it’s brilliant, everyone’s saying it’s fantastic, and then they just won’t let it go out! It’s great, they don’t care.”
Barrow and his Ex Machina collaborator Ben Salisbury are now working on the soundtrack for Wheatley’s next film, while Mansell will be turning his attention to the forthcoming feature from Aronofsky, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. Barrow and Mansell have much in common, coming out of two defining ‘90s bands before sidestepping into the movie business, but they only met for the first time 18 months ago. “It’s funny, because Geoff and I had to interview each other once and I was telling him that I’d been at their Roseland New York show, where they did the live album,” says Mansell. “That’s 20 years ago. I think back to my life then and think of what I’ve done in the interim – meeting Darren and getting into films, and doing work I’m really proud of, and it’s just amazing that you have your start point and then you come back together at the end and your paths cross again.”
“By and large, film scores are tasteless people making tasteless music”Clint Mansell
Looking back on his unexpected second career, Mansell says he’d never envisaged making the leap to Hollywood. He grew up adoring the music for movies like Walkabout and The Parallax View, and in the video era he was seduced by John Carpenter’s horrors, Eraserhead and Blade Runner. “When I first saw Assault on Precinct 13 that was when I thought, yeah, this is my music,” he says, “but film composing was something that other people did – I had no idea how you would get that gig.”
After leaving Pop Will Eat Itself, he found himself living at Trent Reznor’s house in New Orleans for three years, with the Nine Inch Nails frontman and his manager becoming his mentors, introducing him to Pro Tools and supporting him “at a time when I really had nothing to repay them with,” says Mansell. Eventually, a serendipitous meeting with a young director marked the start of a collaboration that’s now in its second decade; Mansell has scored all six of Aronofsky’s feature films since his 1998 debut, Pi.
“When me and Darren first met, one of the things we really bonded over was we fucking hated film music, except for the stuff we liked, which was John Carpenter or Bernard Herrmann, the great scores,” he says. “By and large it’s tasteless people making tasteless music, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, I love the Marvel films, but pretty universally the scores have been poor. I’m not sure they care, because they’re making billions of dollars, but mainstream films in general still have shitty scores.” His last Aronofsky score was for the biblical epic Noah, by far the biggest film both have been involved in. “That was the one film where our relationship suffered, because he had so much stuff to deal with from the studio. Usually we would have the time to be together just moving the music around, and Darren’s really got a great sense of that.”
In 2009 he composed perhaps his finest score to date, for Duncan Jones’ memorable sci-fi debut Moon. “When I got that script in the post I was going, ‘Oh my god, why isn’t every film like this?’ That’s why I say it’s easy to score a good film, it’s impossible to score a shit one.” His twinkling, minimalist score subtly underlines the horror lurking beneath the moon base’s pristine surfaces.
“Duncan really embraced what he was doing and what I was doing. With other people they’re sort of scared to go to emotional places. The number of times dumbass producers go, ‘Oh, can you make it a little more neutral?’ And I’m like, ‘What, you mean you want it to do nothing?’ They’re frightened of alienating certain audiences. So when you have a film like Moon that allows you to go to these places and still come back from it and have a sense of triumph at the end, that’s great filmmaking to me.”
This week Mansell is touring his ‘Uneasy Listening’ show in the UK, performing music from his catalogue of scores with his band, pianist Carly Paradis and the Sonus Quartet (a handful of tickets are still available for the Southbank Centre on Thursday) and he’s open to the idea of performing live scores: “Moon would be a good film to do. I guess Requiem For A Dream would be pretty intense. I remember people saying things like, that’s the best film I’ll never see again.” Bookers, take note.
After that, he’s signed up for Jones’ next movie, Mute, a graphic novel adaptation billed as a “science fiction Casablanca” starring Alexander Skarsgard and Paul Rudd. Intriguingly, it’s set in the same future world as Moon, with Sam Rockwell set to appear too.
“I try to choose projects that I am inspired by and moved by and that are going to bring something out of me,” he confirms. “I guess over the years I’ve just become more about the art. Again, I’m obviously a very pretentious guy because I keep saying it, but that’s become more important to me than everybody seeing the film, because I realise the stuff that I like isn’t gonna appeal to the mass audience – and I’m not in it for them.”