Masterclass: Clint Mansell

Masterclass: Clint Mansell

Film composer Clint Mansell is best known for his work as Darren Aronofsky’s regular composer, as well as from his work on films Moon, The Hole, Stoker and Filth.  He is also known from his music career as frontman of the band Pop Will Eat Itself.  After Pop Will Eat Itself disbanded, Mansell found himself living in New York City where he happened to meet young filmmaker Darren Aronofsky.  This led to Mansell scoring Aronofsky’s debut feature Pi, and it set him on his successful film composing career path.

The Masterclass in affiliation with both BAFTA and the BFI London Film Festival brought Mansell to talk to the audience that sat before him.  The talk started with a clip from Enter the Dragon in which Bruce Lee teaches his young student to feel rather than think.  “It’s about feeling, it’s not about intellectual decoding”, is Mansell’s approach to film composition.  He marvelled at his own success in a modest, endearing and inspring fashion.  Clips of his past work, including the standout piece in Requiem For A Dream, reminded us why he became the success he is today.

In spite of being the mastermind behind such impactful scores, Mansell gives credit to his colleagues including directors and musicians.  “I’m a terrible piano player.  I wouldn’t even class myself as a musician”, he modestly states.  The most inspirational and useful point Mansell has made during this career retrospective is that the mood and pace of the score is everything.  He often takes a cut of the film and plays an improvised score throughout its entirety to learn where music can make an emotional impact.

“Musically, I’ve never connected with anything… jolly.  I really haven’t figure out how to score something humorous”, he says of his usually dark filmic choices.  One of his collaborations with Aronofsky was the rather unfortunate film The Fountain.  I have never been shy in expressing my disdain for this film as I strongly believe it to be the worst film ever made on an A list level.  Having been inspired by Mansell’s work shown throughout the evening, I braced myself for the clips of The Fountain as I haven’t seen it since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006.  Was it as bad as I remember it to be?  Worse!  My friend next to me was in fits of hysterics having never seen the film and realizing just how bad it could be based on the short clip alone.  Mansell discussed people’s hatred for the film by marvelling at the public’s outright contempt for it.  He genuinely seems to believe that Aronofsky was ahead of his time, with films like Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life merely continuing where The Fountain left off.  He challenges the public to smarten up and not expect dumbed down films, accusing them of not being mentally ready for the likes of The Fountain.  I understand he wants to defend his work, and I am all for the audience not being spoonfed straightforward, dumbed down content, but please – a bad film is a bad film.  Aronofsky himself cried at its Toronto premiere, supposedly so proud of the work he was presenting.  But perhaps even he realized what a load of pish this film is and maybe these were tears of mortification rather than pride?

This brings us onto Mansell’s work on another Aronofsky film, Black Swan.  This provided a new challenge for Mansell – taking the score of Swan Lake and appropriating it for the film’s score.  “Black Swan was one of my easiest films.  Tchaikovsky did the heavy lifting,  I just gave it a polish”, he modestly claims.

As the Masterclass was coming to an end, Mansell broke out of his predominantly modest demeanour to express his passion for film score and sound, “People say the best scores are the ones you don’t notice. I say fuck you – it’s another character in the film”.  Whether or not he’s right about this is subjective.  Either way, his scores are full of character and his work will go down in history as some of the best film composition in this cinematic era.

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