Interview with Clint Mansell
If being a composer can drive one crazy, then few have stared so consistently into the mouth of madness with such interesting, and creatively invigorating results as Clint Mansell. The braintrust of the U.K. group Pop Will Eat Itself made his scoring debut drilling a distinctively electronic hole into the head of “Pi’s” crazed mathemetician in 1998. His musical mind-warping partnership with director Darren Aronofsky would mine new headtrips of creativity, from the string needles of the Kronos Quartet that filled the veins of “Requiem For a Dream’s” drug addicts to the cosmically symphonic transcendence of a truth-seeker in “The Fountain,” the wildly dancing ballet dancer breakdown to mutated Tchaikovsky in “Black Swan” and the breaking waves of religious frenzy for a hapless man relentlessly following God’s plan for Armageddon in “Noah.” Beyond Aronofsky’s orbit, Mansell’s unique boundary pushing has probed an astronaut’s rhythmic isolation for “Moon,” sent Dwayne Johnson down a rocking road of revenge in “Faster” and even unleashed metal guitar destruction for “Doom’s” jaw-dropping first-person shooter sequence.
The fans who pack Clint Mansell’s recent live concerts prove him to be one of art scoring’s most ineresting agent provocateurs with his combinations of eletronic grooves and washes of symphonic minimalism that bring to mind the work of Philip Glass. But if Mansell’s admirers delight in being simultaneously assaulted and mesmerized by Mansell’s scores, the tone of his latest “High-Rise” just might surprise them with the singular beauty of its many stories of depravity. Based on the novel by J.G. Ballard (an author whose beyond-dark satire provided the bent-metal grist for David Cronenberg’s “Crash”), “High-Rise” takes down the English class system – as built on levels of consumerism and compliance. Realized by upcoming critical favorite director Ben Wheatley (“Kill List,” “A Field in England”) “High-Rise” finds just about the only sane dweller in medical examiner Laing (Tom Hidleston), whose job of ripping off dead faces and hammering open skulls gives him little insight into what drives his apartment building into Lord of the Flies-esque chaos.
Yet as orgies, murder, idolatry and God know what else breaks out, leave it to Mansell to keep some kind of thematic order with peppy, beautiful walls of rhythmic pomp, meditative halls of hypnotic, crystalline sound and pleasantly soothing string. Harp and eerie whistles becoming a killer circle of women, with only off-kilter brass and a strident orchestral motif hinting at the mass psychosis breaking out from supermarket to pool. In fact, “High-Rise” just might be the most melodically soothing trip down the bloody rabbit hole for Mansell, or a cold, red-splattered cement one in this case. For if the warped subject matter that Mansell has often accompanied represents some new evolution in humanity, then “High-Rise” shows yet another transformation for the composer through a shocking act of lushly melodic elevation.
You’ve worked with a lot of very intellectually-minded directors, especially when it comes to Darren Aronofsky. How do you think that Ben Wheatley compares to his approaches to provocative genre material like this?
For me, Ben really continues the line of British directors like Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, and Lindsay Anderson. Filmmakers that make audacious choices, because within their movies there are experiences to be had. I feel that modern moviemaking really has become very formulaic with the desire just to get product made. Compromises start the moment when you start talking about casting and all this sort of stuff. We end up with a bit of a fallow field, really. So looking for directors that are interested in something outside of the regular bullshit that gets made is really paramount to me. Because I have no real interest in movies to some degree. To be inspired, I need things that turn me on to get the juices flowing. That’s what I have to look for in the films that I work on and directors that I work with. It’s a painstaking search you know. For me, Ben is the most exciting filmmaker I’ve worked with in quite a while. I think the way he does the way he presents things, and the way he thinks are quite unique.
What was your collaboration with Ben like?
I may write every note of the music but it’s a collaborative venture because I’m trying to help support and enhance the world that Ben’s creating in his film, and he’s got a lot of input on that. What excites me about working with directors like Ben is that they’ll allow you to explore even when they’re using temp scores on the rough cut. There are times when certain filmmakers get stuck to the temp and don’t want to let go. I hate it when the temp gets so dear to them that it kills the creativity of where you want to go at a composer, because part of the excitement of this job is the exploration and unknown of what the film wants and what the film will accept. This might sound pretentious, but to me it’s almost like when a sculptor says, “The statue is already within the stone. I’ve just got to get it out.” The film knows what the music it needs, so you can sort of channel it. I experiment against it and when a few things start working I’ll follow those ideas because that’s what the film wants me to do. I’d send Ben the demos so that he could play with them in the film. So to me, a great collaboration is a phase where you end up somewhere you never expected to go, and you’ve done something unique together. You’ve created something you would have never gotten to on your own.
What’s interesting for me is actually how beautiful the score is in contrast to the savagery that’s going onscreen. It’s a lush style I haven’t really heard from you before.
One hopes that one develops as an artist, I’ve been sort of doing this for 20 years, and I want my scoers to constantly push me forward. Ther were a number of things we were trying to address with this score. Obviously you can’t take all the material from the book, though I could thematically play with some of the subtext. We don’t get to know a great deal of Lange’s background, but we do know that his sister has died, so we sense a melancholy in him and his search for something more. And there’s the building itself and the people that live in the building. Both the rich and the lower classes think they’re better than everyone else, especially those who don’t live in the high rise. So you can say in that way there’s this faux pomposity about the score, the feeling of “we’re living the dream,” “it’s all going to be great,” and all that. It was something that we really wanted to try and manifest it in the music.
Before taking on this movie, what was your opinion of J.G Ballard’s book, and what did high rises themselves represent to you?
Well, I’ve known about the book since I was in school, because it was written in the eighties. I was encouraged to read, even if it wasn’t on the reading list. So you could I say I had almost forty years of preparation for the movie! In fact, I lived in a high rise block of flats when I first left home. It was on the nineteenth floor, but my apartment sure wasn’t as luxurious as the film! That experience was fine because I was twenty at the time, but I wouldn’t want to live there today.
Did that experience play any inspiration for the score?
We are everything that we’ve experienced really, so to some degree are things that I can remember from back then, like when I got stuck in the elevator between the ninth and tenth floors for an hour one Saturday morning. It was nerve-wracking, so when the bad things start happening in this high rise you definitely can relate to it.
The music breaks down with order in the high rise, while at the same time keep a sort of melodic throughline to the insanity – keeping you watching even at the same time the movie threatens to repel you. surreal that the music kind of keeps a sort of normalcy to the film. It keeps you watching it, as opposed to repelling the viewer?
Yes. We return to the grand indoor part pieces, but retain a certain thematic element of physical mass from the opening parts that sort of slows things down. It gives a sense of normalcy to the proceedings.
There’s a running theme in your work when it comes to playing people going off of the deep end.
Why do you think you have that particular talent for musically conveying madness?
Well, my manager says that I’m a method composer, so take from that what you will! I guess it goes back to the early films I started with “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream.” It’s relatable story to have people losing their minds, because we all feel overwhelmed at times. So maybe it’s something I’ve got, and have a touchstone for?
Portisthead has a great cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S.” in “High-Rise.” Where did that come from?
It’s like what I said earlier about Ben’s creeative way of filmmaking. He wanted a home stringed organ type of vibe with a disco beat under it. Portishead’s version is very dark, almost John Carpenter-esque in that way, and it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s those unexpected things that I love about Ben’s choice in music, just like the tune he had for the soldier’s drug trip in “A Field in England.”
I didn’t expect “High-Rise” to be a period piece that looks like it takes place in the late 60’s, especially when you see a poster on someone’s wall for the David Warner comedy “Morgan”– yet another film about someone going insane.
Well, it’s supposed “High-Rise” is supposed to take place in 1975, but i didn’t want to get too attached to that. But there is one scene where Elizabeth Moss’s character is watching a daytime soap on her television, and that movie’s score becomes “High-Rise’s” score. We wanted a certain sort of flourish, a crescendo that you couldn’t do in a modern film. So that was what the main concession towards that time period as it were.
One way you capture the hypnotic quality that the high-rise has over its tenants is through the glass harmonica.
Yes. it was invented by Benjamin Franklin. It looks like a spindle with lots of glass balls to it. The spindle goes to the bottom of the bowl. It’s sort of a “tuned wineglass” that you can be quite symphonic with. People used to call it “the devil’s instrument” because if you played it you’d go mad and die within two years! That’s because they used lead paint for it, and you know what lead does. Now they thankfully use gold leaf for it. There’s an English musician named Allasdair Malloy who’s one of the few people that still plays this beautiful, otherworldly instrument. My orchestrator Matt Dunkley and recording engineer Geoff Foster had worked with him before, and told me I should give him a try for “High-Rise.” said to me Allasdair came down, and his work was fantastic. He creates a weird sound that you can’t quite pinpoint.
There’s some other particularly eccentric instrumentation going through the score.
Yes, we’ve got the marimba and organ as part of that. There are scenes where you have the janitor polishing the floor and the women dancing in the hall where you just want to have things feel strange. Those instruments can really help you give an off kilter feeling.
The “High-Rise” album is its own animal that lets your pieces go on for longer than they do in the film.
Geoff Foster and I started to rework the score into more enjoyable chunks, as my music can be very thematic where cues can come and go. Because these cues could be short and abrupt, we had enough material to make suites of the themes. You could listen to them in the more tradiitonal way that a soundtrack album lends itself to, This way you feel like you’ve gotten a great experience, and a true musical sense of the movie that’s an enjoyable listen in its own right. I enjoy creating albums of my scores like that.
Do you enjoy provoking, and pushing the boundaries of film scoring in the same way that Ben pushes “High-Rise?”
I wanted to do films that matter to me and excites me. And if I get that right, then that approach can really work for other composers too. That’s what I get from making the right kinds of choices of films and directors who have a vision that I can join in with. I’m proud of the stuff I get to work on and I’m proud that I get to be myself with it. And hopefully I’ll get to do more films like “High-Rise.”
You can now find a room in the “High-Rise” on VOD, with Clint Mansell’s album on Silva Screen Records available HERE
Visit Clint Mansell’s website HERE
Special thanks to Alexander Portillo for transcribing this interview