Clint Mansell: from Pop Will Eat Itself to Hollywood royalty

Park Chan-wook's Stoker is another showcase for the former grebo-rocker turned moody soundtrack specialist

Hollywood discovered Clint Mansell in 2010, the year he turned 47. Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky's psychodrama of a ballerina driven to the brink of sanity, was every bit the outlier its title suggested, vaulting its $13m budget to take more than $300m worldwide. Key to the film's ratcheting tension was Mansell's score, which radically reworked Tchaikovsky's famous ballet. "Motörhead," wrote the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, "could not have played the Swan Lake theme any louder than this." Mansell received a Grammy nomination for Best Film Score, only to lose out to The King's Speech.

Mansell and Aronofsky have shared a fruitful creative relationship since the latter's directorial debut, 1996's Pi, but Black Swan's startling numbers meant that suddenly, all sorts of offers were on the table. It was then that Clint Mansell decided to take a bit of time off.

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, psychological, like Duncan Jones's 2009 sci-fi Moon – were not the kind of films the studios were 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."

'Most of the films I tend to work on … there seems to be a central character whose headspace I have to try to inhabit'

Clint Mansell
Inspiral red carpet: Clint scrubs up well for the Critics' Choice Awards in California. Photograph: Sgranitz/WireImage Photograph: Sgranitz/WireImage

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."

Mansell originally found modest fame back in the 1980s as co-frontman in Stourbridge band Pop Will Eat Itself. PWEI were posterboys 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 – 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."

'Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor really had an influence on me … this sense that post-rock and film scoring were becoming interchangeable'

Pop Will Eat Itself - Can U Dig It? on MUZU.TV.

Reading this on mobile? Click here to view

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 spirit fed into his score for Aronofsky's 2000 picture Requiem For A Dream, which would spawn the track Lux Aeterna. A portentous neo-classical piece played by the Kronos Quartet, it's still to this day something of a Mansell hallmark, having appeared on everything from Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers to Soccer Saturday. Its success, he says, "has afforded me some career latitude".

He had avoided playing live since Pop Will Eat Itself's demise (naturally, they re-formed in 2011, with the former singer of Gaye Bykers On Acid replacing Mansell), but in 2008 he returned to the stage at the World Soundtrack Awards, with a nine-piece band and string quartet. He's since played in New York, LA and London. "I've really enjoyed it," he says. "There is a bit of the old showbiz in me, I suppose, but it felt age-appropriate. I didn't feel like I had to shoehorn myself into leather pants and go rock out."

For now, though, it's back to movies for Mansell. He's started work on Aronofsky's forthcoming biblical epic Noah, and recently finished Jon S Baird's adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Filth. That score, Mansell says, is highly Caledonian. "Jon said he doesn't want to get all shortbread and tartan, but we were talking about great Scottish music. The Skids and Big Country had this chiming element in their music, which is almost bagpipe-ish." Inevitably, though, in Mansell's hands, this sound takes a slide into the abyss. "I think of it like the 60s. You start with the Beatles. It's the first time since the war that something new has happened, and you get this bright, aspirational pop music. But then, things get more experimental, drugs are involved, the sound gets darker, grungier. Small Faces, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin; you get this feel of sludge building up, this breakdown of idealisation."

Right now, though, he's most excited about Stoker. 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?"

Stoker is in UK cinemas from Friday


Louis Pattison

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Mothers of invention: why Hollywood always returns to mum-horror
Darren Aronofsky taps into the maternal instinct to inspire fear in his latest movie, Mother! – and he’s certainly not the first film-maker to do so

Anne Billson

16, Sep, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Clint Mansell review – High Rise maestro delivers an evening of movie scores
Darren Aronofsky’s composer collaborator struggles to reproduce the doomy power of Black Swan and Noah, but the music’s quality is clear

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

25, Mar, 2016 @12:09 PM

Article image
Darren Aronofsky's Noah signals the unwelcome return of the bloated passion project

'As directors gain independence from the studios, their movies invariably became longer, looser and more insufferable'

Charlie Lyne

12, Apr, 2014 @5:00 AM

Article image
Heir raising: why do we care about ‘Hollywood royalty’?
From the Hustons to the Coppolas, cinema has been filled by generations of talent. It’s time for a new raft of regal stars to spark a revolution

Steve Rose

19, Jul, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
The 10 best things to do this week: Stewart Lee, Mother! and Scythians
The standup continues his tour, Darren Aronofsky’s psychological horror opens and the British Museum uncovers Siberia’s ancient warrior tribes

The Guide

08, Sep, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 100 best films of the 21st century
Gangsters, superheroes, schoolkids, lovers, slaves, peasants, techies, Tenenbaums and freefalling astronauts – they’re all here in our countdown of cinema’s best movies since 2000

Peter Bradshaw, Cath Clarke, Andrew Pulver and Catherine Shoard

13, Sep, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and the art of Hollywood secrecy
Little is know about the new Jennifer Lawrence film – and that’s just how the director wants it

Steve Rose

04, Sep, 2017 @7:59 AM

Article image
In the shallow: why does Hollywood hate pop music?
Natalie Portman’s new film Vox Lux is the latest to convey the genre as empty and miserable, while country, rock and rap are revered

Steve Rose

27, Apr, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Why Hollywood can’t resist an evil rock mogul
Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody positioned the manager as the villain – but were they really that bad?

Gavin Haynes

18, Jun, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Ryan Reynolds: from buff buffoon to Hollywood heavyweight
A poker pro in Mississippi Grind and Deadpool‘s saucy superhero are the next roles taking Reynolds interstellar like Matthew McConaughey. Meet the man whose effortless charm comes with a very un-starry dose of vulnerability

Catherine Shoard

20, Oct, 2015 @8:00 AM