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ScreenTalks Archive: Clint Mansell on Pi

black and white photo of man staring at some machine
30 Apr 2017
31 min listen

Composer Clint Mansell talks to critic Ian Haydn Smith about the film launched his career in film, 1998's 'Pi'.

About Clint Mansell
Clint Mansell started his career as the lead singer and guitarist of late 80s indie rock heroes, Pop Will Eat Itself. Following the band’s breakup and a move to New York, an introduction to the then fledgling filmmaker, Darren Aronofsky led to a hugely successful career change.So far the composer's career has encompassed scores for Aronofsky's 'The Wrestler' and 'Black Swan', as well as 'Moon' by Duncan Jones, Ben Wheatley's 'High Rise' and the live-action adaptation of classic Japanese manga, 'Ghost in the Shell'.

In this conversation from 2014, Clint Mansell talks to critic Ian Haydn Smith about the film that started it all - 1998's 'Pi'.

This ScreenTalk contains strong language.


Photo of Clint Mansell

ScreenTalks Archive: Clint Mansell

From indie rock hero to award winning film composer, Clint Mansell’s partnership with director Darren Aronofsky is perhaps one of the most celebrated in the film industry - 6 films and counting.

We look back at the film that started it all, 1998’s Pi.


EEJ: Ellen E Jones 
CM: Clint Mansell 
IHS: Ian Haydn Smith 

EEJ: Hello, and welcome to Barbican ScreenTalks, where we bring you never before broadcast conversations with leading filmmakers and film fans, recorded at the barbican Cinemas. 

Previously in this series, we've heard from a range of acclaimed film directors, from prolific elder statesman, Ken Loach to young innovator Ben Wheatley. However, this podcast is slightly different as we hear from one of the most in demand film composers working today.

Coventry-born Clint Mansell started his career as the lead singer and guitarist of late 80s indie rock heroes, Pop Will Eat Itself. But he's come a long way since performing their hit, 'Get The Girl, Kill the Baddies' on Top of the Pops in 1993. 

Following the band's break up in the mid 90s, and a move to New York, an introduction to the then fledgling filmmaker Darren Aronofsky led to a hugely successful career change. Mansell and Aronofsy began a creative partnership that has lasted six films and counting. 

So far the composer's career has encompassed scores for Aronofsky's The Wrestler and Black Swan, as well as Moon by Duncan Jones, Ben Wheatley's High Rise and the live-action adaptation of classic Japanese manga, Ghost in the Shell. And his theme from Requiem for a Dream has been adopted by everyone from the makers of Lord of the Rings and Top Gear, to the Boston Red Sox. 

In this conversation from 2014, Clint Mansell talks to critic Ian Haydn Smith about the film that started it all - 1998's Pi. 

This first collaboration with Darren Aronofsky pines a wildly experimental work, made on a budget of less than $70,000. The claustrophobic thriller follows a tormented mathematician in his obsessive search for the mathematical patterns he believes are underpinning the world. 

In the interview you're about to hear, Mansell discusses his love of John Carpenter, the importance of really taking your time when composing for a film and why he hates the city of New York. 

But first, a note, true to his roots, Mansell is fond of an expletive or two. Once a rock star, always a rock star. So, if strong language concerns you, please with caution. There is some very strong language in this podcast, and the occasional sexual reference. 

Still here? Good. I'm Ellen E Jones, and this is Barbican ScreenTalks with Clint Mansell.

IHS: It's amazing that this film really hasn't aged. 

CM: I still think it's the best film we've done, to be honest. The script and the film itself is just so lean and... There's something about doing what you do for a long time that actually is a detriment to what you do. Because that film was made with a serious lack of knowledge, a serious lack of care of what was going on in in the industry, of what movies were supposed to be - it was made purely, I think, from the heart. And you know, there's an arrogance that comes with not knowing stuff, you think everything else sucks and fuck it we're going to show you how it's done. And that 15, 20 years later you're trying to make a hit movie, maybe, maybe not. You know. There's an innocence about it that's just fantastic, I think. I really like this film. 

IHS: There's a real sense, watching this film, it's rare that you get experimentation on every front. It feels that there was a sense of freedom that you had with the music that you could go anywhere. But also Darren himself, he'd made some shorts before but it was just 'let's do anything we possibly can'! 

CM: Well, the thing was a) we had no money to make the film and b) there was no industry involved in it. And originally I was only going to write an opening title piece. Darren wanted sort of, pre-existing electronic music to be the score of the film. And I suppose, you know, in a way, you know Kubrick used existing music in 2001, it had that type of idea. But the reality of it was that he didn't have any money to get those pieces of music and he didn't have any industry contacts to be able to do it so, every time they couldn't get a piece of music I had to write a piece in its place. 

IHS: What you're basically saying is you were cheap 

CM: Well, yeah basically [laughs] 

I mean, he didn't know anyone else who could write music, and I could barely write music, really. I mean there's a lot of naivety going on. And when you haven't got anybody around you telling you yes, no, whatever, you just follow your instincts. You do what you think is right and then you figure it out as to whether it actually works for you, you know. And through that we sort of found the power of a bespoke piece of music written for a scene and like I say, it was just down to what we wanted, it wasn't somebody else saying 'oh well, you can't do that, you can't this, you shouldn't do that', it was just purely what we were doing. And I think, that's almost like a moment in time you can't recapture, you can't pretend to - it's like losing your virginity really, you can't do it twice. And it worked. I think it worked. I mean, the score is kind of drum and bass influenced which I was very wary of because I kind of wanted to do that kind of music but I didn't think I was kind of cool enough or the guys that were making that music would frown upon us doing it. But, you know, when it came out people really embraced it, you know. And we just, like I said, we just did what we wanted to do and I just think that's... it's just something that's so lacking most often in film and music even these days. People just want to be fucking successful, you know. I say, do something you really care about and believe in, I think that's what that film was

IHS: What's interesting with it, you say about the drum and bass, is that like subsequent works you've composed for film, you mix so many different elements that there's never a sense that you feel locked into a moment in time. Thinking about your work with Slash on The Wrestler. When I think of Slash and I think of his work with Guns n Roses, it's so locked in a moment in time and yet the guitar that he plays on The Wrestler, as well as having this very mournful ear to it, it also doesn't feel like I'm working on a moment in time. And in a way that reflects Darren's work, that it's not specifically to a moment. 

CM: Right. When you write the score, and I say this in loose terms, because I know I've done quite a lot of films now but I mean I still, to this day, don't really see myself as much of a musician really. But what I'm trying to do, or what I'm capture is what's going on in that film, you know, what that moment is and if you're working on the right film, and if you can capture it, hopefully you will get something, you know, your sense will tell you 'oh that's 'trendy' what you're doing there' or 'that's last week' or whatever. You have to work really hard to find things that just, hopefully encapsulate what that story is. And you can't do it just alone with the music, it comes from the project itself. 

Darren doesn't really do things that are identifiable as someone else, he has a very distinct voice of his own, you know. So every collaborator that he has, from his cinematography to the script to the production design, whatever, kind of has to join in with that. If you're too on the nose somewhere with something, his film will tell you that that's not working. Like with Noah, which obviously is the complete other extreme of Pi, but when we were recording the score for that, even though I'd written all the music, we would still try things on the stage with the musicians and that. Every time we tried something that was just pure, if you like, for instance, you get a D chord or an A chord and it's, that's the sound, anytime we tried something pure like that it just would react weirdly with the film. You would have to go for, you know, an off-chord, whatever that might be in that particular sequence you were doing because that's what's stamped into the film that he's made, you know. And you've got to be awake to recognise that. Because the film will always tell you what it wants. Even if we'd had the budget for Noah that we'd had for Pi, I think we still would have done that score because that's what it needed to be, you know. 

IHS: I think that's the thing when you're working with a very distinctive director, with a vision. 

CM: Yeah 

IHS: And that vision is uncompromising in many ways. 

CM: Well, because they stamp that in from the get go. You can all start here, and little decisions you make - I mean, there's the mainstream and box office beauty and millions of dollars and what you like, but every decision you make sort of takes you off that way. But that may take you to a far more interesting place, you know. I was talking about it with some friends that had watched, and these are people from - actually it's like a football crowd, because I'm a football fan, but... 

IHS: They won't hold that against you 

CM: No, but you meet different people in that crowd. And you know some of them had watched Dario Argento's Suspiria and had just thought it was absolute rubbish, but, the interesting thing is there, it's like, you have a guy like that who goes out on a limb and pushes that envelope but then it comes back to the mainstream a little bit, where we did Black Swan, that really does capture people and it becomes a mainstream thing even though it's very influenced by that side of the work, you know, and it's important to do those things. Whether they're successful or... we're all consumers now, you know, and like everything is measured by how much money it makes or whatever and that's the total enemy of art and expression to me. 

IHS: There was an interview a few months ago with Gabriel Yared, the composer behind The English Patient and Bettie Blue, amongst other films, and he was talking about early in his life, before he started composing for film, and realising his passion for music, that he would watch films and he would find his own rhythm in a film and he would see himself in his head composing for the film that was absolutely at odds with the score that he was listening to. I just wondered about your passion for film? Obviously you were in the band, Pop Will Eat Itself for a number of years but before that, was there a connection that you had with film that you had some engagement? 

CM: Well, at the time, I would have probably said no but when I look back on it now, I realise that it was something that was really present with me from a very early age. My Dad loves John Wayne, the big John Wayne films, so we would always watch films at home, you know, and cowboy films, like Magnificent Seven and stuff like that, you know, there's great rollicking themes to them. And then I got to an age in the early 70s, I was getting to be 10 or 11, and the BBC, I mean we only had three channels then. You guys won't remember this of course, we only had three channels in those days and Monday nights, BBC after the news, round about 9.30, would show a movie. And by today's tempers they would probably be art films but back then they were the films that you would see. They'd be like The Parallax View, Man Who Fell To Earth, All the President's Men, Klute - stuff like this that really are, they're not films that pander to an audience, they're films that invite an audience to join them and I think that's a very different climate to what we have now. As a mainstream concept anyway, you know. And I think I was very fortunate to be exposed to that sort of stuff, such that when I got a little bit older and I would start seeing Eraserhead, Bettie Blue, that you mentioned, that have amazing sonic concepts to them, I mean not just musically like Bettie Blue, I mean the music to that is beautiful. Eraserhead, I mean I loved Eraserhead and back in those days you didn't have the surround theatre systems so, I had a VHS of Eraserhead, but also had the soundtrack album so I could watch the video but play the soundtrack through the speakers so it would be loud, you know. And it didn't really matter that it didn't sync up because it was just going [growls] 


But it was great, you know. But these are things that I fear that we don't push ourselves enough anymore. There's not enough extremes going on. When I met Darren he showed me Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which I had never seen before. I mean, I hope that those films are still being shown to people, or the modern day equivalents are being shown to people to make them think, 'Christ you can do anything you like'. I mean that's the thing - do anything you like. 

IHS: It's interesting that you mention the 70s films like Man Who Fell To Earth, Klute, The Parallax View. There's a great quote by Darren, talking about you around the time of him working on Noah, saying that you capture the essence of a film in two or three notes. 


Which I think is a compliment. But what's interesting, watching this film the other day, and I'd stayed about 10-15 minutes before you arrived earlier, is that your films have a very identifiable melody. And perhaps this is where Lynch comes in with Eraserhead and this sense of a soundscape, but it's the basslines and it's the things that are happening beneath them that really reminds me of 1970s cinema. And obviously Requiem for a Dream is the one that really comes to the fore with that. There's an element of classical Hollywood cinema, with light motifs and this melody that draws you in, but at the same time as you're drawn in, there's a sense of discomfort with what's going on underneath. 

CM: I mean, I love stuff like Double Indemnity or Spellbound, you know. You listen to the score of Spellbound and it's that repetition of thematic elements, when Gregory Peck can't quite remember stuff and that music, it's just out of reach, but it's out of reach for his memory, you know. And it's genius stuff. And I'd love if I could capture some of that but it all comes through the filter of, you know, Public Enemy, and The Psychedelic Furs, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Jesus and Mary Chain and The Ramones. All this stuff that I grew up with that has influenced me musically, combined with that stuff. So you kind of, all I'm doing when I'm working on a film is just trying to find something that will give me a hard on, basically. I mean it's as simple as that. It's just trying to dial into those things, like 'Yes, that fucking rules!', you know. Because, I've always been somewhat self-absorbed and somewhat arrogant but I've probably got more arrogant as the years have gone on and I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing because like, in Hollywood, and not that I consider myself particularly Hollywood, but, somebody has got to fucking try to do something different. There's a million guys out there trying to be the next Hans Zimmer, you know, and Hans has got it wrapped up - don't bother. Be yourself. Be yourself and do the things that excite you. It doesn't matter that, you know, we all love money, and we would all love to just be lying on the beach for the rest of our lives and pina coladas being brought over, but I've just like... I'm in a situation where I've been very, very fortunate to be able to occasionally get paid to write some music and then like, why not write the music that I really want to fucking write and work on this film and do something than be sat here, what 15 years later, and Pi still resonates with people. I had no idea what I was doing at this time, I still don't have any idea what I'm doing! I think that's actually the secret - be clueless. And go in naive and the possibilities are endless. Yes, you've got all your reference points, you've seen all the films, you've heard all the music, and then you filter them through who you are. That doesn't make you right for every gig out there, I don't want to be the biggest film composer in the world, I just want to do stuff that's cool, you know. And I think that's what we all should be doing. 

IHS: Critic Mark Cousins, I like the fact that he said that cinema should be a level playing field. You know, OK there are some people who are really great, but you need to watch all of cinema to get it. But it strikes me the same applies to you with music. Kind of, you've gone from Public Enemy and drum and bass through to Tchaikovsky. It's what works in a given scenario. 

CM: Yeah, I mean the opportunity to, you know, play with those things. Black Swan, for instance, there was no other way to do that film other than it be all about Swan Lake musically. Because they, Natalie Portman's character is there rehearsing, trying day in day out, that music is going to be played to her even if it's just on a piano or a violinist or whatever, it will be haunting her and it will be mocking her, telling her how shit she is. She is not making the grade, so many other people have done this so much better than you ever will do it, you know, that's what she'll be hearing with every note. And so, to me, I said we're going to take Swan Lake and we're going to bastardise it and we're going to taunt her and terrorise her with it. That was the most fun I've ever had doing a film score because it was just like remixing it. I got the entire score transcribed and put into my computer and I just started looking for little bits in it - I mean there couldn't be two more different writers than me and Tchaikovsky, you know what I mean? Very different... But I could go into his score and find a one bar loop or a four bar loop and go, you know what, that maybe is something I'd like... I'll delete a lot of notes out of it and just find these elements that I could add a little bit of something on top of, you know. I think if you're having fun with things, if you're excited about the things that are coming towards you, you can surpass yourself really. I mean trying to fit into a box of 'we need a Hollywood score', or that type of thing, it's the death of creativity. Look at the score for Under the Skin, it's like it's genius and it's unique and it's a voice. We need more voices. The jobs just go to the same guys or the same company of guys all the time so you get this warp of film music that's just like [blows raspberry]. I'm sure they're all great guys and whatever but who fucking cares, really, you know what I mean.

I want to hear something that isn't just [sings] 'we need to drive the scene, we need to drive the scene, driving the scene'. I want to hear something that is actually another character in the film and it's not the fault entirely of those composers, it's the fault of the filmmakers because their films don't require that because they have no substance in general. 

IHS: It's copycat scoring because you've got, you look at the best of Hans Zimmer and you've got something like The Thin Red Line, Malick's film, which is an amazing score, or you look at early Danny Elfman, but then everyone copies it so much. I mean, American Beauty is the classic example of a score that's been repeated and regurgitated and basically shit out by lots and lots of composers. 

CM: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. 

IHS: I want to ask, before I open it up to the audience, obviously theme and character is an essential part of scoring, but for the most part, obviously before Noah, Darren's films are so located within a specific New York. I'm just curious about the way you as a composer react to landscape. This film, for a start, is astonishing in the dialogue it has with the world around it in New York. This is, very much Darren's milieu of growing up, I just wondered how you responded to that. 

CM: It's really weird because I fucking hate New York, I really do. I mean I lived there when we did Pi, and... 

IHS: How did you meet actually? 

CM: I'd moved to New York in 1996 after I left the band, terrible tale of rock n roll woe, nonsense really. But, I ended up moving there because of a girl who really found me a lot less interesting when I wasn't in the band anymore, but, she's OK, like, but she knew Eric Watson who was Darren's producing partner. He co-wrote Pi and Eric had said to her they were trying to get this film made and she said, 'Oh you should meet Clint, he likes film, he writes music' and whatever. So it was through her, really. And we've always had this kind of, sizing each other up, kind of relationship, me and Darren. We're looking at each other and going, oh you know. And we've's weird, because you have such a close relationship somebody when you're doing a collaborative thing with them, but I've also no relationship outside of that. Other than like, sort of, hey man how you doing, you know, our lives don't intersect at all. So it's very sort of creative the backbone of our relationship, if you like. Which is great, you know, that's cool. But I hate New York. No offence to the good people of New York, and anybody who loves it, it's just not me. I'm a small town guy, although I live in Los Angeles now. 


But, no, but the funny thing is, Los Angeles is a lot of small towns all put together, you know. You could live in a part of Los Angeles and it just be where you stay, you know. Whereas New York is this bustling, bit like London really, as much as I like to come to London I've never lived here and so I don't know that much about it. But New York was cruel to me, or at least I thought it was, I mean, but whether that has sort of been part of what has created what we've done. I said with Noah, which obviously isn't New York based, but my score to that is very angry, heavy film, and I find that my state of mind is part of my writing. So New York feeds me in a certain kind of way even though I don't really like it, you know, so maybe that's a good thing. I don't know. 

IHS: Yeah, it's interesting, I was thinking about films that I would love to have kind of known what you would have been like scoring it, and the film that immediately came to mind is Taxi Driver. Obviously Paul Schrader was feeling about New York the same as you as that moment in time, that sense of angst towards it. And Bernard Herrmann, as brilliant as I think his score is, overlays the film with this romanticism, that I think offsets the anguish and the rougher edges of the film. 

CM: I mean Taxi Driver is just not a movie you could imagine rescoring because the music is just incredible. I mean, he died after doing it. If you die after doing Fast and the Furious 7, or something, you'd be like, oh whatever, but to die after doing Taxi Driver... It's amazing the scores and I mean that romanticism really plays and offsets and brings that character to you, it's beautiful. 

Living in LA, I drive by the hotel that he died in, quite regularly to be honest, and I often, I do often think, wow Bernard Herrmann died in there after doing Taxi Driver. I'm sure that doesn't make him feel any better 


But I feel kind of close to something special. 

IHS: Any questions? 

Q1: I guess what I'm wondering, because the music sounds spiral-like actually, so was this something that was designed or more intuition on your part? I mean, I guess how structured was the process? And the second thing, what's your guilty pleasure when it comes to other film scores? You mentioned a lot of these very high end, very artistic, well regarded films but what's really the guilty pleasure? 

CM: I'll give you the guilty pleasure first - and it's not that guilty, I don't think it's that guilty. It's Tangerine Dream score for Risky Business. 

IHS: Fantastic. 

CM: It's absolutely fantastic. But what you're saying is something that Darren tries to feed in a lot to the work we do. And I don't know if he expects us to actually do it but there's an awareness of it, you know. With Pi, it was perhaps a tad more random than being choreographed like you're saying, because I was kind of replacing music as we went along. But one of the things I love and, well, what I want when I work on a film is I want to be involved as early as possible. I want to spend a lot of time around the film because if you are around something for a long time it becomes part of your thinking. Such that you don't have to think, 'oh I'm going to do x, y and z tomorrow'. It just becomes the natural process because that's what the film is wanting you to do. You know, you're trying to live and breathe it. You can be working on something...and I don't believe if you're going to write 60 minutes of music for a film, that you can do the best job of that in three weeks. If you've got three months to do that, it's not that you need the extra time to actually physically write the music, what you need the extra time for is to take on all these thoughts that are then filtered through the fact that I'm doing this film and I'm thinking about numbers or I'm thinking about stock markets or like bad industries trying to get hold of your secrets. But it becomes part of your thinking, such that, you could be like suddenly wake up in the middle of the night, you've fallen asleep with the TV on and some other film is on and you go, 'oh that's a cool idea'. And I think the only way you can do that is by having some time with it, you know. That's what pisses me off really, you know, it's like you make a film, you know, you write music, it's not something you do in five minutes, you know. It takes time to do something you care about and something you think is actually worthwhile for somebody to spend their money on and spend some time with, you know. You're expressing something. I'm not here just to do a job to get the film from A to B. I'm here to do something that makes me feel something and hopefully makes somebody else feel something and that takes time to do. I'm not sure that answered your question or not but... [laughter]

IHS: How much research do you do? 

CM: I like to do a lot of research on projects. Like I say, I don't know how much it actually helps, really at the end of the day, but what it does do is it gets you in the frame of mind, you know. I did a film for the BBC called United, that was about a Manchester United football team that died in a plane crash in 1958, you know, and I did know that story and even though I'm a Wolves fan, I was really excited to do that film because I grew up knowing that story. Because Duncan Edwards, came from Dudley which is by Stourbridge which is where I'm from, it's something I grew up with. And to do a film that I was aware of, that the backstory of, I just think it helps focus your mind. I think research and caring about it is paramount to the job really. 

IHS: I've been told we've got time for another question... 

Q2: I know it's probably been touched on a little bit before but when you decide to work on a film do you ever begin composition before the film arrives, sort of working on it pre-emptively? 

CM: I do to be honest. I mean Pi is a great example to be honest, it was the first film I did and I was very nervous. I had no experience of this. Darren had given me, when we first met, as I said he introduced me to stuff like Tetsuo: The Iron Man and we talked about music that we liked and didn't like, well all sorts of music, I mean, we definitely hit it off over our love of hip hop. The main thing that we sort of loved about film music was John Carpenter. Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, which is probably my favourite film score of all time, really. These were the things that we sort of found common ground with, so he gave me the script for Pi and I wrote a piece of music just on spec, from all the things we'd talked about. He showed me artwork done by people who suffer with migraines, all these different ideas, so I wrote a piece of music from it. You know, just as an idea. And it was a Friday afternoon and I took it to this office where he was working at the time, and they'd just shot a bunch of test footage for Pi, you know the black and white grainy stuff, and it had come back and they were all pissed off. Matty, the cinematographer, it hadn't come out the way they'd wanted it so they were all like really down. And I've walked in with a cassette of some music and gone 'oh god, everyone's pissed off'. And I thought well I'll play the music to Darren and see what he thinks. But Darren being Darren is going like 'Hey, Clint - everybody, Clint's got some music! Let's have a listen!' So suddenly there's like a room like this, full of people and they played the music and it went down a storm. Even though the piece isn't actually in Pi, it did have the 'do do do' bit in it. But the rest of the music, it did sort of look like a sketch of what it would become, you know. And it was a real galvanising experience, everyone just felt good, you know. There's music, it feels real. And we've sort of continued that really, and I, the thing about it is that it always fails basically. You write all these ideas, you get all these ideas and have a grab bag of this stuff, and then the film comes along and the film just goes 'piss off'. They just don't work. I mean, but you might get certain things from it, but it's just good to have this sort of arsenal of ideas but once you start seeing the film, seeing the dailies, seeing the rough cuts, the film tells you very quickly what it needs and what it responds to and what's not going to work, you know. Like I said, I like to be involved in a film for as long as possible, as much as possible really, so getting in early and writing some stuff and just trying, you know, it definitely helps.

IHS: This is the second conversation that Clint and I have had in the last year and at the end of the last one I thought, uh, there's so much more we can talk about and I feel like that again. I know we have to end. So, it's kind of watch this space, because this is going to continue. In the meantime, many, many of Clint's scores are available on soundtrack, what I've now decided to call 'the despair trilogy' of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. If you don't have them, buy them. Listen to them. Because they literally are like movements to listen to on CD, separate from the film. Thank you so much to the Barbican for this event but most of all can you please join me in thanking Clint Mansell. 

CM: No thank you, thanks for coming. [applause] 

EEJ: Thanks for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk with Clint Mansell. If you've enjoyed this podcast and would like to support film at the Barbican, you can subscribe via iTunes or Acast or visit And do tell us what you think of our ScreenTalks Archive. You'll find us on social media @BarbicanCentre.

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