For more than twenty years, Clint Mansell has created beautiful and artistically daring scores for a wide variety of films. His work on Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream remains one of the most haunting scores of this millennium, and his other credits – from Moon to Stoker to The Fountain and Black Swan – represent a depth and sophistication that’s rare in an era in which many scores are little more than background noise.
Mansell previously collaborated with director Ben Wheatley on High-Rise, and now he’s re-teamed with the filmmaker for Rebecca, a new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance novel. His score is one of the best parts of the entire film: it captures the unease of Lily James’ main character and builds a moody, occasionally eerie foundation for the mysteries of the story. We spoke with Mansell about creating new music in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Picture-winning 1940 adaptation, using “the devil’s instrument” as part of the score, how he infuses music with emotion, and more.
We’re also happy to premiere a full track from Mansell’s Rebecca score, so immerse yourself in a spooky atmosphere while reading the interview by pressing play below.
“The Wings of Mercury”
Clint Mansell Interview
Note: this conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
I read that you studied English literature in college. Had you read Daphne du Maurier’s book before you signed on to this project?
It wasn’t part of my curriculum back then, but I had read it some years ago. I can’t say that I totally re-read it this time, but I did [come close]. The shadow of Hitchcock’s version probably hangs heavier than the book really, just because I guess that’s how society – or at least my world – is these days. Literature, for a lot of people – myself included, and I do consider myself a reader – but in the modern world, it’s been supplanted really, by not just movies but by the pace of technology. So going back and re-investing in it definitely gives you a different sense of time and pace, particularly.
Also, peripherals, if that’s the right word. In a book, you get to know a lot more things that don’t make it into the movie: background, atmosphere, feelings are discussed more. From a composer’s point of view, that’s really helpful. I felt the same way when I did High-Rise with Ben. So much of the composer’s work, for me anyway, isn’t just what’s on the screen. You’re trying to bring in a whole atmosphere, a whole universe, if you like. That may hide in the words of the pages a bit more than the film…from a composer’s point of view, there’s almost another world that you can dig under the surface that may or may not be helpful to you when you’re creating the music for the film.
Can you talk about your approach for crafting the score for this movie, in addition to re-investing in the book?
It felt like a very different film for both Ben and I, really. We discussed those realities: biggish studio films with lots of people having opinions and involvement, and what an aim of a movie like this is. I’ve composed work on a lot of stuff at the same time half the time, but I didn’t feel like I could do that: I just focused entirely on Rebecca whilst I was doing this and ended up being on it for over a year, part of that being because of being shut down by the pandemic. But that gave me a lot of time to research and to absorb the film.
I went back to something that I kind of stopped doing over the years. I did a 20 year Requiem of a Dream anniversary for the Toronto International Film Festival recently, and talking about that reminded me that I used to write on the script a lot, back in the early days of my formative years [as a composer]. It was something that I’d kind of moved away from over time, but I went back to that with Rebecca. I got the script pretty early, and he asked me to do the film before we shot it, so I had a lot of time to think about it and invest in it, you know? It’s a period piece, but it’s gotta be a modern film because people are watching it now. So you sort of have a foot in the past and a foot in the future. We sort of played around with, how far can we go toward the classic, melodramatic approach to old-fashioned filmmaking? And where would the line be where we go, “Oh, that’s too much. That starts to suck.” So I got into a lot of stuff from the script and just jamming on ideas that we could just play with and think about: “More of this, less of that.” Time is always one of my favorite things to have on a film. A good film to work on is another big part, but having time to absorb and think and invest in what you’re doing is always wonderful news.
The other thing I did was, on the Criterion version of [Hitchcock’s] Rebecca, Franz Waxman’s score is an isolated track, so you can just listen to the score and watch the film. That was a fantastic education. Not in the “Oh, I should do what he did” way, but the way that it works. I had written something like 40 to 50 pieces of just rough ideas – a minute long, three minutes long, ten seconds long – I had all these different material I’d written from reading the script and the book and thinking about things. I thought, “OK, if I was scoring this in 1939, I’d probably be following some form of template that went on in movies at that time,” and Waxman nailed that incredibly in that film. You start off with the opening title sequence and you’ve got the fanfare for Selznick and stuff like that, and I’ve used up about twelve ideas in the first 45 seconds! There’s just so much going on, all these themes that you’d be revisiting later in the film, you’re setting up in the opening suites. Oh my God. I knew this, to some degree, but when you’re trying to mimic it with your material, to some degree, it’s like, “My God, this score is doing such a lot of work and we haven’t even got into the film yet!” It’s also incredibly seamless: it didn’t feel like you were being bombarded. It was seamless the way it would flow from one melodic idea to another.
I come from a rock-and-roll background, pretty punk rock, like, “Fuck you, this is the way I’m doing it.” But obviously that doesn’t work all the time. That’s a nice attitude to have, that your stuff is edgy, that you can break barriers. But that sort of falls down when you’re actually telling stories. You still have to adhere to the rules – you’re there to support the picture and the storytelling, so you are following orders, to some degree. Yes, you can move it around and try [other things], but essentially, you’re there to support what’s going on on screen. I really did enjoy that old-fashioned, classical storytelling with the music, which I’ve kind of always tried to do and I hope I do that, but literary works for the screen bring an extra challenge. I really enjoyed it. I loved the book and the original film, so for me, to be able to write for Danvers, particularly, and the void that is Rebecca, was brilliant.
There’s a sadness, almost a melancholy that permeates songs like “Rebecca Always Rebecca.” Can you talk about how you go about translating a specific emotion into a piece of music?
I think it’s partly to do with, inherently, one’s own personality. I don’t know that I’m a great actor in that respect. I think I can kind of channel things that speak to me, and I think that’s probably borne out by the work that I’ve done. It’s not like I suddenly pop up doing a comedy romp. There are certain things that I feel like I’m wired to do, and I probably look for those elements in the story. I’m not going to give any points of the story away, but we feel Rebecca obviously all the way through the film, and the second Mrs. de Winter’s view on her is – she’s being gaslit to some degree – but she doesn’t know the full story. So there’s the way she interprets what those feelings are that are around her, and of course one of those would be melancholy at what she perceives as Maxim’s loss and as Danvers’ loss, and even Manderley’s loss. The joyous spirit that she imagined was there in Rebecca’s time is now absent. So finding that was probably the thing I was looking forward to the most. It’s almost like a misdirection, but it’s also a truth to the second Mrs. de Winter at that time.
I’ve heard about composers using unconventional items as instruments in some of their scores to help create sounds that are unique to that specific project. Was there anything like that for your work on Rebecca?
Not specifically, but with the demos, I did a lot of things on an instrument called a erhu, it’s like a two-string violin. It has Eastern connotations, which obviously didn’t really fit into the palette and gave it a vaguely mystical vibe in the demos, which wasn’t really what I was wanting. What I was wanting was a haunting droning effect, and we achieved that in the end with electric cello. It really brought it to life. Demos are weird and wonderful things: they sort of say everything and give you an idea of almost nothing you’re going to get when you record the [final score]. Maybe it’s just my demo making, I don’t know. But talking about the old days, Franz Waxman probably would have played his ideas to Hitchcock on the piano, he would never have done mocked up versions of stuff. It would have been, “Oh, this will be Manderley, this is Danvers, this is Maxim, this will be the court scene,” and stuff like that.
I’m very fortunate to record at Air Studios in London…a wonderful place to record. I’m an untrained musician. But I’ve never been anything but welcomed by trained musicians and professionals who bring my music to life, because they’re so excited by ideas and performance and playing. Those are the things you just can’t get in a demo…using things like the glass armonica, which is an amazing instrument that’s made by glass bowls and you play by wetting your fingers and pedaling and they revolve. They sound like wine glasses. But it’s an amazing instrument, and there are very few places in the world where you can go and get that sound.
I’ve never heard of that instrument before. I’ll have to look that up.
Oh man, you’ve gotta check it out. It was invented by Benjamin Franklin, and it was called “the devil’s instrument” for the longest time, because you learned to play it, and within two years you’d be dead.
What? (laughs incredulously)
It happened all the time. When you look at it, you’ll realize why. These glass bowls ascend in size, and they’re on a spindle, and you can pedal that and revolve, as if you were running your finger around a wine glass, but the wine glass itself was moving. It’s set up symphonically a little bit like a piano, but the black keys nowadays have gold leaf on them so you know which ones are black keys. But back in the day when they first did it, they used lead paint. So basically you’d be mainlining lead when you played it, and it’d drive you crazy and you’d die.
It was the most amazing thing. Yeah, it’s an incredible instrument. If you email me, I’ve got a little clip of Alasdair Malloy, who played it on High-Rise, that I can send you that maybe you can put on the website.
Were there any specific moments discussed beforehand where you knew a particular track would need to do a lot of heavy lifting, or do you have to create the entire score with the mentality that it all needs to sort of be able to keep the movie afloat during any moments without dialogue?
Not really. Working with Ben, things sort of develop out of what we’ve got in front of us. With scenes like the dream sequences, they’re so sound-designed, too. I never felt like it was totally reliant on score, or that the score had to take the lead. It’s sort of a real choreographed event, where things worked in tandem. I love working with Ben, but his work evolves through what he’s presented with. Nothing is set in stone. It sort of naturally evolves to where it takes us, and I love that.
What was the aspect of this score that you’re the most proud of?
(laughs) Well, to be honest, it’s probably the same as every score: that we got it done. Obviously I’ve been doing this for twenty years or whatever it is now, but it still feels like every time you start with a blank page, you go, “Oh my God, what am I going to do? Why do I even start?” It really does seem like such a mountain to climb. Yes, you’ve got inspiration in front of you, the work of the book, the director, the actors, the atmosphere, the sound effects, the look, the cinematography – everything to feed off of and join in with something that will hopefully really work and excite people. But the first day on the job, it’s just like, “Oh my God, what if this is the one that doesn’t get done?”
It’s a bit like, not that I have any children, but I can only compare it to having children – which may be doing a great disservice to all the women who have had babies and the men who have lived through the experience. I really don’t know. But for me, it is sort of like birthing something and you kind of go through a lot of turmoil, a lot of anxiety, a lot of joy, and in time, you remember nothing about it once it’s actually done because you’re sort of overwhelmed by the creation of it. So the real joy of actually having it be done and you’re listening to the final mixes, you see the final film and go, “There it is.” It’s like memories: you remember good things, mostly. Yes, you can sort of dip into the occasional bad memory, but you spend to not spend too much time with them. So the result is always the thing that I’m most proud of, that we actually did it.
Well, this result was fantastic and everything came together really beautifully. I love the score. Thanks for taking the time.
Thank you very much, I appreciate that.
Rebecca arrives on Netflix on October 21, 2020. You can read our review of the film here.
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