A new Ben Wheatley film is always a cause for celebration.
Following last year’s stellar crime caper, Free Fire, Wheatley’s new film sees him taking things down a notch, shifting focus from warring gunrunners to seasonal family conflict - which isn’t to say that it lacks drama, of course. Far from it.
Formally titled Colin, You Anus (and lamentably re-named during production for fairly obvious reasons), Happy New Year, Colin Burstead sees Wheatley turning his attention to the all too relatable dynamics of an annual family gathering and the inevitable friction between factions.
Shot in just 11 days, Colin Burstead is, once again, something of a curio for the director. Ever the champion of doing things differently, the film rather aptly airs on BBC Two on Sunday 30th December, following a similar experiment with the release of A Field In England, which was released in cinemas and screened simultaneously on Film4 back in 2013.
Inspired by the film’s brisk shoot, a curiously low-key score from composer Clint Mansell serves as a fitting backdrop for the affair. Having previously teamed with Wheatley for his stark adaptation of High Rise, Mansell set about preparing a mysterious, brooding woodwind soundscape, the result of which has more in common with the likes of British folk horror than family drama.
Recorded and mixed in just one day, it’s one of the composer’s most intriguing scores to date. Paul Weedon sat down for a chat with Mansell following the film’s premiere at the London Film Festival in October to discuss his work with Wheatley, regular collaborator Darren Aronofsky and the intricacies of reshaping a film score in to a standalone album.
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I understand that Ben sort of ambushed you one night with this one, right?
Well, I knew he was sort of doing something, but he hadn’t mentioned it - and I was curious, obviously. But I did High Rise and I didn’t do Free Fire, so it wasn’t necessarily the case that he was going to ask me – and that’s fine, you know. But yeah, one night he just WhatsApp’d me and said, “Do you want to have a look at what we’ve been doing?” And I said yeah.
So he sent me a link and I watched it straight away. This would have been in January and I wasn’t working at that point, and yeah, he sent it to me and I loved it. And he called me after I’d watched it and asked me if I wanted to score it. And I said, “Fuck yeah. I’d have been depressed if you hadn’t asked me”. And it was great because they shot the film in eleven days and it was edited in a couple of weeks, so I had more time to write the music, but it still fitted in with that idea…
We recorded it and mixed it in one day and it’s got this sort of folky, ambient vibe to it, I suppose and the references that we were using were very much sort of 70s… So to record it and mix it in one day really added as sort of authenticity to it, I think. It was just a good way to do it. It was really interesting to kind of let it go… It was originally loosely based on Coriolanus. I don’t know if that’s really there now.
I didn’t know that going in to it.
Yeah. It moved away from there, but he sort of wanted it to retain those Shakespearean and Elizabethan elements in the music. So that’s where we started from… There’s a playfulness and a sort of… ‘sinister’ is probably too strong a word, but it’s slightly off.
And then, as the film develops, we move in to a more ambient, electronic sound, but still retaining some of those instruments there, like the drones that we’d created with the Hurdy-Gurdy, and stuff like… They weren’t there but they were kind of in the sound, if you know what I mean. There were kind of electronic versions of them.
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It was originally loosely based on Coriolanus...
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It’s such an interesting departure for him after Free Fire. And after High Rise, I was really surprised by the score. I expected something slightly more… familial, I guess. It felt more like folk horror, which was great.
Well, I mean, I couldn’t help but feel The Wicker Man, or something… Polanski did a version of Macbeth in 1971 and he had The Third Ear Band score it. And it’s very folky and slightly atonal and maybe a little out of tune at times… It’s a slightly pagan type of thing that kind of dials in to it, or it just takes you there a little bit, which I loved.
I kind of loved the fact that the film revolves around what is essentially quite a mundane event, really.
But it’s underscored by this quite ominous music.
Obviously the story is something I think is something that pretty much everybody can relate to – the family drama [Laughs].
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How does having shorthand with a director like Ben affect your creative process? Do you find yourself trying to second-guess them on what they might like to some extent?
Not really, because Ben comes with a certain clarity anyway, but he also doesn’t micro-manage you, so you’re kind of free to run with it, if you like. But I’ve got to know Ben over time and you do get to know what their likes are and the certain areas that they’re exploring... But it’s also kind of where I am in the things that I’m doing – I’ve really enjoyed playing with woodwinds over the past couple of years, and that’s not something I’d really used before.
So I think, whether it’s folk horror or Krautrock, stuff from the 70s that, even though it’s very electronic, it’s still sort of got a very organic thing to it, and with both it’s sort of enjoying that, I guess. I hadn’t really thought about that, but yeah.
You’ve obviously worked with Darren Aronofksy multiple times throughout your career. I take it that there’s a similar understanding of his creative process and that he understands how you work?
Well, it’s hard to say really, because we sort of grew up together, in that respect. And I think probably by the time we got to The Fountain, which was probably the film we worked the closest on… in as much as we actually physically worked in the same building across the hall from one another – so the film and the music really sort of bounce off one another. We would work all week and then every Friday we would have a screening of what we’d done and then the following week we’d go and respond to that and do it again the following Friday, so they really did grow in tandem.
I think we developed together and I think that his style became my style structurally and I’m responding to that. And it’s probably true of all filmmakers but the way that we worked was building it together… Actually it’s kind of weird, because what was the next film we did? Was it The Wrestler after The Fountain? Now, that’s very different, isn’t it? So I don’t know actually… Whereas Black Swan went back to more of the way that Pi built, built, built and Requiem built, built, built.
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The way I write is not going to be the way a folk artist would write...
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It’s a more conventional film score.
Yeah. And The Fountain did that. Black Swan did that. The Wrestler was actually quite different, but in general, yeah, we sort of had this kind of roadmap that we just follow, really. And looking at it from the outside now, I can see that – it’s not so noticeable when you’re working on it – but he definitely has a style of the films that he makes. And I realised that that was my style as well, and that we just were in tandem.
Talk me through the actual recording process for Colin Burstead. You mentioned that for The Fountain you worked across the hall from Darren, but I assume that now you work in your own studio and send stuff remotely?
No. Not really. I always record, if I can - and pretty much always do - at AIR in Hampstead. I write at my place and do the demos and stuff like that, but I send it over to my orchestrator and conductor, Matt Dunkley, and then we record it with my recording engineer, Geoff Foster, but Colin was sort of different because that sort of folky world isn’t my world.
And whilst we didn’t want it to be straight up and we also wanted to do our own thing with it, I also wanted to benefit from the authenticity that we could, not turn on its head, but the way I write is not going to be the way a folk artist would write. But I could use some of those foibles, or whatever you want to call them, so what we did with that was we went for specific musicians who were of that world and allowed them to bring it to life without me going, “It’s got to be this,” or “It’s got to be that.”
So I’d sort of sketched it out – the chords and the melodies and whatever and arrangement within the scenes, but it was more a case of implying it and getting a vibe... So it was different to working with an orchestra where it’s definitely mapped out and it’s this, it’s that and then we’d play it as the ‘performance’.
I suppose it’s a similar thing, but we let them put their stamp on it. I didn’t think it was beneficial to have me going, “It’s got to be this way,” you know?
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Was that quite liberating for you?
Yeah, it was really. Again, this is like working with people that you understand and trust and who trust you and it was sort of easy and fun… It’s like, when I did Filth, not that I particularly did that with the film, but I thought I’d love to do a film in mono. I remember going to the cinema when I was a kid – you didn’t have 5.1 then – it had a certain sound and that’s sort of a unique thing that we don’t have anymore and this was little bit like that, in as much as it’s not mono, but it’s just left of centre.
I think there are two moments where there’s surround sound and one of those is the end credits. And that, in itself, sort of changes the experience of the music because they’re so used to hearing these expansive sounds now that when you bring something a lot tighter in, it is sort of a throwback and it’s a sort of tool to change how the music might be received. And a part of that is confidence, really – confidence in my team and Ben and myself to go, “Okay, yeah. We can do this. If that doesn’t work, try that.”
My team of Matt and Geoff is so experienced that if this doesn’t work and I’m going, “I don’t know,” they’ll go, “Well, okay, let’s give this a go.” And so it becomes… If you’re working on a big studio film, it’s an entirely different experience.
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This is like working with people that you understand and trust and who trust you and it was sort of easy and fun...
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I was going to ask, how do the two compare?
Well, it’s not fun at all, you know, because basically you’re making music - it should be loads of fun. But obviously, if you’ve got a big orchestra and the clock’s ticking and money’s flying out the window, it’s high pressure and who really wants to do that, you know? I guess some people feel like that – I don’t. But this was brilliant. We didn’t have any money, because it’s a very small budget film and everybody did it for the right reasons, so we went, “Okay, we’ve got a day.”
We did some mixes on a second day, but most of it went down pretty much live and it was liberating and it was fun… Once we had recorded the stuff and put it to the film, I didn’t listen to it until we started assembling the record, which was a couple of months ago. And then I started listening to stuff and I was like, “This sounds great!” It’s so simple. And even as a writer sometimes you know that you’ve completely overdone it and you’ve got to start pulling stuff out, but that was just pure and simple.
With that distance, has it ever gone the other way where you’ve left a project for a while and come back to it and gone, “I’m not sure that really works”?
No, not really – and that’s not to say that it’s all fantastic… I just think that I’ve kind of let it go by that point and it is what it is. I mean I used to be very, very particular about mixing and I’d go to Geoff, “You should do this, you should do that” and I’d listen back and go, “You were fucking right in the first place. Don’t listen to me.” And so I’ve really let things go because my part, really, is the writing, getting it to a place where we’re happy with it.
But then mixing it – Geoff’s mixed hundreds of films. He knows what needs to go where – more than I do half the time – and I just get in the way if I start sticking my oar in to it, so by that point, like I said, I’ve let it go. And if it’s working in the film, then my job’s sort of done. I’m not precious at that point.
I mean, I’m very precious and anxious when I’m writing it and getting it done, but after that I feel that it’s more like the film’s property and the director’s property more than anything else, so I have this sort of detachment from it then, which I got to say I’ve found to be healthier, you know? But then we come back and Geoff and I will sit and assemble a record and I can kind of listen to it then, as like… not as somebody else, but sort of.
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My part, really, is the writing, getting it to a place where we’re happy with it...
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You can be more objective, I guess?
Yeah. Sort of. You can be like, “Oh, this is good.” Yeah, I really enjoy that part.
I’d never really considered that distance between recording something and then returning to it later from a completely different angle.
Yeah, it’s good actually. And also, as well, I am fortunate, you know… It’s not like when you’re in a band and everything’s got to be a winner, otherwise you’re career’s over… Maybe I’m deluding myself, but it doesn’t feel like that now… And it still might not be a big hit. I mean, for me the only real success is that we’re happy with it when it’s done. I’ve got no control over whether other people are going to like it, or whether people are going to see it. If they do, then fantastic. If they don’t, well, that’s life.
Is it kind of twofold for you because you’ve got the people who watch the film and love the score with the film and then perhaps another audience entirely who discover it because of the album. In this case, the album came out much earlier than the film itself, so people get to hear it on its own before hearing it in context, almost. Do you find you get different reactions from people who enjoy your work as a standalone piece, or vice versa?
Actually, when we did The Fountain… It’s terrible vanity on my part, but when we did Requiem For A Dream, which is nearly twenty years now, a few years later things like Amazon were happening where you could have people review this stuff and leave their comments. And, of course, I went and I looked at what people were saying about it. They were rather nice comments, but one of the recurring things was that people were saying, “Oh, it just gets going and then it stops.”
And I was thinking, “Okay, I think that does sort of represent what Requiem is,” but I understood. I could see that that’s probably not so good as a standalone listen. And then, by the time we did The Fountain, I’d got in to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai, obviously, Sigur Ros and these guys were like…
It’s all about the build up.
Yeah! And they’d have long pieces of music that wasn’t film music and it wasn’t pop songs either… They had translated it for me so that I could understand it. So when we did the Fountain, Geoff and I said, “Okay, we’ve got all this music. Let’s try and break it down in to ten listenable pieces so it becomes more of an album and a more traditional listen.”
We started figuring out and trying to arrange stuff that would have a structure to it – and it builds, climaxes, whatever – but would be representative of the film and evoke the themes of the film, but actually be a listen in itself. And we’ve tried to do that ever since really, so that hopefully you can have both experiences. Obviously, first and foremost is that it works in the film and then if you can make it so that it becomes a satisfying listen too, then that’s great.
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Happy New Year, Colin Burstead airs on BBC Two on September 30th at 10:30pm. Clint Mansell’s score is available now on digital download and vinyl via Invada Records.
Words: Paul Weedon / @TwoTafKap
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