The Great Scores: ‘The Fountain’ and a Sonic Road to Awe

This column marks the inaugural edition of The Great Scores, a series within Notes on Celluloid that deals with those film scores that, over time, have shown themselves to be legendary, essential works.

“I was in Los Angeles in the summer of 2000,” Clint Mansell tells me over email earlier this month, “on a film called Knockaround Guys. Darren [Aronofsky] came out and we saw Jenny Lewis at the Roxy on Sunset and then walked to Mel’s Diner further east. He told me the story of The Fountain on that walk.”

The harmony of the intimate and the transcendent is one of the key elements of Darren Aronofsky‘s divisive labor-of-love, The Fountain, which had its release in 2006 after a long and tumultuous period of filming and development. The film, starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, charts the love of a single couple across three different time periods and places:15th century Spain, 21st century America, and then far off into the year 2500.

Its themes include coming to grips with mortality, eternal love, and immortality. But while some directors may have taken these huge concepts and channeled them through the lens of the grandiose epic, Aronofsky brings them down to earth.

A woman asks her husband to go on a walk with her. A doctor searches for a cure to cancer. In an eco-bubble spaceship, a lone astronaut recalls a woman in a hospital bed. These are the moments that make The Fountain the masterpiece that it is; it shows that, over time, the little occasions that add up to humankind’s biggest quests never change for the people involved. The 15th century conquistador must, like the 21st century cancer doctor, find a quiet time to meditate as he struggles with the challenge that burdens him.

Above all else, however, is the fact that the love someone can have for another person can drive him to the most radical of actions, whether it is voyaging to a newly discovered continent or shooting straight out into the recesses of deep space. Thus, it’s fitting that Mansell answers my question about the origins of his involvement with The Fountain in the way he does; the film’s cosmological aspirations are always rooted in basic experiences. A great many things can happen on a walk to a diner.

Like The Fountain the film, The Fountain the score is intimate yet simultaneously resonant in ways its small roster of players might not indicate. Initially, Mansell had conceived of the score as primarily percussive, though as Aronofsky’s vision for the movie evolved, so did his music. “The film became much more intimate than we had first imagined, and this prompted a more contained score that could break out when called.” Over the course of its development, The Fountain took on several lives.

Beginning in 1999 as an idea shared between Aronofsky and his frequent collaborator Ari Handel, the film then followed a trajectory that resulted in its initial budget of around $70 million cut down to $35 million, as well as the replacement of the once-listed leads of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett by Jackman and Weisz. Aronofsky details much of the goings-on behind the scenes of the movie in the commentary track released on his personal website.

The film split critics right down the middle, and amongst the dissenters one popular opinion holds that because of the compromises that had to be made in order for it to be released, the work Aronofsky intended is not the one viewers see on the screen still today. The late, great critic Roger Ebert wrote of his experience viewing The Fountain, “I believe we have not seen the real film. When a $75 million production goes into turnaround and is made for $35 million, elements get eliminated. When a film telling three stories and spanning thousands of years has a running time of 96 minutes, scenes must have been cut out. There will some day be a Director’s Cut of this movie, and that’s the cut I want to see.”

For those on the other half of the critical divide (this writer included) the scars The Fountain bears in its final product only make it all the more beautiful. And, perhaps most incredibly, the film’s struggles resulted in a score by Mansell that sounds hardly broken at all. In fact, few scores in movie history are as self-contained and tightly composed as this one.