To Thailand and Back: An Interview with Cliff Martinez

You may not know this, but Ciff Martinez, the musical genius behind recent scores such as Drive, Contagion, Spring Breakers, and The Company You Keep has been around as long as the Sundance indie scene. Starting with Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he’s been crafting a signature style that in the last number of years has brought along many admirers and especially significant name recognition for his work with Nicolas Winding Refn. I first remember encountering his work in 2002 with the films Solaris and Narc, but his work for the film Traffic is what initially brought his name a little more into the mainstream with its many nominations and wins (though Pump Up The Volume as a whole is still one of those pieces of my younger years that he happened to play a part in). Recently I engaged in communication about his process and space in the world of film over the last couple years with some particular curiosity surrounding his upcoming score for Refn’s film Only God Forgives and what may be expected from the as yet unknowable journey.

Garrett Tiedemann: How do you begin when brought aboard a film?

Cliff Martinez: The process usually starts with watching the movie. The next step is laying on the couch and staring at the ceiling for a while. Then I talk to the director and ask a lot of questions. Eventually, I get around to sitting down in front of the keyboard and trying to make myself useful. Typically, I’ll sketch out a couple of terrible ideas before I write anything that’s any good. A little goes a long way in film music, particularly with my style. So once a couple decent ideas appear, it becomes more a process of developing and refining them than of constantly having to come up with some fresh, new and brilliant ideas for every scene. The director is typically the person that I interact with and look to for feedback and direction.

GT: Does it matter at what stage of the project you are brought in (meaning, is your beginning different if you are brought in at pre-production vs. post-production?) and what kind of deadline looms over you?

CM: I prefer to enter a project as early as possible. The musical direction is often established via temp music during the early editing stages of the film and I like to be a part of that process. Usually though, casting a composer takes place after some sort of musical direction has already been chosen. The last short deadline I had was for Drive for which I had about 5 weeks total. Soderbergh generally hires me before the film is shot so even though I don’t start writing music from the day I see the script; I have up to three months to think about and create the score.

GT: Your work often balances percussive elements and intense rhythm with more ambient tones; what guides you through this conversation?

CM: The only instrument I really ever played professionally was the drums, so rhythm is a big part of my musical personality. For me, the role that rhythm plays in film music is to supply style, energy, and it is often the glue that holds all your harmonic and melodic ideas together.  My first film was Sex, Lies, and Videotape and that was the project that set me on the path of using extremely sparse, textural tones to score a film with. And for a while, I was able to write movie music by doing very little. But, eventually, my extreme “less is more” approach caught up with me and I began to get more interested in pitched percussion instruments…any way to get music out of something that I could hit with a stick.

GT: It seems the electric guitar, and especially its distortion, has become increasingly present in the recent work. Has anything in particular sparked that?

CM: My interest in guitar came about when I worked with David Torn on Traffic. Some years later, we collaborated on a television show and David showed me some of his secret recipes for creating ambient guitar textures. I bought a guitar mostly to make funny noises with at first. Then I slowly began to make simple rhythmic loops that had more of a traditional guitar sound. I like using guitar in part, because it is one of the few remaining instruments that can’t be convincingly replicated with computer software. And because so much of what I do is computer generated, guitar is one of the instruments I use to impart a “live” quality to my music.

GT: You have a signature to the ambient tracks of your work. While its sound and what you are doing varies, the feeling is typically similar; they always carry a sort of spiritual element to them (best way I can think of it). This is something many latched onto with Drive, these moments of calm before storm (do you know what I reference here?). Is this particular trait something filmmakers seek out from you? Have you ever put it forth for a production and someone actively rejected it?

CM: I call that “the God plug-in”. Film music often carries with it a point of view and an opinion. One thing I learned from working with Steven Soderbergh was to never be too obvious when expressing your opinion through music. If my reactions to every scene in a film are going to be spoon-fed to me I don’t feel there’s much point in watching. I seem to get hired onto films that have bad people doing bad things. I don’t like to use the music to judge them. In fact, sometimes I want the audience to see the bad person’s actions (beating someone to death for example) through the eyes of that character or through the eyes of an impartial, omniscient observer. That, I suppose, is the spiritual quality :-)

GT: Variations of bells are often a wonderful characteristic of your work. Can you talk a little about how that exploration has taken shape?

CM: That can be traced back to my tendency to want to hit things. I have a couple custom-made metalaphones that sound very bell-like. I originally got them for Solaris and they’ve been a part of my bag of tricks ever since.

GT: Later this year we’ll see your work for Only God Forgives. How was it to return to the worlds of Nicolas?

CM: I think Nicolas wanted to distance himself from making anything that bore any resemblance to Drive and I felt the same way. So musically, Only God Forgives will be something different. As for Nicolas being a repeat customer so to speak, I would say that monogamy has its benefits. I like to think that I understand Nicolas’ taste and preferences much better now, so our process of collaboration goes a little deeper as well as being more efficient and streamlined. That said, his standards are very high and he always expects the unexpected with regard to the score.

GT: You earned particular recognition for your work on his film Drive. Did that add any pressure to scoring Only God Forgives or alter the collaboration in any way?

CM: I tend to think that most of the pressure to live up to Drive rests on Nicolas’ shoulders. But maybe you have a point and I should be worried too. Nicolas made it clear that he didn’t want a reprise of the Drive score and I was in complete agreement with him. I tried to come up with something new and fresh but I think it’s also impossible to reinvent yourself 100 percent, so it’s still going to sound like me.

GT: Did the film’s location play a significant role in your choices?

CM: Well I flew to Thailand, locked myself in a hotel room and wrote most of the score there. So I’m hoping that in some way, the location and eating gang kiew wan gai for breakfast everyday infiltrated my usual way of thinking and influenced the score.

GT: According to IMDb we can also expect work in a short called Golem from you this year. Anything you can share about the work or what we might expect from it?

CM: Golem is already out and should be Googleable. It’s an animated short with a VO of Andrei Tarkovski.

GT: The last few years seem to have been especially good for you with the kinds of films and the recognition you’ve received for the effort. Have you experienced any dramatic changes either to your process or how things go when filmmakers bring you aboard?

CM: The most dramatic change is that people are actually calling me and asking me to score their films. I’m not used to that.

GT: What do you want from a film when asked to score it?

CM: There are a lot of reasons to score a film but the most important reason for me is that I like the film. I’m going to have to look at it day in and day out sometimes for months. Second is the people you work with. Scoring a film is a long, deep journey and you want to take it with someone who will inspire you and make the process enjoyable.

GT: Do you have any particular thoughts on scores released as albums? Do you think about the eventual album when you set out on a project?

CM: I’m not convinced that every score deserves to be released as an album, my own music included. Film music is primarily designed to support images and dialog and sometimes doesn’t really hold up as a stand-alone experience.

I don’t think about the eventual album release while I’m writing but I worry about it plenty when it comes time to figure out how to present the material ala carte as a CD or download. I spend a fair amount of time editing and sequencing the music so that hopefully, it will hold the listeners’ attention from beginning to end.

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