meet the musician behind your favorite film scores

Having soundtracked some of alt classic cinema’s finest moments, composer Cliff Martinez talks us through his latest collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn.

by Colin Crummy
08 July 2016, 3:32pm

The mind behind the scores for Sex, Lies and Videotape, Spring Breakers (written with Skrillex) and, most famously, Drive, describes his work as "a little bone headed." That could sound disingenuous, but Bronx-born, former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez means that the music he makes for film is simple (which doesn't mean it's not smart). Martinez's synth laden, ambient work is acclaimed by audiences and filmmakers alike for the way in which it informs the work without overwhelming it. Drive wouldn't be the same without Martinez's music and directors return repeatedly to work with him. He's constantly scored music for Steven Soderbergh's films since their joint break out in 1989 with Sex, Lies and Videotape; his work for the director's 2000 crime drama Traffic was nominated for a Grammy. This week, Martinez returns to the big screen as composer for Winding Refn's L.A. horror show The Neon Demon. Here, he tells i-D how and why it he does it.

On his music...
"My stuff is so simple; it feels a little bone headed. Maybe this is a little different. The Neon Demon is almost a silent movie, much like Only God Forgives [which he also composed for], so the music had a little more to do and say. You're looking for the music to explain the dramatic intentions so I think there's a bigger role for music to play in a near silent movie. Spring Breakers was a little like that, Only God Forgives was like that. There's more to do."

On working with Nicolas Winding Refn...
"I had less direction from Nicolas in this film and it's simply because it's our third film. That was the trend with Soderbergh, too. As the years went by we talked less and less, not because we liked each other less, but because a certain creative shorthand starts to occur. I do ask the questions about what stuff means, to which Nicolas replies: 'What do you think?' Like in Only God Forgives, when Ryan Gosling's character sticks his hand in his mother, I was like 'What's that supposed to mean? Don't you think it'll be good for me to know what it means?' And Nicolas replies, 'well what do you think?'"

On reinvention...
"For this film, I think Nicolas really wants to get as far away from Drive as possible. For both of us, it's hard to reinvent yourself 100%, top to bottom. There's a lot of musical tricks for me — the ambient, droning textural stuff, the vintage 70s/80s synth arpeggio, Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream type stuff. We have a bag of tricks we draw on that we apply to the new canvas. This film had a new, avant-garde element to it in that there seemed to be the supernatural or witchcraft to it. There are some other unexplained things that informed the score, that is not the simple Giorgio Moroder thing, more like Penderecki esque [the Polish composer whose music has been adapted for films like The Exorcist and Wild at Heart]. Other than that, I do what I usually do."

On Drive...
"If I could repeat that experience, if I could bottle that formula and repeat it, I would. Why did it work? Drive felt like an extension of everything I'd been doing since 1989 on Sex, Lies and Videotape. Simple, textural music. If was a perfect storm of a lot of stuff: the story was good, the performances, the cinematography was amazing. The sound design was Oscar nominated. A lot of people don't realize the impact of non-musical sound on the film. Nicolas plays a great deal of attention to gloves crinkling, things like that, that really add a lot. It seemed to be a coalescence of a lot of factors. I thought the music was ok, I thought the songs were ok. In fact, the Kavinsky song, "Nightcall," was featured on the soundtrack to The Lincoln Lawyer, the film I'd just done before Drive. Those other songs had been on other albums and didn't hit pay dirt. I don't get it. If you stand at the slot machine long enough, you eventually win."

On listening to soundtracks...
"I never listen to the music apart from the film. For me, the art of it is to do something to the picture. For the most part, most film soundtracks including my own don't sound so interesting apart from the film. They're meant to accompany not standalone. It's a rare soundtrack that stands alone as an a la carte experience."

The Neon Demon is in cinemas now.


Text Colin Crummy
Stills from The Neon Demon

cliff martinez
film scores
The Neon Demon