Cliff Martinez | Amazon
Over the past two decades, Martinez has scored close to two dozen films, including Soderbergh's hits 'Traffic,' 'Solaris' and 'Contagion,' but none garnered Martinez the attention he's received for his work on Nicolas Refn's moody Ryan Gosling vehicle 'Drive.' Supported by much-heralded synth-pop tracks by Ed Banger's Kavinsky and the Valerie collective's College, Martinez's 'Drive' score provided an emotional underpinning for the quiet, brooding film, striking a chord for filmgoers and quickly becoming the best-selling soundtrack of the year. Spinner spoke with Martinez in Los Angeles recently, discussing his surprise at the 'Drive' score's success, his process and the future of film scoring.
Does it seem odd that 'Drive' is the score that people have latched onto?
Yeah, it is. It's totally weird. I'm gratified that the music is getting so much attention, but I'm mystified by it. It's a good film. I'd like to think that I've worked on a few good films before. I know the songs were very popular, but they were available long before the film came out. I know the score is good, but I'd like to think that I've written some good scores before, so the fact that it's getting all this attention is new and unexpected. It's welcome, but still, mysterious and unusual for me.
What was your process like on 'Drive?'
Usually the process is, you watch the film, you talk to the director, and most directors aren't going to get too specific, but [they] talk about the film in a more general way. The next step of the process is usually just laying on the couch, staring at the ceiling for a few days, wondering what the whole thing is going to sound like. For the most part, I work very closely with the picture, particularly with 'Drive,' because when they gave it to me, it was a locked picture. The editing was done, the songs were dialed in, the credits had even been shot. Usually you get a rough cut, an unfinished film, and when that happens you work in a more general way, knowing that the film is gonna change.
Occasionally I would focus on a particular scene, or go for some general one-size-fits-all themes that seem to capture more of the global character of the film. The rest of it was approached scene by scene, but I did try to make some strong thematic connection throughout the film. The test of a good theme is to get away from the picture, write something that seems to a kind of macro view, and see if it works in several scenes throughout the film. Some of the thematic stuff actually worked quite well throughout the film. That was a good thing, because one thing that was unique about 'Drive' was the short amount of time that I had to do it. It was like four and a half weeks, total. Usually I like to have more time, but I'm thinking that one of the things that made it good was because it was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants scoring job, you kinda had to go with your first instincts, for the most part, no second guessing. Maybe that's part of the secret, I don't know.
We saw the rough version of the film first, but it takes a totally different turn with your score inserted.
Well, I depend on that. I am very influenced by temp scores, and oftentimes the directors are very attached, because they look at the temp score as a bit of their creation. It usually works, and if it works really well, then you're in deep s--- because they can't hear it any other way. But most directors I work with are very flexible, and they understand that it's gonna get interpreted. I always count on the fact that I'm an inept mimic in trying to reference this stuff, or role-model it, that I will fail in an interesting way, it'll come out different, both because I don't want it to sound like the temp score and I want it to sound like me. Also, I wouldn't know how to sound like Brian Eno if someone put a gun to my head -- there's too many secret formulas to what he does, for me to unravel it. I didn't have any choice -- it had to sound like me.
Did you use vintage synths for the sounds in the score?
I was never much of a synth person. I never had a lot of analog synths, and I don't really understand them. Most of the directors I've worked with, like Soderbergh, up until 'Contagion' really didn't like the sound of synthesizers, and I agreed, so it was kind of a fresh sound. Actually, I was working on 'Contagion' when 'Drive' came along. I put 'Contagion' down for four, four and a half weeks and then got back onto 'Contagion.' I think they're very different scores, but they do have this common vintage synth thing going on, which was a new sound for me. Most of them are not actually genuine retro analog synthesizers, they're all kind of plug-in simulations, which suits me fine. I have a couple analog synths and they sound great, but it's getting to the point where the software is replacing everything on the planet, including me.
We don't know about that.
You'll know if you're a famous composer if 20 years from now your name appears on a pull-down menu in Band in a Box, alongside Hans Zimmer. I think music will be created algorhythmically, all the things that we do will be boiled down to a little computer program.
We would argue with that, because I think that's what they attempted with the cues, but the film really took a different life when it had a real person creating music for the scenes.
How did you get to see a rough cut of the film?
Actually, it's funny, the version we saw, we guess it was the version you were given, which leaked somehow. We thought it was the official version, like "Man, they're really rinsing this one Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada song, it's in so many scenes." And then we saw Angelo Badalamenti credited and thought "That's weird, we didn't really notice a score."
Yeah, I watched the film with the producer and director and that credit was in there. I don't think he was ever involved at all, I think he was just a name on the list of possible contenders. His name came on the screen and there was sort of an awkward silence in the room, and I said "Um, y'all spelled my name wrong." Well I'm glad it was a change for the better, because it was a pretty tight film score.
How was your work on 'Drive' different than your work earlier in your career -- how has your approach changed?
'Sex, Lies and Videotape' was ground zero for me, stylistically. I see that as kind of a reference point, a stark minimalist score; I see a lot of similarities with that. I felt that the music had this big, juicy role, and there wasn't a lot of over-explaining with dialog. Much of the story was told non-verbally, and that usually means that the music has a great deal more meaning. Steven is the one who got me on the path of minimalist, ambient film scoring, so that was the beginning of it. The music seemed to be saying something important, without being overly specific about it.
I saw 'Sex, Lies and Videotape' this past year, and I was kind of shocked. I thought "Wow, I really didn't know anything back then, did I?" But then I saw 'Kafka' a little while later, and 'King of the Hill,' and I thought "Wow, I have lost my edge!" Those were really interesting scores, because I didn't know what I was doing. So, interesting.
Why would someone come to you and try to get this ambient sound from you, given your music background at that point?
Well, that's the weird thing, because I had done one scoring job when I met Steven Soderbergh. I had done an episode of 'Pee Wee's Playhouse' that was real experimental. It wasn't even music, it was like, in the cracks between abstract sound design and music. I was really excited by the music technology at the time, I had a sampling drum machine, and I would bring friends over my house and we would have rude body-noise contests, and see who could record the weirdest sound. I would take those sounds and play them with drumsticks on a MIDI drum controller. That was the only music I had on my demo reel, and Steven heard that, and he also heard something very similar that I was doing for a film called 'Alien Nation.' I was supposed to write some music that the aliens were listening to -- it was so weird that they never used it -- but Steven heard that, and he heard the 'Pee Wee's Playhouse' stuff and he said, "This music will be perfect for my next film," and he hired me on the spot.
A couple months later I got a rough cut of 'Sex, Lies and Videotape,' and thought "What in the world am I doin' in this?" He had temped it with Brian Eno, and I thought that I was just horribly miscast. But, Steven just trusted me, and I said "Uh, Steven, that 'Pee Wee's Playhouse' music, I don't see how that is remotely connected with this film that you've made." And he said, "Oh yeah, we'll do something different." [Laughs]
At that point I was a rock 'n roll drummer and my career as a drummer was all about playing drums, so I was really poorly equipped to get into film music. If I couldn't hit it with a stick, I couldn't make any music with it. The first few scores I did, I was completely deprived of being able to use anything from my drumming background, really. For the most part when I worked with Steven, it was always this sort of, rhythm free, ambient stuff. So it was just happenstance, but I agreed with all of his scoring instincts and philosophies. It was kind of by accident, I actually don't see that strong of a connection between my background as a rock 'n roller and my early films. In a way I think your musical identity in film work is determined by the jobs that come your way. Id like to think that I'm versatile, and can do anything from a Broadway musical to a tampon commercial, but in fact, I'm probably good at a very specific type of film score.
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