Cliff Martinez is a composer whose name isn’t as immediately recognizable as some of his contemporaries, but if you’ve seen a Steven Soderbergh movie in the last two decades, you undoubtedly know his work. The first time the two paired up was on Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, which was the first feature work either of them had done; but since then they have worked on films including The Limey, Traffic and Solaris, just to name a few. Their latest collaboration is Contagion, which appropriately combines a no-nonsense thriller with a suitably paranoid score. Additionally, Martinez (a former drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers) provided the score for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, matching the director’s glossy, ‘80s-future Los Angeles aesthetic with music that similarly sounds both vintage and modern.
Movies.com caught up with Martinez via telephone recently to discuss his work on both Contagion and Drive, and to examine his oeuvre as one of the few composers working in mainstream movies who often incorporates electronic elements in his scores.
Movies.com: How closely to one another did you create the scores for Drive and Contagion? Would you say the two of them were informed by one another?
Martinez: I think they were. They were close. I didn’t actually ever work on any of them simultaneously, but I think that Drive and Contagion shared one interesting similarity. I had never used synthesizers, particularly vintage synthesizers extensively in any of my scores. But both directors thought they were appropriate for these films. Steven had used Tangerine Dream in one of the temp scores for Contagion, and Nicolas, when I came onto Drive, these five songs were in place and they were all contemporary, but they all had like an ‘80’s, retro ‘80’s, synth-pop sound. So I thought that was important to kind of acknowledge a little bit of that style in the underscore. So other than that, I think that’s the only connection between the two that I can think of, other than my being involved.
Movies.com: Are any similarities due more to your composing both of them than the subject matter or the time period in which you recorded them?
Martinez: You asked if the schedule kind of has an influence on the music, and it definitely does. For Contagion, I had a very long schedule and I had interruptions, so basically I had months and months. Steven actually had sent me a script before they even started shooting, so I’d been thinking about it for a long time. But I didn’t write anything until I saw scenes from the picture. But I think that’s one of the reasons why my scores for him come out so Soderbergh-ian. There’s a long incubation period for his stuff. For me, the four- or five-week schedules are really pretty tight for me–I just feel like you get lucky or you don’t, because you have to go with your first impulse. There really is no chance to second guess yourself or to experiment a lot. And sometimes experimentation is I think a good thing, to try different things out and you choose the best approach. But on Drive, I just went with my first instinct and fortunately, it seemed to work. And the director was great. The director had terrific instincts and he already had a pretty clear vision of where he wanted to go. But yeah, it was a little scary for me working on a very, very tight schedule like with The Lincoln Lawyer and Drive, but fortunately they both turned out pretty good.
Movies.com: Where do you typically start when you compose music for a film? Do you get your information from the director, from the script, or in the case of Drive from seeing the film and seeing these other songs that were already in place?
Martinez: The script isn’t that influential to me because I’ve tried to write music to a script without seeing the picture and nine times out of ten that turns out to be a waste of time. For me, the beginning of the process is seeing the rough cut of the film or whatever, final cut of the film, but seeing some kind of picture. And then usually I like to get some kind of general direction and thoughts from the director, but the collaborative process doesn’t usually begin in earnest until I come up with a few sketches, a few ideas, a few motifs that are kind of the general blueprint for the tone and the sound of the score. And that’s when the process really begins.
Movies.com: In Drive, the opening piece of music, “Tick of the Clock,” there’s a point where the drums drop out and there’s this sort of ambient tone, which sounds very similar to your score. When you heard that, was there any effort to…not parrot, but to create a similar sound between those two? Or was that just sort of a happy accident?
Martinez: When I got kind of a rough cut of the film, the Chromatics piece was very different. It was cut from the album version. I think it was 15 minutes, and it’s a seven-minute scene, [and] the way that they had it cut, it was a beat from beginning to end. But yeah, I guess it had some influence, a little bit of influence. Although I didn’t do anything like that elsewhere in the film, but it kind of described a minimalist aesthetic that I think Nicolas was looking for. I think the other songs just probably exerted a stronger influence than that particular piece did. And I didn’t really have a feeling like that again. That was kind of like a simmer, but not boiling chase scene – and the other chase scene had no music at all in it. So, all of the material that was in there before I came aboard, the songs, all had some influence on a subconscious level, but I didn’t ever do anything exactly like that.
Movies.com: How important are recurrent themes or leitmotifs to you, and how readily do you find that they emerge when you’re starting to compose a score?
Martinez: Well, theoretically, I love the idea of recurring themes and motifs and I have tried to use them whenever possible, but I’ve gotten some resistance to the idea of like a full-blown melodic statement under chord changes. That’s a kind of traditional leitmotif; it’s fallen out of fashion to write that way. I think the argument is it demands too much of the viewer’s attention to have a strong melodic statement. But some like the idea of it, and in that case I’ll try to create some kind of recognizable recurring musical motif that accomplishes a similar effect without having it to be necessarily a memorable or singable melodic line – a unique sound, or a unique progression, something that will kind of function the same way as a tradition leitmotif might, but without grabbing a kind of a mood and without hogging the attention that a kind of melody does.
Movies.com: Do you compose for an instrument first, or do you find those themes and then figure out which instrument that they would be best performed on?
Martinez: Usually the instrument comes first. Sometimes it’s the other way around — sometimes I’ll do it on an instrument thinking that something will sound great on guitar, come up with a nice theme and then move it over to something else. But for the most part, I pick an instrument first. The instrument always kind of has a range and a sound and there’s a certain kind approach that sounds best on a given instrument. So most of the time the instrument comes first – the sound of the instrument – and the sound, and then create the motif.
Movies.com: Do you look or listen to other scores for inspiration? Particularly with something like Drive, whose aesthetic is clearly inspired by the ‘80s, do you look at other similar scores for ideas or inspiration?
Martinez: Well, I go to the movies a lot and I probably pay attention to those scores a little bit more than your average viewer, but mostly I just go to movies just to enjoy the whole thing, not to really scrutinize the work of other composers.
Usually when I’m working, if I really don’t know where to go sometimes I’ll look at similar films. I always wanted to watch Outbreak and Andromeda Strain when working on Contagion, but I never got around to it. I felt like Steven and I had a strong sense of direction anyhow, so I didn’t feel the necessity. But if I get influenced by music or inspired by other music for a given project, it’s usually by way of the [temporary] score. Directors use it a lot to kind of indicate the style, the approach and the placement of the music that they want. Temp scores get a bad rap a lot, but I find it to be a very useful tool. That’s [where] I listen to other people’s music that has some direct influence on the score that I write. The temp score kind of communicates a lot of information that might not translate as well through verbal communication alone.
Come to think, the ‘80s thing, it was kind of a ‘70s thing going on with Contagion, and Steven had temp’ed the movie originally with The French Connection and Marathon Man. So there was a little whiff of the ‘70s in the Contagion score, but I don’t think Steven was trying to create a ‘70s-style film and he certainly didn’t want a score that would sound overtly ‘70s-ish. It just made things more interesting I thought, and it was a unique ingredient to add to make the score a little bit more intriguing. And similarly for Drive, I don’t think Nicolas really wanted to make an ‘80s-style film and he definitely didn’t want an ‘80s-style score. But, he chose those songs simply I think because he thought they were cool, and I thought they were strong enough stylistically that I couldn’t really ignore it.
Movies.com: How helpful or detrimental can temp scores be to pre-determine what a filmmaker might want? Can they be an obstacle in your creative process?
Martinez: For the most part, it’s been beneficial. There’ve been very few instances where the temp scores turned evil. That happens when it’s been sitting in there for too long and people get just very, very used to it so it’s closing off ways to think about scenes that might be better. Everybody I’ve worked with, especially Steven, they understand those are only temporary. I think the main thing is it gives you a foundation on which to discuss music, which is a pretty ethereal and slippery topic. When people start talking about music, I find that that can be more detrimental than a temp score because somebody says they want music that’s “brown, slinky and heroic.” Well, that can mean anything. I think you can really get confused about what somebody wants. The temp score is pretty specific. Then I know exactly what you mean if you want something “heroic and blue.”
It’s also specific in terms of defining the spotting or the layout of the music. I’d much prefer a temp score than somebody giving a list of time code number. But I find the temp score is very helpful too; it’s become kind of a common language. And I find that it’s good to have some kind of a head start rather than starting from a completely blank slate, although I know a lot of composers who prefer that.
Movies.com: Your music has always had a pretty strong electronic undercurrent, particularly given your background in rock music. Is there a particular reason that has emerged as your style?
Martinez: Well, I guess because of my background. I haven’t done a pile of orchestral scores because that wasn’t in my background. But the other thing has probably been budget constraints. Most of the films I’ve worked on are lower budget independent films, so they’ve kind of been electronic out of necessity. And once you’ve become known for a film, people come to you because you’re the electronic guy and, so I think that’s partly how that’s happened. But I would love to do more electronic/orchestral hybrid [scores] in the vein of Solaris and Contagion. I really love doing that, but when people think big orchestral score, I’m sure I’m not the first name on the list.
Movies.com: How tough is it to create a definable or recognizable sound for your scores, and at the same time, make sure that each one is distinctive?
Martinez: Well it only becomes tough if the people that hired you really want you to do something that’s very much like something you’ve done before. And that doesn’t happen very often. Generally, I get bored very easily so I enjoy trying to find a new sound or approach to a score. And that isn’t always easy. I don’t always exceed, but I enjoy looking for it, I always strive to do that. I think all composers kind of enjoy stretching a bit and have an aversion to repeating themselves. I certainly do.