Settling the score with film composer Cliff Martinez

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There’s nothing conventional about what film composer Cliff Martínez has been doing in his music studio for the last 22 years. His work doesn’t feature full orchestras like many traditional scores. His background as a rock musician sets him apart from others who took a more classical approach to the craft.

Martínez started his professional music career as a drummer in a number of bands in the 70s and 80s including a stint with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His first scoring assignment came in 1989 when director Steven Soderbergh tapped him for the drama Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Since then, Martínez has scored over 20 films, including the Academy Award-winning film Traffic starring Benicio del Toro and the sci-fi love story Solaris starring George Clooney.

This year was Martínez’s busiest as a composer with the release of three films – The Lincoln Lawyer in March and both Contagion and Drive this month. During an interview with me, Martinez, 57, talked about his consistent work with Soderbergh and how the definition of a modern composer has evolved to include rockers like him.

How familiar do you have to be with the actual script of a movie your working on? Is your work based on what’s on the page or does your inspiration come more from conversations you have with the director?

For me, the work begins with a rough cut of the film. I can’t do much with the script. I’ve tried to write music to a script prior to seeing the film, but I’ve found it turns out to be a waste of time. After seeing the film, I like to have a creative discussion with the director. They want to hear where my instincts are taking me. Most directors I’ve worked with don’t really jump in with both feet until I’ve put some music on the table. That’s when the real creative dialogue begins.

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You’ve scored a handful of films for director Steven Soderbergh. What is it about your relationship with him that works so well?

Contagion was film number 10 I’ve done with him. I have a pretty good feel of his likes and dislikes. He has a pretty good instinct about which of his films he calls me in to score. I get to kind of be myself for the most part. He always seems to bring out the best in me. I always wonder how he does it because on the last few films we haven’t communicated that much with one another except through telepathy and short text messages. One thing Steven does that is different is that he usually sends me the script long before the shooting begins even though I’m not writing anything for the script and we’re not discussing it that much. I have a lot of time to think thing over and let some of my ideas incubate. He’s one of the most hands-off directors I’ve ever worked with. Whenever I work with him, I always seem to create a score that is uniquely Soderberghian.

As a composer, is creating a specific style to your sound something you see as a positive thing or would you rather have the reputation of never knowing what you’re going to deliver?

I guess I’d like to have my cake and eat it, too. I want to be known for having a recognizable style. I believe having your own personal identity is what makes you competitive. On the other hand, I would like to be versatile and be challenged to go in new directions. I don’t want to be typecast as the “ambient guy” or someone who only does electronic scores. I think most of the work that comes my way is because people feel they know me musically.

Everyone knows composers like John Williams and Howard Shore. Can you name me some other composers that are doing great work, but aren't household names yet? I’m asking you this because I think you fall under that category at this point in your career.

I think the guys who are known for their comedy scoring, they often get overlooked because their work is seen as lighter. I think writing for comedy, in my opinion, is very difficult and very specialized. That’s why the guys that are good at it are asked to do it over and over again. Let’s see, Rolfe Kent (Sideways), Mark Mothersbaugh (The Royal Tenenbaums) – those are just a couple of names that come to mind of guys that probably don’t get as much attention as they deserve.

Talk about your ideas going into a film like Contagion and how you feel your score represented the outbreak story. Personally, I felt you gave the film a sense of urgency and added to the panic and fear of these characters.

Well, my direction from Steven came primarily in the form of three temp scores. In a very early version of the film he used the music from The French Connection and Marathon Man. So, I kind of had this 70s flavor in there from the very beginning. Then it changed direction and it went to [the band] Tangerine Dream. That’s where the retro synthesizer sounds and ideas came from. Towards the end he threw all that out and used some really energetic and contemporary film music. I think he was very preoccupied with the pace and the rhythm of the film. So, that was probably my biggest function – to keep things moving along and moving quickly. Another mission was to magnify the fear factor. He always talked about it as a horror film. I just tried to conjure up obsessive anxiety with the music. That was probably my most significant contribution. I think the film really worked best when it was scaring you. I just tried to heighten that feel by keeping it off balance and not going in an expected direction. Then at times I really tried to underscore the more tragic and personal moments. Toward the third act, I wanted to create a more hopeful tone as they begin to get a handle on the virus.

It’s interesting some of the temp music started as retro music because that’s what the final product in Drive feels like. Did you revisit any cult films to get a feel for that score or are you the type of composer that would rather start from scratch?

Sometimes if I really don’t have a sense of direction, I’ll watch other films that are similar. I kept thinking I should watch Andromeda Strain and Outbreak for Contagion, but I never got around to it. It was partly because I kind of had my own internal sense of direction about it. But sometimes I will do that. I didn’t do it for Drive. I don’t really think it was the director’s intention to really revisit the 80s. There are a handful of contemporary songs that actually sound like 80s synth pop. I think he just chose those songs because they sounded cool. I rolled with that because I wanted there to be a connection with the score and the songs. Beyond that, the film felt very modern to me. I don’t think anyone would listen to the scores of either film and think they were 70s or 80s-type scores. But both do have interesting personalities.

How do you think the landscape of film scores is changing with more composers coming from the same musical background as yourself? We have Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, who did the score for There Will Be Blood, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who won an Oscar last year for The Social Network score.

When the art of film scoring was born, everybody in it came from the European, classical tradition. But nowadays, especially since the record industry is taking a dive, rockers like myself and Trent Reznor are migrating in great numbers to film scoring. That’s kind of normal now. Half of the guys that are doing it now come from a rock ’n’ rock background or have played in bands. For me, I think it contributes and enriches the art form just as immigration enriches America. The more the merrier!

Some of the sounds you use in your scores don’t feel like they were made by instruments. I can only describe some of them as dreamlike and surreal. I’m wondering outside of your studio, what kind of sounds do you like listening to?

I live in Topanga Canyon, which is like a faux-rustic enclave in Los Angeles. I love the sounds of all the critters outside – the frogs, owls, crickets, and birds. Some of the birds around here are pretty accomplished musicians. You can learn a lot from them.

Is there anything specific you’ve learned about yourself as a composer from your first film Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989 to where you are today?

I’ve learned quite a bit since I first started. I guess what I’ve learned is that there are no boundaries when it comes to imagination. It’s limitless. The more I come to understand music, the more I feel like a numbskull because there is always more to learn. The more I do it, the more I’m humbled. I’m just always trying to get better at it. I pick up a few tricks along the way.


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