Getting Good at Getting Dark: An Interview with Cliff Martinez

Cliff Martinez
Only God Forgives OST

Hitting it big as a film composer is a tricky thing to do. Unless you have that Braff mixtape touch, when writing music for a movie a musician is usually going to have to live with the fact that he will just have to live with his work being used solely as a sonic backdrop. The average person on the street probably won’t be able to hum even a bar of anything John Williams has written beyond the scores for Star Wars.

Yet despite all the odds, Cliff Martinez — who has had a long, storied career that dates back to his involvement with Captain Beefheart — broke out in a big way in 2011, with his work on Nicolas Winding Refn’s nouvelle vague-inspired noir Drive. His original music, paired with some ’80s-indebted synth gems like Kavinsky’s “Nightcall”, is not only the perfect complement to Refn’s undulating, streetlight-tinged vision; it’s also a killer set of tunes with an obvious crossover appeal. For an industry veteran Martinez to get mainstream attention through a pseudo art-house film—Ryan Gosling’s massive star appeal aside—is both remarkable and long overdue.

The huge rewards reaped by the union of Refn and Martinez were clearly not lost on either party, and with Only God Forgives, yet another neo-noir with Gosling in the lead role, they’re back to their top-notch collaborative game.This time, however, the stakes are higher—and exceptionally darker. With subplots involving such family-friendly topics as incest, Only God Forgives is a continuation of the bleak worldview Refn carved out with Drive, and Martinez’ score isn’t holding back any darkness either. From the haunting reverie “Ask Him Why He Killed My Brother” to the murderous house synths of “Wanna Fight”, Martinez’ soundtrack carries over the moments of introspection that made his contributions to Drive so effective, all the while utilizing plenty of freak-outs to raise the temperature when needed.

Most important are the challenges Martinez faced when incorporating the sounds of Thailand into this music. Only God Forgives is hugely tied to its setting in Bangkok, a fact that carries over to its music. Martinez here is especially on point; far from a cheap, touristy incorporation of basic Eastern chord progressions and melodic figures, he takes the time to meld and mend the Thai influence into the folds of Western electronic music in ways that continue to surprise upon repeated listens. It’s cross-cultural without sounding like a generic mishmash, and in its nuance it stands out as some of Martinez’s best work.

With the melodies of Only God Forgives echoing in my head, I spoke with Martinez about working with Refn, the difficulties of standing out as a film composer, and staring at those pesky blank pages.

PopMatters: Was the decision to work on Only God Forgives with Nicolas obvious after what you did with Drive?

Cliff Martinez: Yes. We had a really good relationship in Drive, and we were really happy with the results.

PM: When this new project started, did Nicolas give you any specific instructions as to how the music ought to be?

CM: Not really. The closest thing I got to that was he told me to put together a tense score. That was the first very specific direction I got.

PM: Did you have any ideas about the music prior to seeing raw footage of the film?

CM: Vaguely, nothing too specific. I thought that I wanted to impart the music culture of Thailand into the score. Initially I thought that would be the most important part of the score. That was really the only thought I had before seeing any picture. Nicolas talked with me about the film, and he sent me a script, but experience has taught me that you shouldn’t bother to write anything just through the script, because it’s not until you see the picture that you really get an idea of what works and what doesn’t.

PM: What methods did you use to incorporate the sounds of Thai music into the score?

CM: The first thing that happened is that Nicolas wanted the karaoke songs. He wanted me to do the backing tracks so the actors could sing over them. That started the beginning of my getting immersed in that style. There are actually five karaoke songs, but in the film only one of my backing tracks with the actor singing over it was used. So initially I started with the five karaoke songs, and for a couple of those I did a few different versions. For example, with one of them I did an ambient/electronic version as well as one that was closer to the original recording

That was one idea. Then I went to Thailand; I decided I would write it in Thailand in a hotel room on my laptop. I was hoping the culture would seep into the music somehow. Probably the most concrete example is the Thai folk instrument called the phin, a three-string lute, which is used throughout the score—I bought the instrument while I was there.

PM: Aside from going to Thailand, was there any sort of basic approach as to how you scored the music?

CM: The first thing I do is watch the movie, see if it inspires any ideas. For every score this ends up a little bit different; with this film, for example, the setting and environment had a big impact on the initial direction. That was a big deal for sure.

Then comes the director’s input. Frequently, directors have a rough cut in progress where they’ve already put music in. So a lot of the broad strokes and global vision of where the music is coming from derives from what the director has already done. Nicolas had cut a bunch of music from Bernard Herrmann’s 1951 score to The Day the Earth Stood Still—one of my favorite scores—and even though it was kind of anachronistic, I understood that the music had to have a fantastic, otherworldly quality to it.

So the temporary music had a big influence, as well as discussions with the director. Then all of this gets filtered through my own impulses. I don’t know where those come from; sometimes it’s just lying on the couch looking at the ceiling, waiting for lightning to strike. I don’t know where the ideas come from exactly. Usually it’s a lot of trial and error. And, unlike Drive, I had a lot of time to try things and not succeed. With Drive’s five-week shooting schedule, it was all first impulse.

PM: I know you’re a drummer, but when you write this kind of music are percussive instruments the ones you default to?

CM: No, in this case it’s keyboards. I think with most electronic musicians, keyboards are probably the most important and common instrument that serve as a gateway to composition. I don’t consider myself much of a keyboard player, but that’s the instrument I’m sitting in front of the most.

PM: Whereas the score to Drive is predominantly electronic, the music to Only God Forgives—while still electronic—is noticeably less so. What influences the instruments you choose for yourself and the other players?

CM: In this case, it was the temporary music, which was kind of a curveball for me. In particular the idea of the orchestra; I don’t do a lot of orchestral scoring, but I like doing it when there’s an opportunity for it. I like the traditional sound of brass, strings, and woodwinds. A lot of my ideas came from just hearing Herrmann’s music again.

The theme of God—of something big and cosmic—came to suggest some kind of sound, where the instruments all have that big sound and scale. This also imparted something of a religious quality in the music. Then the phin added in the Thai influence. I’m not sure where exactly some of the percussive parts came in; I like the idea of really big, giant percussion tracks, which is another area where the Asian influence came in.

PM: Only God Forgives, like Drive, is a very dark film. Do you think it’s easier to compose for dark cinema as opposed to something more optimistic?

CM: I think I’m getting good at the dark thing. Most of the films I work on have people getting shot, blown up, or decapitated, so I’m getting more practice at getting “dark”. The other thing I like, which I seem to be getting called on to do regularly, is music that is psychological, and darkly so. That aspect has become a significant part of my musical personality now.

PM: Once you have a rough version of the score, what is Nicolas’ involvement with the music?

CM: Once there’s actual music on the table, it’s pretty easy for him to respond to what I’m thinking. Usually he talks in very broad and general terms about the music; he’ll say that we should use a piano, an organ, and a string orchestra, and that’s about as specific as he’ll get. He’ll mainly talk about the dramatic needs of the music, and its functioning within the context of the film. He won’t get too much into the actual notation of the music; he won’t say, “this should be a B flat instead of an A.” We converse a lot, even though he’s never in town; when I was in Thailand he was back in Copenhagen editing. There’s a lot of talk over Skype that happens, which is an interesting way to work. You develop a pretty close collaborative relationship from that.

PM: Having worked with Nicolas once before, was working on Only God Forgives an easier experience as a result?

CM: I think this was a more challenging film. There was an expectation that it would be the sequel to Drive in terms of its commercial appeal, so we felt—and I know Nicolas felt it especially—that there were high expectations. That made it more challenging, but at the same time neither of us wanted to repeat Drive in any way. And when you make a film like Sex, Lies, and Videotape or a film like Drive, you’ve raised the public’s expectations of what you’ll be able to do next. That makes it more difficult.

However in some respects it might have been easier. With Drive I had five weeks as a cap, so I was in and out very quickly. I didn’t have a lot of time to decide whether I liked or didn’t like the music; I had to decide I liked it and from there hammer it into shape in that short period of time. With Only God Forgives I had more time, which is nice because it allows time to relax and evaluate the music with some breathing room afforded.

PM: Have you ever been given rough footage of a film and not been sure where to begin compositionally? Having worked with cutting-edge directors like Nicolas, I imagine you’re given some testing cinema to work with.

CM: Oh yeah. To an extent that happens on every film; there are very few films where I’ve sat down and instantly felt comfortable. With most there’s a bit of stage fright and blank page phobia where you really don’t know what you’re going to do. And then with some films it’s even worse, where you actually don’t find a strong sense of direction at all or it takes too long to find it; usually it comes gradually, but sometimes you just get unlucky. In those cases panic becomes part of the process, and you don’t really want that; pressure is a good motivator, but stress can hamper in a really bad way.

PM: Beyond the specifics Only God Forgives or your other work with Nicolas, what would you say is the hardest part about scoring a film overall?

CM: I would say to any aspiring composers that the hardest part about the job is getting work. [Laughs] I can’t think of anything harder than that. The music business in general is one of the hardest in terms of turning a paycheck, so by far getting work comes before anything else in terms of struggle.

Creatively, it all comes back to looking at that blank page. The first burst of inspiration that tells you just the general, broad strokes about what you’re going to do—be it with the palette of instruments or the harmonic language itself—is hard to find. The ground floor is the scariest. Once you get a little bit of something on the table, you usually can do pretty well—a little goes a long way in film music. From there you use your craft-like skills to finish the score with care to how it all fits in the scenes. In the broad view, it doesn’t matter whether you sit in front of the TV for twenty hours or five minutes; the inspiration doesn’t hit with any real consistency. There’s a big difference between the hours spent looking for that inspiration and all of the work that comes after it’s been found.

PM: While it’s hard to find work, you seem to have struck gold in having Nicolas as a collaborator. How did you two get linked up initially?

CM: The connection with Nicolas began with The Lincoln Lawyer. Brian McNelis, the head of Lakeshore Records, made a promotional video for the making of the score. He filmed me at my house playing an experimental instrument called the Crystal Baschet. Brian was friends with one of the producers of Drive, Adam Siegel, who asked Brian if he had any good ideas about a composer. Brian recommended me and showed Adam the promo video. Within a couple of days, both Adam and Nicolas were at my house. We got along fine; we had dinner and Nicolas showed me the movie. I didn’t have to tap-dance or audition or anything, we hit it off really well.

So Nicolas showed me the film, which was pretty much a complete film at that time. I fell in love with the film, which made it a no-brainer for me.

PM: The soundtrack to Drive is one of those great instances where a film score breaks into the general public in a really big way. Part of the reason why this column exists is to raise awareness for a whole genre of music that is frustratingly passed over. Composers like you, Clint Mansell, and Hans Zimmer—who have backgrounds in pop music—have a unique gift in being able to approach this kind of music with a pop music-friendly approach. Given your success, what do you think composers could be making film music more palatable to the pop music oriented ear without sacrificing its cinematic identity?

CM: That’s a great question, and something I’ve always wondered. I would also add John Williams to that list; he has done the most to popularize European classical music-influenced film scores in a mainstream way. His audiences are huge. His shows consistently sell out at the Hollywood Bowl, and you see people of every generation there, from young children to seniors. He’s a guy I think of as a composer with rock star status.

Photo by © Robert Mann from

But, to be honest, I don’t know how you do it. The recipe for the success of the Drive soundtrack still mystifies me, because I don’t believe it was driven entirely by the songs. Historically, no one really cares about film music, and they could care less about the personalities that make the music. I think what you’re doing is great, and I think a big part that’s necessary is a PR campaign to elevate the status of the music. Good film music too often falls into the background, and even when it’s working really well it goes unnoticed. So many people have great film experiences, but they rarely think about how the music helped create that experience.

For the last couple of years since Drive, I’ve been asked to go to festivals and do speaking engagements in Europe, and there seems to be a greater appreciation of it there. I did a film music festival in Cordoba, and me along with a few other composers—Chris Young and Mark Isham—signed autographs for three and a half hours. They actually had to turn people away. And these people had copies of the most obscure, out-of-print scores.

So there does seem to be a demand for it, and I think it’s growing, but we have to really build publicity behind these things. Movies are a huge part of our popular culture; why shouldn’t the music from them be popular too?