Photo courtesy of Terrorbird Media

Warming Up to Melody: An Interview with Film/TV Score Composer Cliff Martinez

Film/TV score composer Cliff Martinez talks with PopMatters about his work with Steven Soderbergh, Harmony Korine, and Nicolas Winding Refn, whose new series Too Old to Die Young features one of Martinez's most ambitious scores to date.

Too Old to Die Young
Cliff Martinez
Milan Records
19 July 2019

Television is written to be heard. A traditional view of television drama is that dialogue should convey plot information to audiences who might simultaneously be attending to other activities in their homes, as they give partial attention to the television screen. At present, streaming technology has expanded not only the definition of what television is, but also the devices through which audiences play the content and the private and public environments in which they play them. One could argue, therefore, that writing for listening is much more important now that the potential for multitasking and distraction has increased.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young, a lurid serialized crime drama streaming on Amazon Prime, is designed to defy this conventional view of television. Visually arresting, Too Old to Die Young is cinematic rather than televisual, when considered as a blend of images and dialogue. The deliberate slow pacing of the series’ dialogue exchanges is perhaps the end point of an approach to writing and directing Refn has been developing for some time in his feature film work. Yet as an aspect of “television” writing and directing, the long seconds that pass between lines of dialogue might confound viewers accustomed to listening to a story being told.

Enter Cliff Martinez. Musician, composer and longtime Refn collaborator, Martinez has created a soundtrack for Too Old to Die Young that often serves the function of aural storytelling. His compositions accomplish much more than merely filling gaps between lines of dialogue. The music for Too Old to Die Young supplies subtext and dramatic beats to the plot, complementing the intentionally blunted performances Refn directs.

Another noteworthy aspect of Too Old to Die Young is the series’ length. Nine of the ten episodes have a running time that is as long as a feature film. Further, these feature film-length episodes can generally be watched in any order without disrupting the viewer’s understanding of the narrative. This narrative flexibility is the most extraordinary attribute of Refn’s series. Yet the long running time of the episodes and the series provides a unique challenge for a composer. Though Martinez has scored series before (he worked on Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick), I ask him about how he approached a series that amounted to multiple feature films at the same time.

“I think it’s a whole lot more work,” he says. “My agent … encouraged me to take on more television work, so he said, ‘well, after you get the first couple episodes down, it becomes a music editing gig and you’re just kind of cutting and pasting.’ I didn’t find that to be the case at all. In fact, I think one of the challenges of a dramatic series in the music department is to create and develop variations on existing material. Sometimes it’s just easier to do something different. But I find that you’ve got to use the same material and make it work over the course of ten episodes or whatever it is. So, yeah, to me it’s like making ten movies, almost. That has its rewards, but it has its challenges and drawbacks, the biggest drawback of which I would say is not getting burned out creatively or energetically; kind of pace yourself. [Refn’s 2013 film] Only God Forgives probably was about a year, it was like January to January. That’s a lot of coffee.”

Though a series of such epic scale involves many creative departments working together, Martinez characterizes his contributions as the result of mostly working alone. “I have a couple guys that work for me. Thor Lawae and Peter Adams were the two guys that worked with me closely. And then you work with the director and to a lesser extent with Matt Newman, the picture editor. But yeah, for the most part I’m sitting in a room all by myself and you know, at five o’clock the pizza slides under the door and you work all day and you work all night in isolation. But I’ve always had kind of hermit tendencies so that’s why I like the job.”

There are some parallels between the daily routine Martinez describes here and the formal expectations of serialized drama. When I question whether repetition and variation are central to the music and the narrative of the show, Martinez says, “Yeah, I think theme and variation are quite common to filmmaking, storytelling, music making, screenwriting, all of it kind of has to be connected and cut from the same cloth and feel like one piece.” For any collaboration of Martinez and Refn, there is also the question of their individual signatures and the unity thereof. Is there any effort by either artist to address or resist the expectations audiences have for him?

“I don’t think Nicolas or I have to worry about it too much because he’s got a pretty highly stylized filmmaking style, as a screenwriter, as a director, so he can’t really escape that (laughs). I mean, he can try, and he and I always say, ‘let’s do something completely different this time.’ And it might be a little different but it has never been completely different. So I don’t think we can escape our own artistic DNA, or get very far. And I don’t think we need to.

“I always try to grow and expand and directors that I’ve worked with repeatedly, like Nicolas Refn and Steven Soderbergh, they’re always trying to grow and develop and stretch a bit. But, you know, audiences love them for their style. So yeah, that’s probably one of the things I don’t have to worry about is sounding like me. [These compositions] sound a little bit different, there’s a little bit of the old me in there somewhere.”

Regarding his own attention to innovation, I ask whether pushing his sound forward involves adding new electronic or instrumental tools to his kit each time. He says, “Yeah, I try to. For Too Old to Die Young, what I thought would kind of change it up and make it…” (Here he shares a former music teacher’s advice, which he seems fond of repeating when he talks about his work.) “One of the most profound things he ever said was, ‘always give them the same thing, but different.’ So that’s kind of what I strive to do. Like Taco Bell, no matter what it is, it’s gonna have tortilla, ground beef, and lettuce and shredded cheese. I try to do that. For Too Old to Die Young, the curve ball that I tried to weave in was- all of the scores I’ve done for Nicolas are kind of overtly inorganic synthesizer scores. I tried to feature some overtly organic instruments, like piano and cello and flute. It’s used sparingly. It doesn’t dominate any of the music, but I tried to contrast some overtly organic instruments with the usual palette of overtly inorganic sounds and instruments.”

When I cite his score for Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002) as an excellent synthesis of that type, he agrees that the music for the film was “a pretty successful combo of organic and inorganic.” While Solaris remains the only science-fiction film Martinez has scored, listeners familiar with early Cold War period sci-fi films will notice the direct influence of those film scores on Too Old to Die Young. On some level, his use of 1950s sci-fi sounds in a crime drama is a way of fulfilling the expectations he had to score more work within the sci-fi genre following Solaris.

“After Solaris,” he explains, “I thought the phone would start ringing and I’d get all these offers to do more science-fiction films. Never (laughs). Hasn’t happened. That was 2002, so I guess time’s up. I kind of loved it because the genre allowed for some sort of nutty exploration and doing some things that were atypical, I thought. And that’s still one of my favorite scores. I wish I could write one of those every day. I don’t know what it was, but the combination of the movie, the direction, and just I guess where I was at, at the time, but yeah, I love that score.”

Within Martinez’ body of work, Solaris is an album that succeeds wholly separate from the movie that the music is attached to. As we are discussing the album, I ask Martinez to share some thoughts about scores that have a life outside of their films. He says, “It doesn’t happen very often, and I’m not a huge music score fan. I rarely listen to the works of other composers, detached from the movie. Like as a standalone listening experience on a CD or a download. I would put my music in that category, as well. It often does not hold up very well outside of the film because the film demands that the dialogue and the images get the spotlight and the music is more than secondary. Maybe it’s the third thing you pay attention to. So oftentimes, film music feels incomplete to me as a standalone listening experience. But occasionally one kind of pops up as, ‘oh, this is great all by itself.’ Solaris is one of them. I think The Knick might be one of them. But yeah, it doesn’t happen very often for me or, in my opinion, the work of other composers.”

Refn’s Drive (2011) is another crime drama that provides a narrative influence for Too Old to Die Young. Martinez’ music for that film influenced the way his Too Old to Die Young score is being promoted: A press announcement describes his series score as a “night-drive” listen. I ask if the success of the Drive soundtrack/score has created an association between Martinez’ music and certain activities, like driving.

He responds, “When you’re creating the music for a television show or a film, I don’t think that should be a consideration at all, like what’s going to happen to the score after the movie. To me, the first priority is to serve the film, and I usually don’t give any thought to, how well is this going to hold up on a CD or what are people going to be doing when they’re listening to it? I used to sit between a pair of speakers for 40 minutes and sit there and just listen. I don’t think anybody listens like that anymore. You know, music is something that you put on when you’re doing the dishes or when you’re throwing a party, when you’re having a conversation.”

Martinez has discussed this subject in interviews before, for example his “Wandering Off” interview for Fifteen Questions. However, there’s a telling distinction between a quotation from that interview (“The most concentrated and focused audience a composer can have, is now in a movie theatre”) and a statement he makes to me related to Drive: “Probably the most focused listening that people do is in the car, driving. That’s probably the closest thing you get to a listener’s undivided attention. I think the way people listen, nowadays, maybe that’s why film soundtracks are finally getting some measure of respect, is as a soundtrack for your life.”

Therefore though Martinez doesn’t consider what his audience will be doing while they listen to his music, he is aware that his music that most connects with listeners will likely become the soundtrack to their lives. In the case of the ultraviolent and nihilistic Too Old to Die Young, Martinez speculates about the alignment between the series’ content and the listeners’ lives, saying, “I don’t know. The soundtrack for Too Old to Die Young might be, like, music to kill people by, or do drugs, I just don’t know what- I’m afraid to imagine what kind of a soundtrack that might provide, and for what activity.”

What, then, is the composer’s relationship to the narrative? Though his music serves the needs of the writer/director, did he have any intention to counter the relentless violence, prurience and hopelessness of the series? Could it be that his music is reinforcing that very content? Martinez answers by bringing up Soderbergh again as “a great director for putting the music as a high contrast, counterpoint to what you were seeing. He often used music to create some kind of third plane of drama or storytelling. He always told me, ‘I don’t need the music to repeat, to reinforce what’s already there.’

If you have a romantic scene, and it’s working pretty well, I don’t need the music to be romantic. Maybe we use the music to add a light touch or a touch of danger or something that isn’t there. But that’s not always the case. You can’t completely go against expectation all the time. Sometimes, okay, maybe it’s a romantic scene that isn’t as romantic as it was intended and the music needs to reinforce what’s there. In that case, you play it straight and you use the music to perhaps make up something that is deficient. It was intended to be romantic, it was intended to be violent, but it’s not quite as strong as it should be, so the music does the obvious. Nicolas, me, and Soderbergh, in particular, like to go against the grain as well, like to do things that are… high-contrast, stuff that goes against expectation. And I think Nicolas is one of those directors that likes to do that a lot as a storyteller. He likes to do the unexpected, perhaps a little more often than most.”

Any single episode of Too Old to Die Young well illustrates what Martinez is saying about Refn’s approach to storytelling. There are unexpected touches everywhere, ranging from bursts of violence to production design and lighting details to performance choices. Billy Baldwin’s performance in the series, for example, is a cascade of unexpected behaviors. Yet the overriding cruelty and depravity of the characters is so constant as to become predictable. Too Old to Die Young is a series in which some wrong is avenged and yet ultimately, no one does good, not even one. I ask Martinez if his own personal attitudes or tastes factor into the way he selects projects and composes for them.

“Well I generally have to be in love with the material to be able to get up out of bed every single day. In the case of Too Old To Die Young, to get out of bed every day for a year, and look at this story. Firstly, scripts, particularly in Nicolas’s cases, have never been very influential. Since we worked together on Drive, he’s always sent me a script prior to even shooting, and asked me what I think. And after the second film, Only God Forgives, I realized that the script didn’t mean anything because he would change it completely. So I often don’t look at a script. Sometimes I get a script before I see the film and sometimes not. But almost in all cases, I don’t put a lot of weight in the script, like is it a page-turner or not. Traffic, for example, didn’t seem like a very interesting script, but having worked with Steven on a number of films, I knew that it would be like about ten times more interesting than what was on the page.

“Once I get into it, and I see the picture, perhaps I brainwash myself into liking it, because my ego is invested at that point. But generally I’m pretty jazzed about what I’m doing. And I’m pretty jazzed about the story. I’m not so sure how I feel about really violent films. I feel like at some level, it’s probably not making a real positive (laughs) contribution to the universe to put out super-violent stuff. I think people are affected by it. I felt particularly guilty with Spring Breakers because that was a lot of violence and mayhem and I was working on it during the Sandy Hook tragedy and I just thought, man, maybe this stuff is… maybe, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.”

He continues, “But I’m so good at it (laughs) and I’m having such a good time doing it, and I do a good job.” Martinez concludes his thoughts on the subject by saying, “I seem to have gotten stereotyped and typecast as the guy that scores a lot of violent stuff. I guess I’d have to admit to having some level of mixed feelings about it.”

In one sense, Martinez’ music in Too Old to Die Young works against the viewer becoming inured to the cruelty of the characters, and in another sense his music creates moments of intense emotional identification. There is the possibility that these two functions contradict one another. Is the more emotional use of motifs intended to create that sort of identification with characters?

“I try to do more of that,” he says. “I really think that Too Old to Die Young was populated with characters you really don’t like that much. It’s all murderers and killers and psychopaths and drug dealers. So I don’t expect the viewer to really like them, but I like to instill some sense of interest and curiosity about how their story is going to shake out. And I think to do that, you occasionally have to write a melody. You know, I never did that for many years. But you do have to make some music with an emotion to it in order to warm up to these characters, to take enough of an interest in them, to follow them around for whatever it is, fifteen hours.”

I point out two selections of the score that I have returned to time and again, both of which might be considered good examples of Martinez’ intentional use of melody for creating interest: “I Hereby Give You Yaritza” and “High Priestess of Death”. Both of these numbers relate to the character Yaritza, played by cast standout Cristina Rodlo.

Martinez calls these tracks a “couple of my favorites, because [they are] more musical. And I guess as I’ve been in the business for so long and done this minimalist thing, I wanted to rebel and develop and become a maximalist. So it’s more active music but I think it’s also more emotional music, as well. To appreciate a lot of film music, you kind of have to see this stuff without the music to see what kind of a transformation, what kind of impact the music has had. And those pieces I thought really altered those scenes. I wouldn’t say they made her sympathetic, but they certainly added a level of emotion and musicality that I don’t think was there before. Yeah, those are a couple of my favorite pieces.”

Another compositional aspect that defines Martinez’ work is the way he’s had to sublimate his past as a drummer. Having famously been a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and played with Captain Beefheart, Martinez’ career as a film composer is ironic when one considers the relationship between beats and film composing. “Beats are what popular music is all about,” Martinez says. “And it’s exactly what film music is not all about. So I’ve been kind of beaten over the head with, ‘no beats’ since 1989 with Sex, Lies and Videotape. You know, Steven Soderbergh hires a drummer to do an ambient, minimalist score… there is a conspicuous absence of any beats or drums or anything like that. And for years I didn’t use my rhythm vocabulary at all. But I’m trying to sneak it back in now, because it is the only instrument I can really play.”

I observe that he has been adept at finding and expertly using a wide variety of percussion instruments. “Yeah,” he says, “I suppose my big reach has been to employ pitched percussion instruments; mallet instruments like the steel drums, tubular bells, the gamelan, and well, actual drums from time to time. And then one of my favorite scores, Kafka, is really the cimbalom, a Romanian folk instrument that’s like a hammered dulcimer. And I played it with a MIDI percussion controller. So occasionally I’ve even done some stuff that is way more drummer-ly than average.”

On many soundtracks that feature Martinez’ scores, there are also source music tracks that are written and performed by other artists. He says he’s usually “not involved at all” with selecting those songs because “that’s a separate department and a separate set of people thinking about it and I just keep my nose out of it. For Drive, Nicolas asked me what I thought of the songs because at the time, all the five songs that are in it, he had chosen and he was getting a little bit of resistance from other people because songs are usually very, very expensive and most peoples’ sum total of thoughts about music in a film is songs. So they put me on the spot, ‘what do you think?’ And there were producers present, and I just said, ‘I think they’re pretty good.’ So that’s about all I ever say.

“For the most part, and Drive was the rare exception, if there’s a fair amount of source music, songs in a film, it almost always goes its own separate stylistic way from the score. Drive was the one exception. I heard that, and four of the five songs sounded like they were all kind of an homage to 80s synth-pop. And I thought, because that’s such a homogenous lump of songs, I could complement that in the score. And the result, which is a recipe I’d like to try to repeat, was that the score was really well received, it kind of rode the coattails of those songs.”

Martinez cites The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) as a film soundtrack too varied to cohere to. “That was, like, over twenty songs in it, and the style range was so broad and eclectic that it’s like, ‘Why bother?’ The score is going to be a different beast and there’s nothing I can do to unify such an eclectic mix of songs with the score, so don’t bother trying.”

The music for Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012), however, was a successful synthesis despite the musical differences between Martinez and Skrillex, another contributing artist. Martinez agrees, “That was another notable exception, which I thought was… Usually, when you say, ‘Let’s take Marilyn Manson and Michael Nyman and throw them in a bag and shake it up, and we’ll get this perfect hybrid,’ that almost never happens.

“But it kind of happened with Spring Breakers. And I just think it was the wisdom of Harmony Korine and Doug Crise, who was the editor. Because when they told me about it, I was skeptical, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to work with Skrillex, I mean is he ever even in town?’ But I met him a couple of times and for the most part the extent of our collaboration was I did some ambient versions of ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,’ and that was about it. But I was conscious of his style. Any scene that required a beat-driven thing he did it, anything that was a little bit more ambient, I did it, but I was very aware of his style and maybe he was aware of mine. I think it was a pretty seamless thing, and it was like wall-to-wall songs and score. I did an hour of music. Skrillex probably did almost as much. And then there was a ton of songs as well, and it all was pretty seamless. That was miraculous. On paper, it didn’t seem like a good idea but the execution was pretty great.”

About the upcoming vinyl release of his Too Old to Die Young score, I ask how many hours of music he composed for this series and how he decided which selections would be on the album. “I think it was around three hours of music,” he answers. “Nicolas decides what actually goes into the film; usually he never tosses out anything. I guess because there was just so much music, he whittled it down as to what appeared in the series. He let me choose the material for the soundtrack, which was kind of difficult, because there’s a lot of good stuff. And there are three hours of stuff, but I think I did one hour, there’s about one hour of material out of three hours.

“It was a lot of head-scratching, a lot of trial playlists and mixing and matching to come up with the best one hour. And already I’m getting calls from JC at Milan, saying, ‘I just saw episode two, there are a couple of really good pieces in there…’ So I was like, as you go through the show, those aren’t going to be the only two you’re probably going to wish were on the soundtrack, so yeah, it was tough. But it’s great because oftentimes, you’ve just got thirty minutes’ worth of thirty second transitional cues and you can’t figure out a way to make it all work on a soundtrack album. But for Too Old to Die Young, I actually had too much material and it was tough to whittle it down.”