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'Only God Forgives' Composer Cliff Martinez on Reuniting With Nicolas Winding Refn and Why He Doesn't Consider Himself a Cinephile

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire May 29, 2013 at 3:32PM

It might be hard to believe, but this year's Cannes Film Festival marked the first one to host in demand film composer Cliff Martinez, whose work with frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh helped land the then first-time filmmaker the Palme d'Or for his debut "Sex, Lies and Videotape" back in 1989.
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CANNES REVIEW | With "Drive," Nicolas Winding Refn Puts Ryan Gosling in the Fast Lane
FilmDistrict Ryan Gosling in "Drive."

In many ways, your job is like an actor's. You have to get inside a character's mind in order to evoke their mindset in your score. How do you go about that?

Yeah, I guess the composer to a degree has to get into character. I like to decide whether that's necessary. One of the first things I think about when writing the music is whose point of view do you want the music to express, as oftentimes it is the character. And that's one thing I like to specialize in, is not speaking to the situation the character's in, but speaking to the character, and trying to get into that interior space; so that's a very popular point of view to take.

READ MORE: 'Only God Forgives' Director Nicolas Winding Refn at Cannes: 'I have a fetish for violent images' (No Kidding)

But the other might be the audience, and the audience might be thinking differently than the character and you might want the music to be in their shoes.

The other place I like to be is the point of view of some omniscient observer. With "Spring Breakers," I think the audience point of view would have been that there's a great deal of threat here, Cotty [played by Rachel Korine] looks like she's gonna get raped by the guys in jock straps with funnels of beer. If you saw it without music, you might think that is a threatening situation. So I didn't want to play it that way, I'm not sure I wanted to play it from her point of view, which would be "This is all fun and games." I wanted to play it from the point of view of some benevolent, omniscient observer that just saw them as kids who didn't know what they were doing.

I often like to take that because one of the goals of music is to universalize the story. Even though this is about extraordinary people, extraordinary circumstances, if you can make it feel like it's someone else's story. If it's everybody's story I think you're really firing on all the cylinders. And to me I saw "Spring Breakers" in a larger way. I didn't see it as a film that just appealed to teenagers, who might partake in spring break, I wanted it to be about that time in life when everything is perfect and you have no rules, no boundaries, and you can do anything you want. That's type of metaphor that anybody can relate to, even though not everybody can relate to exposing your body, drinking too much beer, snorting cocaine. Everybody might not be able to relate to that. But that there was a larger message, I think.

"Spring Breakers"
A24 "Spring Breakers"

Did you have anything to do with that last bit in the film where Vanessa [Hudgens]'s and Ashley [Benson]'s characters kiss James Franco's dead rapper? The music added such emotional heft to the scene -- something that caught me by surprise.

Yeah that's me doing an interpretation of "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" [by Skrillex].

Oh, yeah. Well about that, I just thought it was so beautiful and touching; the last thing I expected "Spring Breakers" to do was move me. I didn't necessarily care that Franco's character was dead.

Yeah they were hard characters to necessarily emphasize with, so mission accomplished. That would be the desire, that you could bring a tear to your eye over these thuggish, unruly gangster girls.

So was that you trying to get inside their heads, or was that you as an outside spectator?

I think that was what I called "God vision." That was the omniscient, all-knowing judgmental observer. But the genesis of that piece was interesting. They had cut into that scene something like Samuel Barber's "Adagio for String," something that was very elegiac, romantic, slow string piece that was melancholy and sad and emotional. They had cut the whole sequence to that piece of music, and the plan was to license it, that they were gonna use that. And whenever I see that, I just want to burst into tears, because to me, the final scene, especially if it's a big explosive finale like that, is the most valuable chunk of sonic real estate in the film for the composer. That's when you get to make your final summation, "here's the grand summation of all my themes," so it worked perfectly.

There was no denying that the piece they had chosen was cut to it, tailored to it perfectly. It fit like a glove, but it had nothing to do with anything else in the film musically, and that really bothered me. I said to Harmony, "Let me try to write something," and he goes "No, no you don't have to. We want to buy this. We're gonna use it." And I usually don't do this. I'm usually just lazy and don't want to do anything I don't have to, but I stuck my neck out and said "Let me try something," and "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" opens the film, you know, the slo mo, girls gone wild. And I thought, "What a great way to bring it full circle than to have this elegiac, orchestral interpretation of that theme for the ending." And Harmony came over, and I'm pretty sure he was skeptical before I hit play, but after he heard it he jumped out of his seat, high-fived me, gave me a hug or something and said, "I didn't think I would like it, but it's pretty cool."

"Only God Forgives"
RADiUS-TWC "Only God Forgives"

Going back to the film that you have here. Ryan Gosling's characters in both of "Drive" and "Only God Forgives" are so impenetrable. Did you take a "God vision" approach with those two characters?

No, I tried to get inside his head. When you have characters like these that are sphinx like, that is just a composer's wet dream. People will pay a lot more attention to the music to try and understand the character is feeling, thinking. I tried to be more psychological and less situational. 

There are some similarities, except that Nicolas, right off the bat, said, "Whatever you do, I don't want it to sound like 'Drive.' Even though you're in it and Ryan's in it, I don't want it to reference 'Drive' in any way," which I'm sure it does. I did my best.

How did you work with Refn on "Only God Forgives," to make sure you two were on the same wavelength?

Well, I always give the director the benefit of the doubt. Nicolas wrote this. So his view and opinion about the film, the character, the dramatic functions the music would need to fulfill -- I looked to him for that. As far as how we worked together, he showed me a script. And the film was quite a departure from the script. I don't put too much stock into the script anyhow. So it wasn't until I saw it that I had any ideas about how to approach it at all. When I got the first cut of it, Nicolas had used a lot of temp music in it. The director does most of the creative lifting in the case of music when they do that. That tells me where the music starts and stops and gives a strong indication of the musical vocabulary. He had chosen some pretty wild things. He had chosen the 1954 science fiction classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still" score by Bernard Herrmann. That was in there and I thought, OK, so it's otherworldly. It's Wagner-esque and it has a big orchestra. So that was the first thing.

Before I came to it, I just had this notion that I wanted to bring the setting into the music. Part of what's interesting to me about the film is the Thailand setting. I always say if you steal the musical ideas from one person that's plagiarism. But if you steal two ideas from two different people and put them together, then it gets passed off as something original. So originally my thinking was Thai pop songs, Bernard Herrmann slash Wagner, shake it up and then you have this wonderful hybrid. What came out was hopefully interesting.

"Only God Forgives"
Radius "Only God Forgives"

Now that you're likely never to collaborate with Steven Soderbergh again due to his retirement from filmmaking, do you see Nicolas as your new go-to collaborator?

Well I definitely don't see myself going down the same route as Steven Soderbergh and retiring (laughs). That's really kind of tragic, because he's nine years younger than me. It's like, wow, retiring? I thought he was just getting warmed up. The guy's got some great years ahead of him, but to each is own.

Yeah, I think Nicolas has got a lot of great films in him. He's a relatively new filmmaker that should be in the game for many years to come. I think he's just warming up too, I think the best is yet to come. I hope he'll take me along for the ride. Monogamy has its benefits.

This article is related to: Interviews, Cliff Martinez, Cannes Film Festival, Only God Forgives, Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn