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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

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

It might be hard to believe, but this year’s Cannes Film Festival marked the first one to host in demand 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. The former drummer (he played for the Red Hot Chili Peppers among other acts) has since had another film featuring his music, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” play on in Competition. This year he made his first Cannes appearance in support of his second project with Refn, the ultra violent revenge saga “Only God Forgives.”

READ MORE: Kristin Scott Thomas Talks ‘Only God Forgives’ at Cannes: ‘This kind of film is really not my thing’

Indiewire caught up with Martinez in Cannes at his hotel, located a good distance from the pandemonium of La Croisette, to discuss his first Cannes experience, reuniting with Refn on another Ryan Gosling vehicle, and getting inside the heads of some deranged teens for Harmony Korine and his “Spring Breakers.”

Now you first credit was “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” which won the Palme d’Or here, but curiously enough this is your first time at the festival. Why is that? “Drive” also played here.

Well, I think staying at home has brought the films good luck, so this is my first time coming here, and we’ll see if that’s true, if this will be the first film in competition where I’ve shown up and it doesn’t win anything. I’ve just been too lazy to get out of the house, and I kind of regret it. I could’ve kicked myself for not coming to see “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” here, and then next thing is “Drive” and it does great, so I figured it was time to stop being lazy and come here and finally get up and get the Cannes experience.

How has that experience been? The film just premiered last night.

Well, when I first got here I was off a 20-hour flight and I can’t sleep on planes, so I think I slept about 20 hours the first day. The second day I got a little bit of a whiff of the spirit of things. And what impressed me was that everybody here seems to treat a popular art form as a fine art form, and they take it very seriously, and that’s flattering because I think in Hollywood writing film music is a notch above bricklaying or plumbing, so it’s kind of an honor to be in a community that takes film so seriously. And it’s been nutty. What strikes me at Cannes is the opulence of wealth. I’ve seen more Lamborghinis and Ferraris and the most majestic hotels I’ve ever — this isn’t one of them — and everyone seems to be like 20-something, like, what gives here?

That’s just good surgery you’re seeing.

This doesn’t make any sense. But then a few people have filled me in on the background and basically most people are here for the parties. A friend of mine estimates that about 10% of the people are actually in the film business, and the rest of the people are here to get shit-faced and fornicate. It’s pretty impressive. I hope I have films in competition to give me a reason to come back, because without that I don’t know what I would do. I wouldn’t get into any screenings. But if you’ve got a film here, you’re treated like Elvis.

Well with that said, would you consider yourself a cinephile? Because just looking over your credits, you’ve worked with Soderbergh, you’ve worked with Harmony Korine, [Nicholas Winding] Refn twice, people that I consider auteurs.

No, I’m not. I’m not much of a cinephile. But I do like those types of filmmakers, I do like the Harmonys and Soderberghs and Refns and the filmmakers who have a strong artistic personality. Those are the kind of films I like to watch, those are the kind of directors I like to work with. You know, Nicolas is a filmmaking encyclopedia. His dad has got about a hundred credits to his name or more as a director and editor, his mother I believe is a producer, so he comes from filmmaking royalty; I believe his grandfather was in theater, so he’s just been steeped in it. A number of the people I work with are hardboiled cinephiles, I just don’t consider myself one of them. I’m just a loyal minion of my directors. 

I’m sure at this point in your career you’re no doubt selective of the projects you take on. How do you choose?

Well, it seems like the directors pick me. I’m still not in the position, and I think very few composers are in the position, to pick their films; their films pick them. But because of the way I’ve been cast in the past, it seems like certain directors and certain types of films come my way, like “Spring Breakers,” and “Drive.” I’m already the right guy for the job, I’m easy, I say yes to everything for the most part. But the last few years it seems like I’ve attracted the right kind of films. All of them I got to see, which sometimes that’s not always the case. I don’t always want to seem like a fussbudget, but I asked to see “Drive” and fell in love with it.

A full cut or just selected scenes?

I saw the whole film, and “Spring Breakers” I believe too I saw the whole film and just fell in love with it.

With no music?

No, they had a temp score.

I can’t imagine that film without music.

I can’t imagine trying to edit it without any music. So, they had the concept and the musical style dialed in pretty carefully. It was a lot of my former scores. And it seemed like a pretty good pairing of electronic dance music, the Skrillex stuff, and all this beat-driven music, and then my stuff was kind of for the more interior psychological things. So I just thought, well not only is it a great film, but they seem to have someone like me in mind for the music. So, I guess it’s the film, and the director. I remember I read the script for “Spring Breakers,” and it felt like it was about four pages long. There’s not much to it. I thought, that wasn’t very interesting. And then I met Harmony and he is really interesting. He came over to the house and we really hit it off. And in the interest of being in an honest relationship, I said “Harmony, about this script…” and he goes “Oh, you read the script? Oh, God, no. Forget about that. The film is nothing like the script. Let me show you the movie.” And then I saw the film and it was love at first frame. So I think that’s what it is: it’s a combination of people that you work with and the film, and perhaps, I like to work with a lot of new directors, but if the directer has any kind of a history, like Robert Redford, you just go “Yeah, of course. I’d love to work with a director like that.”
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.

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.”

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.

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.

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