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How ‘Neon Demon’ Composer Cliff Martinez Balanced Humor, Horror & Bernard Herrmann Temp Tracks

Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn's go to composer explains why it's important to think like a filmmaker when creating a score.

The Neon Demon

“The Neon Demon”

In Cliff Martinez’s first collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn on “Drive” the director gave the composer a strong sense of what he wanted from the score.

“He assembled a temp score [existing music used during editing], which was very influential and exerted a pretty strong influence on ‘Drive,'” said Martinez in a recent interview with IndieWire. “On ‘Neon Demon’ he really threw me a curveball, he had it temped from top to bottom exclusively with music of Bernard Herrmann.”

READ MORE: ‘Neon Demon’ DP Natasha Braier How She Turned Bright Color Schemes Into A Nicolas Winding Refn Nightmare

The scores of the legendary Hollywood composer Herrmann, most commonly remembered for creating big, dramatic orchestral music for films like “Citizen Kane,” “Pyscho,” “Vertigo” and “Taxi Driver”, are in a different sonic universe from Martinez’s scores, which are defined by sparse, modern music that gives his films a dark, electronic undertone.

Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn

Amazon Studios

“Nicolas said, ‘I want the feeling of that music, but I don’t want it to sound like that,” said Martinez.  The composer knew his job was to figure out what it was about the Herrmann music that Refn liked.

Martinez did not come to film scoring through a traditional background, having started his career as a drummer for Captain Beefheart and The Red Hot Chili Peppers — though with Martinez’s success, many from the rock world have followed in his footsteps. The composer explains his evolution as a composer has been an organic process and a constant education.

“Over the last decade I’ve made friends with a lot of composers — and I’ve discovered that the guys who are really, really good at this, [the ones] who I really admire consider themselves to be junior filmmakers first and composers second,” said Martinez. It’s a lesson he’s taken to heart, saying that in particular with “Neon Demon” it was vital to think first as a storyteller, and not as composer, to address the unique challenges of scoring the film.

"The Neon Demon"

“The Neon Demon”

Amazon Studios

READ MORE: In ‘The Neon Demon,’ The Real Villain Is Female Competition – Girl Talk

For Martinez, the key to creating the score for “Neon Demon” was thinking of the film as having two distinct film universes — the first half was a melodrama, the second half a horror film. Martinez had never worked in the horror genre and was excited about the challenge.

“I think some of the most adventurous film music is done in horror films,” said Martinez. “You don’t hear pop music in horror films, no need for memorable hooks, it’s all visceral and understanding exactly where the audience is at any given moment — you’ve got to get the exact right effect and your timing is critical.”

Martinez was more familiar with the melodrama of the first half of the film, but that it was a challenge because of the way Refn mixes genuine sincerity and kitschy humor.

“There’s something sly and tongue in cheek about the whole thing that I think you have to lead the music to,” said Martinez, who confesses he didn’t fully understand just how funny the film is until he recently went to screenings where the audiences were constantly laughing.

“The challenge is you’ve got to do the real stuff too _ the opening scene with Dean [Karl Glusman] and Jesse [Elle Fanning] is genuinely romantic — and finding that balance with Nicolas’s sense of humor was something I had to become accustomed to.”

"The Neon Demon"

“The Neon Demon”

Martinez turned to Refn’s direction for cues of how to handle these moments.

LISTEN: ‘The Neon Demon’s’ Seductive Score by Cliff Martinez Will Blow Your Mind

“Nicolas exaggerates things with his direction, and I think with the music you can also kind of overdue the gestures — punch a little too hard to let people know that there’s a playful element there to go with the sincerity,” said Martinez, who noted inspiration from the films of fifties-era melodrama director Douglas Sirk. “I had to take it scene by scene, and find moments to be Sirkian…but not too much. It’s really instinctual, I know it’s right once I hear it.”

Martinez says that his working relationship with Refn has evolved quite a bit since “Drive,” noting that with each new film Refn has pushed sound and music further into the foreground. Martinez says he jokes with the director that soon he’ll make silent film where his lets a robust soundtrack replace the dialogue.  Yet despite the growing role Martinez’s music has taken in Refn’s visual world, the composer finds that the collaborators need to communicate less.

For example, on “Drive,” Martinez would send Refn lots of “half-baked stuff” to see what he reacted positively to before spending days producing  polished tracks. On “Demon,” though he felt confident he knew what the director wanted — despite getting Bernard Herrmann temp tracks — and sent him completed tracks.

The Neon Demon

Martinez, whose composing career has been largely defined by his collaborations with Refn and director Steven Soderbergh, said that the ability to instinctually and non-verbally communicate as artists is something that happens over time.  In the case of Soderbergh — with whom Martinez has worked on 12 features dating all the way back “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and continues today on the TV Series “The Knick”  — the composer joked that their collaboration has reached an organic peak.

“You get let out on a longer leash with each project,” he said. “So now I’m way out there with Soderbergh — we pretty much communicate through telepathy.”

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