Keeping Score – Composer Cliff Martinez Returns to the LA Underworld of Nicolas Winding Refn | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, October 17th, 2019  

Keeping Score – Composer Cliff Martinez Returns to the LA Underworld of Nicolas Winding Refn

The Composer-Director Tandem Links Again for the Luminously Bizarre Episodic Too Old To Die Young

Aug 01, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


There are Cliff Martinez exalters like myself who get a special glint in their eye when considering his repertory of film scores. Then others have heard his music without connecting the artist behind it. It might not be in the active listening sense that you know Martinez’s music – in many ways, you feel his mood-altering sound swells more than you hear them, a testament to his skill.

Even if you don’t know Martinez from his days of drumming for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Captain Beefheart, in all likelihood, at some point in your movie or television viewing you have passed through his psycho-sensual planes that turn from hypnotically amorphous to tautly kinetic. For films like Drive, Contagion, and many more dating back to the 1989 industry disruptor, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his synthesized voices for repressed energies have informed some of the most absorbing soundscapes in motion picture.

I can remember the first time I registered the name, and it came years after Martinez had already made one for himself with the Chili Peppers. By 2011, I had purchased a lot of Ryan Gosling stock after I saw his astounding lead turns in Half Nelson, and Blue Valentine. So, when the poster for Drive appeared in neon pink retro lettering, featuring a vexed looking Gosling clad in a pearl satin, scorpion baseball jacket, and leather driving gloves, I was ready to ride shotgun. You just knew right away that Drive was a movie you had to see in the theater and the thing that jumped out immediately, more than the slick LA night shots and souped-up getaway cars, was the music. I often take conscious notice of the placement and power of score in a dark theater, but in this case, the immersive atmosphere of an LA underworld swirled into existence without me realizing. Martinez’s tones transported me spellbound into the neon sunsets of a romantic tragedy in ways I associate more with early movie-going wonder. Suddenly, the only thing I cared about was if Gosling got to save the day and drive off into that sunset with the breathtaking Carey Mulligan.

Martinez’s Drive score had so much to do with the seductive power of the film. Playing off of the modern synth-pop source music, the reverberating, spherical notes form a cohesive sonic cool, one that belongs entirely to the cinematic world it illuminates. Consistently, Martinez’s scores have achieved this, feeling at one with the environment he’s been asked to enhance. They never feel weighty or indulgent, even when setting the urgent pace of a film like Contagion, where frenetic staccato techno lines seamlessly connect sequences, keeping you in lock-step with the desperate efforts to halt a pandemic.

But it isn’t a oneness with the environment that distinguishes Martinez’s latest year-long labor of composition. This time, it’s the music’s power to transcend it. For the new episodic series Too Old To Die Young, Martinez has reunited with Director Nicolas Winding Refn [Drive, Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon] – and again in the LA underworld shown as a lawless realm of rogue contentions for power and retribution. For Refn’s latest gambit to seduce you into his bizarre projections of imagination, bold musical voicing was called for and Martinez makes the most out of the opportunity to imbue the earthly and primal with the fantastical.

A way to approach a streamable series as unconventional as Too Old To Die Young is to think of it like a polaroid: slow to develop but mysteriously tangible once defined. Photogenic in another way, frozen, saturated frames and extremely long panning shots make you think of the night photography of Todd Hido or Gregory Crewdson had either lived in LA for a year. [This makes more sense when you learn that one of the masters of making darkness beautiful, cinematographer Darius Khondji, shot seven of the ten episodes.] This is the setting for the character inhabitants who all have delusions of grandeur in one form or another. There’s nothing extraordinary about their ambitions, and yet their carriage and import as propped up by Refn’s overt style and decorous set-pieces assume a superiority that isn’t deserved. These are disturbed individuals carrying out ugly acts, framed as intergalactic immortals, playing out their separate versions of god on earth. The thing is, Refn wants you to know that and encouraged Martinez to overdo it in places with a wink to the viewer. Thus, there is an over-the-top extravagance throughout much of this circuitous tale and some of the music cues were designed to lean into the pulp to offset the morbidity. In that way, the music serves a similar function to the humorous, swaggering dialogue that neutralizes the shock of Tarantino scenarios.

In contrast to cold, vaporous, sonic drifts that convey a distance from peace in the eyes of irredeemable souls, Martinez punctuates climactic strokes of character conquest with synthesized operatic arias. The OG composer has been introducing more of an organic presence into his electronic textures recently and mesmerizing pieces like “Viggo and Diana” add angelic vocals as a device for climax. Highlighting a particularly graphic crime scene and reimagined in the series closing cue, it’s a gorgeous stroke of Martinez touching the magnitude of the Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch score for Blade Runner 2049. Perhaps not by accident, there are shades of the decadence of Giorgio Moroder’s Scarface score in an episode that focuses on the Mexican Cartel. In other places, synth notes bend and scorch in the accentuation of old slasher flicks and the judicious use of a theremin works to push the envelope as well.

By this description, and if you know Martinez, this brand of neo-impressionist psych-crime fare is a scene he can settle right into. Whether he wants to stay there indefinitely is another question. I got to discuss that with one of my very favorite composers, as well as his career arc with Nicholas Winding Refn, secret LA sushi spots and what it is about his channels of glowing pastel sound that sync so well with the city’s vibrations. 

Charles Steinberg [Keeping Score]: Too Old To Die Young is one of those shows that takes a little while to sink into but once you’re there, you’re fixated.

Cliff Martinez: I don’t watch much episodic television but I’ve recently discovered Breaking Bad and that’s the best. I know the feeling of getting hooked. That’s good if that’s happening with you for Too Old To Die Young.

It’s funny that you mention Breaking Bad because I’ve made it to episode five where Miles Teller’s character heads to Albuquerque to kill those porn brothers. Represent the ABQ!

Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that. Episode five is one of my favorites because of the characters.

I remember those daytime settings in dark bars in Breaking Bad and that episode reminded me a lot of that underworld in broad daylight aesthetic. Why is five your favorite? Was it your favorite to score or watch?

I guess both. I think there’s always a correlation between how much you actually enjoy the material you’re scoring and the quality of the music [you make]. I guess I liked five because it has a more playful tone than some of the other ones. Those brothers are a little over the top. It’s not overtly comical but it is lightly comical. I found that to be [director] Nicolas [Winding-Refn] at his best. He doesn’t really do comedy but he lightens the heaviness occasionally with these kinds of goofy, somewhat bumbling, over the top characters and the two brothers are like that, and the guys surrounding them; the one that the brother calls a “Julius Caesar motherfucker.” [Laughter]. So there was a semi-playful tone underlying that episode that I tried to get across in the music as well, which made it a little more fun.

Yes. Certainly, the way it starts out you’re like, “Oh, this is gonna be grim.” But it does lighten up and that cuts into the evil, I agree. You’ve mentioned scoring to character before – I think you said that each of the characters in Hotel Artemis has its own theme – Are you scoring to picture and character and what you see in front of you a lot or do you sometimes pull in cues that you’ve already written to see if they work?

For the most part, I work with the picture really closely. I tend to write with the picture but sometimes it gets away from the picture. Nicolas will take music and he’ll fly it around to [scenes it wasn’t written for]. Usually, I’m pleasantly surprised because when you write the stuff, you’re looking at the same picture with the same music, day in and day out, and you become prejudiced as to where it belongs. Nicolas doesn’t have that kind of hang-up. If he likes a piece of music, he’ll swing it in somewhere else. So, sometimes stuff migrates by that method. I have another composer friend who told me that he gets so tired of chasing the cut around and having to edit the music over and over again that he gave up on writing to picture altogether. Now he writes from a macro-view of the story and his writing has gotten so much better.

Huh. Interesting!

I tried to take that to heart because there is something liberating about not working with the picture and then you generally have to put on your music editor’s cap and mold it to a specific scene eventually. So, I did a little bit of that on Too Old To Die Young.

So there were a few pieces that you wrote for specific scenes that Nicolas wound up using for something else.

Yep. And also, sometimes a scene would just disappear. A scene would get edited to a degree that there was no way to make it fit [the score piece] anymore.

There was one scene in particular where the piece you wrote really jumped out at me. “Viggo & Diana” cue. That was a bold statement that came in episode four. It carried this operatic magnitude. Was that written to picture and do you recall what made you and Nicolas choose to place it there?

Yes, that was written to picture, although it’s interesting that the version on the soundtrack is an extended version. I think the original cue crossed a couple of scenes. It started out with Viggo [John Hawkes] and Diana [Jena Malone] holding hands when he’s getting dialysis and then it cuts to Miles Teller at a crime scene in a kitchen spattered with blood. The whole idea with the [operatic] vocal there was...Sometimes I think an interesting way to write music is to choose a point of view that the audience doesn’t share. Most of the time you’re writing to the audience’s response. But now here’s Miles Teller in a bloody crime scene, and he’s actually really happy about it; This is his idea of a good time. So it’s bloody, it’s violent and disgusting and I suppose the way the audience would expect the music to play out would be dark and heavy. Well, what if we made it beautiful and elegiac, and perhaps even dreamy because Miles Teller is digging [what he’s seeing]? That’s how the [vocal] came about. Originally that vocal part wasn’t intended for the two characters, Viggo and Diana, it was intended to be Miles Teller’s character’s feeling.

I read a quote of yours where you said, “I’m embracing the wild and crazy concept of mics and human beings playing real instruments, and combining that with the electronic stuff,” “Viggo & Diana”  seems like a good example of that.

Exactly. That stage up was to combine overtly organic sounds of voice, cello, flute, and piano with the overtly inorganic synthesizers. But yeah, that was part of that larger concept.

It worked really beautifully –on its own as a piece of music and in that scene. As you said, the contrast of its divine range with the slow panning of the camera over the dead bodies was really powerful. I wanted to ask you about scoring episodic television versus scoring for films. Is this the second series you’ve scored? This and The Knick?

Well, my first job ever was an episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse in 1988, but that was just one episode, so yeah.

What did you bring from your experience composing for The Knick into this series project, knowing it was going to be an extended series that you had to score many episodes of?

Well, I knew I had to set aside a lot of time in my schedule [laughs]. It was like a year of my life and I had to turn down other projects. I think most of it is not that interesting to talk about but you just have to pace yourself. I felt that with The Knick, I was always on the edge of burn out, you know – creative burnout where you don’t have any good ideas anymore and your brain just kinda shuts down. And just energetically; you wanna be able to roll out of bed with and be excited and enthused, and after what feels like five [straight] feature films, you can get beaten down. So I had to look at this show like it was a long-distance race. The other big thing for me was to keep it as a single piece. It’s a 10-15 hour movie and you want it to feel that way. Sometimes it’s easier to write one new thing after another and it’s more challenging to take existing material make something fresh and different and inventive out if it; the same sounds, the same motif perhaps. I had to do a lot of that. My agent always said that’s easy; you just become a music editor and you’re just cutting and pasting stuff, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. I think making it all one piece like it was all cut from the same cloth is probably the biggest distinction between a movie and a television series.

When you’re writing for one thing over the course of a year, how do you keep the energy and keep fresh? Much of the subject matter you work on is in the troubling realm and I wonder if writing constantly in that area starts to wear on you?

I guess I’ve had a steady diet of dark material. Nobody even bothers to call me if the film doesn’t have people getting stabbed, or shot, or blown up, or doing drugs. I guess I’m used to getting into that frame of mind and it doesn’t bother me. Although maybe it should. But I thought for this series, it wasn’t to be taken that seriously. That’s one of the tonal things that the music department should be responsible for–to make it feel that while it’s pretty dark and violent, this is all going to be fun. Not playful – though it is at times – but there will be an excess to it. When Yaritza is killing everybody and the piano sounds like Liberace, that was all in the effort of making the mayhem and violence have an element of fun to it and not heavy to the point where [what you’re watching] pulls you down. I think my job was to manage the violent tone and not be heavy to the point where people aren’t interested in the characters.

From a sound element quality, how are you achieving that? Would an example be when you’ll lean into some extended synth notes that are over the top and remind you of old sensationalized slasher flicks?

I suppose that’s a good reference. I do know that this kind of thing is Nicolas’s idea of a good time at the movies. When we first met, he asked me what my favorite movie was and I was like oh man I have to come up with something really cool like an Ingmar Bergman or Fellini movie. I forget what I said. I think it was The Godfather, and then I asked him what his was and he didn’t hesitate: “Texas Chainsaw Massacre – best film ever made.” So, I know where his head is at. He makes things at a high artistic level but he really loves the trashy shit. He really likes violent mayhem and pulpy types of movies.

I get that. Especially from this show. There’s a nihilistic LA vibe that’s so consistent with Refn's style. You get a palpable sense that everyone has been dramatically altered by their past to the point of almost being catatonic in some cases. You don’t know exactly what’s happened to them but you can tell they got fucked up. Do you feel like there’s a really particular sonic space that inhabits this kind of PTSD world? So much is conveyed with cinematic impressionism of light, tone, sound, and mood. How do you see your role in these cases?

Nicolas seems to know LA even better than I do. When we first met, he suggested a sushi restaurant that was amazing. I’m a sushi fan but I had never heard of it before, and it was in my neighborhood. Nicolas seems to be in love with LA and knows a lot about it. I think he also has a preference for overly stoic, noncommunicative male leads. I think his films are so short on dialogue because he likes to give the music department a big blank canvas to paint on...when that happens it really opens it up to the music to take the lead and tell the audience what to make of it. So, I think it’s part of him being a music freak to a degree that he cuts his scenes very long and often doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to give the music a much bigger role than it typically would have in a film.

And there’s something there with the angled lighting and rich colors and expressionless faces that you have to read into that he feels is complemented by your style of music...

Well, I’m sure he thinks that now but it has taken a couple of films to achieve that level of creative interaction. But yeah, I think now, in his head, he’s able to edit the film with a fairly good idea of what music will do to a scene, which is kind of brave. I don’t know too many directors who will do that; they won’t leave a bunch of stuff missing in a scene knowing that the music will pick up the slack. For example, Nic cuts his scenes long and slow because he knows the impact of music for scene. Most people cut things shorter because they don’t want to be dependent on music or don’t have the vision to see how music can change a scene. Nicolas does.

Something you said earlier was that you’re always called for these violent and morbid projects. Some of the more powerful cues and pieces that have connected with me were the romantic sections of Drive where you see this budding relationship between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. It really does highlight their attraction in a beautiful way. Are you interested in doing more films that touch on the romantic end of the spectrum?

Yeah. It definitely interests me. I like it in a film like Drive because the contrast is so extreme. You have romantic moments like Ryan Gosling kissing Carey Mulligan in an elevator right before crushing some guys head with his foot [laughter]. It was kind of like a Bambi meets Godzilla moment. I’ve always complained to my agent that I’ve wanted to do lighter things. That could be comedy or romance, but yeah, softer, romantic tones give a composer great opportunities to write cool music. It’s something I’d like to do more of but at the moment I seem to appear in things where the more romantic it gets, the more violent it will become. But it’s something I’m consciously trying to do and I tried to push the romantic tones, where it was appropriate, into Too Old To Die Young.

I love the way you handle those cues. You need things in film to break up the overarching tone – those moments to break up the tension. It allows you a moment to take a breath and let your shoulders down a little bit before the next harrowing sequence. Those are my favorite parts of your work actually.

They tend to be the more musical moments. The music that has chord changes and harmony and melody. You know, the basic food groups of music tend to be more prevalent in the emotional end.

Yeah, the violent stuff doesn’t really use much of that. Thinking back to the music for Contagion, was that a dream come true for you? There were all these extended, steady rhythmic pieces that were almost like full tracks. Was that one of your favorite films to compose because it afforded you that opportunity?

Contagion was definitely a favorite because it was one of the rare occasions where the director  [Steven Soderbergh] wanted there to be an element of orchestral scoring, which I don’t get called on to do very often. And I loved the idea of contrasting really inorganic, synthetic sounds with acoustic sounds, like an orchestra with strings. At that point, I was just beginning to get away from my minimalist style and try to go for a maximalist style where the music says more and does more – is more active. Contagion was kind of the beginning of my wanting the music to be more obtrusive and do more than what I had been doing for so long, which was just staying out of the way. It’s hard to stay out of the way with an eighty piece orchestra too. Yeah that’s one of my favorites and one of those rare scores...I’m not a big fan of film music, myself because you remove it from a film and it becomes a little too stark to listen to – I include my own music with that – but Contagion is one of those exceptions where it’s like I can listen to this score apart from the film and it’s ok.

Absolutely. Yeah. You know, I think of Drive like that. I’ve listened to your compositions on that soundtrack quite a bit on their own, apart from the film. There’s such a soothing quality to them. Your scores actually seem to work well for people in this respect. I was interviewing Angus Andrew from Liars about his first score work for an indie film [1/1] and asking him about what scores jumped out to him. He immediately mentioned Contagion. Like you, he said that he didn’t really get into film music but the music for that film made him go, “Who the fuck did this?!” And there was this other podcast I heard where a writer talks about how he will always write to the Solaris soundtrack. Do you get that a lot from people?

Yeah, when I meet people who are familiar with what I do, they’ll mention a film or two in that way. They’ll invariably zero in on a piece of music that I didn’t write. Like on Sex, Lies, and Videotape, I don’t know if you remember but the opening had a thirty second guitar solo…

I just rewatched it, so I know exactly the one.

That was created by Mark Mangini, who was a sound editor on the film. Most people aren’t even aware that there’s any music in Sex, Lies, and Videotape so for years people would go, “Oh yeah! I love that guitar thing in the beginning.” I used to correct them but now I don’t. Then after that when I did the music for Narc, I met Ray Liotta at a party and he goes, “Oh, you did the music!? I love that Taiko drum part!” But of course, that drum part was done by the director’s wife with a Taiko drum ensemble. It goes on and on. Like on Drive, I get, “I love that song you did, ‘Real Hero’” [Laughter]

Well trust me, like I just said, there are full scores of yours that people are listening to on their own. I wanted to ask you about the music that you did write Sex, Lies, and Videotape. There wasn’t a lot of music in that film but when it comes in during the final videotape sequence between Ann [Andie MacDowell] and Graham [James Spader] it holds the tension in the most powerful way. I couldn’t have imagined any other kind of music there. I think I recall reading somewhere that since you were originally a drummer, you weren’t that versed in other instrumentation. Was that a case where you were thrown into the fire and did something totally instinctive with that building, droning synth? Do you feel like you discovered your style there? You’ve been employing unbroken layers of tone that hover and twist around one another since that film.

Yeah, I think that’s a good example of the work you create where you don’t really know what you’re doing, where you don’t follow the rules because you don’t know what they are and you couldn’t follow them if you did. Yeah, I think those early Soderbergh are good examples of what Brian Eno calls “failing in an interesting way.” You don’t know exactly what you’re doing so you have to invent your own vocabulary and come up with a style that works for you. You’re also not jaded by being in the music for years and having a bag of tricks to fall back on. Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Steven’s next film, Kafka were probably my two most difficult scores because I was so ill-equipped to write film music and I was also wrestling with the technology. There were all these technical hurdles to making a creative film score thrown in front of me and I was just as preoccupied with the technology as I was the content and style of the music.

Are you coming back around to doing things more manually again these days – where you’re inviting organic instrumentation into your music? There were a lot of strings in Hotel Artemis, for example. Are you using analog and modular synths now more too and did you use them in Too Old To Die Young?

Yes, I kinda got the modular/analog synthesizer bug, which is where everyone seems to be going back to. There are three shops [in LA] that sell nothing but analog modular stuff, so it seems to be a manufacturing trend. But I haven’t seen it pop up too much in movies or commercials or video games. There’s not much of a presence in the musical mainstream yet. But yeah, I kinda got attracted to it. There's some rudimentary modular synth stuff in Too Old To Die Young – because I think it’s pretty complex and not easy to learn, let alone use for a movie. When you’re writing film music, you’re always chasing the cut around; the picture changes all the time and a lot of that modular synthesizer stuff is a one-shot deal. If you don’t have the tape running and are able to edit it, you’ll never get that sound and frequency again. It’s like a one-off, so it’s a whole different way of working and in film music you always want to be able to repeat things. The modular synth stuff doesn’t repeat very readily. But yeah, I want to explore it more.

What are some of the other things you played around with on this project? The theremin was something you hadn’t really used before, right? What inspired you to use it?

I think it started with the second season of The Knick. The only reason I think I got into it was because somebody got it for me as a gift. I started to explore it and was enamored with the primitive electronic quality of it. I discovered that it is nearly impossible to play. Any instrument can take years to develop a technical facility with but the theremin, perhaps even more than most. Even the most molecular movement of your hand will make the pitch jump around. I did some real theremin and some artificial theremin as well, that was a little easier to control. The real theremin was based on this improvisation that was cut and pasted and made to work. But it’s a cool instrument. I’d like to do more with it.

It’s nice to hear. It pops up unexpectedly in Too Old To Die Young and pitches things up in a really nice way.

I didn’t introduce it until late in the show. When Nicolas and I discussed the music, at a certain point he started describing pieces of music I was giving him as “sci-fi” and he would say, “Push the sci-fi thing. I like this piece but let’s make it even more sci-fi." The theremin may have had something to do with him beginning to think about the score in its entirety and as having a sci-fi styling.

Do you have a kind of shorthand with him now? Or with Steven Soderbergh where they know what to expect and let you go on your way?

I’d say in both cases, yes. Nicolas and Steven are the only two guys I’ve done more than one film with and there’s a creative shorthand that gets shorter with each project. It’s based on understanding each other’s likes and dislikes and there seems to be less to talk about. I also feel the music gets better in the evolution of my scores with them.

It’s been exciting to see where a creative relationship starts and then where it goes. I’m excited to see more. Do you have anything with Steven coming up?

No, I got nothin’. I finished Too Old To Die Young in February and I’ve been an unemployed hobo ever since.

I’m sure that’s a nice change of pace after working on something for an entire year.

Yeah, I’m ok with it.

(cliff-martinez.com)



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