Composer Cliff Martinez talks about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn.
Bernard Herrmann never wore a sock on his private parts while performing. John Williams isn’t known for his rock drumming. That is why movie composer Cliff Martinez is such an usual figure in his field. Martinez, who this month was giving a masterclass at the Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival, used to play with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (famous for not always wearing their socks on their feet) and Captain Beefheart. He entered the movie business in a circuitous way after Steven Soderbergh saw an episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse he had scored and hired him to write the music for Sex, Lies And Videotape. “Later, Steven said he hired me because I was the only composer he knew!” Martinez says of Soderbergh, with whom he has worked many times in the last two decades on films from Solaris to Contagion.
Martinez’s most recent film Only God Forgives, which premiered in Competition in Cannes, marked his second collaboration with maverick Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, after they worked together on Drive (2011).
“Nicolas’ first rule was that we are not going to do anything that makes any reference to Drive,” Martinez recalls. “That’s kind of a tall order. Nicolas, Ryan Gosling and myself - we all have strong artistic personalities that we can’t just discard altogether and invent new ones for each films.”
In the end, the composer acknowledges, the two scores did have their similarities. “The dark, Eno-esque ambient, textural stuff was kind of a reprise for this film. Nicolas and I both love that grey area between music and sound design.”
Only God Forgives, set in Thailand, is stylised and ultra-violent. The first screenplay Martinez read was full of dialogue. By the time the film was shot, most of the words had disappeared. This is one reason why the music ended up playing such a prominent part.
The score drew both from Bernard Herrmann and from Thai pop music. “If you plagiarise the work of one person, that’s kind of theft. If you plagirarise the work of two people and combine it, you are a pioneer!” he jokes.
As for the socks the Chilli Peppers used to wear (“sox on cox”), they played their own indirect part in pushing Martinez toward the movie industry.
“I kept thinking ‘imagine yourself at age 40 and 50 walking out on stage with nothing but a sock on your genitals.’ Can you really age gracefully with that wardrobe later in life? I had a hard time visualising myself as a senior citizen with nothing but a sock on my weiner! That was when I began to rethink as to how I could retool to stay in the music business.”