Cliff Martinez talks Only God Forgives and working with Nicolas Winding Refn

ONLY GOD FORGIVES is the new film from Nicolas Winding Refn, who gave us last year’s DRIVE (one of our favorite films from last year) with Ryan Gosling. ONLY GOD FORGIVES marks not only Refn’s second team-up with Gosling, but his second time working with Composer Cliff Martinez. Martinez has been scoring films since initially working with Steven Soderberg on SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE in 1987. We talked about the industry, working with Directors, and his favorite scores.

Cliff Martinez

Flix 66 – Thanks guys for joining me today. Scoring for films has always been something I’ve been interested in, having grown up with some greats. How did you know, or when, that you wanted to score movies?

Cliff Martinez (Martinez) – It kind of fell into my lap. I met Steven Soderberg by chance and was given my first opportunity to score a film but I had been thinking about it. As I was, I think the last band I was in was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I just, as I was, I guess, In my 30s I began to think I’ve got to evolve or die. I just couldn’t see myself turning 40 and walking onto a stage with just a sock on my genitals. I just hit the age where couldn’t be a rock’n’roller. And my taste in music began to change. I’ve always kind of embraced music a little bit left of center, and you know back then in the late ‘80s you could go from the left to the right side of the radio dial and hear all of 4 styles of music. And it just seemed to me that in films things were much more diverse, more eclectic. Films were the only place where the average person hears symphonic orchestral music. It’s the only place where you might hear modern dissonance, or avant garde orchestral music in a horror film for example. And it just seemed like there was more room for more unusual music expression in films, so that’s what attracted me to it. So I became interested in it but I had no idea how to get into the business.  And luckily Steven entered the picture in 1989 and I scored my first film and got my foot in the door. But I guess I didn’t really know I was going to do it until that happened, and I scored my first film. Then I thought ‘okay, maybe I’ll make a career out of this.’


Flix 66 – You’ve worked with Soderberg a number of times. Is there something to having a long term relationship with a director? How does that affect how you score a movie?

Martinez – Yeah, I think, uh, monogamy has its advantages.  The only repeat people I’ve had have been Steven and Nicolas. And the thing that’s great about them hiring you the second time is that both Nicolas and Steven want to do something different each time. And I know Nicolas said to me, for ONLY GOD FORGIVES, was that the first rule was Thou Shalt Not Sound Like DRIVE. And Steven was the same way. We went from SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE to KAFKA and went from kind of ambient scoring to east European folk music. So I enjoy working with people repeatedly because they usually encourage you to do something different each time, whereas someone who hires you the first time has heard something they like of yours and to some extent they want you to repeat it. Plus, each time I work with Steven or work with Nicolas, I kind of already know a lot about their likes and dislikes; I kind of understand them and know what they’re looking for. And that’s why I think my work with Steven has always been some of my best stuff. I mean, we kind of communicate telepathically. I mean, he knows my strengths and weaknesses, and I understand what he’s looking for.

Flix 66 – So this is your second time working with Nicolas [Winding Refn] correct?

Martinez – Yes. Well, actually we’ve worked together on two commercials and I’m currently working with him on a documentary about the making of ONLY GOD FORGIVES, shot by his wife, and featuring Nicolas quite a bit. So yeah, we’ve done a number of things, but two features.

Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives

Flix 66 – When he puts together a film, like ONLY GOD FORGIVES, does he pick the songs before you score or after? How does the soundtrack fit with the score?

Martinez – For ONLY GOD FORGIVES he selected the songs. There were originally five Thai songs. Normally I don’t come in to the process until after the film is shot, but he had to choose those songs because he had to shoot them. But yeah, I have nothing to do with the selection of the songs and didn’t for DRIVE either. So that’s really Nicolas’s call and I’m not sure what the process was for choosing them, but typically, yes, that’s not my department.

Flix 66 – Okay.

Martinez – But I do influence them, or they me.

Flix 66 – How do you mean?

Martinez – Well, normally the songs don’t really have a great deal of influence. For instance THE LINCOLN LAWYER there was kind of an emphasis on, sort of, rap and urban contemporary music and I couldn’t really figure out any kind of, um, underscoring parallel to that type of music. It was also very eclectic with a lot of very different songs. It doesn’t have a really unified musical identity you can zero in on. But with DRIVE four of the five songs in the film could have been done by the same artist. They were that closely related, all kind of contemporary homages to ‘80s synth-pop. And then when I heard and saw them in the film and saw that pink font that is the opening credits for the film I thought, you know, these songs are integral to the style of the film. So in that case I really tried to compliment the songs, not so much I wanted to write songs, but because I wanted to also reference the 80s synth-pop and underscore it. Which I typically don’t do but DRIVE just seemed to call for that.

Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives

Flix 66 – You’ve had a very eclectic career, from working with The Dickies and then KILLER CLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Soderberg and Nicolas Winding Refn and the films you’ve worked on – what would you say are your biggest musical influences?

Martinez – Well, you’ve named a bunch of them. I’d say, at the top of the pyramid is Captain Beefheart, to me that was, he was a childhood musical idol who I’m still influenced by and still listen to. To me he was one of the most interesting and unique artists I ever worked with, and certainly working with somebody has more of an impact on you than just listening to somebody’s music. So that was important to me. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, really the LA Punk Music scene in general (playing with THE DICKIES and THE WEIRDOS) was all part of a milieu that was very interesting and colorful part of LA’s music history. So that had a big influence on me. Once I got into the world of film stuff, it was some of the older guys, you know, like Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone, they’ve sort of been my role models for film composing, and other composing I’m doing now, like starting to work on a new video game.

Flix 66 – What are your top scores?

Martinez – THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and the amazing 1-2 punch of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. Those are the top three.

Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives

Flix 66 – We have time for one more question. Can you please tell us what is your favorite movie of all time and why?

Martinez – Ha! Nicolas asked me that, one of the first questions he asked me, and I said ‘gosh, I don’t know. What’s yours?’ and he quickly said TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. I’m trying to think of the films I”ve seen the most times and still enjoy. To me films are not like music, usually once is enough. But if I could think of a film I’ve watched repeatedly and absolutely still enjoy, it would have to be FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. I think the key lies in the fact it has to have a great score.

Flix 66 – Thank you so much for your time. I have enjoyed your work and love all kinds of music (especially the Chili Peppers), getting to speak with you was a real treat.

Martinez – Thank you. We need more music freaks!

ONLY GOD FORGIVES releases on Blu-ray Oct. 22 and the score is currently available through iTunes or on CD or LP from Milan Records.

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