When we spoke to director Nicolas Winding Refn back in July for the premiere of his violently neon and fetishistic fever dream Only God Forgives, he explained that whenever he makes a film, he almost always makes “a point out of erasing all memory of it so that the next one I do bears as little resemblance.” And although his auteurisitic affinity for carnal pleasures and the beauty in brutality shine through whatever he casts his vision on, a through-line between Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives lingers as the undercurrent of potent ambient sound created by sonic maestro, Cliff Martinez. And although his score for Drive was a Brian Eno-esque wonder that elevated the film into a realm of the senses beyond just a darkened fairy tale, his next creative collaboration with Refn was a clenched-fist of a soundtrack, igniting the danger of the Only God Forgives and casting a neon glow on its beating heart.
Martinez has been composing film scores for decades now—namely working with Steven Soderbergh’s since the late eighties—but it wasn’t until fairly recently that the world finally started to take notice of his brilliance. And in the last year, Martinez has also given us a Spring Breakers score that really, if you close your eyes, does sound like the taste of sour skittles exploding in your mouth—and it’s delicious. However, his collaborations with Refn have proved the most haunting and powerful. Martinez’s use of layering ethereal ambient textures with gut-punching electro-rhythms that make your skin tingle, feel completely at home in Refn’s near-silent world, where music becomes just as important as the characters in the story—filling the physical space with teeming emotion. And no matter how stirring, Martinez’s music never feels manipulative or forced upon us, rather it seems to be pouring from the walls of the picture, guiding us through the film and speaking volumes in a way Refn’s stoic figures cannot—giving the violence the potency it needed to transcend mere aggression.
And with Only God Forgives having its DVD today, we chatted with Martinez about his work with Refn, his skill for creating psychologically stimulating sound, and the recipe for soundtrack success.
Was there something that initially attracted you to Nicolas’ films?
Initially, the big attraction was that he showed me Drive before I started working on it. Usually there’s a rough cut when I come onboard, but Drive was a locked picture, so it was almost complete—without the music and sound effects. So he showed it to me and I thought it was a knockout from the very beginning. Mostly it was the film I fell in love with, but Nicolas seemed like a very interesting, artistic filmmaker—it’s hard to not watch Drive in excitement. So he invited me to work on that and I was more than happy too, and then he asked me to work on Only God Forgives.He’s such a creative and unusual director to work for and that encourages you to do something a little bit out of the ordinary with the music, and I like that.
And especially with Nicolas’ films where silence is such an integral part that the music becomes a character of it’s own, how did you go about telling you what he was looking for in terms of scoring Only God Forgives? I know the karaoke songs were the jumping off point.
The karaoke songs came first because the film had to be shot to the music. So that was the first step, and initially Nicolas had liked the idea that the Thai characters would be singing classic American country western songs. But I think there was probably a price tag for songs like “Ring of Fire,” and conceptually, he stared enjoying the idea of it being Thai songs. I spent a fair amount of time in Thailand finding music I liked, and so that was my first riff and idea of what a musical score might sound like. And as the editing began, Nicolas used temporary music while cutting. He used a score from the 1961 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, so at the beginning, it was that music plus some of the Thai pop songs and that inspired me. And then other stuff came along the way. I was thinking of Ennio Morricone during the fight scenes. Nicolas had also mentioned Halloween, which is one of his favorite films, so it became a mixture of influences and became very eclectic. Nicolas and I have a similar artistic personality, so it doesn’t sound like any one thing. Only God Forgives’ sound is definitely more eclectic than Drive. Drive was like Brian Eno-influenced and Only God Forgives has a lot of other stuff—Wagner, Bernard Hermann, John Carpenter, etc. I also went to Thailand and wrote in a hotel room.
Yeah, the Brian Eno influence is evident in Drive, which sounds like a violent fairytale Music for Airports. ButOnly God Forgives is a much more brooding, angry score that does have those moments of ethereal beauty but there’s a weight to it. It feels as though its coming more from the atmosphere in a different way.
One of the things Nicolas said right off the bat was: “Thou shalt not sound like Drive.” Even though there’s some similarities—there’s Ryan Gosling and it’s Nicolas—but the style is different. So we really wanted to try to not draw comparisons, but there’s also some of the ambient textural dark stuff in Only God Forgives. But we were all trying to make a very different picture.
You’ve been scoring films for quite a while now, but throughout your body of work, you seem to gravitate towards these directors with very specific filmmaking styles and eccentric personalities to match—most notably Steve Soderbergh, Harmony Korine, and Refn. Is there something that draws you to these type of filmmakers and do you feel the music you create works best in these kind of cinematic worlds?
I think for most of my career the films have chosen me and not the other way around. I wish I had the luxury of being offered more things and to be able to pick and choose. But doing it for 25 years now, it seems like the people that approach me are the Nicolas Refns and the Harmony Korines—that’s exactly the type of people that I like. Also, even in film composing, there’s a certain kind of type-casting that occurs. It comes from being associated with these people and then like-minded people seek you out. I like these guys who express themselves uniquely.
I really loved the music for Spring Breakers, actually. When speaking to Harmony, he told me that he wanted to film to look like it was lit by Skittles, but what I found interesting was that even your music sounded like the taste of sour skittles, like sour skittles fizzing in your mouth.
Yeah, fruit-flavored like a psychotropic breakfast cereal. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before. Harmony had a very strong visual style, so for me, I was influenced about the look of the film.
What do you find is the best approach when you begin scoring a film, where’s the entry point? Do you start by trying to really dig into the character’s psyche and with Only God Forgives where did you start from?
Everything is different. In the case of Only God Forgives, the setting, for me, was a very important character in the film. What I loved about it was was that it was bringing the culture of Thailand to a western audience. I thought that was an important ingredient to have and wouldn’t have a made a lot of sense with other films, but with Only God Forgives that was an important flavor. We tried to magnify that. But when I went to Thailand, I don’t know if I ever left the hotel room for five weeks. So probably the only thing that really influenced me was the green curry chicken—that’s about the only part of Thailand I really got to experience. These are things that you try; I don’t know it would have been radically different if i did it in Los Angeles, but these are the things I do to get you thinking in a different way.
You talk about type-casting but do you think you’ve found your niche in these darker, more psychologically complex stories? Well, those films seem to find me; I seem to be good with the dark, psychological stuff. For me it’s all about getting in the heads of the characters and underscoring the action or the situation—that’s how I tend to approach things, from that point of view.
Who do you look to for influence or what sparked your interest in becoming a film composer in the first place?
I think film music-wise, the guys I really like and admire who are role models to some degree or another, are Ennio Morricone and Bernard Hermann. Actually The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of my favorite scores and he’s one of the all time greatest film composers. So I tend to like the older composers like that. As far as what I listen to nowadays, I don’t listen to film music that much; I feel that film music is fun to listen to in the context of the film, but for me, it doesn’t often hold up as a standalone a la carte experience. It’s designed to accompany a dialogue and an image for the most part—my own work included. You take away the picture and it seems to be lacking sometimes. But I listen to a lot of pop music and a lot of classic rock. This morning I was listening to the second Black Sabbath album. Oddly, I think that was all I was listening to when I was writing Solaris—the darkness and simplicity. Their music is so catchy without being elaborate. I like classic, timeless music and I think, for most people, a lot of our musical preferences seem to get freeze-dried in our youth, in the late teens and early 20s. For a lot of people that’s when musical preferences are forged, and that’s probably true of me. I find myself revisiting and rediscovering a lot of stuff from that period of my life.
With the success of the Drive soundtrack, do you find that people have been taking more an interest in modern film scores and the people behind them?
I’m still scratching my head trying to find the recipe for it. Usually the words “hit” and “soundtrack” never appear in the same sentence. So yeah, I would really like to know what made that soundtrack so success because I’d love to repeat the experience. I love to see that film music is getting a little more attention than it normally does. For the most part people care less about movie music, let alone the personalities who create it, but I love to see that change. It’s a great art form to me.
I think the success behind Drive was not only how good the music was but how heavily Nicolas amalgamates that music with images. The mixture of sound and visuals was so spot on in every moment and really added to the thrill of the film.
Yeah, and although there wasn’t a lot of dialogue in Drive, Only God Forgives takes the concept of a modern silent movie to a whole new level. And when there’s that little dialogue, we add a lot of emphasis on the music, and Nicolas is very, very good at that. He pays a lot of attention to, not only the music, but to the sound. So I love the fact that he gives music a very big role in his films. It’s a challenge, but it’s a welcome challenge.