October 3, 2011 | By

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Since 1989, Cliff Martinez has scored almost 30 feature films, but he’s best known for scoring two of director Steven Soderbergh’s best works: the visceral crime epic Traffic (2000), and the composer’s masterwork, Solaris (2002), which ranks as one of the finest sci-fi scores in the last 10 years.

Martinez’s writing style embraces contemporary electronica, rock, classical, modernism, minimalism, and ambient sounds – each amalgamated into an often hypnotic soundtrack.

On album, his music draws the listener into a world of transitional sounds that are easily pegged as fully electronic, but often germinate from organic instruments made of glass or steel. As part of a film’s mixed soundtrack, a Martinez score is perfectly balanced with existing sound elements. He’s adept at capturing the psychological conflicts of characters, and avoiding film scoring clichés which in turn have made his work from 10 or 20 years ago age extremely well in spite of popular scoring conventions, and technological advances in digital gear. (Traffic, for example, hasn’t aged whatsoever.)

In our conversation, Martinez discusses two of his three scores released in 2011: Nicolas Winding Refn’s critically acclaimed crime drama Drive, and his latest collaboration with Soderbergh, the virus thriller Contagion.



.Mark R. Hasan: For Drive, I understand director Nicolas Winding Refn wanted you to write music that would bridge both the songs, the sound design and the score with a particular emphasis on the eighties sounds. Was the eighties sounds or the emulation of some of those vintage synth sounds in the score due to the source songs that were chosen, or was it a particular style the director wanted to have in the film?

Cliff Martinez: More the latter. I remember a conversation with Nicolas about synthesizers in particular. I think it came about mostly because of the sound selection, and the songs were in the film long before I came on board, and they just felt like an integral part of the film. It felt like a natural choice to try to acknowledge that style somewhere in the underscore.

MRH: When you’ve composed scores using electronic elements, have you ever made use of any vintage instruments?

CM: No. I’ve got (I think) one analogue synthesizer and it does seem to have a certain mojo that its software counterparts do not, but for the most part I’m completely fine with the software emulations. I was never a big synthesizer guy to begin with. I have rarely ever used them in my film scores. I don’t have any attachment to any vintage instruments. I don’t have any romantic notions about older gear being better than the new stuff. I was perfectly happy to use the current crop.

MRH: When you begin a score, I’m curious how in your mind you decide what musical palette to create. There are certain rhythmic textures and chord progressions that you like to employ, but when it comes to picking the specific instruments, is there a certain group that you enjoy using, or do you find that certain aspects of a script or maybe a performance in the finished film will decide the instruments that you will definitely use?

CM: I have some favourites. I’ve got a bunch of stuff in my house that I like to use. I have bass and baritone steel drums, I have Baschet Crystal [glass harmonica], I have some pitch percussion valve instruments that I like to use. Whatever’s laying around the house I like – and guitar – but I think mostly what feels right for the film.

Certainly the budget has something to do with it. I love to do orchestral things, but I don’t usually have the means to do that. I think probably the dramatic needs of the film are actually what inspire those choices of what I pick.

MRH: I’m curious how you feel about how your style of writing and the sounds you produce seem to work well with stories involving deep, dark psychological issues and characters that have a certain kind of traumas – either overt, or as an undercurrent that eventually percolates to the surface in a climactic scene?

CM: I seem to get chosen for those kinds of films, not that I choose those films; those films choose me. It seems to work. I like do to things that are kind of character driven.

[Even in] the dark action-oriented ones like Drive, it seems like the underscore kind of goes and highlights the psychological component of the film more so than the action part of it. I guess that’s what I do best [and] that’s what people like about my style.

MRH: I find your style is really organic in terms of the way it’s balanced between dialogue, sound effects and sound design, and the fact you don’t always score exactly what’s happening onscreen. If there’s a chase sequence, you may choose not to score all the action; you may decide to score the emotional intensity of the actors, what they’re going through during a particular sequence where they’re being chased, or their mental state as they’re trying to hunt someone down, which I find more interesting.

CM: Yeah, I kind of like to go for the character-driven in that the situation. Sometimes there’s other considerations. In Contagion, rhythm and pacing were a big part of what the director was looking for, but it varies from film-to-film. It’s usually characters first and foremost for me, but I tend to look at the scene or the film like a doctor looks at a patient, trying to figure out if anything is wrong or missing that the music can help with.

MRH: Are there any composers that influenced you, or composers that you admire, either current or from the past?

CM: Of the old guys, I really enjoyed Bernard Herrmann. One of my first memorable scores was The Day the Earth Stood Still which I used to see once a year on television; that was a score that stuck with me.

Current guys? Thomas Newman, Harry Gregson-Williams – all the guys that are kind of rugged individualists. When I think of my early development, I probably listened to people that were not film composers for inspiration, people like Philip Glass and Brian Eno.

MRH: I’m sure other interviewers have raised this question as well, but you’ve had a 20+ year relationship with Steven Soderbergh. Do you find at this point you have a shorthand with him, where you don’t need to have a large discussion over what’s required for a scene – you sort of know what kind of music he likes – or do you feel that each time you start a project, everything begins fresh?

CM: Well, having done ten films with him, I do know his likes and dislikes, but at least in the last several film we’ve done together, Steven still has given me some pretty specific direction of what he’s looking for.

For example, with Contagion, initially he had a temp score with sounds from The French Connection [by Don Ellis], The Battle of Algiers [by Ennio Morricone], and Marathon Man [by Michael Small].

MRH: That’s quite a variety!

CM: Yeah. That was sort of the very first temp music, and that was pretty interesting. The film changed quite a bit. I started on it in October of 2010 and kind of sat with that and the temp score for a month or two. Then he threw it all out and used Tangerine Dream as temp music, and that also was interesting, because it was the first time that he indicated an interest in synthesizers. Again, it was a kind of older synth eighties style, and then he threw all that stuff out and used as a reference more contemporary sounds [that were] more varied and energetic because he was very concerned about the pacing of Contagion.

During each step of the way I had written music, and I though some of it was really good; also each style kind of had its own merit, particularly the French Connection stuff… so I kind of combined all of it, not out of laziness because I didn’t want to toss out the stuff that I’d written, but I thought that combining all those approaches would lead to some interesting styles.

Steven has usually come up with ideas like that, and he directs me primarily in the form of a temp score. Usually the more radical the choices, the more interesting the score comes out. The French Connection is probably the weirdest choice, because there was nothing about the film I though was of the seventies to me. I’m sure to Steven [it referenced] a lot of older films; there didn’t seem to be anything about it that asked for a vintage score, but it was an interesting road to go down.

MRH: The French Connection is one of my favourite scores, but it’s also an odd one. I like the composer a great deal. I think Don Ellis would’ve written some fabulous stuff had he lived longer, but French Connection is just so strange because it becomes so discordant in a lot of places; it’s an odd fusion of chamber orchestra, minimalism, jazz, and odd meters, but I’m not surprised that it would be a score that would migrate into someone’s temp track because it has some abstract ideas that perhaps helped the director and composer figure out what specific style was needed.

CM: Well I don’t claim to have figured out what that score was about, really. Taken alone, Steven initially said Contagion was a horror film and the tracks that he references from French Connection sounded more like from a horror movie; it was really discordant and really kind of ugly music, so I didn’t try to emulate that perfectly or too closely.

One thing I thought was a popular device was to create dissonance in horror music [so] that was one thing that I took from that. Another part was just the fact that it was orchestral… [I liked] the scale and the weight of the group of instruments. When the Tangerine Dream thing came along, he said ‘I don’t want to hear any live musicians,’ and I thought ‘Oh, swell,’ but I kept it and combined it with the synthesizer thing… I’m not the first guy that combined orchestra with synthesizer, but I thought the contrast between the two was pretty interesting.

MRH: And my last question is whether there are any particular genres that you’d like to score, either ones that you haven’t tried yet or ones you tried maybe once, and would like to revisit?

CM: I thought the phone would ring like crazy after Solaris, that I’d get a bunch of offers to do science-fiction films, [but it didn’t]. I’d love to do science-fiction, a full-blown horror film, or a full-blown action film where I’m actually scoring tonnes of action sequences, and something lighter – comedy would be fun too. All the things that would be the opposite of what I’ve been doing!

. would like to thank Cliff Martinez for speaking about his latest film scores, and Beth Krakower at CineMedia Promotions for facilitating this interview.

Visit Cliff Martinez’s official website HERE.

Reviewed scores include Contagion (2011), Drive (2011), Lincoln Lawyer (2011), and Solaris (2002).

Reviewed films include Contagion (2011)

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2011 by Mark R. Hasan


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