Conversations in Krakow with: Cliff Martinez
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During the celebration at the end of May of the 9th Krakow Film Music Festival (Krakow FMF), in AsturScore we had the opportunity to be able to talk with old friends from the world of film music, and also we had the opportunity to discover new composers.
In a relaxed, professional and very enriching environment, we had the opportunity to do some interviews, gather opinions and chat with several participants of the festival.
There we were with people like Cliff Martinez, Łukasz Targosz, Dave Porter, Joseph Trapanese, Richard Bellis, Lolita Ritmanis, Michael McCuistion and Kristopher Carter among others.
Today you have here the first in a series of interviews, in this case with Cliff Martinez, that could also be called «Conversations in Krakow».
Hello, Cliff. Thank you very much for your time, and first of all, congratulations for your “Best Soundtrack Award” in Cannes last week for your score in “The Neon Demon”. You just arrived from Cannes with a souvenir in your suitcase. What can you tell us about your work in the movie?
Thank you very much. It’s been some intense days back in Cannes and I’m very happy for this award.
Nicolas brought me into the process very early, even before he wrote the script. When I asked Nicolas what the film would be, he told me that the big difference was that The Neon Demon would be about women, whereas all of his other films were about men. Nicolas also told me it would be a very commercial film because of its theme of beauty and the obsession, which are universal ideas.
I thought, “What would a Nicolas Refn movie about women be like?” And when I saw two women bathing nude in a shower of blood, I said “Oh, of course! I should have seen that coming! That’s the kind of ‘women’s’ movie Nicolas would make!”
Nicholas is a great guy and I think every time we collaborate together, we get better. Maybe that had something to do with this award.
Now, let’s get back to early in your career, when you were really active in the Rock scene. How did you transition from Rock into Film world?
It’s a really long, long, long story but let’s try to make it short… I have always had fascination with music technology, and the way computers are becoming influential in popular music.
I was very fond of sampling and drum machines, keyboard samplers and hardware sequencers, and I guess that kind of equipment came to a new way of composing music, but I didn’t know how to apply it.
So, once when I was channel surfing on TV, Pee-wee’s Playhouse came across and I just happened to know the director of the first two seasons and I thought…. that would be a perfect place to put that kind of music.
First two seasons were scored by The Residents, Mark Mothersbaugh, Danny Elfman… That was the most interesting music I found on television at the moment, and I thought… “I can do that”.
So I called the director and asked to score one episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. That’s when I discovered the power of putting music to picture.
Besides… the paycheck was exciting, the job was exciting, and after that, I got inspired to do more of that kind of work.
Considering all this background you have, what is your approach to a movie the first time you see it? Do you think about textures, rhythms? Is it more related to what the story tells you?
Well, every film is different. Probably the most common way of inspiration is getting into the head of the characters, even if some films are more about situations than characters. I try to write the music from the point of view of the important characters in the story.
Sometimes other things are influential like the setting. For example, Far Cry 4 takes place in Tibet, and that gave me the opportunity to do some research and listen to Tibetan music and get ideas.
So sometimes the setting will set you up in a colorful direction that may make things interesting, but then, there are all the situations the characters are in, that inspire to you.
And sometimes, there’s music that I’m interested at the time like Steel Drums in Solaris, and I think, “Can I fit this in the movie somehow?”. It doesn’t have to be a particular reason. Just happens to be something I’m interested in at the time.
Experimentation is an important part of your compositions. How do you come up with these ideas you use in your scores?
Usually it is very important, but if there’s not much time, I try to play it safe and do things that I know will work. But when I have the time, I love to experiment and try different things.
Looking to your filmography, one can see lots of independent movies, some of them big successes and, most, of huge quality. How do you choose your assignments?
They choose me. (Laughs). After Drive and Contagion, in 2011, occasionally I had to choose between two projects overlapped, but for the most part, projects choose me.
I’m not in a position to say, “I’ll take that, and that, no, no, that yes, yes…”. It’ doesn’t work that way.
Do you try to search for some kind of specific projects? Or are you just open to any kind of projects?
It seems like the good ones find me. The ones like “Spring Breakers”, that’s the perfect project. “Drive” was also a great project. So I’m lucky they seem to find me somehow.
Among all these works, your collaborations with Steven Soderbergh are notorious. How is it to work with him?
He’s great and fun to work with. I think my favorite scores are the ones I’ve done with people I collaborate more than once, like Nicholas Winding Refn and Steven Soderbergh, and there’s something to be said about the creative partnership that improves with repetition.
The more I work with those guys, the deeper the collaboration is and the more I understand their work. And probably, they also understand better my capabilities.
In fact, right now, you are the composer for the series The Knick, produced by Steven Soderbergh. Does scoring for a TV show require a different approach than a film?
The biggest difference is the schedule. For a film I might get from 5 to 12 weeks to do it, and for the series there reaches a point where you have to do 1 hour of music once a week, for 10 weeks, so the schedule makes it a very different process. It’s crazier.
The other difference is that because it’s a “10 hour movie”, you really get to refine your themes and variations.
Scoring a character, might get one or two appearances in a feature film, but might appear a dozen times in a 10 hour series.
The Knick is 20 hours in total, so I found that I can’t just write new themes and new themes, I feel a stronger obligation to develop my themes and variations, more so than in feature films.
That’s one big difference.
Do you have information on where the series is headed and you develop your music on that way?
I get all 10 chapters at once and I get the 10 scripts, so I know where everything is going for each season. And I’m not going to say any spoilers here, but main things that happen during each season, I know them before starting to score.
And, speaking of different worlds, a couple of years ago you wrote the music for the videogame Far Cry 4. Was it also a different experience?
I think it was 3 hours of music over a writing period of one year, a very different experience, mostly because writing to a fixed picture is one thing but writing for a game that is changing dynamically is another thing.
When you work in a game, they give you some samples and the type of scene they need (there’re three types of scenes: stands, action and cinematics, which are fixed scenes in the game like a small movie with some explanation).
So it’s kind of simplistic in that sense. Although, I never got an action film and this was a nice experience of how to write action music. For example, they needed 10 different intensities of action, and I had to compose music for fist fights, but also for vast scenes involving the use of artillery like guns and bombs.
In films we depend on the picture for the structure while composing, and the approach in games, without the picture, it was kind of difficult.
Also another question is that the music never plays the same way each time. Each track might be composed of 10 different tracks that sometimes play simultaneously or sometimes are played in some combinations of tracks. So the final result is very difficult to tell, because it depends on how the player plays the game, which is kind of interesting if you think about it, but as a composer you feel oddly detached.
It is fun composing for a game, but it’s tough. The fun part was about the Tibetan side of the project. To compose Tibetan action music was a great fun.
Did you play the whole game?
I tried to, but I endure three minutes, look up and get shot in the head, and game is over and have to start over again. So I never got to see the full game, and thus all my music where it’s intended to be.
Could you tell us something about your future projects?
I have a film entitled War Dogs and it’s based on a true story, that was on the Rolling Stone Magazine, about two twenty-something guys who get involved in a national arms dealing and they become huge, and break the law, and go to prison… and it’s fun because it’s kind of a crime comedy (but not The Hangover kind).
Comedy is a big change for me. It stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller and I think is coming up this summer. That’s my latest project.
Thank you for your time, Cliff and we hope you enjoy the festival in Krakow.
Thanks to you for your interest!