This summer has been a bit of a bust at the movies. But there’s hope. Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is on its way to theaters. Refn’s macabre ode to the LA fashion scene arrives in theaters this week on a wave of positive word of mouth and boasting one win from the illustrious Cannes Film Festival. That win came by way of the film’s moody original score from Composer Cliff Martinez. The Neon Demon is Martinez’s third collaboration with Refn – after Drive (2008) and Only God Forgives (2013) – and sees the composer bring a brooding grandiosity to his signature ambient sound. Behind throbbing electronics and an ocean of synthesizers, Martinez’s compositions build a dense layer of sex and dread behind Refn’s stylized visuals. The result is a fever dream – or nightmare – of a film unlike anything else you’ll see this summer. The composer recently took some time to speak with CutPrintFilm about his less than traditional path to composing, working with Nicolas Winding Refn and strategically placed tube socks.
This interview has been edited and condensed
Cut Print Film – So, you got your start in music playing with rock bands like The Weirdos and Red Hot Chili Peppers. That’s a long way from composing music for movies. How did you transition from playing in rock bands to working in film.
Cliff Martinez – Gosh, I’m not sure where to begin. I guess I was just immersed in the LA rock scene and I was getting older. That was the big influence. I had a hard time imagining myself being in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and wearing nothing but a strategically placed tube sock into my 50s and 60s. Somewhere in the mid to late ‘80s I became fascinated by computer music and that was the beginning of me thinking about being a composer. And then some opportunities presented themselves.
CPF – And what was your first gig?
CM – I was channel surfing one day and stumbled on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. I happened to know that show’s director, Steve Johnson. So I watched a couple of episodes and those episodes were scored by people like The Residents and Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh … and it was such a subversive television show that I called the director and asked if I could score it. They gave me an episode and I got hooked. It was a great experience and at the time it seemed like a huge amount of money. And I got to make music that was really experimental. Very different from anything I’d ever done. After that I met Steven Soderbergh and he asked me to score a movie he was working on – Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989). That film took off I had a career as a film composer if I wanted it.
CPF – Sex, Lies and Videotape was your first feature film, then?
CM – Yes it was.
CPF – When you went into that project were you involved from pre-production or did you go in after it had been shot and work from a cut of the film?
CM – Well, it’s so long ago I don’t quite remember (laughs). But I think I didn’t really begin work on it until I saw a rough cut.
CPF – I guess the better question would be do you prefer to be involved early on in production or is it easier to work with visual elements?
CM – I like to come in as early as possible. With Nicolas (Winding Refn) for instance, he calls me before he’s even written a script and gives me a really primitive verbal outline of what he’s thinking about. And then a while later a script comes along. And then a little while after that comes a cut of the movie. And that’s usually the best time to talk about it, for me. I’ve learned from experience that it’s a waste of time to try and write music based on a script or even worse from a phone conversation. So I like to hold out until I get some footage to look at. But I love talking about it and thinking about it well in advance.
CPF – A lot of the movies that you have worked on are kind of bleak stories with outbursts of violence … sometimes physical, sometimes emotional and sometimes sexual. Is there something about that style of film that attracts you?
CM – Well, it’s really only in the last couple of years that I’ve been in a position to be selective if I’m being honest. For the most part, if the phone rings I pick it up and I say yes. It’s usually not any more complicated than that. For better or worse – it seems like I’ve been a bit typecast as a guy that does these dark, psychological films with a minimalist score. Ya know, once you do one thing and do a decent job, you get a few calls for more of the same. But I’ve been pretty lucky of late doing science fiction films, The Neon Demon is being called a horror film and I’m about to do my first action score for a video game. So I’m starting to do a lot of different things now.
CPF – And that includes television.
CM – Yeah, I’ve gotten a whiff of the television world with The Knick. It’s just a great show. And it’s a lot of work. It’s like making a 10 hour movie and the deadlines are pretty intense. Obviously, I’d jump at a third season of The Knick, but I’m not really looking for any more television at the moment.
CPF – Have you ever had any desire to go off and do a cheesy romantic comedy?
CM – Comedy? Yeah. I would love to do something that is light where people don’t get shot or blown up or do drugs. Yeah, I’d love to do something light.
CPF – I would love to see what you brought to that genre.
CM – Well, it’s such a highly stylized thing, comedy. I think that there’s a couple of guys that do it really well – like Mark Mothersbaugh. But it’s such a stylized thing that most composers won’t set foot in a comedy.
CPF – So let’s talk about Nicolas Winding Refn – who doesn’t really do comedy. How did you guys meet?
CM – I was actually introduced to Nicolas by the head of Lakeshore Music. He recommended me to a producer and that producer referred me to Nicolas. He’d just finished shooting Drive, so he showed me a locked cut of that film and I fell in love with it. I didn’t know much about him, but I knew his film was terrific. And that’s how we met.
CPF – So you came to Drive after it was cut?
CM – Yeah. Everything but the music was done.
CPF – That’s a little surprising ‘cause one of the things I love about your music in that film and in all of your work with Nicolas is how well it fits into the overall flow of the end product. It doesn’t always feel like music. It’s more like a part of the soundscape. Is that something you guys discussed when you were talking about the music for Drive? Or for his films since then?
CM – Well, it depends on the film. I think with Only God Forgives, there was a much more predominant sound design approach to the score. For that film, Nicolas put me in touch with the sound department and we did a lot of back and forth with me sending them stuff and them sending me stuff. I’m kind of fascinated by that grey area between music and sound design. So that was a definite style choice for Only God Forgives. But a little less so for Drive or The Neon Demon.
CPF – It does feel a little different for The Neon Demon. There’s a lot of that similar atmospheric approach but there’s tracks like ‘Neon Demon’ and ‘Messenger Walks Among Us’ that feel epic in comparison. Was there something about this story that you felt the music needed to feel bigger?
CM – Well, the style of the film is pretty big and splashy and ostentatious. There’s a lot of visual bombast, but there’s a lot of places where there’s not much dialogue and Nicolas wanted the music to be front and center. He wanted the scene to be driven by the music. So the music department got a nice juicy role and in that sense there is a bigness to it.
CPF – The music feels very glamorous in that glitzy, vacant LA way at times. Did the city itself affect the way you approached the music?
CM – Not as much with this film. I’m not really sure what LA would sound like. But with a movie like Only God Forgives … when we did that movie I felt like Thailand was such a specific city that maybe I should try to acknowledge that musically. Nicholas originally wanted a lot of American Karaoke music in that film, but that kind of changed when he saw the price tag for the rights to use a song like ‘Ring of Fire’ (Johnny Cash). So we had to rethink things. I’d been to Thailand a few times, so I had this notion of the music from rural Thailand as country western music. So location had a little more influence with the approach to that film.
CPF – You mentioned that The Neon Demon is being described as a horror film. And your music often plays on that eerie horror movie edge. Did you enjoy putting your own spin on that particular style?
CM – Yeah. That was probably the most fun. That was the new part of it for me. I’ve done a lot of movies where horrible things happen, but nothing like a horror movie or horror movie scoring. That’s sort of a genre unto itself. And I was very excited about doing that. But I also think The Neon Demon is getting unfairly tagged as a horror film, just because it’s so hard to categorize Nicolas’ films. And it’s really only a horror film kind of in the home stretch. But that part of it was a lot of fun for me.
CPF – Were there any films or composers that you looked to for inspiration?
CM – Not so much with this film. That definitely happens. I borrow from other composers just like everyone else does. And Nicolas, who usually has some points of reference for me, didn’t really recommend anything this time. I’m kind of proud that I wasn’t really listening to anything else while working on The Neon Demon.
CPF – It really doesn’t sound quite like anything else, either. I know that’s got a lot of people excited about the soundtrack’s release – particularly with Milan Records putting out a gorgeous double-disc vinyl pressing. Do you have any feelings about soundtracks existing as separate entities from their films?
CM – I usually don’t like them. I always feel like film music is made for something much bigger. It works in conjunction with the dialogue and the image. With something like The Neon Demon, for me, if you take away the beautiful naked women taking a shower in blood … something is different. Something is missing.
CPF – The context is gone.
CM – Yeah. And I need the context.
Milan Records will release the Original Soundtrack to The Neon Demon on June 24 (digital and CD). A special, double LP vinyl release is scheduled for July 8. In addition to the original music from Cliff Martinez, the soundtrack also features new music from Aussie-pop Songstress Sia and electro sludge-poppers Sweet Tempest. And of course, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon opens everywhere this Friday. It will sound a bit like this.