Interview With Composer Cliff Martinez

By • March 15, 2011
(Photo by Robert Charles Mann ©2011)



If there’s a rhythm of the heat to the underworld, and those legally profiting from it, then it would likely be the sound of Cliff Martinez’s undulating, darkly ethereal beats. It’s a dangerous vibe caught between sinister grooves and the existential feel of psyches caught in a moral morass- almost as if Martinez was hearing them trying to swim to redemption- whether they be a revenge-consumed LIMEY, the guilt-riddled cops of NARC and VICE, or the tapestry of drug-affected characters in TRAFFIC. Now Martinez literally picks up that beautifully menacing drive again with THE LINCOLN LAWYER, its passenger’s conflicted soul conveyed through subtly anguished percussion, tender pianos, and throttling guitar that lets the listener make their own judgment without hitting the usual scoring suspects. Martinez conveys the seedy grey underbelly that defense attorney Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) glibly glides through with his barely legal practice, until getting a suspenseful reality check when he takes on a client well above the usual pay grade- but with a potentially lethal deviousness bordering on the demonic.

A far nicer and mild-mannered person than the characters he usually plays, Martinez honed his percussive chops as a drummer for the iconically progressive likes of The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Captain Beefheart. Martinez had never expected to become a film composer, until a mix tape landed in Steven Soderbergh’s hands in a maze of editing rooms. The result was nuke-level experimental explosion that redefined the just-bourning indie cinema scene with 1989’s SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE. Their alt. partnership would allow Martinez to dive into such diverse musical realms as the cimbalom suspense of KAFKA, KING OF THE HILL’s Depression-era marble shooting and a lush sci-fi calypso / symphonic score for SOLARIS. Martinez would also show his flair for underbelly grooves from WONDERLAND’s porn waste products to the teenage wasteland of HAVOC, while even getting to play some glistening romance for WICKER PARK. Yet if Martinez has made a name for himself in Hollywood, then it’s by making menace into a thing of percolating beauty, a talent for hearing unseemly behavior take some unexpected left turns with THE LINCOLN LAWYER.

It seems that you’ve been a go-to composer for unconventional thrillers. What do you think it is about your sound that’s right for movies about corrupted characters?

Perhaps being one myself is useful. I’d like to think that I do both “dark” and “psychological” well. When working with a story that is built around a potentially unlikable character, you need to fill out their interior well enough to want to follow them around from beginning to end. A degree of typecasting plays a role also. I keep getting asked to do these kinds of films and I suppose I’m getting better and more experienced at it.

What do you think it is about your sound that brings a new generation of directing blood to you, especially LINCOLN LAWYER’s Brad Furman?

I’d chalk that up to having scored a stockpile of Steven Soderberghs’ early films like KING OF THE HILL. Directors are discovering little-known gems like these years later. Brad was also a big fan of PUMP UP THE VOLUME. Talk about my film scoring childhood! I think that was a first for me.

What struck you about how LINCOLN LAWYER differed from your typical courtroom thriller?

I’m aware that film makers are deathly afraid of making a feature film that bears even a remote resemblance to something that can be seen on television. But I seldom watch television so if the film, or the score somehow managed to dodge all the clichés, I have no knowledge of it. I think what distinguished LINCOLN LAWYER for me was that I found it profoundly entertaining from head to toe, and I don’t entertain very easily.

What’s the trick of scoring, and spotting a dialogue-driven film like LINCOLN LAWYER, a good part of which takes place in the courtroom?

Well, in this case, the trick was to stay far away from the courtroom. When I came on board there was a solid, well-tuned temp score in place and all the courtroom scenes were naked. A half-hearted appeal was made to me to try to wedge some music into those scenes where others before me had failed. I tried a few things then gave up. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then quit. No point in making a fool out of yourself.

How do you think your music embodies Mick’s attitude? In a way, would you say he gets a “criminal” sound?

I was going for more of a “badass” sound. The criminals are the people he’s defending. Compared to them, he’s a model citizen, so you still want to tell it as a story of good versus evil, even if the hero has a little of each.

Do you think there’s a hollow feeling as well to Mick that shows how empty he is inside for all of his bravado? How difficult was it to get across the growing re-discovery of his morality?

Yes I do, and I took it for granted that the film put that across clearly. In hindsight, I realize that after having read the novel, the script and seen every scene hundreds of times, your objectivity about these things begins to erode. There were only a few scenes where the music was called in to prop up this dimension of Mick’s character. I thought it was best to use that broadly emotional stuff sparingly, so I hope it wasn’t too subtle.

Unique percussion is a big part of your soundscape, especially in LINCOLN LAWYER. Could you tell us about how you approached your beats for this film?

My background is rock drumming, so if I can’t hit it with a stick, I can’t write any music. My use of percussion, pitched and otherwise has been evolving long before LINCOLN LAWYER, but I’m always trying to develop and customize my sound and approach for each film. The refinements to my basic shtick for LINCOLN LAWYER are probably a little too subtle to get excited about, but I began layering and combining the metallaphones (such as the steel drums) into one part for the first time here. On NARC, I started exploring an idea I call “rhythmi-tizing” pitched, ambient textures. For LINCOLN LAWYER I started using percussion performances to trigger and shape the rhythmic and tonal characteristics of those ambient textures.

Do you think you put the sound of experimental, “indie” scoring on the map with SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE? And how did Steven Soderbergh influence your scoring approach?

I think I’d sound like a pretentious twit if I said yes. Just recently I was hanging out with Steven’s sound guru, Larry Blake, who was showing me newly remixed scenes from KING OF THE HILL and THE UNDERNEATH. I was completely floored by how good and original these films were and I was intimidated by the music that I’d written years ago when I thought I didn’t know what I was doing. But when he put on SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, I was horrified! Everything about it, the hairstyles, the dialog and particularly the music just didn’t stand the test of time, in my opinion. I hold Steven responsible for the good, the bad and the ugly in all those early scores.

You’ll be working with Steven Soderbergh next on CONTAGION. It’s been a long break for you both. What’s it like to be back in his company, and can you talk about what approach you’ll be taking for this movie?

Steven is lovable and working with him is about as good as it gets, but sometimes he’s as talkative as the Sphinx. I’ve received a rough cut of CONTAGION and I’ve begun chiseling away on some sketches, but I’ve yet to have any substantial discussion with him about it. I’m sure we’ll get into it soon enough, so there’s not much to report on that front as of now.

You’ve also been busy in France with films like ESPION (S) and “A L’ORIGINE.” How is it to be scoring movies over there, and do you find the filmmakers’ attitudes towards music are different than American directors?

Both films were A+ experiences and I did it without going to France, speaking any French or even meeting with these directors (Nicolas Saada and Xavier Giannoli respectively) during the creation of the score! However, both of them entered my airspace via Skype (usually at around 1:00 a.m.) every single night and it was the most intense creative collaboration I’ve ever had with a director. Both were very demanding, articulate, imaginative and concise in their communication about music and it was all the more impressive given that English was their second language! I can’t generalize about French Cinema based on my experiences with these two films, but both directors had enormous respect, knowledge and understanding of the Hollywood tradition but also have their own tradition that they are very proud of and is as unique and as deep as anything we have here. So from my point of view, they seem to be drawing on a broader and more eclectic range of influences. Their films consequently seemed exotic and highly original to my eyes and ears, but they might have simply been just “French”. Conversely I hope they viewed my contribution as being similarly exotic by simply being “all-American”.

You played with the recently deceased Captain Beefheart. Could you talk about how he inspired you, and do you think he made any impact on your work as a film composer! Was he as crazy and cult-like as they say?

Crazy, yes. The cult thing was a little before my time but if you really want a strong whiff of it, I recommend the recent biography, THROUGH THE EYES OF MAGIC. I can count the number of life-changing, brain reupholstering artistic experiences on three fingers: Seeing the Beatles first U.S performance on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, meeting Steven Soderbergh and playing drums for Captain Beefheart. Beefheart is definitely a main ingredient in my musical personality. I don’t try to sound like him and it wouldn’t do much for my commercial prospects if I did. But the spirit of Captain Beefheart is always something, somewhere in all that I create.

SOLARIS has just been re-released by La La Land Records. Why do you think this score has remained popular enough to warrant a second edition, and what kind of place do you think it holds in your career?

It’s weird to see the words “popular” and “score” appear in the same sentence. I have no idea why people keep listening to it. I guess SOLARIS is to me, what “Proud Mary” is to John Fogerty. It keeps turning up in unexpected places like Volkswagen and shoe commercials. It was an artistic high water mark for sure. I had done a couple small orchestral scores previously, but SOLARIS was my first gigantic orchestral score for a major studio, 20th Century Fox. I know it’s one of my best efforts and I’m still scratching my head as to why. I don’t want to say that the film was problematic…every film has it’s challenges and I think the art of writing music, particularly for film, is the art of problem solving. SOLARIS, it seemed had so many bases to cover; God, existence, the infinite, love, death, George Clooney nude etc. A lot of films don’t leave much unsaid for the composer to comment on and I suppose that SOLARIS was one of those rare films that gave the music plenty of elbowroom.

Your work has never really been about “hitting” specific action as much as it is about conveying an overall mood. Did you ever plan on taking a more traditional scoring approach, and do you think it’s that scoring attitude that makes you stand out as a composer?

I’m glad you think that I stand out and am untraditional. That’s what I secretly aspire to be. But I also want to survive in this business, so I’m always trying to fit in and be normal. I think that attitude and musical identity go hand in hand. I had a set of musical influences that I grew up with. I made decisions about what I thought was great and what was awful. But all that changes once you get your foot in the door, because the other thing that defines you as a film composer is the people and projects that you work on. And that, is something that I’ve always felt was a little arbitrary and not under my control. On my first few films, I was fortunate enough to hook up with Steven Soderbergh who also had plenty of attitude (in a good way) and identity. So a lot of my scoring instincts came from him. I’m still working on traditional though…I’m just trying to make friends here.

LINCOLN LAWYER opens this Friday, March 18 with its soundtrack available on Lakeshore Records available on MP3 and HARDCOPY

Come and meet Cliff Martinez to have your LINCOLN LAWYER soundtrack signed on Saturday, April 16th at 2 PM at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. For more information, go here

Comments

By John Rodd on March 15th, 2011 at 10:23 am

Daniel & Cliff: really great interview! You were both very articulate and insightful. One of the best interviews I’ve read in a long time! I have had the great pleasure of working with Cliff on quite a number of projects – including the above mentioned Lincoln Lawyer score – and I always enjoy a glimpse into the composer’s creative process. Bravo!

By Sheri McBride on March 21st, 2011 at 8:39 am

Thanks for sharing the interview. It was fascinating, since I have written a couple of songs myself. I loved the quote, ” If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then quit. No point in making a fool out of yourself.” I got a good chuckle. Thanks.

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