The Neon Demon: An interview with Cliff Martinez
Ex-punk rocker turned soundtrack composer and favourite of influential directors like Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, Cliff Martinez talks to The Upcoming about the latest Cannes sensation The Neon Demon. He tells us about the work process behind the film’s score, as well as his past experience with Captain Beefheart and the Los Angeles music scene, pointing out the opportunities the world of film music holds for the enfant terribles of today’s music industry.
Let’s start with the hype of the moment: The Neon Demon didn’t bring home any prizes from Cannes but definitely had heads turning and people talking about it. What is your say on the crowd-splitting effects of the film?
I think that’s mission accomplished, I think it was Nicolas’s intention to make people love it or hate it.
This is your third collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn. Has there been an evolution in your partnership, or anything new in the work process for The Neon Demon?
No, he’s kind of the same person. I guess what changes is that with Drive he hired me five weeks before the film had to be made, so there wasn’t much time. For the last two films he was talking to me about the film before there was even a script: then I get the script and I get the picture, so there’s a little bit of a longer incubation period for his films, and I think that helps. Drive was great and pretty successful, but I honestly wish I had had more time for it. So I had that now and that’s about all that has changed.
The Neon Demon plays strongly on aesthetics and imagery, going absolutely all-in for visuals. How do you consider your music fitting into this: does it follow the look or does it take as much creative freedom on its own side?
I think the music is its own thing. I’m always inspired by what’s on the screen and I guess I try to complement it. I suppose the imagery is kind of wild, bombastic, and colourful and I was trying to do something that was a sonic equivalent in the music department. But I think music is something different, ideally music should express something the images and the dialogue cannot. I’m always trying to find out all these things about the story and the film that are missing or can’t be expressed in images, and try to discover what that is. I wish I could be as controversial as Nicolas is, in music it’s quite hard to do that, but I was trying to be a little bit divisive in how the music worked with the images as well.
The Neon Demon is probably the most extreme of Winding Refn’s films. Is the soundtrack the most eccentric so far?
Yes, I agree with that.
You defined Winding Refn’s temporary music suggestion of Hitchcock’s beloved composer Bernard Herrmann as “orchestral” and “anachronistic”. Could you elaborate on this?
I didn’t know what to make of the music that Nicolas and Matt turned in. All they said about it was “We tried everything, we couldn’t get anything else to work.” I’m a big Bernard Herrmann fan and so is Nicolas, but I honestly didn’t see how that was a useful reference for me. Temporary music can be great and I usually fall in love with a couple of ideas in the temporary music and rip them off shamelessly, but I didn’t find anything in the Bernard Herrmann stuff except for the idea that perhaps Nicolas was looking for something to superpose a period flavour onto the score. So at one level I was trying to conjure up a 1970s sense of music, and that’s about as far as the Bernard Herrmann stuff influenced me.
What about the decision to mix licensed tracks (SIA’s Waving Goodbye for example) with your original pieces, did you get a say in the process?
No, none whatsoever, that’s all Nicolas.
Is there one track from The Neon Demon’s soundtrack that is the “most LA”?
Lots of people talk about the “LA-ness” of the film and the score: I’m not aware of that. If I work on a film that’s set in China or Afghanistan or East Europe or somewhere else I try to acknowledge the setting in the music in one way or another, but I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 30 years, so that setting is invisible to me and I don’t do anything, musically, to acknowledge the setting. So, it’s kind of invisible to me. If anything about the music sounds like LA, it’s probably built into the music, because I’ve just lived there most of my adult life.
How has your experience with Captain Beefheart, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and other bands impacted your film score work?
Probably Captain Beefheart is the most influential. He was always picking up musical instruments he really couldn’t play or had no technical facility on, like piano, guitar, drums. I’ve approached film scoring in a similar way: I’ve got a lot of musical instruments that I really can’t play, but to the miracle of computer technology, I can play something on a trumpet for example and edit a bad performance like a work process to turn it into something that’s a usable performance. So, I think Captain Beefheart and my experience with the Los Angeles punk rock music scene basically told you it was OK to approach music from a very primitive point of view and it was OK that you didn’t know how to play an instrument.
There are other members of prominent bands who became acclaimed composers, Trent Reznor and Jonny Greenwood in particular: do you think rockers-turned-composers have something in common?
I think band guys have been driven into the composing thing for economic reasons, I think that’s what we have in common. Records don’t make money anymore, so if you want to stay in the business you’ve got to figure out a way to get a pay cheque, and composing is kind of one of the last frontiers of musicians getting paid for musical services.
Do other films ever inspire you for your film scores? For The Neon Demon, 80s arthouse sci-fi-horror classic Liquid Sky definitely comes to mind.
Yes, I probably am inspired more by films and film scores than pop music. It didn’t happen for The Neon Demon, but lots of times if I get stuck and I don’t have any ideas, I feel like I just need some kind of inspiration, I’ll probably watch a movie before I’ll listen to an album by a singer-songwriter.
More specifically, when was the last time a soundtrack blew your mind away?
I thought Hanna (2011, directed by Joe Wright), and one of the last ones by The Chemical Brothers, really impressed me.
At the BAFTA Masterclass in London you said you are the “anti John Williams”, could you expand on that?
I’m just the last guy anybody thinks to hire to do orchestral music or traditional orchestral score. Nothing against John Williams, I think he’s great.
Did you ever think of becoming an orchestral composer after starting off in the punk rock scene?
It didn’t really occur to me, I guess it just happened naturally. I sort of slowed down going to nightclubs to see bands, spent a bit more time in movie theatres watching films. I think I’ve always been a bit of a musical weirdo, my musical taste has always been left-of-centre, I’ve always loved Captain Beefheart, and I just always realised that the higher the elevation is, the sparser the vegetation: it’s harder to have a career in music if you make music like captain Beefheart or music that’s really out of the mainstream. I always believed that there was more opportunity for music that was left-of-centre in film than there was on the radio, or being a singer-songwriter or a band person. So that’s what attracted me to film music, I just felt it was that one place where the average person is exposed to symphonic music, art music, world music, jazz or pop. I think that the world of film music is actually quite broad. Whatever your taste in music is, it can be expressed in film music. As a composer, as long as you’re fulfilling the dramatic requirements of the film, the style and the approach can be all your own and completely original, even esoteric.
Would you suggest to younger musicians in rock bands to look up to films for musical inspiration?
I hope so, I would like to see film music become more part of the mainstream of what people listen to. I think a lot of interesting stuff is happening in film music.
The Neon Demon is released nationwide on 8th July 2016.
Listen to the first track from The Neon Demon soundtrack here.
Watch the trailer for The Neon Demon here: