Sundance Notes: A Look at Film Scoring with Drive composer, Cliff Martinez - Music and Movies Week


Photo from the film Arbitrage which played at Sundance this year.

For drummer-turned-film composer, Cliff Martinez, playing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers just wasn’t doing it for him. The man behind the scores of films like Drive, Contagion and Traffic, was actually one of the first members of the worldwide recording act, getting his start as a drummer on their first two albums in the ‘80s. After performing for several years, he decided the gig wasn’t for him, and moved onto something more: the movies.

Doesn’t he miss living the life of rock star though? Not at all.

“Especially not these days,” comments Martinez, pointing out the depressing state of the music business where even an act like the Chili Peppers doesn’t earn the big bucks it did previously.

Born in the Bronx and raised in Ohio, Martinez moved to Los Angeles in the late ‘70s where he mulled around with a bunch of local musicians before earning his spot in the band. He describes his foray into the world of moviemaking as “inadvertent,” when a tape collage he made led to the opportunity to score an episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. After a bit of cross-pollination, this would then connect him to Steven Soderbergh, roommate to a sound designer friend of his, and that would ultimately be his greatest find. The friendship with Soderbergh propelled Martinez into the business of film composing for good. He began with Sex, Lies and Videotape, and followed with a consistent strain of dark, avant-garde art-house flicks such as Solaris, Wicker Park, Wonderland, and Havoc. Fortunately, the composer built a strong alliance with Soderbergh early on, and more recently Nicholas Refn (Drive), so that he’s still the first one called for the director’s gigs, and has been able to curate a flair for his taste.

Every director’s a little different but finding a couple key filmmakers has given him a lot of return business and good references.

“Like any job in this city, film composing is all about who you know, even more so than your talent because that’s something inherent, whereas your network must be built from scratch,” notes Martinez. “Some directors are really hands off. They know what they have in mind but they don’t tell you much. They want you to surprise them with what you can do. Others want to be more involved with the process.”

Working with Refn meant chatting at odd hours while the filmmaker returned to his home in Denmark, where Martinez recalls he was drawn to be closer to his family, and aligned in conversant territory. Drive was also an unusual movie for Martinez due to the fact the score and soundtrack were nearly intertwined, one undoubtedly influencing the other, and vice versa. According to the composer, the score can reflect the soundtrack, but often the two merely parallel or don’t relate much at all.

“You look at the soundtrack for The Lincoln Lawyer, another movie I worked on, and that was mostly rap and soul… much different than the score,” he observes.

Known for his more synthesized rock style, Martinez acknowledges he gets tagged to action and crime movies a lot, becoming almost a trademark for his ominous sound. “I do tend to find jobs within a similar style of music.”

Attending Sundance this year as a composer on Nicholas Jarecki’s feature, Arbitrage, staring Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere, Martinez also spoke on a BMI panel for film scoring and served as one of the festival judges.

“It’s hard to honestly critique a film here and not be affected by the audience or what everyone else is saying,” Martinez remarked, his quandary of the event. “I can’t tell if something’s really funny or how emotional it is because every audience is so different… It’s hard not to be swayed.”

A tougher task, perhaps, than his day job. For Martinez, independent-minded movies are the most worthy however, and personally, he tends to be prouder of his more underrated work. While Drive got the bulk of the attention last year, it was actually Contagion, which he felt was more unique. Next up, he’s set to work on Refn’s second feature, Only God Forgives, also starring Ryan Gosling.

As far as his days in a rock band go, Martinez keeps in touch with the Chili Peppers, but enjoys the stability and inspiration of working on movies as opposed to tackling stages around the world. Furthermore, he prefers the collaborative nature of the service, as it’s more than just the music – it’s the images, the words, the setting, all working in tandem. His advice for an aspiring composer, must they attempt the journey: think like you’re making film.