Interviews with IndustrySound Department

Cliff Martinez, Composer of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ and More

Most recognisable for his unorthodox electronic and atmospheric scores, Cliff Martinez is a highly successful composer and musician. Composing scores for film such as ‘Drive’, ‘The Neon Demon’ and the recently released comedy ‘Game night’, he has created an impressive and memorable discography of music. Lift-Off was lucky enough to catch up the renowned composer to find out where his passion for composing started.

Interview By Lauren Macaree

What attracted you to being a film composer initially?

I was a rock and roll drummer for many years. I performed and recorded with THE WEIRDOS, THE DICKIES, LYDIA LUNCH, THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS and my all-time favorite musical hero, CAPTAIN BEEFHEART. I became fascinated by music technology in the late 80’s and in part, that is what led me out of rock and roll and into film scoring.

My first scoring job was an episode of PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE and I remember thinking how writing to picture created unique musical structures, and allowed for more originality and diversity than the music I was hearing in clubs and on the radio.  Shortly after that I met Steven Soderbergh – he hired me to work on his movies and that’s why I started in film.

Is there a film or person that influenced you to become a composer?

Well – on my first few films, I was fortunate enough to hook up with Steven Soderbergh, a lot of my flavour comes from him.

Do you have a favourite genre of film to compose for?

I’m an electronic musician who occasionally wanders off the reservation and creates orchestral or orchestral/electronic hybrid scores.  I’d like to think that I do both “dark” and “psychological” well. I’ve tried recently to branch out with a TV series (“The Knick” and the upcoming Amazon series “Too Old To Die Young”), and action movie (“The Foreigner”), and the recently released comedy (“Game Night”).


What makes a film stand out to you?

There are a lot of reasons to score a film but the most important reason for me is that I like the film. I’m going to have to look at it day in and day out sometimes for months. Second is the people you work with. Scoring a film is a long, deep journey and you want to take it with someone who will inspire you and make the process enjoyable.


You have collaborated with director Nicolas Winding Refn 3 times (4 if you count My Life!) What draws you to his projects?

And I’m working with him now on the new Amazon series he’s doing.  Nicolas always gives the music a big role to play in his films. Not many directors will hand a composer a scene with very little dialog and cut in a way that leaves a lot of explaining to the music department.

What has been the biggest hurdle you have faced in the industry and getting to where you are now?

Getting your first real break in the business is the hardest thing, I believe. I’m always stuck for an answer when people ask me how to establish themselves when they have the talent, but no real experience or credits. I never knew how to do that or had any plan, I just got lucky.

What would your top 3 tips for Film Composers be?

I saw Wynton Marsalis on Sesame Street and he was talking to kids about “The 12 rules of practice”. They were things like, “practice slowly at first” and “work out a regular schedule”. Then for rule number 12 he says “Look for connections between your music and other things”. Just like that. I thought it was the most profound things I’d ever heard about making music.

Which of the projects you have worked on would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?

That always changes with time. My current favorites are THE KNICK and NEON DEMON.

What would be your dream project to compose for?

I don’t have strong preferences genre-wise. I just like to work with imaginative, open-minded people on films that are well executed and have a spark of originality. I’m probably associated with a certain type of film, but I like to broaden my horizons and do something a little different whenever possible.

If someone wants to pursue a career as a composer, how would you recommend they go about it?

Get out while there’s still time. It’s rough out there. We are the last of a vanishing breed. The last of the Mohicans. The professional musician is going the way of the brontosaurus and the ventriloquist.

If you are truly serious about making it in music, brace yourself, because it won’t be easy. You will have to put in as much time on networking and self promotion as you do on the music itself. My best advice is this: my drum teacher always used to say to me. “Playing drums is fine, but don’t get any ideas about making a career out of it. Have a backup plan”. I was too boneheaded to take that advice, and I consider myself to be very, very fortunate to have never needed to.

Sorry to go negative. Sometimes ah gits the boogie woogie in me and it gots to come out.

What are the biggest mistakes you notice aspiring composers make at the start of their career?

Thinking that obtaining an agent will solve all your employment problems. I got an agent after SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE and I thought I was a made man. Then I waited 10 years for the phone to ring.