EXCLUSIVE: Working at a relentless pace, Steven Soderbergh's work ethic has benefitted not only from his drive and focus, but from surrounding himself with a regular group of collaborators who understand his process and approach to filmmaking. And one of those regulars is composer Cliff Martinez (a former drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers too). He has worked with Soderbergh ever since his debut "sex, lies & videotape," contributing to films big and small including "Kafka," "Traffic," "The Limey," "King Of The Hill" and more. The forthcoming virus thriller, "Contagion," will mark their tenth film together and it will definitely find the duo in new territory. Described by Soderbergh as a type of "horror movie" the star-studded tale -- the cast includes Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law and many, many more -- chronicles the outbreak of a deadly virus as it spreads quickly worldwide. It's a new genre for composer and director alike and the results should be fascinating.
We recently chatted with Martinez as he was out doing the rounds for his most recent work on the score for the legal drama "The Lincoln Lawyer." We asked him about his lengthy resumé with Soderbergh, what his process was like with the director and he revealed a couple of key classic scores the director is currently using as temporary material for "Contagion," which may be a window into of the tone of the film.
How has your relationship with Steven Soderbergh evolved over the years?
Well, it’s always great. Steven is the only guy I’ve done more than one film for, I think. But monogamy is always a good thing in creative partnerships. It seems like it’s always easier to work with Steven than other directors, just because there’s a kind of ESP that occurs with somebody you’ve worked with before. You know their likes and dislikes. And the work gets better. I think “Solaris” was my best work and it was the last thing I did with Steven. It’s a result of having worked with him for years and, you know, he doesn’t hire me in the first place if he thinks I’m miscast. He knows my strengths and weaknesses better than anybody. I think that’s what’s good. And what’s changed is we talk less. With “sex, lies, and videotape” we talked a lot, and over the years the dialogue becomes less and less because I guess I know what to do and he trusts me.
And you’re doing “Contagion” for Soderbergh, He’s described it as his “horror movie.” What is your approach to something like that?
Neither of us are deep enough into it to divulge how it’s going to go. He’s going to do some reshooting in a week or two. So I’ve only seen some rough assemblies of the film and read the script. I’ve always wanted to do a horror film because a lot of adventurous music can be written for horror films. It’s a genre unto itself and you can do things that are a little bit more dissonant and adventurous than something for, say, a comedic score. But I guess when he said “horror film,” I think he means more of a horror influence. I don’t think it’s a flat-out splatter movie. I think he may want to approach it that way, or be influenced by that approach. It’s a pretty horrific story. And if so, it’ll be great fun because I’ll be able to write some very ugly music. But at the moment I haven’t written anything, there really isn’t a director’s cut yet. I do like the idea of treating it as a horror movie.
At what point does he bring you into the fold?
He’s unusual in that he brings me in very early. And I’m not working very early. Like I’m not working right now [on “Contagion”]. But he told me about it five months ago and said “Are you busy?” And I said “Does Gary Busey have any teeth?” I knew I was going to be working on it months and months ago and he sent me a script. And even though I’m not writing music until I see something, I’m always thinking about stuff in the back of my head. So I wish everybody would do that, because it really helps. And we’ve had some dialogue, we’ve had some discussion, he’s referred me to some other movies and he’s talked about the horror aspect. So a dialogue has already started. And his post-production schedule is more generous than most. A lot of people wait until there’s five weeks left before they make a decision who to hire. I find that to be a rush. I’ve had up to 12 weeks with Steven, from the time I see a rough cut to the finish line. Usually he brings the composer in very early so he can take advantage of being on the ground floor. If they bring you in with five weeks left, maybe there’s been a temp score sitting in there marinating for months and everybody’s in love with. And Steven brings you in so that you’re part of the inception of the score, from the very beginning.
Temp scores are notoriously tricky for composers because directors tend to fall in love with them as you said and then sometimes ask that you replicate them. How do you feel about them?
I don’t have an aversion to it. A lot of composers seem to really dislike it, because they feel like it paints them into a corner or that they’re beholden to imitate it. I think it depends on who you’re working for. If it’s temped to John Williams and they say, “We couldn’t afford John Williams so we got you, could you please sound like John Williams?” That’s never happened to me. And every director I’ve worked with understands that the temp music is a rough guide.
It can work against you though.
Yeah, temp music can turn evil at times. I get nervous if the temp music works really well, it’s been in there a long time and it’s gone through some preview screenings and everybody becomes attached to it. In rare occasions, I’ve experienced some pressure to role model it to more of a degree than I like. But I can’t think of the last time that’s happened and I’m a lousy mimic anyhow. I think it’s just a standard tool. I’m so used to it. Almost every film I’ve worked on has had some kind of temp score. It’s just a foundation for communicating music to someone that is usually not a musician. [With a temp score, there's] no pesky spotting [guessing] session required because a temp score immediately shows you where they want you to stop and start, the style and direction that they’re looking for, and usually for me it’s ground zero for the start of the score. It’s good until you have a director tell you what they like or don’t like about the temp score. So, they’ve been okay by me. There have been some times that I have shamelessly role modeled after the temp score. Usually in every film score there’s like one piece of temp music or two that works really well. And I might come a little closer to it than I care to admit but for the most part you just kind of go your own way. But I’ve never felt like I’ve been unduly influenced by temp scores.
And people, at this point, probably know what they’re going to get when they hire you.
I think I’ve done enough films that people know there’s a certain sound or style that I’m known for. Ideally I’d like to believe I’m getting hired to sound like me. So what I do is usually okay. When a temp score becomes something I’m uncomfortable with it’s because they’ve already temped it with [my past work]. If they temp it with John Williams then it’s pretty interesting because I couldn’t sound like John Williams if they put a gun to my head. So if they temp it with something interesting, that really doesn’t sound much like me, then that opens it up. Like Soderbergh temped “Solaris” with Tangerine Dream. And I can’t sound anything like those guys. So then you get something interesting. Steven has never temped any of his films with my music. Because I’ve always gotten something really interesting from his films, and a lot of people hire you because they love “Traffic” or “Solaris” or “Narc” or something you’ve done. And they temp it with your own music, it can become a little incestuous because I can imitate that if I wanted to. So I kind of like it if they temp it with Danny Elfman or Thomas Newman or someone who I can’t sound like if I wanted to.
Have you heard what Soderbergh is temping “Contagion” with?
He’s put some temp music into this assembly. He’s kind of spit-balling at this point, so nothing’s etched in stone or permanent at this point. But he’s put in scores from the '60s and '70s – “French Connection” and “Marathon Man” and some interesting almost atonal suspense, tension music that might sound like horror music. That stuff is great because it’s like, I don’t even remember the music from “The French Connection” but it’s really interesting stuff. And again, trying to capture a 40-year-old film score sound is not something that I can pull out of my back pocket and say, “Wow, I know how to do this. I know how to sound like David Shire or Don Ellis.” So when you’re doing something like that, it’s not part of my vocabulary and it’s always a stretch to be influenced by something that you’re not capable of imitating. Steven always has pretty interesting temp stuff. There’s not a lot of music in the rough cut of “Contagion” so far, but from what I’ve heard it’s not typical Hollywood stuff.