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Aural Fixation: How Cliff Martinez Scored With ‘Drive’

By  · Published on September 22nd, 2011

It’s difficult to walk away from Drive and not feel affected ‐ whether by the performances, the style, the music or the overall feel of the film. Simply put: it leaves an impression. After watching Drive the first time (and the second), I could not get the distinct music and sound of the film out of my head.

And I did not want to.

From the moment the neon pink, italicized credits begin and the music kicks in, you know you are about to be taken on a ride. The catchy 1980s synth-pop is interwoven with an almost mellow, but never quite calming, score that works to highlight the quieter moments while keeping the tension in the darker ones.

I got the chance to chat with Drive’s composer, Cliff Martinez, about the process of putting together his hypnotic score, working with director Nicolas Winding Refn, and some of his more surprising influences.

What attracted you to this project? How early on in the process were you brought on?

I saw a very polished rough cut of the film and it was love at first sight. Then Nicolas [Winding Refn] and producer Adam Siegel took me to the finest sushi restaurant in North Hollywood to get acquainted and that was it. I knew I was in good hands. Nicolas felt like he would be inspiring to work with and I felt that his producers supported him. I was brought on very late in the process. I think I had about four and a half weeks in total to turn in all the music, which is slicing it a little thin for me. But sometimes an intimidating deadline and a lot of coffee can get your creative juices flowing at top speed.

What was your process working with Nicolas? Was it a collaboration or were you left more to your own devices?

Nicolas was very involved. After our initial meeting, he went back to Copenhagen and we would talk on Skype almost every night. He usually had the upper hand in these exchanges as we would speak just before I was going to sleep but shortly after he had woken up. From what I had seen, music is a main ingredient in all his films so I definitely had his attention throughout the entire process.

Ryan Gosling (who plays Driver in the film) recently said REO Speedwagon’s “I Just Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” was a big inspiration in shaping the look and feel of the film. Did that influence the 1980s and synthesized sound of the soundtrack?

No, I can’t say that REO Speedwagon exerted a strong influence on the underscore. I didn’t hear that story until after I’d finished the score. Recently, I read an interview where Nicolas also mentioned Kraftwerk as a musical reference. I’d never heard of that one either but the score might have gone in a whole other direction if I had.

I can usually get by with just one or two good ideas but with Nicolas the ideas were abundant and came at me fast and furious. So I had a lot to choose from. It might have been nice to hear about each and every influence that went into the making of Drive, but I definitely had plenty to work with.

When you began creating the score, did you know it would be playing along side songs from artists such as Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx, College, and Chromatics? If so, did that lend to the style of the score?

The songs were more or less established when I was brought onboard and I was assured that they would be in the final version of the film. It seemed clear that the 80s synth-pop style was an important part of the overall sound and so I tried to integrate elements of that into the score in strategic places. We just wanted the songs and score to cooperate with one another and for the entire soundtrack to feel like it was cut from the same cloth. I didn’t set out to create a full-blown 80s style score however, nor do I think it was Nicolas’ intention to revisit the 80s with the film as a whole. It’s a modern film and soundtrack; the retro references are in there just for flavor.

Drive feels like a bit of a throw back to films with strong yet silent protagonists like Man With No Name and neo-noir films like Mulholland Dr. and To Live & Die In LA. Did the music from those films have any influence or provide inspiration for the score?

Yeah, Drive reminds me of the films of Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and other famous strong silent types. Sometimes I approach scoring like a method actor and will meticulously research any similar, relevant films I can get my hands on. I simply didn’t have time for that with Drive. It was a total first impulse, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure. Nicolas, however, mentioned that his all-time favorite film was Texas Chainsaw Massacre and because he made occasional references to it, I felt obliged to check it out. The discerning listener will discover a few tasty whiffs of Leatherface here and there in the score.

The score sounds almost ethereal at times (a stark contrast to the violence and intensity on screen). Was this an intentional choice or did it develop naturally?

It was definitely intentional. The ambient soundtrack style is sort of what I’m known for and is probably why I was chosen as composer. The temp score was loaded with ambient music at the time I saw it also and so that was the initial mission statement. It was later modified somewhat as concerns mounted that a 100% pure ambient score might cause some viewers to fall asleep. The idea of introducing more rhythm into the score was then added to create the needed energetic balance.

Do you have a favorite song on the soundtrack?

“Oh My Love.” It still gives me goose bumps every time.

The soundtrack for Drive is currently available through Lakeshore Records. Hit the gas and go add it to your playlist.

Editor’s Note: This is both the first entry in a new column that we’re really excited about and the first post from our newest Reject, Allison Loring. Give her a warm welcome, everyone, or she’ll hit you with a hammer.

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