Cliff Martinez Discusses Thai Influences and His Accidental “Horror” Score for ‘Only God Forgives’

By  · Published on July 12th, 2013

Anyone who has seen the trailer for Only God Forgives knows that director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest promises to take viewers on a wild, intense ride through the back alleys of Thailand. Refn once again teams up with Ryan Gosling, who plays soft-spoken drug runner Julian, and composer Cliff Martinez to create a stylized and violent world that is nothing short of a living nightmare.

Martinez creates a layered score that incorporates kinetic electronic elements with bold organs and Asian instrumentation that work perfectly with the sound design and sparse dialogue (a Refn favorite, these days anyway.) I spoke with Martinez about constructing such a commanding score, working with Refn again, unavoidable Drive influences, and the challenge of creating music that actually helps tell the story rather than just accent it.

Only God Forgives is a bit different from your last collaboration (Drive) with director Nicolas Winding Refn ‐ was it the story of Only God Forgives that drew you to this project or was it the opportunity to get to collaborate with Nicolas again?

More the latter. He’s a great director to work with and he didn’t really send me the script and say, “What do you think ‐ do you want to do it?” It was more, “I’m doing it ‐ by the way, where’s the script?”

So you were on board just knowing it was one of his projects and knowing it would probably be something pretty cool?

Yeah –I’ve actually done a Grey Goose vodka commercial with Nicolas so I plan to follow him around for a long time. I told him, “As long as you don’t do a romantic vampire movie, I’m with you all the way from here on out. If you can abide by that one simple rule, we’ll have a long, fruitful, and monogamous creative partnership.”

That’s a good rule! With the Only God Forgives score, it has a definite Asian feel to reflect the film’s location in Thailand –

Oh good! That was my intention and I thought I kind of lost myself along the way, but I’m glad there is a remnant of that in there because that was my intention.

It’s not the most present element, it’s definitely combined with other things, but it almost works on a subconscious level of knowing you are in a very specific location ‐ were there specific instruments you used to incorporate those sounds and tones into the score?

Yeah ‐ there were a couple of instruments I tried to use. One is called the Can, which is kind of a bundle of bamboo pipes, and it’s popular in North East Thailand folk music. I couldn’t really play it very well and it was really kind of irritating so I ended up not using that. But there is another instrument called the Phin, also from the same part of Thailand, and it’s unique to the Esan Thai music. It’s like a three string lute and it’s electrified and acoustic ‐ I used an electric one and that’s used throughout the score. So that’s kind of the one single instrument I used to give it some flavor.

How did you know about these instruments to draw on them for the score?

I’ve gone to Thailand several times, mostly for the food, but occasionally I would seek out the music and this Esan music from North Eastern Thailand is kind of equivalent of our maybe Appalachian music or our country western music ‐ the rest of Thailand kind of looks down on it as poor people’s music or the music of the rural north, but most of it is real exuberant, party music and the ballads are super, super kind of syrupy.

I’d gone to a couple concerts, like really big concerts where thousands of people are just inebriated and fornicating, and there are just these crazy parties and that particular kind of music excited me. The instrumentation sounds fairly Western ‐ they have keyboards, brass, drums, bass, guitars, and the kind of one curve ball in the lineup was the Phin, the Can, and the vocals, of course. They had a singer who was very distinctive, but this instrument, the Phin, kept popping up as a standard instrument in an otherwise kind of Western lineup of instruments as the one thing that kind of came in from left field.

Karaoke also plays a big role both in Asian culture and in Only God Forgives ‐ did you have a hand in selecting the karaoke songs that were performed in the film?

Not the songs exactly, but I’d like to think I had some influence. Nicolas had originally intended to use iconic American country western songs like “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash and “Country Roads” by John Denver and I think once you start to get into the price tag of songs like that, because they would have been sung in Thai, you would have had to pick really recognizable songs to have the irony work.

So I think he was starting to drift away from it once he got a whiff of what it would cost to clear those songs and at the same time I was a big fan of this Esan music so I sent him a compilation of some of my favorite songs that I had collected and I think that kind of helped to encourage him to reconsider and use Thai pop songs.

Then he moved to Thailand ‐ he uprooted his whole family, put his girls in school there, his wife was there for six months, and I think that Ryan Gosling lived down the hall from him. So he completed relocated and he was surrounded by Thai staff, assistants, and a Thai crew, and I think at that point they probably had a hand in throwing him specific songs. So I didn’t pick the songs, but I definitely encouraged him to go Thai.

Was it Vithaya Pansringarm (who plays villain Chang) actually singing those songs or was he lip synching over someone else?

He sings the first one, but the one at the end credits he does not sing. And the one in the big torture scene, I don’t know that anybody is singing in that. He’s on screen, but the music is very abstract, there may be a voice buried in there. So basically there’s the one towards the opening ‐ that’s Vithaya. The end credits ‐ that’s him lip synching.

And the female vocal Thai piece was originally sung by the actress, Yayaying (who plays Mai), who is a famous Thai pop singer, but she’s not singing on screen. I don’t know if it’s a nightclub or a brothel, I’m not sure what it is, but there are a lot of women and there is a female singer ‐ that is the original track. Now for the CD, because Yayaying had sang it, and built the karaoke track, and she had sent me her vocal, the CD has my imitation karaoke track and her voice actually singing it, even though it doesn’t appear in the film that way.

The score also plays off the natural elements like the sound of wind chimes, rain, obviously swords being unsheathed ‐ did you work with the sound designer to incorporate those sounds into your score to create that almost “wall of sound” effect in some of the scenes?

Well we never worked together ‐ he, Kristian Andersen, was in Copenhagen and we kept tabs on each other. We kept saying, “I’m gonna take this scene and you take that” or “We’ll be working together on this” or “I’ll keep my stuff very sparse.”

In the end I’m not sure, I’ve only seen the finished film once really, at Cannes, and it was very different from the way it left the house. The sound design element is fairly prominent in it and it sounds to me like they blended. There’s a fair amount of overlap between my sort of early musical, tonal sound design, like those hallucinogenic hallway sequences, and some stuff that Kristian did so I think there was a pretty successful hybridizing of the sound department and the music department in a handful of scenes.

So there is a fair amount of stuff in there that you might think is me that’s Kristian and there’s probably some stuff that people would think is the sound designer that’s actually me, and that’s probably the perfect balance.

The music in the film actually felt like it was vibrating and was something that was actively around you, not just something you were passively hearing ‐ was that something you were striving to do or was that something that developed through the final mix?

It probably has to do with the mix, but I’d say that the design was intended. As much as Nicolas wanted to avoid any reference to Drive, it was kind of impossible for all of us to reinvent ourselves completely and Nicolas and I are both very fond of these kind of undulating, ambient, textural things as a device to use music or music that’s barely music that leaves a very small, dramatic footprint, but is kind of immersive yet unobtrusive. So I think that the ambient, evolving, textural thing carried over from Drive that’s so much a part of the way Nicolas approaches things sonically, and me as well.

One of the biggest parts of the score is the use of the bold organ elements ‐ do you have a specific interpretation of how the audience should perceive the organ seeing as it is so prevalent throughout the score?

It was simply a boneheaded reference to the church and church music. To me, it was the obvious reference to make to suggest something religious. But I wanted the biggest, most massive, kind of the loudest, most aggressive organ sound possible to note this god-like scale.

And it just happened to be a very interesting instrument to contrast against everything else because you don’t hear a lot of pipe organs in film scores. I think Philip GlassCandyman — a horror film with the pipe organ ‐ was the last thing I heard that used it, but I just think it was a great color.

Well it certainly evoked terror with its use in this score as well!

Yeah ‐ it seemed to be well suited to what I think, in the end, turned out to be more of a horror score. I didn’t really see it that way during the process, but after the smoke cleared, and I’m just putting together the CD, and putting the tracks side-by-side, and I’m thinking, “Gosh ‐ if I hadn’t seen the movie I’d say this was a horror movie!” So maybe that’s the other part of it too. I think the organ is one of those instruments that’s just suggestive of that genre.

To wrap up ‐ what is your favorite part of the film?

I guess in terms of my favorite scene, I think as an audience member, it’s gotta be the dinner scene with the mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Julian (Gosling) where the mother is comparing the son’s penises. [Laughs] I just think that scene is so outrageous! I think in the future when they show these compilations of, you know, “100 Years of Great Movie Making” they’ll show a little snippet of Singing In The Rain and Wizard of Oz and Jimmy Cagney smashing the grapefruit into Jean Harlow’s face there will also be the line about the “cum dumpster” ‐ that just has to be included as one of the all-time great movie scenes. Maybe you shouldn’t print that…

It’s getting printed because it’s true!

[Laughs] Well… musically! My favorite scene is the one-armed man explaining who Chang is because in the script there is quite a long description there. He tells Julian that the, “Angel of Vengeance took my arm,” and he explains this person who is this mythical, legendary, part super-human, part human.

But when I got the rough cut of the film, one of the first things I asked Nicolas was, “So ‐ what happened to all of the dialogue? How come nobody’s talking? There was lots of talking in the script.” And Nicolas gave me his reasons. But that scene in particular, that was a big piece of information!

And I said, “I think you’ve gone a little too far in this one scene because you can see his lips moving, and I know he’s talking, and you know he’s explaining some very important stuff ‐ what’s up with that?” And he goes, “Well we couldn’t really use it because he’s called the ‘Angel of Vengeance,’ but the actor kept saying the Angel of “Wengeance” and it had comical overtones so we couldn’t use it. So now it’s up to you to explain the Angel of Vengeance through music.” So that was my favorite scene as far as the music doing something, telling the story, and filling in a very big blank so musically, that’s probably my proudest moment in the film.

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Only God Forgives comes out in limited release Friday, July 19th. The film’s soundtrack will be available on both iTunes or Amazon Tuesday, July 16th, but you can preview the soundtrack now through Pitchfork Advance.