Cliff Martinez – Contagion & Drive

September 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

There’s nothing conventional about what film composer Cliff Martínez has been doing in his music studio for the last 22 years. His work doesn’t feature full orchestras like many traditional scores. His background as a rock musician sets him apart from others who took a more classical approach to the craft.

Martínez started his professional music career as a drummer in a number of bands in the 70s and 80s including a stint with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His first scoring assignment came in 1989 when director Steven Soderbergh tapped him for the drama “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” Since then, Martínez has scored over 20 films, including the Academy Award-winning film “Traffic” starring Benicio del Toro and the sci-fi love story “Solaris” starring George Clooney.

This year was Martínez’s busiest as a composer with the release of three films – “The Lincoln Lawyer” in March and both “Contagion” and “Drive” this month. During an interview with me, Martinez, 57, talked about his consistent work with Soderbergh and how the definition of a modern composer has evolved to include rockers like him.

How familiar do you have to be with the actual script of a movie your working on? Is your work based on what’s on the page or does your inspiration come more from conversations you have with the director?

For me, the work begins with a rough cut of the film. I can’t do much with the script. I’ve tried to write music to a script prior to seeing the film, but I’ve found it turns out to be a waste of time. After seeing the film, I like to have a creative discussion with the director. They want to hear where my instincts are taking me. Most directors I’ve worked with don’t really jump in with both feet until I’ve put some music on the table. That’s when the real creative dialogue begins.

You’ve scored a handful of films for director Steven Soderbergh. What is it about your relationship with him that works so well?

“Contagion” was film number 10 I’ve done with him. I have a pretty good feel of his likes and dislikes. He has a pretty good instinct about which of his films he calls me in to score. I get to kind of be myself for the most part. He always seems to bring out the best in me. I always wonder how he does it because on the last few films we haven’t communicated that much with one another except through telepathy and short text messages. One thing Steven does that is different is that he usually sends me the script long before the shooting begins even though I’m not writing anything for the script and we’re not discussing it that much. I have a lot of time to think thing over and let some of my ideas incubate. He’s one of the most hands-off directors I’ve ever worked with. Whenever I work with him, I always seem to create a score that is uniquely Soderberghian.

As a composer, is creating a specific style to your sound something you see as a positive thing or would you rather have the reputation of never knowing what you’re going to deliver?

I guess I’d like to have my cake and eat it, too. I want to be known for having a recognizable style. I believe having your own personal identity is what makes you competitive. On the other hand, I would like to be versatile and be challenged to go in new directions. I don’t want to be typecast as the “ambient guy” or someone who only does electronic scores. I think most of the work that comes my way is because people feel they know me musically.

Everyone knows composers like John Williams and Howard Shore. Can you name me some other composers that are doing great work, but aren’t household names yet? I’m asking you this because I think you fall under that category at this point in your career.

I think the guys who are known for their comedy scoring, they often get overlooked because their work is seen as lighter. I think writing for comedy, in my opinion, is very difficult and very specialized. That’s why the guys that are good at it are asked to do it over and over again. Let’s see, Rolfe Kent (“Sideways“), Mark Mothersbaugh (“The Royal Tenenbaums“) – those are just a couple of names that come to mind of guys that probably don’t get as much attention as they deserve.

Talk about your ideas going into a film like “Contagion” and how you feel your score represented the outbreak story. Personally, I felt you gave the film a sense of urgency and added to the panic and fear of these characters.

Well, my direction from Steven came primarily in the form of three temp scores. In a very early version of the film he used the music from “The French Connection” and “Marathon Man.” So, I kind of had this 70s flavor in there from the very beginning. Then it changed direction and it went to [the band] Tangerine Dream. That’s where the retro synthesizer sounds and ideas came from. Towards the end he threw all that out and used some really energetic and contemporary film music. I think he was very preoccupied with the pace and the rhythm of the film. So, that was probably my biggest function – to keep things moving along and moving quickly. Another mission was to magnify the fear factor. He always talked about it as a horror film. I just tried to conjure up obsessive anxiety with the music. That was probably my most significant contribution. I think the film really worked best when it was scaring you. I just tried to heighten that feel by keeping it off balance and not going in an expected direction. Then at times I really tried to underscore the more tragic and personal moments. Toward the third act, I wanted to create a more hopeful tone as they begin to get a handle on the virus.

It’s interesting some of the temp music started as retro music because that’s what the final product in “Drive”  feels like. Did you revisit any cult films to get a feel for that score or are you the type of composer that would rather start from scratch?

Sometimes if I really don’t have a sense of direction, I’ll watch other films that are similar. I kept thinking I should watch “Andromeda Strain” and “Outbreak” for “Contagion,” but I never got around to it. It was partly because I kind of had my own internal sense of direction about it. But sometimes I will do that. I didn’t do it for “Drive.” I don’t really think it was the director’s intention to really revisit the 80s. There are a handful of contemporary songs that actually sound like 80s synth pop. I think he just chose those songs because they sounded cool. I rolled with that because I wanted there to be a connection with the score and the songs. Beyond that, the film felt very modern to me. I don’t think anyone would listen to the scores of either film and think they were 70s or 80s-type scores. But both do have interesting personalities.

How do you think the landscape of film scores is changing with more composers coming from the same musical background as yourself? We have Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, who did the score for “There Will Be Blood,” and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who won an Oscar last year for “The Social Network”  score.

When the art of film scoring was born, everybody in it came from the European, classical tradition. But nowadays, especially since the record industry is taking a dive, rockers like myself and Trent Reznor are migrating in great numbers to film scoring. That’s kind of normal now. Half of the guys that are doing it now come from a rock ’n’ rock background or have played in bands. For me, I think it contributes and enriches the art form just as immigration enrichesAmerica. The more the merrier!

Some of the sounds you use in your scores don’t feel like they were made by instruments. I can only describe some of them as dreamlike and surreal. I’m wondering outside of your studio, what kind of sounds do you like listening to?

I live in Topanga Canyon, which is like a faux-rustic enclave in Los Angeles. I love the sounds of all the critters outside – the frogs, owls, crickets, and birds. Some of the birds around here are pretty accomplished musicians. You can learn a lot from them.

Is there anything specific you’ve learned about yourself as a composer from your first film “Sex, Lies and Videotape” in 1989 to where you are today?

I’ve learned quite a bit since I first started. I guess what I’ve learned is that there are no boundaries when it comes to imagination. It’s limitless. The more I come to understand music, the more I feel like a numbskull because there is always more to learn. The more I do it, the more I’m humbled. I’m just always trying to get better at it. I pick up a few tricks along the way.

Monique Gabriela Curnen – Contagion

September 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

In director Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller “Contagion,” Latina actress Monique Gabriela Curnen, 34, plays Lorraine Vasquez, a pregnant newspaper editor who is doing everything she can to survive the outbreak of a deadly virus across the world.

During our interview, Curnen, who has starring in such films as “Half Nelson” and “The Dark Knight,” talked about the realism Soderbergh brings to the film and her experience working with actor Jude Law.

A lot of your movies and TV shows in the past have featured you in roles as a strong, independent woman, whether it’s been as a detective or attorney or sergeant. How did it feel to let your guard down and play someone much more reliant on others for help?

It was great. It’s so nice to mix things up. It’s great to play with different chords on your instrument, if you will. I loved exploring that more soft and vulnerable side.

You play Lorraine Vasquez, a newspaper editor expecting a child. Jude plays a conspiracy theorist blogger who occasionally freelances for your publication. In your first scene with Jude, you seem to be the one in charge telling him that you’re not interested in his story ideas. Talk about that scene and what you, Jude and director Steven Soderbergh wanted to do with that.

I think part of the beauty of the film is how accurate it is in portraying real life. I interviewed a friend who worked for many years as a newspaper editor. You probably know as a writer that there are hoops you have to jump through. You have to pitch stories and do a lot of investigative work for the newspaper to be able to run with the story. I think that scene was sort of a real, barebones, practical depiction of print media today and the different levels you have to go through before you even get a story published. It’s a beautiful set up because [the story Jude’s character pitches] becomes the story of the pandemic.

I thought it was also a nice set up for your second scene with Jude, which is a lot different. In that scene you’re the one coming to him for help. Talk about that scene.

Yeah, imagine realizing your mistakes as a professional and also the deeper regret and horror you feel of not having listened to him and then needing help. On top of that, I’m pregnant. I’m willing to do anything to try to save my child.

Since your character is pregnant, you have a lot more to lose than any of the other characters in the film. Did you think about that during production?

Oh, yeah, very much. I have several siblings and several friends with young children. I have had pretty deep conversations with several girlfriends who have kids. I feel like that was a big part of what was going through my head and heart at the time.

I went to a screening of the film with my wife, who is actually eight months pregnant. During that scene she was just devastated, so I made sure to tell her that if that was ever to happen in real life she could have the cure before me.

(Laughs) That was wise. I think the film is so accurate in its portrayal of fear and the amount of devastation that could be reached by a disease.

I’m a huge fan of composer Cliff Martinez’s work. When you watched the film for the first time, how do you think the score added to the film?

It’s so funny you said that because I loved the score the first time around, but I felt it even more the second time around. I was talking with Steven [Soderbergh] last night saying that [Cliff’s] work is so great. It’s not heavy-handed and is so in tune as a tool of the narrative. It’s interesting you bring that up because I left that screening feeling a real sense of respect for his work and how he does what he does. I see the score as another member of the great ensemble of actors we have.

If an outbreak like this were ever to happen in real life, do you think you’d be a survivor or would you be one of the first ones to get coughed on?

(Laughs) Hey, one can only hope you would do the best you could with your immune system under those circumstances.

There have been other outbreak movies before. What do you think it is about “Contagion” that will make it stand out from the rest?

I think it’s incredibly well edited. I think it has its finger on the pulse of a very possible reality. It’s told so true to life that I think it’s going to make it rise above the rest. I also think it’s a tribute to Steven’s direction and editing and the wonderful script by Scott Burns. I came away from it feeling it has a richness of a [Robert] Altman film in terms of the ensemble actors but with this taut, really suspenseful drama. I think people will be pulled into these storylines because each one lives very richly on its own.

The last time I talked to you was for your role in “The Dark Knight.” Were you at all disappointed your character is not returning for the next one?

Oh, well I would have loved another opportunity to work with Christopher Nolan and those guys. So, yeah, to a small extent I was. But I know it’s going to be a great movie. They have a lot of new characters they’re going to be introducing. It was just great to be a part of the one I was in.

Contagion

September 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law
Directed by:  Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”)
Written by:  Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”)

Once a year or so, a national news program will trot out one of those gross-out ratings-grabber stories about just how dirty and germ-filled your workplace is. The reporter will take cotton swabs and run them across objects officemates unconsciously touch like doorknobs, copy machines and keyboards. Back at the laboratory, the Petri dishes invariably explode into a horror show of nasty germs that make you shudder at the thought of opening a door and eating a sandwich without dousing your hands in gallons of sanitizer. Who wants to catch Scarlet fever from simply grabbing the handle on the break room fridge?

In “Contagion,” the new film from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”), the ickiness of passing germs around willy-nilly by touch turns deadly when a new virus emerges causing international pandemonium. Before anyone knows what’s going on, the virus has already gone global by way of carriers like the coughing man on the bus who grabs every pole and handrail before he comes to his stop, the sick kid leaving a snot smear on the door as he leaves school, and “patient zero” playing poker at the casino and passing infected chips around the table.

Here, “patient zero” is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), an American businesswoman who brings the virus to the U.S. from Hong Kong. Returning home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and her young son, Beth kicks off a chain reaction of infection in her hometown of Minneapolis (as well as Chicago, by way of a quickie extra-marital fling on the way home). The outbreak attracts the attention of the Centers for Disease Control, led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) as well as that of inflammatory blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Cheever dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to track down everyone exposed to the virus in the states while Krumwiede pokes and prods and generally cries “government/pharmaceutical conspiracy!” at every turn.  The globe-trotting narrative works well in the character-heavy plot, which includes a World Health Organization doctor (Marion Cotillard) sent to trace the origin of the virus and scientists (Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, Demetri Martin) charged with developing a vaccine. Mitch and his desire to protect his daughter as society crumbles around them stays at the center of the chilling story.

Soderbergh’s deft direction of a sprawling cast peppered with Oscar winners and nominees feels breezy and effortless, even when the story spirals into the darkness and questions what an event like this would bring to the real world. The only element that rings false is Law’s provocative celebrity blogger character, which is a clear attempt to modernize the old “intrepid reporter” archetype the rise of internet journalism has rendered obsolete. Fortunately, the rest of the film is rooted firmly enough in reality to make you thoroughly wash your hands afterward, and maybe turn your head in mild panic when someone coughs in a crowded room.