Cliff Martinez: 'Drive haunts me' – composer recalls race to finish the iconic soundtrack

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“Do you feel like you never stop talking about Drive?” I ask Cliff Martinez, as I open my notebook full of questions about Drive, arguably my favourite film of all time. “You never hear the words ‘hit’ and ‘soundtrack’ together,” he replied with a smile. “But Drive is the exception. Film music is not that popular… but this one is.”

The legendary composer is talking to me to celebrate the release of its first Limited Edition 4K/Blu-ray discs. And there’s a lot of ground to cover.

Drive is absolutely one of those movies, you know? It’s a picture that, at the time, did not do as well commercially as the studio executives probably hoped for; but since then, it has become a cult hit – in the purest form. The film’s fandom sparked a fervour that has since devoured any form of media that even slightly resembled the movie. (Hell, I’ve written at length about synthwave music, the subgenre whose artists almost unilaterally cite Drive as their inspiration.)

But behind the messianic Drive were two artists who brought the lights and sounds to the big screen in the first place.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn adapted the James Sallis novel of the same name into the artistic-yet-pulpy hyper-violent 2011 film starring Ryan Gosling that fans know and love. In doing so, he somehow perfected a vision that has not (in my opinion, anyway) been matched since.

And to complement the movie’s distinct style, he needed the perfect soundtrack.

Enter: Cliff Martinez. The iconic film composer of The Lincoln Lawyer, Solaris, Kafka, etc, as well as a former member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The American musician would go on to lay down Drive’s incredible score, which later peaked on the Billboard and Official Charts’ Soundtrack list, while also reaching 30th position on the US Billboard 200 (a rarity in 2011, perhaps less so now).

But long before the soundtrack became an anomalous success story in the film score world, Martinez was struggling to get it done in time.

Speaking over Zoom, Martinez told Express.co.uk that he was shown a “final cut” of the film before Refn asked officially asked him if he wanted to join the project. 

But there was just one problem: Refn – a director renowned for being unconventional – had left Martinez with just five weeks to complete the score. From start to finish. 

“That’s a land speed record for me,” Martinez shook his head. “I don’t think I had done anything – where I did a very good job – in five weeks before… so, it was pretty short.” What followed was five weeks of intense work. And, on reflection, Martinez noted that he wasn’t able to change, adapt and pore over the score incessantly.

Martinez said: “For the most part, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to take the music back and say: ‘Change this, change that.’ I kind of went on first instincts and they turned out to be correct. It doesn’t always work out that way!”

Honestly, working with the eccentric Refn sounds extremely stressful. 

But the ever-calm Martinez seemed to think it was all part of the perfect storm. “With Drive,” he breathed, zen-like. “Whatever [it was] – the pressure the anxiety, the deadline – it all worked in its favour. I guess you can’t argue with results, because it came out fine!”

The results certainly do speak for themselves, and the stress and the hard work didn’t deter him from working with the auteur, Refn, again after that. Multiple times. Two years later they worked together on Only God Forgives. Three years after that, 2016, they worked on The Neon Demon. In 2019 they collaborated again on another project – a TV show for Amazon Prime Video – Too Old To Die Young.

But there’s been no signs of any kind of sequel to Drive just yet.

Refn certainly isn’t the kind of director to follow-up his films… but considering the James Sallis source material _does_ have a sequel, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Is a sequel something Martinez thinks will happen in the near future? “I don’t think so,” he admitted. “Every conversation we’ve had about Drive since Drive, [Refn] has said: ‘This film is going to be different, we don’t want to be like Drive!’ So, I’m guessing not.” He did give fans a glimpse of hope, however: “Maybe in years he’ll put the band back together!”

The lack of a sequel is probably a good thing for Martinez, anyway.

While he no doubt enjoyed the creation and the success of Drive’s iconic soundtrack, he has been left dealing with echoes of it ever since. “For the most part,” he sighed. “Drive has haunted me in temp music. Picture editors cut chunks of Drive into a new film and the director says: ‘That works, who did that?’ And they’ll say: ‘It was that numbskull, Cliff Martinez!’ ‘Okay, let’s get him.'”

“Honestly,” he smiled. “I’m a little sick of it! I don’t really want to watch it.” He added: “I rarely watch the picture for entertainment after I’m done [working on it]. You live with it. I knew every frame of [Drive] inside and out because I watched it every day for five weeks!” “I’ll listen to [the soundtrack] and I’ll go: ‘Man that was good! What happened to me since?! I lost my edge!”

Although he added: “But no regrets on what little I’ve heard.”

Going forward, Martinez has just started scoring Refn’s new project: Copenhagen Cowboy; a six-part Danish Netflix show. “He called it an extension of the Pusher series [Refn’s Danish film trilogy]” he said with a smirk. “I don’t see the connection, personally.”

Drive is released on Limited Edition 4K/Blu-ray and Standard Editions on 6 June (Second Sight Films).



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