Cliff Martinez, Nicolas Winding Refn Talk ‘Only God Forgives’ During Record Signing

A fan (left) shares a drawing of Ryan Gosling with “Only God Forgives” director Nicolas Winding Refn, center, and composer Cliff Martinez (Jean-Michel Arnoult)

Film score specialists Milan Records had never brought together a composer and a director for an in-store signing and OrigamiVinyl, the 4-year-old vinyl-only store in L.A.’s Echo Park, had never held a signing for a soundtrack.

When Cliff Martinez and Nicolas Winding Refn showed up to sign copies of the limited edition vinyl of Martinez’s score for “Only God Forgives,” the store had a record turnout, selling out all 150 copies of the album on hand.
“It’s so rare that you get an opportunity to bring the composer and the director together,” Milan’s head of U.S. operations JC Chamboredon said, noting the 4,000 copies of the double LP had sold out in less than two weeks.
Martinez and Refn, who first worked together on “Drive,” spoke to Billboard about the film, which stars Ryan Gosling in a violent tale about revenge and identity set in Thailand’s criminal underworld. It has grossed $6.7 million overseas and $577,000 in 10 days in the U.S. on 81 screens.
Martinez wrote the score and five karaoke songs for the film, three of which are included in the album along 14 of the film’s cues. (There are about 25 cues in the film).
Martinez, the first drummer in the Red Hot Chili Peppers who has scored 20 films in the last 15 years, said he’s always a little curious as to who is listening to his scores when they’re released on CD.
“If people listen to music as the soundtrack to their life, what kind of shit would people be doing to listen to this score,” he says. “The other day I got an email from a guy in the Middle East in the Army. He says he always plays the score when he goes on patrol.  OK, you’re the first guy who had copped to that. I get it.”
After working on “Drive,” what made you think Cliff was the right composer for “Only God Forgives”?
Refn: On ‘Drive’ we only had five weeks before mix so it was very fast. Cliff parachuted in over the film and came up and did something incredibly successful. I thought ‘well, I want to do this again’ but we’ll start with the script and not a finished movie. Then we’ll work our way from there.
Obviously the scores sound nothing alike and you use a lot of different instrumentation. Were any of those instruments new to you?
Martinez: The one really fresh sound that I brought to the score was the pin, a Thai folk instrument that’s like a three-string electrified lute. Nicolas was in Copenhagen editing and I said do you mind if I go to Thailand and work on the score. I went hoping it would inspire the score, but the biggest thing was the pin of northeastern Thailand.

Refn: When I decided to go Thai, not knowing anything about Thai music, I asked him what’s the country-Western music of Thailand.

Martinez: It’s the music of Isan, which is in the rural northeast. It’s impoverished, but they make the great party music. Most of the bands are electric guitar, bass, drums, horns and the pin plus the can, which is a big bundle of bamboo pipes. I tried to use [it] but it was too irritating, and I couldn’t figure out how to wedge it into the score.


Hanging out at Origami Vinyl in L.A. before a record singing for “Only God Forgives” are, from left, Milan Records’ Stefan Karrer, composer Cliff Martinez, Milan’s JC Chamboredon, Origami employee Simone Carter, director Nicolas Winding Refn and Origami owner Neil Schield (Jean-Michel Arnoult)

Beyond the pin, there is a healthy amount of sound design, which obviously was crucial in “Drive” as well. How do you decide what needs score and what needs, for a lack of a better word, sound?
Martinez: Nicolas and I both have a fondness for that gray area between music and sound design. Even though we vowed not to have any similarities between “Drive” and “Only God Forgives,” I think the one thing that they do have in common is this sound design/music hybrid stuff. I have to give Christian Anderson co-billing for that. There was a lot of back and forth for us.

Refn: We very carefully planned out when the music would come in, when it was welcome and when it was needed. I approached the film, visually, essentially like a silent movie. The second phase was 'What will it sound like?' A whole new approach.  The intention of the movie was that everything had to have double meanings. Especially because it was [a] heightened reality where it was set, a fantasy concept.
Nicolas says he shot the film chronologically. Do you work that way, or do you find a specific spot within the film to begin?
Martinez: The first thing [I scored] was one of the hallucinations that Julian [Gosling] has about Chang [Vithaya Pansringarm]. I went straight to the masturbation scene -- that caught my attention. (He laughs). The film had a hallucinogenic quality and that scene  typified the psychedelic aspect of the film. Often times I’ll tackle the thing that I think is representative of the rest of the movie. I’ll also tackle the longer  scenes first because it’s always easier to subtract things.
What does it take for you to say ‘I’ve got a handle on this. I know my direction’?
Usually --  I’ll use the term “themes” loosely – it’s when you have a memorable sound. I think that when you have a handful of those motifs that define the sound of the film, and you can plug them into  different situations -- the love scene, the action scene,  the revenge scene -- when you can get some versatility of your themes and motifs then you know you’ve got something going.  I like to make the music feel like its cut from the same cloth.