‘The Foreigner’ Composer Cliff Martinez on Action Scores, Touring, and Success

One of Hollywood’s most in-demand composers speaks with us on behalf of his score for The Foreigner.

The Foreigner, the new action film for Casino Royale director Martin Campbell, arrives in theaters this weekend. The film is based on Stephen Leather’s novel of the same name and is a hybrid of sorts. In one instance, it is about a soldier who was traumatized but asked to gear up one more time. On the other, it is a political thriller about a soldier who has become a politician who is drumming up more trouble. The Foreigner stars the legendary Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan in this dramatic action feature.

Cliff Martinez was asked to create the soundtrack for The Foreigner. Notable for his work with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, Martinez has been a composer in high demand in recent years. Although he hasn’t typically worked on action films, he was eager to give the genre a try. What results is a soundtrack that is extremely original for an action film, but at the same time is very much in Martinez wheelhouse. We were lucky enough to have an opportunity to speak with Martinez about his contributions to The Foreigner, his current career hot steak, and his various experiences composing for different mediums.

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What was it like working with Director Martin Campbell? Far different than Nicolas Winding Refn I imagine.

I’d go one in one a once a week, we’d have a new bunch of music we’d go over. When I work with more experienced directors they seem to talk less. Martin gave me the broad points. He’d describe the dramatic intention of the scene but he seemed pretty lenient and flexible to my ideas. I’d like to think the Foreigner score is slightly different than your average action score. One of the differences is the emphasis is really on electronic music. Martin totally supported that idea.

With previous scores, you’ve had a signature instrument. Take ‘The Knick’ and the Cristal Baschet. Was there anything that you tried using for The Foreigner?

It was all synthesizers. Some hardware synthesizers. No Cristal Baschet, no steel drums.

In 2011, you had both Drive and Contagion released in theaters. Do you consider your career in a different place before and after 2011?

Oh yeah. Very much so. I was struggling prior to that. Steven Soderbergh would hire me once in a while, but I went through a period of being inactive. Then Contagion and Drive came out within a week of each other and the phone has been ringing ever since.

How is composing for a feature film different than a video game?

There are a few differences. Film or TV shows are generally story based. You’re not really telling a story through music in a video game. The other difference is that I usually rely on the picture to create the structure, mood, and approach in the music. In a video game, you really don’t see any picture because the game unfolds differently every time someone plays it. The music for Far Cry came in two flavors, action music on a scale of 1-10, and then suspense music on a scale of 1-10.

The schedule is really different. The game schedule lasted about a year. In a film, you are in and out in a couple months.

You’ve had interviews where you’re asked about performing live again. You don’t see a guy like Hans Zimmer or John Carpenter and say, “hey I could do that”?

Not very much. I don’t know how to do it. I’ve had a lot of offers to perform live, but I just don’t what I would do. Most of my music is electronically generated. I’m not sure hitting space bar on my laptop would really be an exciting live event. If I did it, I couldn’t do it halfway. It would take a lot of time and effort and I wouldn’t just want to play one show. I’ve been procrastinating on that whole idea. I don’t see it happening anytime soon, but I still think about it.

I don’t miss being on stage. That’s one of the reasons I went from being a rock n’ roll drummer to being a film composer. I kind of enjoy working at home and being behind the scenes.

Did you have free reign when it came to the score for “The Foreigner?”

I don’t really remember having a discussion about it in the beginning. Normally you just meet the director and kind of get together informally. In that first meeting, you just want to get a feel for the type of person you are going to be collaborating with. He gave me a rough cut of the film and bunch of music was cut into. For me, that works as a really strong guide. It gives you an idea of the style and approach that the director prefers. Hopefully, the director isn’t too terribly attached to that music.

The direction came in the form of the temporary music, some of it was my music. Even though I don’t have a lot of action music to my credit.

Do you get a kick out of seeing the completed film?

Usually not. I usually avoid seeing the film after its finished. I’m usually sick of it since I’ve seen it a million times. I’m also very hard on myself and I’ll look at [the film] and have a lot of regrets.

I’ve almost always been disappointed in the mix for movies. Since composer’s work on the music for the film on an unrealistic ratio of music to vocals. [The music is usually higher volume than anything else during editing for composers].

The Foreigner really surprised me though. The temp music was mixed kind of normal and action music is generally a thankless job because it gets buried in effects. They crank the music in The Foreigner though. I was really flattered by the mix. Also in a lot of action films, the music is competing with helicopters and gunfights. In The Foreigner, most of the action comes from fist fights, so the music really popped out.

I’ve always wanted to do an action movie score, although in the back of my mind I thought I’d just be depressed since no one will hear the music. We beat the odds though since you can hear it loud and clear in The Foreigner.