The Neon Demon, directed by Drive filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, is one of the most controversial films of the year. An exploration of LA’s modelling industry starring Elle Fanning and Keanu Reeves, the horror movie follows the exploits of a young model preyed on by cannibalistic older models threatened by her newcomer status. It’s extremely violent, was booed and Cannes and got The Daily Mail all up in arms. Its soundtrack, switching between ambient numbers and banging rock songs, was recorded by Cliff Martinez, who was the original drummer in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He’s worked with Refn before, on Drive and Only God Forgives, so we chatted to Martinez about The Neon Demon, working with Skrillex – as he did on the 2012 film Spring Breakers – and why doesn’t miss the Chili Peppers.
The film’s been very divisive. Were you surprised by that?
No; having done three films for Nicolas, I get the feeling that his thing is to push people’s buttons and to be controversial, so it didn’t come as any surprise.
What’s the appeal of working with Refn?
Monogamy has its advantages. At a certain point, there are creative shortcuts and I really know what the director likes that just makes a better score. We have our old tricks. He’ll tell me, ‘You know that thing you do with a bowling ball, cream cheese and dynamite? Gimme one of those!’ I say, ‘Oh, you mean a number Number Seven? They’re just musical devices. We’ve built a vocabulary up; there’s actually nothing called a Number Seven but there are some familiar things that he’ll ask me to do and I know what it is immediately.
Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon
The thing that’s probably most fun about Nicholas is he’s very music-centric; he really likes to put the music in the spotlight and gives the composer a big role. In some films you have a small role and the composer is, figuratively speaking, waiting out in the parking lot for the film to end. Nicolas took me to Cannes for the Q&A. I was sat there alongside Elle Fanning! It’s like, ‘Really? You wanna take the composer along with you?’
So you’ve developed your own kind of language together?
They say that schizophrenia is symbolised by having to invent your own language, so maybe that’s what it is.
What was particular about your approach to this film, as opposed to other movies you’ve worked on?
There was a lot of stuff in there that, honestly, I don’t know what it means. There’s symbol that keeps appearing and I have no idea what it means. If you ask Nicolas, he would say, ‘Well, what do you think it means?’ He won’t tell you, so my job is to impose importance on some of these symbols and gestures within the film. That’s unique to this film: trying to create a sense of meaning when you’re not sure what the meaning is, or if there is any.
The plot of the film is similar to that of Suspiria, the 1970s Italian horror movie. Is that something you and Nicolas discussed?
Yeah, Nicolas and I had been talking about that. He turned me on to that and Deep Red [also directed by Dario Argento]. I like those real brash Goblin [the Italian rock group that worked repeatedly with Argento] scores. They’re loud and in your face. For years I thought that film music was supposed to be in the background, supporting something else – never in the foreground – but that changed when I saw those films. I tried to do that a little bit more with The Neon Demon, because there are often sequences with very little dialogue, the music is out there in the spotlight.
What else were you inspired by for this project?
John Carpenter [the horror movie maestro famed for writing creepy soundtracks], Philip Class and Tangerine Dream; those kinds of electronic artists. Nicolas gave me a rough cut of the film and he wanted to superimpose this idea of some period of sound to it, so I aimed for the synthesiser sounds of the early 70s to try to create an old-fashioned sound, for no other reason other than they just sound cool. I asked Nicolas about ‘Drive’, “Why is the driver wearing a rubber mask [in one scene]? They don’t know who he is; it’s not like he has to conceal his identity”. Nicholas said, “because it’s cool!”, so I happen to use that to justify a lot of things.
Keanu Reeves in The Neon Demon
What was it like, working on the Spring Breakers soundtrack with Skrillex?
I only met him a couple times and we only genuinely collaborated on one piece of music, which appears in the scene where the girls are out in the restaurant. We exchanged files online for that. I wasn’t even gonna do the [relatively low-budget] film because I was like, ‘What are they gonna pay me in? Frozen shrimp?’ And the script was terrible! [Controversial director Harmony Korine] showed me the movie and the opening scene features ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites’ by Skrillex. I said, ‘That’s the theme for the whole movie. Why don’t you just make some ambient textural things based on that melody. On paper Spring Breakers seemed liked it could be a disaster. It could be great or a mess. Right off the bat, it just seemed to work.
Do you ever miss being in the Red Hot Chili Peppers?
One of the reasons I got out was I was never comfortable on stage. Anthony [Kiedis] loves being in the spotlight, but for me, once I achieved that. I realised I wanna be behind the scenes. I’m not really comfortable out there in the spotlight and I’m not particularly comfortable repeating myself night after. I don’t miss the lifestyle. Pay cheques yes, lifestyle no.