Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE NEON DEMON marks the third, and probably most potent, collaboration between director Nicolas Winding Refn and composer Cliff Martinez. Having crafted edgy symphonic soundscapes on DRIVE and ONLY GOD FORGIVES, the pair found the sound of the provocative pulsating horror film about a dangerous teen beauty’s journey through the dangerous LA scene to be the most challenging yet.
At the film’s recent press day in Los Angeles, I caught up with the mega-talented composer to talk about everything from his process, to what music inspired the sound of this film, to what he thinks of all the viral parodies of his work.
What was your reaction when Nicolas first pitched this idea to you? I know he showed this script to you early on so that it could ferment.
I don’t remember how many conversations, but I remember we had a conversation before anything was written. I knew from working on ONLY GOD FORGIVES that the script had only a tangential relationship to what he would shoot. That was the case with this. So I read the script knowing that he would probably throw it away at some point. It was mostly a verbal description. I wouldn’t even call it a pitch. Whatever he does, I’m going to do it. It’s not like he has to convince me.
Was this something that evolved over time? Did the sound you originally come up with transform?
My process went pretty smoothly. I was working on another film that was next in line and I was trying to do both of them at one time. I remember I did a couple of sketches for Nicolas that he didn’t care for. Then I dropped it for awhile because I couldn’t work on two films at once. When the other film was finished, I came back to NEON DEMON. It was almost all first drafts with a couple of tweaks. I guess that’s probably because this is the third film with him. He seemed to like everything that I did, to know what he wanted and what the film needed. It didn’t go through a big evolution like DRIVE did – or ONLY GOD FORGIVES. There was up to seven re-writes on certain things. The fight scene in ONLY GOD FORGIVES was like six or seven re-writes on it because it was a big scene. The only thing that was a big overhaul was the runway scene because that was pretty abstract and adventurous.
When you get the idea of the story, do you then start forming the idea of the characters? How do you come up with the themes and sounds for the characters?
The only other guy who hires people more than once is Soderbergh. I’ve learned from working with him on some early films where I’ve tried to write some music from the script that it’s a colossal waste of time. For me, I’ve discovered that you can’t really start to work until you’ve seen the picture. It was mostly thinking about stuff. The actual writing didn’t take place until I saw a rough cut.
How did that make you feel? Was it a little precarious where you thought maybe you couldn’t create something to compliment his vision?
Yeah, it was. He had a not particularly advanced cut of the film, but it was the whole film from top to bottom. Nicolas is very music-centric. So he never cuts it without any music so he put in a temporary score, all of which was Bernard Herrmann – which meant it was from the 40’s and 50’s.
Did he use Herrmann for the temp score on ONLY GOD FORGIVES too? I seem to remember that.
Yes. And there’s some Bernard Herrmann influence on the stuff I actually wrote. But a lot of the Bernard Herrmann influence stuff got tossed out in favor of more modern synthetic stuff. When I heard the Bernard Herrmann stuff that confused me. I knew from past experience that he doesn’t really like the sound of an orchestra – he really doesn’t want it to sound like the 40’s.
What an odd juxtaposition.
Yeah. That threw me. Usually, with temp scores, I’m really fearful of a really great temp score because there’s an obligation to sound like it. I love a mediocre temp score because you’re free to depart from it. It’s a good idea of what the director is looking for, in terms of style, general approach and the placement of music. So here, about the only thing I could use it for was the placement of music. When I called Nicolas, I said, ‘I know you don’t want that sound – that style. What are you trying to say with that temp score?’ He said, ‘Well, Matt and I tried everything and nothing would work. That works. I know it’s not the sound of the film. But I want the feeling that sound creates – not the style, not the sound.’ I was like, ‘Huh. Okay.’ That was the first time it was a bit of an obstacle. Once I found some sort of role model with a couple of scenes and Nicolas liked it, a couple of ideas can go a long way.
Where did the idea of the synth come in? Was it with the title? It seems very LA, to me.
I think that has more to do with our sonic preferences. He’s a big fan of electronic music and period stuff – like 70’s disco and Giorgio Moroder. After I did DRIVE and CONTAGION back to back, I fell in love with synthetic electronic music. That was our own personal bias. We were determined to shoehorn that sound and style into the film irrespective of it being in LA or “neon demon,” or horror film or anything.
Did you have to do any deep dives into the scene? What were some of the inspirations? What do I need to go look for at Amoeba Music now?
There’s only one I grabbed onto specifically – an electronic score from the 80’s called THE BOOGEY MAN. It’s pretty obscure. I have a friend who’s a card carrying film score nerd and I asked him, ‘What would go good with this? I’m looking for something kitschy and period.’ The BOOGEY MAN score grabbed me.
I think the scores you’ve created can exist outside of the visuals. Do you have favorite compositions you’ve done that have creatively satisfied you?
Yeah. That’s a great compliment. I don’t buy a lot of soundtrack CDs. I think, even the best ones, you take away from the thing they were written for, they are written in support of something else that’s really big – the dialogue and the story. I think very few scores, including my own are not very satisfying standalone experiences. I don’t write with the intention of thinking about when its on the CD all by its lonesome.
As far as favorites, I don’t really evaluate favorites. I don’t give points to my own music for is it a great piece of music as standalone music. I rate it by how much did I help the film. One of my high scoring pieces of music is from ONLY GOD FORGIVES. When I first saw there was the scene where the guy whose teenage daughter was murdered and Chang cuts off his arm. He was explaining in the script who this almost mythical supernatural person and he was ‘The Angel of Vengeance.’ In the script, it seemed like a very important scene – this guys explaining he’s a god-like supernatural being. I look at the scene and the guy’s lips are moving but there’s no sound. I called Nicolas and was like, ‘That’s a mistake right? He’s going to tell the story?’ Nicolas said, ‘No, no. We’re calling Chang ‘The Angel of Vengeance,’ and Thais have a very difficult time with any word with letter ‘V’ in it and when we talked about him, he called him ‘The Angel of Wengeance.’ So you can fix that with the music?’ I said, ‘Oh really?!’ I took it as a challenge. Music is never as literal as dialogue can be but that’s kind of the power of it – you can go beyond that. It’s not the greatest piece of music but it nicely tells the story of ‘The Angel of Wengeance.’ It ended up being a pretty artsy, functional scene. That’s probably one of the Nicolas musical moments I’m most proud of.
Have you noticed a change with Nicolas’ filmmaking or the way communicates to you?
With both he and Soderbergh, people always ask how does the creative partnership evolve. And my answer is they talk to me less and less. I think there’s more creative telepathy and probably a greater element of trust. The thing he has done in the three films is he has gradually pushed the music further into the spotlight. In DRIVE, there was a sequence of three to four scenes that was tied together with a seven minute piece of music. In NEON DEMON, there was a seven scene sequence tied together with sixteen minutes of music. It seems like there’s more moments where the music is front and center stage which takes a little bit of courage. That’s been a progression with Nicolas. Kind of a lot of responsibility but a great, rewarding and flattering challenge.
Something I’ve always been curious about; I was taught in film school that best work blends together where you don’t notice the score, the cinematography, the editing. As someone whose job it is to create these things, is it compliment to say “I didn’t notice the score,” to you?
I grew up in this business being taught the best music is the music you didn’t notice. People would come up to me after a film like TRAFFIC or SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE and say, ‘The music was so good I didn’t know there was any!’ I’m rebelling against that now. Nicolas has taken the music and pushed it out there in people’s faces. I don’t think a whole film should be like that, but for good storytelling hygiene there should be a couple incidents in the film where the music is front and center stage.
You both have worked on commercials, too. You did the Lincoln ads – the thing that took off and went viral.
Even though nobody knows that he did that and I did the music that will be the thing that’s the most famous thing we’ve ever done.
Were you surprised at the response?
Well, yeah. I had never worked in commercials until Nicolas asked me to help him. I had no idea you’d see people spoofing it on ELLEN, SOUTH PARK and SNL. I had never expected that. By the way, have you seen the Amy Schumer spoof of THE KNICK?
Yes! With the kids!
That’s when you know you’re doing something correct – when people start goofing on you.
THE NEON DEMON opens on June 24.