The musical partnership of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross dates all the way back to the ’90s when Reznor worked on an unreleased record by Ross’ band, 12 Rounds. Ross then went on to work with Reznor on numerous Nine Inch Nails recordings before their first joint foray into composing for film with 2010’s The Social Network, a film that won them the Oscar for best score. They have since scored 9 more projects together while continuing to make music in Nine Inch Nails.
In our interview, we discuss their work with David Fincher, composing for Watchmen, upcoming projects, and the balancing of duel careers in popular music and scoring for film.
Awards Daily: The two of you had worked on a number of pop music projects together and both of you had done some work on film before diving into scoring pictures together. Can you talk about the transition from rock and roll to scoring?
Trent Reznor: Our formal start was The Social Network with David Fincher, and as terrifying as that experience started out, it went on to be one of the most incredible creative experiences of my life. And that has nothing to do with the awards that followed—it was being placed in that situation with David and his team, and in the nurturing, safe environment where we’d show up and these guys are working at peak performance. Everybody in that camp, they are all committed to one thing, which is making very best film they can possibly make. It was really inspiring to be immersed in that, and it was a kind of forced collaboration for two guys who don’t collaborate that much outside of our own circle. We’re both kind of anxious out in the world, and you know, if there’s a “jam session” going on we’re not there. That’s how we operate.
Being in a situation where we weren’t in control—we were in service to (David’s) vision and the picture—we came out the other end thinking that was amazing. This intense, great experience filled with the ability to learn, grow, and be forced into situations and realizing we could carry the load and rise to the occasion. That lit the spark. Not every situation since then has been that great; there’s been some that haven’t felt as wonderful. What it’s come down to really is—we had this talk a few years ago—why are we doing this? We have the luxury of having an alternate career with Nine Inch Nails where we can generate income and have that creative outlet. What is it we’re looking for to take on scoring projects? The answer to that is collaborating with the right people.
Being inspired and drawing energy and being around people in that forced collaborative environment. We feel excited about that. When it works, we like to pivot back and forth between making rock music and working on scoring projects, and one kind of fuels the other. As you start to get depleted on one side, the other thing seems exciting again. You get filled with ideas and can’t wait to be able to go do this thing. The key to that is really trying to find that Fincher-like experience, of trying to keep up. I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to be the guy that sucks on the thing.
Atticus Ross: I’ll just quickly add one thing to that as well. I think that what’s interesting, beyond both of us loving film and the collaboration aspect that Trent was talking about, it does allow for a process of experimentation. In some ways, so long as you’re supporting the picture, there’s no specific rules about how one does that. I think Watchmen is a good example, both of collaboration, and what music can do with picture in the right circumstances.
Often we’re working on more than one thing at one time. We might be doing a Nine Inch Nails record at the same time we’re doing a film. When we deep dive, we really do deep dive. When we were doing Watchmen, I don’t think we even knew what what day of the week it was. So, when you come up for air, sometimes you’re kind of exhausted in terms of what you can give to that project, and at the same time be inspired to dive into the other one. It kind of works as a balancing act as well.
Reznor: I’ll add one more thing, because we just like to give super-long answers (laughs). He is right. When we’re working on Nine Inch Nails, we’re arranging music, we’re writing lyrics, we’re telling a story, we’re thinking about what the album cover looks like, about the title of the album, about what the stage lights look like, about what black shirt we’re going to be wearing, about what the merch is going to look like, we’re thinking about what it looks like in your Spotify playlist, we’re thinking about how you’ll feel when you hear it— there’s a million parts to the job that we’re doing.
When we’re presented with the challenge of scoring for picture, scoring a film, we realized we don’t have to think about 90 percent of those things anymore. We’re thinking about one of the things we already do: arranging. We’re arranging when we write a Nine Inch Nails song. Part of it usually is, here’s the story, here’s the lyric, here’s the way I want you to feel in here. What’s the right dressing for that set? What’s the right arrangement? Should the music play to the lyrics, or, against the lyrics?
If you replace lyrics with the script, then we can kind of compartmentalize some of the things we already know how to do. Once we thought of it that way… oh, we can do this. We learned to unpack it in a way that becomes understandable to us and then we realized we had some of that skill set already.
AD: I can imagine that relinquishing control might seem like a challenge, but what I think I’m hearing from both of you is that can be liberating to advance someone else’s vision.
Reznor: It was more fear of what the fuck are we doing? (Laughs). Here’s a scene that’s 13 seconds, someone turns a corner—what does that sound like? What music fits that? I know how to write a chorus or a verse for an intro. I’m not sure how to write a cue that works for that. That was where most of the fear was coming from. I was less concerned about the control of all elements of it.
But, the liberation of not having to worry about that stuff was very surprising to me. To find that I do like to work and not be the boss all the time. When you have a boss you respect on a project you believe in, and you sense everyone involved in it believes in it, that’s a really seductive place to be. One that I find energizing. I don’t think about all that other stuff. I just have to think about doing the best thing I can do for this role here. How can I make that better? It also makes you appreciate when the project comes to an end, I can go back to now being in control of everything over in this lane. It is refreshing to be able to focus on something without the weight of the world in every decision.
Ross: True collaboration, the good ones that we’ve had, like Watchmen, are when it’s their vision in terms of picture and we’ll have discussions about the music, but that collaborator trust us enough to let us give them our vision in terms of the music. It’s not like we’re being told you need to make it like this or that. They’re saying we believe in you, give us what you’ve got.
Reznor: The challenge to us is to get in their minds to understand their vision. It’s what story are you trying to tell and how are you trying to tell it? Inform us as much as you can what that is. Now, let us interpret that and see if we can make it even better. It’s not, “This is what we do, fuck you.” The challenge to us is to interpret, but be given enough rope to try some things – not just imitate the temp (score) we put in there.
AD: Were there any scores that particularly influenced your style? Sometimes when I’m listening to your scores, I feel like I hear bits of things like Moroder’s Midnight Express, or Thief by Tangerine Dream.
Reznor: I can say honestly it’s rare, if ever, that we will study something and say: that’s what we want to do, (something) like that. But subconsciously, being fans of film, it works its way out. Like I hear John Carpenter come out. The sound of David Lynch comes out. The way he uses sound in his films is part of our vocabulary. Your examples are not incorrect.
Ross: I love both of those films. Like Trent said, I think it’s more ingrained rather than a specific, let’s have a look at this score or that score kind of thing.
AD: How did you come to Watchmen?
Reznor: Over the course of the 10 years we’ve been doing this… it’s an easy job when it’s just wait for Fincher to call. When it requires something other than Fincher calling, we thought we’d proactively make a kind of wish list of filmmakers we find interesting, to maybe throw the fishing line out there to see if there’s mutual interest. We have no shame in that department. (Damon) Lindelof is someone I put on that list that I knew Atticus was also a fan of. We both are fans of Watchmen, and when I saw a blurb about HBO and Watchmen, I made the call to let them know if they needed somebody we’d definitely be up for a discussion—at pretty much the same time, so the lore goes, that they were reaching out the other way. I have no shame in saying, I think we were the ones to reach out first.
That led to a meeting and pretty much immediately we could tell that Damon is one of us. He had deeply thought this project through and had the courage to take on something that is asking for trouble. Trying to make this subject matter… there were a million ways it could go wrong. I thought it was very daring and bold and noble to take on those things. When we met the team and him and we could see the amount of effort and integrity involved and the thoughtfulness on this, we thought, of course we want to do this. It was a great experience. Damon is excellent and someone we’d work with again with no hesitation.
AD: The source material is pretty legendary. When the film was made, there was a pretty mixed response to it. Did that create any hesitancy for either of you? As you said, there were a million ways this could have gone wrong. Especially with the depth of the re-imagining of the material.
Reznor: Well, I’m saying it based on the kind of toxic social point that we’re in and the fan service bullshit and the take down culture that we live in. Damon’s been victimized before around the ending of Lost and by the Twitter reaction. If I had heard that he was simply going to redo the story again instead of this “remix” we’d have been less enthused. Really it was belief and faith in Damon—I loved Lost and I thought Leftovers is one of the best things ever on television, up there with The Wire, in my opinion. I knew – without knowing him – if he’s going to walk into this realm with an IP that this means this much to certain groups of people, he knows what he’s walking into. (Laughs).
There’s no upside to doing it in a lazy fashion. I trusted that he would come at it with integrity. As we got into that room and started to attempt to untangle what was going to happen in the season – which is almost unintelligible to try to soak in – this happens before, this happens after, and you’re also taking on white supremacy and wait… god damn. (Laughs). It’s going to be incredible, or it’s going to be incredibly bad. But it’s not playing it safe, and that was exciting us. In a world where everything is fucking beige and concerned about what people think, it was exciting to be a part of it.
Ross: I’ll preface this by saying I think Watchmen is one of the things I’m most proud of in terms of subject matter, story telling, music, et cetera. But at the beginning, I was a little more nervous than Trent. It wasn’t anything to do with Damon, it was to do with the time that we live in. I wondered how one could translate something that was so important to the moment in 1985. I think sometimes Watchmen is looked at as this kind of original comic dropping out of the sky – out of nowhere. In England it was very much part of what we grew up with. It fit in with what was going on in music, and art, and everything else. It was delivered with a kind of anarchic “fuck you.” It was great, but there was a sense of it wasn’t asking you to like it.
I wondered whether, in 2019, Damon would be able to make something that was so important—which I think he did. I also wondered whether if now that it’s not a little comic, but a big show on HBO, if that would somehow compromise that attitude that is the essence of Watchmen to me. I think he knocked it out of the park. But I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a little bit of reservation at the beginning. Because I think that we live in a culture now where people are often begging you to like them. I think Damon maintained that kind of position where it doesn’t feel like that at all. It felt like something that happened in 1985… the DNA had been taken out of that and turned into this incredible story and put on screen in 2019 with just as much cultural relevance and importance as the original.
AD: For Watchmen, you created three volumes worth of score. In transitioning from film to an 8 episode series, was the amount of music needed for the project a challenge?
Reznor: Normally, when we take on a new project, what what we’ll do is think deeply about what we think this should sound like. What kind of instrumentation? What kind of voicing, electronics, acoustic? Is it minimal or maximal? Is it digital? Is it analog? We try to understand what feels right. What we tend to do at the beginning of any project is we send over anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes of music that feels like it could belong in your show or film. It’s not specific scenes, it’s just music that kind of feels like what would be right. That provides a pretty good road map when we get a reaction. It also provides some music the editors and the director can try temping in, and it informs everybody what might work and what doesn’t work rather than talking about what the score might do. Listening and seeing how you emotionally respond to it is much more useful. It’s a more wasteful process, one could argue. It takes longer. But it works for us.
Once we kind of understood that it wasn’t what we originally thought – the original thought we had about Watchmen is that it would be a little darker in tone, less fun at times – less playful. Less watchable. I don’t mean that critically, I’m just saying retroactively, when I think of the music we originally wrote, it was a little self-serious, it was a little pretentious, and it was a little timid. We were referencing The Leftovers, which is kind of hard because there were so many needle drops – it wasn’t a real road map for Watchmen. We stumbled into understanding that the role of the music was going to be very much at the forefront, almost like a music video. It could be a fight scene, or a chase scene with loud music and a little bit of sound effects in the background, that allows for music to fill those big shoes. Then, we wrote a lot of music like that. We wanted to give the editors some stuff they could try and temp in before we even saw a cut of upcoming episodes.
The answer I’m leading towards is that the volume wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was the pace of television. In film, you get the script. The script might change a little bit, but it usually doesn’t change a lot. You kind of know the whole of what you have to attack and you have this much time to do it. With television—this was my first time in that medium—we don’t have a script for the last five episodes. We’re not sure specifically what’s gonna happen in those episodes and what music needs there might be. As you’re working on this one (episode) this has to be done by next week, and then the next one shows up. That part of it was probably the most difficult to adjust to.
It never felt like the world was ending, but we would get the occasional request that wasn’t something we had ready to go, or something we’d never done before. Specifically with Watchmen we had to write a vocal big band song that sounds authentic, and that no one would be able to tell wasn’t from 1940 to play to a scene of a lynching. That’s probably the most emotionally resonant climax of the whole series: “Can we have it in a week and a half?” (Laughs). Then, after you throw up, you say, “alright, let’s see how we can do that.”
Ross: It definitely wasn’t boring. The volume wasn’t a problem, but at the same time I can remember during that period of time not knowing what day of the week it was. It was a full immersion. Like Trent said, we might not have the greatest business model, because we tend to start very early. But much of that starting early is to try and establish the DNA of the show. Trent described it well when he said it was a bit timid at first. Then we got the first cut of the pilot and then we got the second, and it was that second cut of the pilot that acted as a road map for the whole show. The show goes to many different places, but what the pilot did establish was the role of music and what tools we could lean on. Once we had the essence, we could tap into the kind of thing we do for Nine Inch Nails.
If you think about that first episode, how much it covers from the silent movie, to the massacre, the riot, to the main Watchmen theme… I mean I could go on, but it’s literally wall-to-wall music that covers a variety of different emotions. I think Damon made what I would call a classic pilot. It also was incredibly informative in terms of where we were going with the music. The pilot was done a bit earlier, then, when it went into the shooting schedule—which was an episode every three weeks or something—we had a bit of time. We had a mobile studio, and in each hotel we had a room where the studio would be set up and we’d be creating music for Watchmen. The music for the pilot was made in a hotel room in Chicago.
AD: I’ve always felt there was a quality of insistence in your scores that creates a tension even when the image onscreen is fairly static. An example of that to me is in The Social Network where Jesse Eisenberg is writing code on a dorm window. That’s hardly an action scene, but the music creates momentum and gives the sense of something being at stake.
Reznor: I’d say half the time that’s just instinctual. Atticus and I don’t even want to talk about it. We’ll just experiment and then that’s the thing that feels good. We’ve learned that it really is about seeing it against pictures. We often work with no picture then we’ll try three or four things and then it’s super clear immediately which one is the right one. It’s hard to tell when you’re not watching it. Sometimes we’ll get specific instructions from the director that tell us “I need some help here to make this more interesting.” It’s easy to overdo it. We had an experience that will go unnamed where it was “How can you dress this up to be more exciting – scary?” I don’t know that sound can achieve that goal.
Once in a while they’ll be a specific direction – “Don’t go with your gut on that, because I’ll need it to lead us to something else.” Because the method of working on film tends to be: for the next two days you’re working on this 30 second snippet. Often when you’re in the weeds like that it takes discipline to say, “okay, now I’m going to play three minutes before and after to see how it fits in the context of knowing that no one else in the world is going watch that 30 second thing as many times as you have.” It’s not about that. It’s about how it leads into the fabric of the tale unfolding. Sometimes you can get lost in the weeds when you’re so focused on the part that has the music you’re not seeing it in context properly. Occasionally, we’ll get instruction from the director to not take it up or do take it up because of what follows.
AD: I want to circle back to the working relationship the two of you have with David Fincher – which is continuing with his next film, Mank. What is it about your sensibilities that seem to meld so well together?
Reznor: It has a lot of it has to do with respect. I am in awe of David as a filmmaker and I am in awe of him as a collaborator. He has done nothing but treat us with the highest level of respect and engagement. I think when you come into a project and you realize that the guy running the show is here to make the best thing possible – he’s thought it through and he’s assembled a team of other incredible people that are of the same mindset. They’re not itching to get to their vacation or anything other than how can we make this the best picture possible?
There’s no compromise. The stage is set where you’re empowered and you’re excited about following suit. As obvious as that seems, not everything is run that way. Not everyone’s approach is at the same level of integrity. As an artist and as a craftsman it’s inspiring to be exposed to a group of people working with that aesthetic and that goal. It’s intoxicating and invigorating and it reminds you of why you do this in the first place. In the world of Donald Trump, there’s still excellence here. (Laughs). You respond to that and you kind of go to sleep energized and then wake up energized. On a human level and on a friendship level, I just find him to be a very generous person and I feel good being around him. You get a little bit smarter when you’re around him. I’d like more people like him in my life.
AD: One of your next projects coming up is the Pixar movie, Soul. I’m sure some people might be surprised to see the two of you taking on a Disney project. How did that line up for you?
Ross: The Pixar film came about a bit like the Watchmen project in that we sat down and wrote a list of people and dream projects. On that list was Damon and on that list was Pixar. Pixar felt like a long-shot in the sense that sometimes I think we can falsely be put in a box—I’ve got kids, Trent’s got kids. Going to movies with the kids can sometimes be a punishing experience. (Laughs). But sometimes there can be this revelation. When I think of Up – how moved I was – they are able to speak to both the child and the adult simultaneously. We’ve got a friend—a sound designer and mixer for David Fincher, Ren Klyce—who has worked for Pixar. This particular film is very different in terms of subject matter. (Director) Pete Docter wanted to try something different and the film kind of demanded that there be something. I can’t really give away the story, but part of it takes place in more of a spiritual realm, and I think he saw that that there was an opportunity to voice that in a different way than just an orchestra. I was stunned when we got the call and elated at the same time.
We started working on it in early 2019. I think when you’re talking about how do you approach a specific scene—before we start making any music—we’ll read the script and sit and talk about what kind of instrumentation will work, what kind of process for that instrumentation, and what are we emotionally feeling. That could go on for two or three days before we play a note of music. The other exciting thing about Pixar is that beyond great film-making, and great animation, and great people, it kind of defies people’s expectations. Part of why we do this is to keep ourselves interested and to challenge ourselves. To put ourselves in situations that aren’t the comfortable ones. That was very much the case in Watchmen as well. There was some stuff that was kind of instinctual, but then there was other stuff like the big band song that Trent mentioned, or when Manhattan dies and there’s a gospel choir singing a requiem – those are terrifying in the moment. Kind of like we actually got the Pixar gig? Oh my god. But you come out the other side and it’s why we do music. We’re not just repeating the same thing over and over. This is a journey that we’re on and it’s exciting to see where it’s taking us.
Reznor: I share Atticus’s same enthusiasm for Pixar as a company that makes great films, and it was nice and reassuring to be able to meet those guys and to meet Pete and see that he authentically is that real deal. Going to Pixar is kind of what you hoped it would be. Everyone there seems to love being there and there’s a real kind of childlike enthusiasm about the culture there. It’s nice to see that authenticity and to meet someone you’ve always respected and find out he’s a nice guy. It’s rare that that happens and this has been one of those experiences for us.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.