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Trent Reznor on Relating to 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' Darkness; Why Grammys are 'Rigged and Cheap'

Issue 45 Cover Trent Reznor
Wesley Mann

In the new issue of The Hollywood Reporter, the Oscar-winning composer and Nine Inch Nails mastermind opens up about this new life in Hollywood, taking a break from the band, and how years of horrifying addiction and constant battles with his band’s business minders led to an artistic rebirth.

Gone was the eyeliner, the leather, the booze and drugs... When Trent Reznor took the stage at the 2011 Academy Awards to accept his Oscar for Best Original Score for David Fincher’s The Social Network, the 46-year-old frontman and creative mastermind behind the influential industrial band Nine Inch Nails, handsomely clad in a Prada tux and accompanied by his production partner Atticus Ross, beamed and — shocker — even cracked a smile. It was a moment that no doubt inspired countless Gen Xers to let out a collective, “Trent Reznor just won an Oscar?!”  

Sell out? Hardly. In the mild-mannered world of scoring, where John Williams and Randy Newman are household names, Reznor the rock star stands out, even though he’s one of more than a dozen fringe artists currently working in film, including Jonsi from Sigur Ros (We Bought a Zoo) and Chemical Brothers (Hanna).  

Paired for the second time with perhaps his directorial equivalent, the equally dark and subversive Fincher, Reznor’s music for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo evoke the sort of nihilistic, dissonant sounds and anti-establishment themes on that could have been heard on Nine Inch Nails’ 1999’s double-CD The Fragile, not its biggest commercial success but an artistic highpoint for Reznor -- until Oscar came along.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter's music editor Shirley Halperin from his Beverly Hills home, Reznor gets candid about life’s highs and lows -- from his career to his addiction to his battle with record companies -- in this week’s THR cover story.

ON WHY DRAGON TATTOO HIT CLOSER TO HOME THAN SOCIAL NETWORK

Although Reznor had a Facebook account when he began scoring for The Social Network (“I’m still suspicious,” he says), Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, with its frenetic pacing and sexually charged storyline centered on a Swedish murder mystery (adapted from Stieg Larsson’s best-selling book), felt like more familiar territory for the musical anti-hero who sang of needles, pushers and whores on the 3.7 million-selling The Downward Spiral. “The Social Network was very much an education from start to finish,” says Reznor. “It was tricky because it involved mainly people in rooms bitching at each other; it didn’t seem obvious what role music would play. This film felt a bit more like: ‘Ah, serial killers and anal raping, I know what that sounds like. It’s not as much of a stretch …’ Let me rephrase that -- a dark tone felt more familiar.”  

ON WHERE HE KEEPS HIS OSCAR AND WHY A GRAMMY IS NOWHERE TO BE FOUND

Nine Inch Nails sold 13 million albums in the U.S. according to Nielsen SoundScan, were nominated for 12 Grammys and won two. But you won’t find either Grammy displayed in the house that Pretty Hate Machine built. Reznor, a native of Mercer, Penn., admits that having moved several times in the past two decades (Cleveland , New Orleans, Los Angeles), he’s not sure where the trophies are, nor does he care. The Oscar, however, sits prominently next to his Golden Globe (puny in comparison) in his living room. “Winning that Academy Award, I’m not ashamed to admit it,” says Reznor. “The others don’t mean anything. Why don’t the Grammys matter? Because it feels rigged and cheap — like a popularity contest that the insiders club has decided.  The movie side is interesting, challenging, different and rewarding in way that I hadn’t experienced through my music career.” By the end of awards season, the music had claimed 15 of the film’s 126 honors (curiously, Social Network didn’t garner a single Grammy nomination).

ON HOW REZNOR CAME UP WITH THE THREE-NOTE MELODY THAT INSTANTLY DEFINED THE TONE OF THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Atticus Ross says he’s still amazed by the three-note theme to Social Network, which came as a last-minute add-on by Reznor to a nearly finished track, “almost as an afterthought.” Ross, 43, recounts the Oscar-making moment: “Trent said, ‘I’ve got an idea for this piano line; let me just try this.’ And he puts down that line and plays what I think is one of the greatest cinematic pieces of last year. Fincher really zeroed in on it, and it was that piece that changed the whole landscape of that film.” The British-born Ross has no hesitation in calling the melody “genius,” telling THR, “I can say that objectively because it wasn’t me who came up with it.”

REZNOR’S FIRST ATTEMPT AT FILM SCORING WAS A COLOSSAL FAIL. HE BLAMES ADDICTION

In 2001, Reznor was recruited by director Mark Romanek, who had worked on NIN videos “Closer” and “The Perfect Drug,” to compose music for the indie thriller One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams. Reznor submitted several compositions, but none made it into the movie. “I remember there was an issue with the studio trusting someone who had never scored a film before, so that was the end of that,” he says, recalling the sting of rejection by Fox Searchlight. “But the way I choose to see things in my own life, I was getting into a pretty bad space. I was an addict and not functioning very well at that time. So I’m kind of grateful it didn’t come together because I couldn’t have done my best work then.” Whether his first film fail came before or after hitting rock bottom, Reznor can’t recall, but he says, “It was another brick in the wall of, ‘Hey, you need to get your shit together.’ ” He got sober that summer and has been clean for 10 years.

FRIENDS RECALL A “FUNCTIONING ADDICT” WHO WORKED TIRELESSLY AT SEEING HIS VISION THROUGH.

Reznor’s affiliation with Fincher goes back to 1995, when the director used a remix of NIN’s rock radio staple “Closer” as the opening sequence to his movie Seven. It wasn’t long after that Reznor launched himself headlong into a four-year stint in New Orleans, grappling with a heroin and alcohol addition that threatened to derail his music career or kill him, whichever came first. One former party pal who wished to remain anonymous recalls a fair share of drunken, cocaine-fueled nights in the Big Easy with Reznor and Marilyn Manson (who was signed to Reznor’s Nothing Records in 1993). “Trent would just go nuts -- he was addicted to the lifestyle, as so many of us were,” the friend says. "He's so much more positive now, it's an extreme difference." Another former member of NIN’s extended family described Reznor as an exceptionally functional addict. “He always delivered,” says the source, who notes that dealing with him directly often felt “like walking on thin ice. … He was very controlling of the work environment -- everything was about perfection and being very professional. But he had his vision and was always working towards it, whether he was writing an album or shooting a video or going on tour or signing other artists.” Today, says Reznor, “I feel fortunate that I came through it physically intact and with my brain pretty much working.”

ON TAKING A BREAK FROM NIN

Music’s most intense industrial act is not dead, but Reznor is taking a breather. What prompted the break? Touring. “It was starting to grate on me a bit that it doesn’t feel as truthful as it once did,” Reznor explains, the days when he and his bandmates would cover themselves in corn starch (to contrast the glut of black leather) long behind him. “I’m kind of moving into a different phase, and I think that’s a good thing in terms of a human being evolving, maturing and progressing — to not feel obligated to behave or write music for a certain thing.” Indeed, his new passion project, the band How to Destroy Angels, is a full-on family affair featuring his wife of two years Mariqueen Maandig and Ross. Their cover of Bryan Ferry’s “Is Your Love Strong Enough?” (from the 1985 Tom Cruise film Legend) appears at the end of Dragon Tattoo, and they are currently racing to meet a self-imposed mixing deadline.  The band will release the album independently on Reznor’s own Null Corporation. Says Reznor: “No committees, no bureaucracies, no e-mails a week later of why you can’t do this. There’s no talking to people on the other side of the world that have their own set of agendas and ‘no’ written a hundred different ways on a piece of paper.”

ON RECONCILING WITH HIS RECORD COMPANY…

It wasn’t all that long ago that Reznor was encouraging NIN fans to steal his music (as an act of protest, claiming his label was price gauging for reissues and repackaged albums) and calling Universal Music execs “greedy f—king assholes.” But independence has its drawbacks, too. “I miss how a record label can help spread the word that you have something out,” Reznor confesses. “Sometimes I feel like stuff disappears into the ether. You tend to rely on the power of your Twitter feed and how loud you can shout from the rooftops, but I’ve noticed that voice isn’t so loud in, say, France.” Perhaps that’s what precipitated a recent lunch meeting between Reznor and Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine where the two “swapped war stories.” Says Reznor: “Jimmy is a friend. We get along better when we’re not working one under the other, not that I can remember it ever being a personal animosity. There was  frustration when I was on the label because I believed it didn’t serve the customer right and couldn’t move as fast as I liked and I felt like, I’m not at the right place anymore.” Today, his views on the music industry’s shortcomings remain harsh and at the same time, realistic. “Today, if you’re not one of the four acts that gets carpet-bomb marketing and has a Coldplay-esque genericness that makes you a commodity to enough people that it warrants spending a lot of money to use outdated means of marketing to tell the masses what to like, you put a record out and it’s consumed, stolen, judged and forgotten in a day. It used to be a couple days.”

To read THR's full cover story, click here