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A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
“Is it good? I’m not sure, but I know I worked my ass off,” Trent Reznor, the Nine Inch Nails frontman/Oscar-winning film composer told me of his latest score — the one that he and Atticus Ross put together for David Fincher‘s smash-hit Gone Girl — when we sat down for an hour-long conversation a few weeks ago in Beverly Hills.
It took a while for me to accept that the person sitting across from me — a clean-cut, soft-spoken and polite family man just months shy of his 50th birthday — is the same one behind NIN, the post-punk “industrial rock” band that he founded in 1988. Ever since, the band has churned out a constant flow of hit songs like “Closer” and “Something I Can Never Have” — the sort of music that my generation grew up listening to when we were brooding or wanted to piss off our parents — en route to more than 20 million album sales worldwide, two Grammys and coming very close, this year, to earning an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
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But I should have known better than to make assumptions about Reznor, especially in light of the fact that he is the same fiercely independent artist who five years ago, in the midst of a flourishing career with NIN, took everyone by surprise by signing on, along with his longtime friend and collaborator Ross, to score Fincher’s The Social Network — not the sort of thing that most rock stars choose to do in the prime of their careers. In the end, it turned out to be a brilliant move, resulting in a haunting score that sounded unlike anything else out there at the time, and landed Reznor and Ross both Golden Globes and Oscars.
As Reznor explained during our conversation, highlights of which appear below, he caught a bug working with Fincher on The Social Network that led him and Ross to return to score the director’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo just a year later (resulting in another Globe nom) and Gone Girl three years after that (which has bagged them yet another Globe nom, as well as a Grammy nom, and could earn them a return-trip to the Oscars, as well).
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I’ve gotten the sense, from other interviews that you’ve given, that while you love making music as part of Nine Inch Nails, you don’t love performing it publicly. Is that what led you to film scoring, for which you can make music without having to perform it?
We just finished a year of touring. There was a point in time where I could have been on stage all day. Now it feels like something that I wouldn’t mind doing it a little bit, but I’d much rather be not being watched, somewhere with my kids or just thinking about stuff, you know? I can’t say that consciously [was why I got into film scoring]. It was more trying to see what I’m capable of in unfamiliar places. I know I can make a Nine Inch Nails record and I can try to make it the best I can and I will do that again and I know I can go on stage and perform those songs and I feel confident and I’ve proven myself that I can do it and I can try to play at a bigger place—but I don’t give a shit, really. I just want to. I’m not doing it to try to… There’s not a motivation in terms of “We have to go to play a stadium!” I don’t give a shit to be honest with you. But the motivation in the film scoring and other things was really just to make myself do something that isn’t the easy thing to do and see what happens, even if it’s a fail. It was more about just trying to see if I have any talent in that world. And there’s no better place to start off than under the wing of David, who I do think is a genius and provides a very nurturing climate to work.
How did you two first cross paths?
I mean we’ve known of each other and socially run into each other over the years. In the ’90s he was the guy that you wished you could get to do your [music] video for you. He used my music on the opening credits for Se7en, which was very flattering. That was excellent use of stuff. He directed a video, finally, for us, I guess around 2005-ish, for “Only.” A CG thing he was working on. And then the phone rang, kind of out of the blue, for Social Network.
You’re very independent-minded, and so is David — he’s famous for demanding dozens of takes from his actors. What was it like to transition from being able to do exactly what you wanted to now having to serve his vision?
I found it to be really fun and a refreshing change of pace, the consequence of which is when I do get back in charge it’s fun again. When he reached out to me on Social Network, I had just finished two-and-a-half years of touring. I was tired and I felt like I had taken my shows as far as I wanted them to go. I found it surprisingly easy to give up that control factor and get absorbed into the role of trying to get in his head and figure out what it is he wants. At the end of a couple pictures, then it was fun to go back to Nine Inch Nails.
Your scores really blend in with the natural sounds of the movies. How did that come to be and how does it work?
One benefit we have is coming from an outside discipline and quite frankly not really knowing the correct process of how one scores a film. We don’t, for example, get a finished cut of the film and then compose music that we need to make a 23-second piece; that would probably be a lot less work than how we do it. We say, “Hey, what you think of this stuff? What about this here?” And Ren [Klyce, Fincher’s sound mixer] will pop up and say, “I tried that over this, check it out!” “Hey, what are you using for the sound of that floor cleaner? Can you turn it to G because then we can turn it into this thing?” “What if I pan that from the back.” The success of our scores, in terms of their effectiveness, is very much the shared responsibility of David, the editing team, and Ren.
I know that your work on The Social Network began after most principal photography was completed, whereas with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo it began before any principal photography had been started. What was the situation with Gone Girl?
A lot of it was filmed before we started composing. We could go in and see a rough cut; we were familiar with the material from the book; we read the screenplay a couple of months ahead of time.
How do you determine what you want generally want a score to sound like?
When we go into any new project, I ask myself: One, most importantly, “What’s the emotional content of the material?” That dictates some things on its own. Two, “What is it that David is hearing in his head?” He’s the visionary here; we’re contributing of his fabric of his film, and we extract clues from speaking with him about it. Then, three, “What have we been inspired by lately? Are we really into banjos or whatever? What feels exciting to us as composers and arrangers?”
How did you manage to compose the score of Gone Girl in the midst of touring with Nine Inch Nails? And how did the challenge of composing it compare to the other two that you’ve done?
This one was, in some ways, the smoothest of all of them because we went into it with a bit more confidence. It always felt like this was moving in the right direction. After we finished Dragon Tattoo, I had planned my several years out: David’s next film was going to be 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and our work on it would have started this Fall. “Okay, that’s a perfect chunk of time where I can put 16 months in for a Nine Inch Nails tour.” And then, after the tour is booked, guess what, “20,000 Leagues is not going to happen. The good news is we’re going to do Gone Girl—and it starts right in the middle of that tour you just booked.” I couldn’t really cancel the tour and I couldn’t turn down working on the film, which logically leads to one conclusion: how do I make that work? The main composing was three separate chunks that were about two or three weeks a piece, spread out over a few months. Is it good? I’m not sure—but I know I worked my ass off to get there.
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