Stewart Copeland, Trent Reznor Lead the Way For Rockers-Turned-Film Composers

Stephanie Diani
Stewart Copeland

There was a time when people like Danny Elfman (once of Oingo Boingo) were regarded with suspicion in film, coming from outside the traditional scoring community. These days, rock musical elements are so ingrained in film such prejudices are almost unthinkable.

Nowhere was this clearer than in Trent Reznor's score for "The Social Network." Early buzz for the film touted the Nine Inch Nails frontman's contribution heavily -- a set of five tracks from the score were previewed well in advance of the film's release -- and the full score hit No. 1 on's MP3 downloads when the movie was released.

Director David Fincher had planned earlier collaborations with Reznor before approaching him with the idea of scoring the Facebook movie -- an ironic gig for Reznor, who famously bailed from Twitter and has railed against online music downloads. Fincher temped his film with instrumental tracks from the Nine Inch Nails album "Ghosts" before showing footage to Reznor, who eventually agreed to score the film with collaborator Atticus Ross of How to Destroy Angels. Reznor and Ross provided Fincher with tracks that the director and his editor applied to specific scenes so that the two musicians could refine them to complete the final score.

"The Social Network" score has become one of the most talked about -- and praised -- aspects of the movie, with many fans, including actor-musician Justin Timberlake, insisting that Reznor deserves Oscar recognition for the work.

Reznor's band mate, Charlie Clouser -- an accomplished film composer in his own right -- says Nine Inch Nails' distinctive industrial sound led to his first scoring work. (Clouser will take part in a panel, "From Rock Star To Composer: Creating a Career in Film/TV Music," at Friday's Billboard/BMI conference.)

"The temp score for the first 'Saw' movie had a lot of Nine Inch Nails songs, and specifically my remixes of Nine Inch Nails songs," he says. "At one point in the final reel of the temp score, there was a Ministry song playing out of the left speaker and a Nine Inch Nails song playing out of the right speaker at two different tempos. The director specifically wanted to create a feeling of mayhem. It was very labor-intensive electronics and what we call cyber-crush, which is drum machines through guitar amps."

Clouser's own musical experience has been across-the-board. He went from synthesizer programming to music production, eventually programming and arranging the soundtrack album to "Natural Born Killers" with Reznor, who only later asked Clouser to step in as keyboard player when the band's original player dropped out.

"The next thing you know, I'm touring with the band," he recalls. "When I started playing with Nine Inch Nails, my first time on stage as a keyboard player was New Year's Eve 1994 in front of 22,500 people at the Palace of Auburn Hills outside Detroit. So I definitely had a baptism of fire."

Most rockers-turned-composers note music in all forms was part of their lives even before their rock band experiences.

"Music came and got me," says former Police founder and drummer Stewart Copeland ("She's All That," "Wall Street"). "If I wasn't playing music I was listening to it and thinking about it and dreaming about it."

Entering film happened almost accidentally. "I just got a phone call from Francis Ford Coppola about 'Rumblefish.' I never had any idea that I could do film scoring, but as soon as Francis turned on that light, it just seemed so obvious. I went from recording the last Police album, which was hell, to the complete artistic freedom and the warm embrace of Uncle Francis. Out of the frying pan and into heaven."


On the Judd Apatow-produced hit "Superbad," Lyle Workman of Bourgeois Tagg had to bring a raucous funk approach to the film's foul-mouthed comedy, but also underscore the sweet-natured friendship between the Michael Cera and Jonah Hill characters. "When I'm asked to do any music that has any rock aspect to it, that's just me and that's the world I grew up in, so that part is second nature," he says. "What's been fortunate for me is my interest has not always been rock music -- I've liked jazz and classical music, country and all kinds of music. When it came time to write something orchestral I just went to that part of my musicianship and expressed it, and I finally had a vehicle for it. You can't normally hire an orchestra and put it in a garage band."

Copeland says he went into "Rumblefish" with no idea how to score a film: "I had to invent the wheel for myself. With the guidance of the director I was able to figure out what he needed, and he was very specific: 'This has got to be scary, this has got to be sad,' and all the myriad gradiations in between. What I didn't know was whether that was an F sharp minor or what. But I could hear the music in my head and I just had to figure out how to record it."

Copeland was also ignorant of the timetable for producing a score and of the entire concept of working toward a recording date for live players to record the finished work. "They'd say, 'When's the recording date?' I didn't know what they were talking about. I'd say, 'Well, actually, it's going to take two or three months.' I went into the studio pretty much by myself, occasionally bringing in players but recording most of it myself. It was pretty high concept, but I guess in general terms the most useful thing I had was no knowledge of how you're supposed to do it. [But] I had a lot of knowledge about the recording studio and the uses to which it could be put in service of a movie."

"The early projects I worked on were very definitely groove-oriented and it was very much about legitimizing the score for a specific kind of street cred it would need," adds DJ/producer The Angel ("Boiler Room," "Hawthorne"). "Especially on 'Gridlock'd,' where Tupac was a lead. Then on 'Boiler Room' it was very important to make the music sound legit, because it had to work with the hip-hop music in that movie."

Fusing rock and film traditions is definitely something rockers-turned-film-composers are comfortable with, but many express a desire to explore new musical territory.

"Film music has always been some of the most interesting music that gets to be made," notes Greyboy Allstars member Mike Andrews ("Donnie Darko," "Freaks and Geeks"). "Sometimes it reflects music of the contemporary culture, wherever it was in time; and other times it's just its own thing. People can get away with things doing film music that they would never be able to get away with if they were trying to be pop stars."

As for rock star egos, BMI's Doreen Ringer Ross (who will moderate Friday's BMI/Billboard panel) says to check them at the door. "You have to squelch your sense of self. You still have to be creative but you have to be able to subvert your ego and take on that role and not everybody can do that."

Andrews is one rocker who doesn't miss performing. "I'm not really a face-the-audience player," he says. "With my band, we're sort of looking at each other and interacting with each other. I still get that out of scoring because I'm working with people and interacting inside the music when I play."

But there is at least one downside to being a film composer: No groupies. Copeland says he can live with that: "I have seven children so the last thing I need is more groupies."