Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross Enter "Unfamiliar Waters" to Score 'Patriots Day,' Ken Burns' Vietnam Doc

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Atticus Ross (l) and Trent Reznor

The Oscar-winning composers talk about the emotional and technical challenge of scoring music for a film depicting real-life events.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross know they may not be the first names that come to mind when imagining composers for Patriots Day, director Peter Berg’s docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. But it was the chance to delve into something new that made the Oscar-winning composers of The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo say yes to the film, which opens wide Friday.

“We [consider] things that are interesting to us and might put us in unfamiliar waters. The idea of a Hollywood picture about current events with Pete, who is an experiential filmmaker, and was a different kind of film than we’d been involved in, was a challenge,” Reznor said during a recent Q&A with the pair after a screening presented by The Society of Composers & Lyricists.

The Nine Inch Nails bandmates wrote the atmospheric, largely electronic, often-droning score face-to-face. “We’re always in the same room when we’re composing,” Ross said. “If you were spying on us, it would look like I’m playing most of the stuff,” Reznor added, “but the arrangement is all [Atticus], and the combination works in a way where we can play off each other. [We] grind our way through one frame at a time.”

While bits of piano and strings are decipherable at times, for much of the score, the instruments were deliberately distorted through a device of their own creation. “We had a friend of ours build this machine that is two tape machines hooked to a computer, where it just endlessly locks something in and copies from one to the next, each one degenerating another time,” Reznor says. “The longer you let it sit, the worse it gets. You’d go to lunch and come back and it sounds 8-track/tape-ish. Leave it overnight and it’s unrecognizable, but it does it in a way that’s interesting, that’s warm and nostalgic.”

Almost every bit of instrumentation, including live strings, went through that filter. “We pretty much used that through the whole score in different ways,” Reznor says. “Sometimes it sounded more aggressive and sounded more electronic, but [there were] real acoustic instruments played and then glued together by this process of taping it over and over again.”

As Reznor and Ross researched the bombing — including looking through previously unreleased FBI files — the project took an emotional toll, not only as musicians, but also as fathers, especially since one child died in the attack and several others were injured. “Every film has been challenging, and that’s why we take them on. This was challenging, aside from the music, as a father,” Ross says. “In the FBI folder we were given, there was some stuff in there that was unwatchable, deeply upsetting, as a parent, really as a human being.”

In an almost unheard-of move, initially Reznor and Ross felt Berg used too much of their score. “As we got into scoring the film, we kept getting comments back like, ‘No. Needs more music’ [from Berg],” Reznor said. “Working with [director David] Fincher, music is a bit more subtly woven into the DNA of the picture; [this picture] was much more towards ‘add music here between these two cues and have it continue through this into the next thing.’ It was really about dynamics and space. At the end of the day I think [Peter] made the right call.”

Next up for Reznor and Ross, who also scored the climate-change doc Before the Flood this year, is The Vietnam War, a new 10-part documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on the history of the conflict. The series will air on PBS in September. Burns and Novick have shared footage from their film over the years with Reznor and Ross to give them an idea of the emotional range of music the project requires. “To bear witness to their process was immensely inspiring,” Reznor and Ross said in a statement. “The sheer scale of the project combined with the magnitude of the subject matter was initially daunting for us, but the commitment, care and reverence they displayed made the experience deeply satisfying on many levels.” The Vietnam War also includes original music composed by Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble. 

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