One from the vaults. I’ve been meaning to put this online for ages, just because I still can’t quite believe I spoke to Trent Reznor (on the phone, in the autumn of 2014). I don’t usually get starstruck, but c’mon. This is the full transcript of an interview used in shorter form in the back section of Empire. Given the soundtrack work Reznor has gone on to do, it’s now a bit of a capsule from the time when he was just starting to pivot into composing for films, and hadn’t yet scored for anyone but David Fincher.
Hi, Trent. How are you?
I’m not too bad. I’m just waking up in Portland. We’re finishing up the last few shows of a year-long Nine Inch Nails tour. We’re right at the end.
What happens after that? A holiday?
Holiday? What is that? I’ll be going back to do some tweaks on the Gone Girl soundtrack for release.
How long ago did you put the Gone Girl soundtrack away? Have you been working on it while you were on tour?
Atticus [Ross] and I started working on composing for Gone Girl right at the start of January. A couple of years ago Fincher’s schedule and my Nine Inch Nails schedule lined up perfectly. My tour ended, his next film started. But then what he was working on shifted, and our timings ended up landing on top of each other. So it was either figure out a way to work on composing for the film during a tour, or turning the reins over to someone else. There was no way I was going to let that happen, so we started working in batches. We started the official compositions at the beginning of January, and we worked in four major chunks of about three weeks, with several weeks in between each batch. It gave us an interesting objectivity that we wouldn’t normally have.
So you were scoring while they were in production?
Remember you’re talking to someone who hasn’t done this very much, so the process and the methodology is new to me. I would assume somebody that works in the Hollywood system and has worked as a composer, hones in on the style that works best for them. I just came to it fresh. What we observed during The Social Network was a team – director, editor, sound designer – who were working very closely and had a real language and trust between them, but they were working with a lot of temp music. It just to felt to me like, if you could provide music at an earlier stage in a trusted situation like that, it might have a greater influence on the end result, rather than using music that sits in a place and just approximates something. So with Dragon Tattoo we went all in and delivered lots and lots of music before the cameras even started rolling, to see how that worked. And it had its pros and cons, quite honestly. A lot of the cons fell in our laps as composers, where we started to lose a bit of control because we’d turned over so much to editing and whatever. I would do it the same: I’m not complaining about it, but we learned from the process. It was also many times the usual amount of work at our end, where we’d compose some stuff and then the picture would change. We spent a full year on that film alone, and sometimes I think we lost focus. This one, partially due to the schedule I just mentioned, just felt different in the way it came together. I was just talking to David at the final mix at Skywalker a few weeks ago, and I told him that from my perspective it feels like this film… certainly not effortlessly, but you always felt like it was coming together. It always felt, to me, like it had a momentum. Things were always lining up. You could tell from the first very rough cut that there was something special here. I notice the same thing in making music. Some songs, you just need to get out of the way and let them happen. Others feel like rolling a boulder up a mountain trying to get them right. This film always seemed like it was going to turn out great.
Were you scoring to actual footage this time?
This was kind of like how we did Social Network. I read the book and got familiar with the script. We had several long conversations with David about tonality and what sort of role this music was going to play. Then we started writing after seeing a bit of a rough cut, although we couldn’t take any pictures with us. We were familiar with the material and had enough of a sense of what the tone was going to be, and just composed things that felt like they might be in that world. Then we shared it with David to see what resonated with him, and then it became scoring the picture, fitting certain themes in certain paces and recomposing. Sometimes you use your original work: more often the original work is a sketch of what it ends up becoming. It’s a blueprint for the real thing.
What is the tone this time?
As far as the sound of the music… It didn’t really strike me until I saw the final mix the other day, but it feels a lot more organic than before. It’s certainly less electronic sounding. We used a real orchestra in a number of places. It’s dissonant, but it’s meant to creep in and make you feel an artificial sense of calm, and that everything’s OK. Then that starts to unravel a bit, so you start to feel there’s some decay under the surface that’s revealing itself.
When did you first meet David Fincher?
The way I remember it, he was one of the handful of video directors who if you had the budget and the luck to attract him in the ‘90s, he was one of the ones you really wished you could get. We didn’t get him in the ‘90s [laughs] but we became aware of each other. Mark Romanek did videos for us for Closer and Perfect Drug, and Fincher came out to the set of one of those. I think I first met him on the set of Perfect Drug. I knew of him and I’d see him socially occasionally. He used Closer in Seven, but we weren’t working intimately together. He finally directed a NIN video in 2005, for Only. That was more of a technical exercise. We reached out to him to see what he was up to and he said he’d been playing around with this idea that would work perfectly with the song. There was no intricate storyboarding with us or anything.
Then I got an unexpected phone call for The Social Network. That was our first really intimate collaboration. What I found when I went into that process, apprehensive and very unsure of my own capability in this other medium… What I found was a very, very smart guy that created a very nurturing and helpful environment. He was like, you do what you do and I’ll be looking out for you. He said he wasn’t going to put me in any situation I couldn’t flourish in, and he knew I could do it and I had what he needed to make it work. So we went and did it! Forget about any accolades that came later, the process of working on The Social Network was one of the most rewarding artistic experiences of my life, certainly in a collaborative way. It really opened my mind up to the possibilities of collaboration. I was dropped into this team of people who are the best at what they do in their respective fields, trying to bluff my way into keeping up like you know what they’re talking about. It was a very challenging but fulfilling experience and got me excited about the whole idea of scoring.
Is he very knowledgeable about music? What other bands is he into?
You know, what I’ve learned about him is that he kind of lives in a bubble. He’s completely immersed in what he’s doing, and he’s always got the projects you know about and several you’re not sure he’s doing but he is doing at the same time. So I wouldn’t say he’s an expert on pop culture or has a bead on everything that’s happening, but his instincts and his tastes are excellent. If we’re talking about what he’s looking for out of a piece of music, he may not explain it in the right technical, musical terms, and he may not use references that make you go, ‘wow, I wouldn’t have thought of that,’ – he’ll pull some pretty obscure things out – but you know what he means, and he knows what he’s hearing. Whatever he’s doing, it’s an interesting way of working.
You haven’t yet scored for anyone but Fincher. Do you think you will?
I’m very much open… I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this… It wasn’t a kind of career trajectory that I had planned out. I’m not complaining about that: it just caught me by surprise. My instinct after Social Network was, okay, great, I’ve got to master this now. The craftsman and technician in me is very interested in learning what I don’t know: how different people work, and how to orchestrate in different ways, and the challenges of working outside particular genres. But on the other hand, I’m very aware that my situation with Fincher is a unique one. I think I’ve been spoilt by walking into a situation where… When you’re working with Fincher it becomes apparent very quickly that the goal here is excellence, the very best we can do, the best film we can make, no compromise. It just happens to be coming out of Hollywood to essentially a mass audience. You’re never sitting in a room with producers with ten ideas, or hearing complaints from studios. He creates a nice environment to work in, and I’m certain that’s not the case across the board. I’m appreciative to be a part of it.
Are you still working on your Year Zero TV series?
Not at the moment. I’ve bashed my head against the wall and learned… made some mistakes in terms of the strategy of executing that. I may get recharged and take another run at it, but right now I’m letting it rest.
The image used at the top of this page is by Rob Sheridan.
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