Trent Reznor is one of the most innovative musical and technological personalities of the last 20 years. Recently he has been thrust into the Hollywood limelight for composing the score for 'The Social Network,' with writing partner Atticus Ross. Reznor is best known as the founder and primary member of Nine Inch Nails.
His music is one of keen subversion. His attempt to undermine the system by which he is necessarily bound is not uniquely sonic in nature; it reaches down to his very methods of music distribution. Reznor has frequently given his music away via the Internet free of charge and has gone so far as to plant USB drives preloaded with unreleased NIN material in concert venue bathrooms for fans to stumble upon.
As the Oscars approach, Reznor took the time to reflect upon the process that has already won him a Golden Globe and has placed him in good stead to take home an Academy Award.
You and Mark Zuckerberg (the fictional version at least) seem to have a knack for innovation and a penchant for thumbing your nose at the system, for giving away product for free. Did you feel any sort of affinity with the protagonist of the movie?
Yeah I did. When I was first approached by David and he said it's a movie about the founding of Facebook I think my first reaction was, "Umm, why are you making a movie about that and how interesting could it possibly be?" Then when I got the script those questions were answered. I was able to see that it wasn't about Facebook, it was about this complex, flawed character out to define himself by this great idea that he'd had. That character I could relate to very much. That was the principle place I went to in terms of trying to stress the film with sound that I thought was appropriate, that I though added the right emotional weight.
You were able to draw inspiration from Sorkin's script first and foremost, before you even got to Fincher?
Well David explained kind of what he was looking for in the way that David explains things: obtuse at times and open for interpretation. I'd read the script; I met with David to kind of get a read on what he was looking for. At a later date I saw maybe 40 minutes of a very rough edit of the film so I had an idea of the pacing and the look and the color palettes and everything. What wasn't clear, what didn't seem obvious at that point in time, was what role music was going to play in this. It was mainly just people in rooms, or courtrooms, talking to each other at rapid fire pace. There wasn't a lot of a room, certainly not for any sort of grand, sweeping, epic score of any kind. It felt like it need to fit between the cracks.
You signed on to do this job after some hesitation; did you come to the table with some thoughts that had been brewing about how to approach the project?
Well my hesitation at first was not the material, it was that I didn't want to fuck it up. It was my first attempt at scoring a film properly and it was with someone I think is at the top of their field right now and someone I greatly admire. I thought, "Man I really don't want to walk into this and blow it."
So I panicked and kind of backed out. I called him a couple months later and said, "Hey sorry I let you down, and if anything comes up in the future let me know." I figured this was over and done with, but the job was still available.
At that point I really just jumped right in. I certainly thought, "Should I try to take a class real quick? Should I read as many books on it as I can? Should I meet other composers?"
But instead I thought with the first wave what I'd try to do was instinctually go with what I said earlier which was, "Here's what I think the story is about, here's what I think David wants. The most important thing here is to serve the picture. How can I contribute to this thing how can I add to it? If it gets a thumbs down then maybe I'll be knocking on some composers' doors asking 'how do you do this?'"
You and Atticus have been close collaborators for a while, how did the addition of Fincher change your process?
Atticus and I have been working together since about 2001, 2002, on and off. 'With Teeth' we did together. I helped him out with his band 12 Rounds. We've kind of gone back and forth on a number of things. We've got a good working relationship. It really wasn't that different, to be honest with you. I think more so for me than him, because on this one I had to turn the reigns over and not be at the top of the pyramid. I was serving picture and David primarily, and that wasn't something that I frowned upon. It was actually a welcome change to be in a position of support rather than having every decision rest on my shoulders.
To what extent did you compose for specific scenes or moments?
Well, I'm kind of getting a read now of how other composers work and I think we took a pretty radically different approach. We thought, "let's just make a batch of music that feels like it belongs in that world." Exploring different emotional things, not scenes in the film. "Here are the different things we need: we need something that sounds like that spark of creativity when you have a good idea, that feeling of propulsion and that chasing of that idea. We need something that has that kind of feel to it, let's make a few things like that. We need a sense of that melancholy element of maybe realizing, 'wow this came at a price.'"
There was various other kind of emotional content that wasn't matched to scenes, it was just the kind of things I felt emotionally needed to be in the story. So we just blindly composed those things and Fincher responded positively. He temped them into different parts of the movie. A couple of them went in places that I never would have chosen myself including what I think the very best thing is, which is the title fade, that piano piece sitting right over the opening credits. I would never have thought to do that. When I saw it, it was like, "Holy shit, this is great."
Did you have anything else in mind for that piece?
Well we hadn't gotten that far. It literally was that we'd created a big batch of music. I was thinking on my end that we would then go start to compose specifically scene by scene.
First, it was a revelation for us because we didn't know what it would look like. What it did was explain to us the role that Fincher was allowing the music to have in the film. It wasn't just a little bit of tension in the background, it really became kind of a character and it really changed the way the film felt. When that first track comes in after the breakup scene at the beginning, it felt like now there's a weird tension and there's a kind of sadness almost. It really sets you up that this isn't a John Hughes movie, that there's something darker at work here.
So from that point on I think it then changed into a much more traditional role of scoring a film. Now we had picture, now we had a scene that has something in it that we wrote but maybe we can make it better. "Maybe we can recompose it now that it's a thirty second chunk that happens over this length of the scene." We kicked into that mode, which took a couple months of tinkering around.
In The Hall of the Mountain King stands out in the score as one of the only moments in the film where music is fore fronted. How did you decide on that piece?
Well, the whole film was finished except for that scene and David wanted to film it at the actual event, which I believe is around the 4th of July. But we were pretty much finished with everything else and we launched the assemblage of the film. When it got to that spot there would be a placard that said 'Insert Rowing Scene Here.'
David and I were discussing it and he said, "How about something like Grieg's 'Hall of The Mountain King?'"
I said, "Ok how do we make that fit in with what's happening?"
He said, "Well, think 'Clockwork Orange' think of if Wendy Carlos was performing this. Something like that"
So I unearthed every old piece of analog synth gear I had and went on a kind of science project of trying to orchestrate this thing that sounds like a 200-piece Nordic orchestra choir scenario, to try to make something that doesn't sound corny and dated, but still has the power to compete with the version that everyone else has heard. Three long weeks later we wound up with something that felt like it had the right level of menace. At that point, he then took that chunk of music and shot that segment with the music in mind and added to it. For us that was the most difficult aspect in terms of arranging and getting it right.
How do you feel about being nominated for an Oscar? If you win will you be less surprised during your acceptance speech than you were during the golden globes?
[Chuckles] This whole thing has been completely unexpected. I mean literally when we were working on the film it never crossed Atticus's or my mind. There wasn't a moment of consideration of, "Man what if we ever won an award for it?"
It wasn't really until the film was finished that we started hearing all this buzz start up about best film of the year and all the different taglines you started to hear. We were very proud of our work and it was stunning to see it start to get noticed in the way that it has, and equally stunning see that, on and off, people are actually talking about the score.
In the music side of things, I've been one to kind of dismiss awards and what not, particularly if it's coming from the Grammys. If you're being respected by your peers, I think that can mean a lot and it feels good. What's happened on the film side of things really feels that way to me. Its not just necessarily a popularity contest or how well it did in the charts. The Grammys are a thing that feels that way; it feels like an inside job. I've won a couple Grammy's for absurd things: "Best Metal Performance In A, What?" You know, who the hell voted that?
But this feels pretty good. I'm at a point in my life right now where I'm allowing myself to sort of take a moment and feel okay about it. Normally its my nature to say, "Ah, it doesn't mean anything," but this, to be acknowledged for my work on this score has meant a lot to me. It's been a nice kind of wave of inspiration, and the idea of working on some more films is very appealing to me. It's been just a positive pleasant thing that I can feel happy about, regardless of whether we win or not. Quite honestly, just to make it this far feels really nice and I'm happy about it.