Tue. Oct 20th, 2020

Interview: ‘Watchmen’ composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on syncing multiple eras and the chemistry of respectful collaboration

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross aren’t exactly newcomers to film scoring, yet after several collaborations with David Fincher, along with an Oscar for The Social Network, the Nine Inch Nails duo has transformed into a staple in the film and TV world. Their most recent collaboration, HBO’s Watchmen with creator Damon Lindelof, yielded more nominations, this time in the form of multiple Emmy nods in the midst of Watchmen’s 26 nominations. Reznor and Ross, winners of an Oscar, multiple Grammys, and hopefully an Emmy or two come September, chatted with Michael Frank on how they got their start, their insecurities, their relationship to Fincher and Lindelof, and their plans for the future. 

Michael Frank: How did you both come into scoring films and television? Is it something you wanted to do from the get-go?

Trent Reznor: From my point of view, I’ve been working on Nine Inch Nails for years. And on that list of things that you say you want to do at some point, scoring was one of those things, along with being a professional photographer and directing movies and playwriting, and there’s a whole bunch of things on that list. But as a fan of film, I’d always thought it would be interesting to see if I could, if I could work in that medium, but I didn’t have any game plan as to how to get there. It was one of those things I wanted to do but the reality of pausing what becomes a full time momentum of Nine Inch Nails. Then the phone rang. And at this point, this would have been 10 years ago or so, you know, Atticus and I had established a good working relationship. I saw in him somebody that was first and foremost a friend, and kind of kindred soul, someone kind of cut from the same cloth and it always felt good to be around him. And it was my first taste of true collaboration where the end result really was better than if I’d done it myself. And, you know, I’d heard of such things. David Fincher reached out with The Social Network.

Oh, he reached out to you?

TR: Yeah, as I recall, I was pretty burnt out. And I get word from my manager that David, who I knew socially a bit and had worked on a video with us and I had admiration for him, he’s working on a new film, and he’d love to know if you’d want to score it. And it was one of those things that I felt my bluff was called because I wasn’t in a headspace where I felt like “Okay, I’m ready to take on this new medium.” And I was intimidated because he’s excellent. And I don’t know the first thing about how to start doing that process. And so I was real honest with him. And I said I’d read the script. And it seemed great. But I didn’t feel like I could. I wasn’t operating at 100%. So I just said, “Look, I’m really not in the headspace so I don’t want to fuck this movie up, you know, because I’m learning how to do something.” And, of course, for the next few months, I beat myself up about fucking up, and I hate letting people down. Yeah. I remember, after the first of the year, I reached out to say, “Look, I just want to get this off my chest that it wasn’t you, it wasn’t the material, I just wasn’t in a place where I felt like I could really perform well. And again, I’m sorry, please keep me in mind if anything else would ever come up.” He basically told me no, and asked if I could come over that day. 

And I said, “Would this be something that I could get Atticus involved in? Because we had just committed to work on a number of things and kind of were in a good space. He’s like, “Fucking bring him over.” So that was it, man. And that was trial by fire. The film had been edited to 80% of what you saw in the theaters. Yeah. When we finished that film, it was truly one of the most invigorating, difficult, but exhilarating experiences, because we felt like we were running as fast as we could and we could just keep up. And the team that had assembled and in Fincher himself, were so excellent at what they were up to. They’re firing on all cylinders and really at an elevated level of excellence where everybody’s trying their best to make something that really was excellent. No compromise. That was long before there were any accolades for the film. And it was a nice change. From Nine Inch Nails where every executive decision was falling on my head. It was nice to be a part of something where I was a contributor, and I wasn’t at the top of the pyramid and I was in service to the picture and to Fincher and it was great.

Not one time, did it ever cross my mind that this would be up for any kind of award. Not trying to be humble. It just never crossed our mind. We were just hoping that we wouldn’t get fired. Yeah, I mean, that was a nice, very surreal experience to go through. We’re not the guys that sit around, talking about how great we are. You hope it goes over. Well, you hope people appreciate it. We hope people notice it. But that’s out of your hands really. Anyway, that was a good, that was a good experience, and it left us inspired and invigorated. And, you know, the more I work in music, the more I realize how little I know about it. I’m still figuring stuff out.

Do you have any specific stories from a day working on Watchmen? Something good that happened? Something particularly difficult?

Atticus Ross: I actually look back on Watchmen as something that I really genuinely loved the experience. I’m not saying that there weren’t days that I was pissed off. I actually kind of miss watchmen to be honest with you. I thought it was a great experience for me.

TR: Just a moment of something I think is worth saying, is after The Social Network and it won all these awards, and then the phone starts to ring and we have the momentum of that career starting to take off. We’re grateful, and it’s great to be having incoming calls instead of just outgoing ones. I don’t care what Spotify says in terms of, you know, the billions coming in. It’s in decline, the role of music is less significant culturally than it was 10 years ago, certainly than it was 20 years ago. It feels different to be a musician. It generally feels less optimistic and less exciting. It’s not like we work at a fax machine company. Music still has an important role. But culturally, it’s taken a backseat to Instagram and Tiktok and that bullshit in my opinion. Having the film thing takeoff was a new lane that was shiny and new and interesting. But we were basing that on the experience on The Social Network. And then with Fincher on a couple other films, which were 10 out of 10. And they’re not all like that. I remember doing some award season meetings with other composers and a few of them, more than once, I heard them say, “Man, you’re so lucky. So lucky that you didn’t have producers come in and tell you how to change this and that.” We didn’t have any of that, Fincher has carved that out to where you can be left to do your best work. He’s afforded that, and we’re benefiting. We have the privilege of benefiting from what he’s worked hard to get, the clout he’s attained.

Once we had a few that weren’t quite so great, that felt a bit more like work. I see a lot of films and some of them don’t pay any attention to music, because it’s just doing what music does. I don’t know why you hired new people to make new scores, if they just do the thing that sounds completely interchangeable from everything else. to perform that function. When we started to take on new projects, we looked at what we were doing this for. For money, fame, awards, soul enrichment? It came down to the experience of collaboration with the right people, learning in these camps where you’re in an intense working situation for four to 24 months at a time on something. It’s something that we never get in Nine Inch Nails. You learn in the process and you’re inspired by it. There is something to collaborate on. 

And what made Watchmen excellent was we could tell pretty early on when we met Damon, he’s like us. He’s plagued by the same kind of insecurities we have. He questions himself the same way. Seeing how much he cared about this and how unsure he was about things and the kind of the pain he was going through throughout, it factored into our commitment. It felt like we immediately got heavy skin in the game. It felt like more than just a job. And just we’re trying to make cool music for a cool show. I felt like we were trying to change the world, and we were trying to do something that matters. 

When we first got the first cut of the pilot, it was the first time we’d really seen visuals to the script we’d lived with for a few months. It was pretty good. But it wasn’t great. We kind of talked to each other like, “Yeah, that’s cool.” And Damon called up and said, “Hey, throw that in the fucking trash. Look, HBO loves it. But it’s not good enough. I’ll talk to you in a couple weeks.” Yeah, in a couple weeks, we got another cut back. And it was 80% better than the first cut. We didn’t go back and watch the first one to compare, but it was like, “I don’t know what you did. You didn’t go out and shoot a new pilot.” But what it established right off the bat was that he was like us. He’s not satisfied until he feels it’s the best it can be, you know. And it got better from that point on once we all started contributing, but it impressed us and that was a long winded way of saying there was a real feeling of respect and camaraderie. And the connection that has influenced how we feel about this and I think when we saw nomination morning when I woke up and saw, “Great we got nominated, but fuck, the show got the shit nominated out of it.” That’s what felt the best. There was validation across the board that there was something that mattered that happened here, that our efforts were rewarded. That’s the best part of all this.

Congrats again on the nominations for both of you. 

TR: We’ve grown to not put too much on it. Our feelings have been hurt and crushed in the past. When you base too much of how you feel about something on how it’s accepted or judged by the outside world. You know, I’ve had albums come out that I think are the best thing I can do and immediately get shitcanned. You can’t help but feel disappointed when you get an avalanche of negativity. And the worst part is when that starts to infect how you feel about something. You can’t help but feel like man did I fuck up? You know, you start second guessing what you’re doing. 

In terms of the Watchmen score, it feels like a juxtaposition between the past and the future. Were you trying to strike that balance? 

AR: We didn’t enter into it consciously thinking like that. And in some ways, the description that Trent gave about the experience on The Social Network, the experience in Watchmen was similar in the sense that Damon was an incredible partner to work with on the material. And we were also trying to keep up. Part of that was this being a piece of television and then part of it was Damon’s mind, and part of it was just this expansive, layered story that you mentioned. I don’t think there was a conscious approach in terms of what we’ve got to balance with these different eras. It was more responding to the material. When episode two opens up in the first World War, that theme is reinterpreted on a slightly out of tune, broken piano. When we come back and we see Will under the tree, it becomes a full blown kind of synth version of the previous theme. Obviously, the big departure was episode six. We were fairly thrown into the 1940s. But we were able to do some things that I don’t think we thought we could. When Will’s walking through the jazz club, that little ensemble that’s playing is one of the Watchmen themes in a reinterpreted way, not that anyone would probably catch that. And it actually turned out to be probably one of the most intense episodes. Short answer is, we were keeping up and responding to the story, because we didn’t even know what was happening in episode six when we started. We only knew what was happening in episode one and episode two.

TR: We’ve gotten accustomed to how films work as much as one can after the handful that we’ve done. One thing is, you know how the film ends. We’ve got two hours, three hours to fill up. And it starts here and the trajectory winds up there. With this, we knew it was nine hours. And we had the script for the first episode and maybe the second one when we had to start. And there was a more confusing-than-helpful meeting we had with Damon and some of the writers when we first met them, where they gave a barrage of information. It took me a few times of watching and rereading scripts many times to pick out what’s even happening. So, bottom line, we started blind, like we didn’t know the Manhattan reveal. We didn’t know the trajectory of where the whole thing was going. It was more of starting to feel out what this world was. So we were forced to make a bunch of decisions, where we intentionally tried to leave open paths. We weren’t the writers, you know. But when Atticus mentions the pace or catching up, the other thing that was significantly different was the pace of television. You’ll see the rough cut of it in three weeks. And then two weeks later, it’s being mixed. So that’s gonna happen every other week, you get that same deadline that’s stacking on top of each other. It forced a lot of decision making. There wasn’t an endless amount of time to reconsider. It becomes a good thing, this forced commitment. 

So, was the music based off the script, or off of images and rough cuts you were able to see? 

We started doing this with The Social Network, and we’ve done this with every project. I always find it awkward when you’re sitting down with the director or the showrunner and you start to talk about music, and start saying a version of how it’s gonna be really cool. Yeah, it’s impossible to  describe, because we don’t know yet. So what we do at the beginning of all projects is typically absorb as much information as we have: the script, the meetings with the director. We try to imagine, with as many clues as you’re given, whether it be direct information or riddles or insinuations of what they, the directors, think the role of music is. We really feel like we’re in service to that vision, and we want to take those limitations and be inspired by them and challenged by them. It’s more of how we can make a technicolor version of what they’re thinking. 

We will spend a couple weeks, three weeks, maybe a month just composing, just writing stuff, no pressure. Not to script, not to scenes, not for anything necessarily, but just based on what they’ve described. Some tones, think of them as swatches that feel like a mood board. Is it analog and warm? Is it synthetic? Is it acoustic? Is it chaotic? Does it feel claustrophobic? And then we’ll turn it back over to the director or showrunner and say, “Be brutal, but see if anything feels inspiring.” And generally, that provides a pretty good roadmap of what they hopefully feel inspired by. Sometimes, say in the case of The Social Network, we did that and 85% of it was what ended up in the final cut. Or mutated versions of that. 

For Watchmen, it was about 5%. We were playing it a bit safe, I think. And when we saw that Damon wanted stuff that was a bit more visceral and in your face, rather than in the background. But we did find it out. And then from that point on, everything pretty much fell into place. But what we weren’t counting on were those left turns like, “Can you write a piece that sounds like a song from the ‘40s authentically so that no one could tell? Also has to sound current, also has to swell at this point and it has to transition here. And could it have lyrics that say, if someone was being lynched, could it play against that?” There are lots of those things that popped up that kept it interesting. But the whole feeling throughout, as Atticus was saying, was it had that chemistry of respectful collaboration with people that you genuinely care about, with material that you realize has been very passionately and thoroughly cared for. It was a swing for the fences in terms of taking on Watchmen as an IP. You know, there are a million ways that could have taken a shit. We knew we cared about it and we wanted it to be great, but would it be received well? I rolled off into that uncertainty. Any of the best projects I’ve been involved in, I felt that way. Did I make a terrible choice on day three? Did we go down a path that maybe I should have thought a little harder about it? But I really want to try my best because I don’t want to let these guys down. Miraculously those things all kind of came together.

AR: Going back to your question, once the show started running, we were only writing to pitch. The silent movie was the first thing that we actually saw. And even that is very specific, not in terms of actual drum beats, but I mean in terms of emotional beats. It is a show that needs care and attention like Trent said. It never felt safe and simultaneously always felt like something one deeply cared about. And it wasn’t just Damon. And the broader subject matter. I was thinking about this while walking the dogs this morning. It’s an expansive story. At the same time it’s told really through just a few characters who you kind of come to love you. I remember feeling so invested in it. That in a weird way, it’s kind of like fiction becomes reality. I didn’t want to let Angela Abar down as much as I didn’t want to let Damon down. 

Is film scoring something you could see yourselves continue doing down the road? Say in 10-20 years from now? 

AR: I’ve never had a grand plan. I’m just trying to get through the day, you know what I mean? But the one thing I do know is that music is a learning experience. I think it was touched on earlier. Take the experience of Watchmen, one that I will never forget. There were moments and days and whatever during that process that I really felt alive and committed and I really felt the best of me. So, if I can feel like that, then yes. I don’t have a grand plan. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I would like experiences like that to keep happening. And, you know, I certainly have no intention of stopping making music. I don’t feel any less invigorated about making music than I did 20 or 25 years ago. It’s what I love to do. I very much hope that we will keep doing films and keep having good collaborations and we will still be making records but like I said, it’s one day at a time to me.

TR: I agree with that completely. If you’d have asked me 20 years ago, do I think I’ll be performing as Nine Inch Nails in my 50s? Fuck no. It feels internally, it feels pertinent to who I am. It feels relevant to me. It feels like I have something to say. If there’s music that I’ve written that doesn’t feel that way, we don’t play it. And with film, it’s provided a nice kind of separate lane where we still approach things like we’re trying to figure out how to do it. There’s a world of stuff to learn. And it’s invigorating. I think Watchmen is better because we worked on it. Arrogantly, I think we contributed to the DNA, and we could feel it when we were doing it. And I feel it now and I’m proud of it. If it ever got to the point where I feel like I’m just trying to keep up or just do what we’re supposed to do, because that’s what music does, I wouldn’t want to do it anymore. I’d still play music internally in my house, but if I’m going to put it out for you to hear, expose it to the world. People don’t have that much time. There’s plenty of music out there. It needs to feel relevant and valid to me. And I think we’ll keep doing this if we continue to make bold choices with what we work on. If we’re afforded that opportunity. Not obvious choices. Like I wouldn’t have thought a Pixar film was on our roadmap, but yet there it is. It was exciting and terrifying and incredibly difficult, and not what we thought it was going to be in a good way and in a bad way. And we wouldn’t know that had we not done it. It’s exciting now, as long as it stays exciting, we’ll try to keep talking people into letting us do it.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie or Special (Original Dramatic Score) and Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics for the song “The Way It Used To Be” from episode “This Extraordinary Being” from HBO’s Watchmen, which is available to stream on all HBO platforms.

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