Disarming Swatches: Trent Reznor on Gone Girl

I wrote a tiny article for Variety on the Gone Girl score, for which I had the pleasure of interviewing Trent Reznor for a fair amount of time. Reznor is a polarizing and even despised figure in the realm of film score geekdom, but it’s been fascinating to see how his music for the screen has been embraced and lauded by critics and mainstream audience members—most of whom pay little to no attention to film music. That visibility and acclaim is certainly aided by his rockstar status, but I think it’s also a testament to how prominently David Fincher presents and mixes Reznor’s music (which he co-writes with Atticus Ross). Say what you will about the music’s efficacy or intricacy, but Fincher clearly gives his composers the spotlight far more than most directors, which I find extremely commendable. If nothing else, Reznor is shaking up the film world and making people talk about the music. And to that I say: bring it on.

 

How long did it actually take you to write the score? Was it done in one fit, or did you spread it out over a period of time?

No, this one was actually spread out. We started, I think, the second or third of January (2014), and worked in kind of sporadic bursts. Mainly because of schedule scenario.

Because of your schedule?

Yeah. I had a fantastic schedule planned out a few years ago, where Nine Inch Nails was going to tour, and then we were gonna start work on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was David’s next film. And the schedule worked out perfectly. So I went and booked the tour, and then that project fell through. Then Gone Girl came up, and it landed exactly during the tour that I just booked. So I was faced with this decision of: do I try to find a way to make that work—you know, composing on slight breaks in tour or on the road—or do I just do the sane thing, and pass on it? And there was no way I could do that. So Atticus and I arranged our schedules so every time we had a break—we’d have a couple weeks off here, or three weeks off there—we’d just spend that time in very focused bursts of composition. So it was about three big sessions of multi-weeks of these main compositional ideas, and then we spent the remainder of the next several months refining and shoehorning things into an actual score. We don’t use a music editor, so we do all that ourselves. We spread it out in a way that I think was beneficial, in a sense, because we’d work quite intensely, and then have a few weeks away where I’m on tour, and then come back. It really gave a perspective that I think sometimes gets lost when we just grind it out over a real long period of time.

It was kind of a luxury in some ways.

I’m trying to tell myself that this was all part of the master plan.

You can always retroactively make it that way.

Exactly. That’s the beauty of doing press: you can create the story that may not have actually existed.

So were you just writing to script and concepts, or did you have any picture at all?

Our method of working with David, which was borne out of really not knowing what we were doing to begin with—and trusting our gut versus a more traditional approach—has been the same with all three films. Let’s talk about Gone Girl. I’d read the book, I’d spoken quite extensively to David about what role he thought music might play. ’Cause I know he has an idea, and my job here is to hopefully embellish that idea, but expand upon the idea of the foundation he’s created, and the palette he’s presented, the canvas he’s presented. We didn’t have picture, I’d read the script to see what had changed. I’d seen maybe half an hour of whatever state the film would have been in at that point, not even done with principal photography, rough edit, to get a sense of tone and pacing and what kind of look. Then we just go off on our own, Atticus and myself, and kind of just compose blindly with music that feels like it fits, like we’re dressing his set with our sound. And again, there’ll be times when we’ll think, you know, we’re gonna need something…let’s focus on the aggression of the reveal of Amy’s character, and think what things might fit in that world, without knowing exactly what it looks like or the timing of it. Generally it’s just kind of inhabiting the story, thinking a lot about what David said, and then just groping around to see what feels right. And then we’ll present a batch of that to David, like swatches—tape them up on the wall and see what feels right. That form of collaboration’s worked quite well for us. Then we’ll take his feedback, and it eventually gets down to more traditional, looking at a scene that’s constantly shifting around and trying to fit these motifs into that.

And do you then edit your cues to the finished film, or do you leave that to David?

We do all of that ourselves. The first phase is kind of freeform, impressionistic work. “Here’s some things that feel, to us, that they could belong in this world of yours.” He responds by saying, “I like this, this, this. That one I’m not sure. Hey, this would be great for that.” Then we start to get picture, we start editing around and seeing what needs to be re-composed and adapted…or often thrown out completely. But that initial exploration often gets us in a place that we wouldn’t have wound up, probably, if we were staring at scenes the whole time. And because he’s very involved in all aspects of the filmmaking, it gives David and his team (Kirk, editor, and Ren Klyce, sound designer)…everyone starts to have a voice in there, and because we all know and respect each other and kind of understand how we all work, we’re willing to open up the process a bit more—if that makes sense. Rather than, “Here’s the scene.” “Okay, here’s the music.” It’s more like, “Here’s music we think could fit in this scene, and here’s how we made this music. Maybe some of that could spill over into…” and Ren will say, “You know what? The sound design for this scene, I was thinking of this.” And we’ll say, “What if you tune that down a half step, and we can make this actually fade into that”—so the whole thing starts to feel more cohesive…or does something that I don’t think would have happened if everything was as compartmentalized as it seems like it often is.

But there is specificity, right? Are you channeling specific characters, if not actual moments or scenes when you’re experimenting in those early stages?

I think in the very first stage, pre-picture, it’s usually not thinking specifically. It’s more in the abstract. It’s more about what, to us, were some of the themes that came up in this film. Not so much the scenes where things happen, but what was the sense. Is it a sense of dread, is it longing, is it melancholy, is it built-up tension, is it the slow decay of a relationship? How might that sound? How does that feel in a piece of music? And of course we mix lots of things. We always, when we start to think what actually needs music in it, say, “Oh we didn’t think of that piece,” or “we didn’t hit the mark on…we didn’t cover all the bases.” But generally speaking, when we work from that kind of detached exploration place at the beginning, it hones us in on a sound and a tone. And it gives us clues as to how to proceed once we try it against picture. But we initially start from not looking at the screen.

Reznor sideAnd you attribute that method to basically not knowing anything different when you first started, but it seems like you’ve settled into that as being the ideal way of working, right?

Well, it’s worked with David. It works with the way he works. Again, if I had the experience of working with a lot of different people, I’d probably find that that does or doesn’t work with others. But it came from when we started with Social Network. Atticus had worked a bit on film, but I had not, in terms of actually scoring. I remember a kind of panicked ride home from David’s place, where we’d seen the first bit of the film. We were driving home, and I said, “What on earth kind of music can fit in there?” You know, ’cause it’s just filled with so much dialogue, and it’s just people in rooms. “How do we even go about starting to do that? What’s the process?” I immediately thought, you know, “Perhaps I should quickly embed myself in Hans Zimmer’s place for a while, and watch the process, and try to learn as much as I can, and try to get the Cliff’s Notes version of ‘what’s the strategy of execution of how to tackle something like this?’” You know, do we think about characters, do we get picture and start composing to scenes? And we thought, “Let’s see what happens if I try it (the way I just described). Let’s see what happens if we just turn on the subconscious, think about purely composing music for a while, that fits into this kind of box that we’re creating, that meets these rules, these limitations we’re placing on it.”

What Atticus and I will do, normally, when we’re working on an album—a Nine Inch Nails record, Heaven is for Angels, whatever it might be—is we usually start discussing: “What do we want this thing to sound like? What are the rules and limitations of this album?” For example, maybe this album is only live performances, and there’s no cutting in the computer. Or like the Nine Inch Nails records, The Slip, the idea was: no use of midi, everything’s a live performance. Let’s picture garage electronics—an old arp synthesizer in a garage going through a guitar amp. The sound of that. Okay, so that means we’re not going to use X, Y, and Z—we’re not going to use these instruments, we’re not gonna start with these components. And by eliminating a lot of that, it funnels us down a path, and it starts to give it an identity. And we change those rules constantly, because sometimes you realize, “Okay, that’s not inspiring, it’s limiting and it’s not fun. Let’s go over and try this.” The Year Zero Nine Inch Nails record was Atticus and I with “laptop on a bus”—you know, the limitations were just what’s in the laptop. So normally at home, I’d reach for a guitar, I’d reach for this cool piece of gear that I know how to work. Now I’ve got to do it in there. And this was at a time when laptops really came into their own, and they went from being a kind of poor version of what they were emulating to an actual pretty powerful, yet limited, musical instrument. And that led us to an album that sounded a certain way.

So for the scoring process, we kind of adopted that same idea, of: “Before we make music, let’s talk about textures, and let’s talk about how we think it might it sound. Is it more synthetic, is it more organic, is it cold, is it icy, is it engulfing, is it disarming…?” Thinking about those terms, and then translating that into strategies of composition, and ways we compose, and what instruments we might start with. We get a lot of that from talking with David. We kind of get a feel of what he’s thinking, texturally. Then, “Let’s just not be too editorial, let’s just try things. Let’s just see what feels like it might belong in a movie—Gone Girl—that’s about this, directed by that guy, with these people in it”—and then see how David responds to that. Take that raw material that was right, start to shape it into the picture. That worked for the process of Social Network, and so we’ve kind of adopted the strategy for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and now this.

What were the rules you set for yourself on Gone Girl?

Again, it usually starts with checking your ego at the door, walking in with David and just trying to extract clues from him. It doesn’t take long being around him to understand and get the picture that he’s thought deeply about this, every layer of this film—and any film he’s done. From the most minute details of set design to technical camera stuff I don’t even understand, to the pace, and in-depth character studies behind each person… And with all that said, it stands to reasons that, in his head, whether he’s conscious of it or not, he’s hearing the role that music’s playing to glue this together. And, you know, sometimes it’s just breadcrumbs that you interpret. It’s not literally, “I want to use a 22-piece orchestra, and I want it to have…” It’s usually a bit more flowery descriptions, and abstract. But there are clues there. And I think the successful creative run we’ve had with David is based on a real collaboration with him, and trying to get into his head and figure out what it is he’s feeling. In the case of Gone Girl, we took those clues and they kind of got translated into something that felt disarming, that felt kind of like a saccharine sweet, false presentation of “everything’s going to be okay,” with an undercurrent of “everything’s definitely not okay.” (On the surface they might feel that way.) There’s the famous line I see quoted often where he mentioned about getting—I can’t remember, because I’ve misquoted it so many times—but basically he was in some sort of treatment, chiropractic scenario or massage, and the kind of music they play that was very insincere feeling, but meant to relax you, but in an inauthentic, muzak-y kind of way. He thought there was something in there that could be a parallel to, or embellish the story he’s telling—for moments in the film. The facade of the perfect couple that’s being presented, whether it be between the two of them or to the world at large. And that gave us a few starting points, certainly not for the whole thing, but it started to dictate, “Okay, this probably isn’t an outwardly electronic-sounding thing. It’s probably more organic in nature. It might lend itself to even going into orchestral (which it did). It’s probably unlike Social Network,” in the sense that it’s not sequenced-y and electronic-y sounding in that way. And then, again, it’s just kind of getting out of the way, and letting creativity take over for a while, and just trusting a kind of gut instinct of what feels right. And then putting the editorial cap on and saying, “That feels a bit out of line. This, I think, is actually pretty great.” That inspires you, you know—the trails start to open up once you start going down one.

trent-reznor-composer-ninWhat determined when the score would be subversive or insincere, and when it would actually be authentically representing what was happening?

There were times when…for example, Amy’s return. We’re going back to a theme that we’ve used a few times. And that was usually, you know, when they first meet, there’s a piece playing that feels a bit wide-eyed and full of wonder. There’s not much malice in it, so when they’re meeting at the party, and riding the elevator, and the sugar storm…that had, to me, a sense of mystery, but pleasantness. It was a starry night, it was possibility.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Upon her return—bloodied, pulling up in the car—well, now we know what the real story is. The choice of putting that music back in there to remind the viewer of what had come before. That was when I thought, when she does her little pose and falls back into such a comedic moment in the film, “Should we take it up a notch and actually have a little harp gliss?” And as I was typing an email to David saying, “What if went over the top and went with a full, not too much, but imply that we know this is ridiculous, kind of harp gliss resolution to this absurd moment being played out…”—I get this email alert from him: “What about—don’t kill me—harp gliss?” So I thought, Alright, we’re actually in sync here, because I was just typing you the exact same words. We stayed pretty in sync. A lot of it’s our instinct of what we feel goes in there, and if we get it wrong, or if it’s not in line with what he has…usually there’s an argument to be made of why. But I’d say we were pretty much in line with what we think should happen, scene by scene—how much of a role music’s influence should be of coloring that scene, positively or—usually—negatively. How much menace do we want lurking around the corner, in this film particularly? When they arrive at Desi’s house, and he’s showing the Roku…you know, we all felt, without even having to talk about it, that it should feel like the spiderweb is there. You’re entering a place where you’re not sure—is she the victim walking into his web, or is it the other way around? But there is an understanding that this isn’t the sanctuary that could be implied by her arriving at this safe place. This is quite the opposite. And we’re in sync with those kinds of things.

And then when she kills him, there’s nothing ironic or subversive about the score there. You really play to the menace of that scene.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I think we’d been in discussion about, “When we get to this, we’re testing the limits of what we want to put the audience through. This is the part where we want the groan. We build up to this, let’s maybe go too far.” And again, when we present options in scenes like that, that was probably the most extreme version of several options we present. You know, “Is it better with a hint of subtlety? Is it better…?” It’s this kind of extreme process we do, to make it really feel unsettling. That was the one we all kind of felt, in the context of seeing it going into it, felt the best. It served the purpose of the film, versus necessarily that scene in isolation.

Was there any conscious influence of the music of Twin Peaks on this score?

I can’t say conscious, but I hear that now. And I’m certainly a fan of Badalamenti and David Lynch. I think it comes more from the tone of the first thing you hear, kind of the synthy pad playing, that feels reminiscent to me. Again, I hear it now, because I’ve heard people say it, and I think, “Yep, okay. That was coming out of me somehow.” But I didn’t sit down and consciously call that to mind. But sometimes influences come out in ways that…it’s just the way it works.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Is there an itch that only film scoring scratches for you?Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor pose backstage at the 83rd Academy Awards in Hollywood

Yeah. It’s really been a creatively rewarding situation, that I quite honestly stumbled into. You know, when Social Network landed at my feet, it was quite unexpected, and that was a point when I really just needed a break from Nine Inch Nails. I’d consciously said I was going to stop doing that for a while. I’d felt like that was a bit of container I’d created for myself, that I was starting to feel more imprisoned by. Because it needed maintenance, and there was always the next cycle and the momentum of it to keep up by doing that. So I looked at things I always said I wanted to get to for the last 20 years, and I’m not ticking any of them off because I’m constantly doing this other thing that’s a full-time job. I thought, I’m gonna have to force myself into just walking away from this for a while. And that came up right at that moment, and I hadn’t had a few weeks to kind of recharge. But when we finished working on Social Network, it was exhilarating because it was challenging and fun and thrilling and terrifying to be thrust into this situation where…I felt confident that I could do the work, but I didn’t know how to do the work—I didn’t know the process. I was insecure about that lack of knowledge. And often it felt like, if I ran as fast as I could, I could almost keep up with these guys who were the best in their field, in the world. I didn’t want to be the one that was slowing down the train by not knowing what I’m up to. So some if it was bluffing and bullshitting, and other parts of it was pushing myself in a way that I hadn’t experienced in what I did in Nine Inch Nails—for a while anyway—because you inevitably get somewhat comfortable in what you know how to do. So, aside from any external award or accolade that came [i.e., winning an Oscar], when we finished that film I thought, “This is probably the most creatively fulfilling, challenging, fun…and an education in the process. This is great—of course I want to continue to do this.” Since then, I’ve become very aware that the situation working with Fincher is a unique and exceptional one, and I don’t take that for granted. I know how fortunate it is that, for example, the only interface I have is David and his team of creatives. And his only agenda is to make the very best, most un-compromised piece of art he can make. There’s no interference from studios or anybody saying, “We need to change this.” There are no committees or anything I have to deal with. He’s earned that privilege, he’s fought for that privilege. It’s easy to get spoiled in that situation, so… I’ve really enjoyed the work I’ve done. It’s worked as a nice complement to what I do in my daytime job. It’s allowed me to go back to Nine Inch Nails for a tour and feel stimulated and excited about it. And it’s nice to work in a parallel industry that isn’t in complete decline and disruption like the music industry. It’s interesting…and it’s been good. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him, and do something that I actually really love to do.

So would you score How to Train Your Dragon 3 if they asked you?

You know what? I’d be flattered if I were asked to do that, because what it’s kind of turned into now is: would I like to try to do something that’s—and I don’t mean that disrespectfully—more traditional? Would I like to use an orchestra as a palette, really dive in and learn more about orchestration and the possibility? Certainly I would. But would I be any good at it? No idea. That’s kind of what’s exciting to me about it.