Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (‘Watchmen’ composers) on the value of ‘forced collaboration’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the score to the HBO limited series “Watchmen.” The pair previously won an Oscar for writing the music for “The Social Network.”

Reznor and Ross spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria recently about how they got involved with “Watchmen,” working with showrunner Damon Lindelof and their vivid memories of Oscar night. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Guys, we could literally spend the next five hours talking about your career and contribution to music over the decades but I won’t do that to you ‘cause I know you have other things to do today, so first up, let’s focus on “Watchmen.” How did you end up composing for the show?

Trent Reznor: We several years ago sat with our film agent and kind of said, “Hey, here’s some directors and projects that we’d be interested in,” to proactively reach out rather than sitting around waiting for the phone to ring and we’d gotten wind that HBO was moving forward with “Watchmen,” which we loved the graphic novel, it’s very important to us, but more than that, we’d been very eager to work with Damon Lindelof. What we’ve learned in our journeys and collaboration with other filmmakers… in our day job of Nine Inch Nails it’s pretty much us insular in a room doing what we do and we have a good rapport and it feels ripe and full of excitement and lots more to go. As we stumbled into films and TV shows, it’s a form of forced collaboration that was foreign, particularly to me, and what we learned through that is it can be an incredibly rewarding experience. We’re kind of behind the curve of humanity on what value there is to collaboration but working with David Fincher on a project that you’re not in control of, that you’re contributing to, is a really exciting thing. What we’ve learned over the various projects we’ve taken and been a part of, the real appeal to us is working with that person that can push us and teach us and challenge us into something that feels great where there’s real camaraderie. Just as a fan of Damon’s work, I thought and Atticus agreed that he seemed like he’d be one of us if we got a chance to meet him. As it turns out, when things lined up, we very much feel that way and working on “Watchmen” was a super rewarding, extremely difficult and fulfilling project to be involved in.

GD: Th score is really dense with lots of beautiful themes and hooks that recur throughout the score like most scores do. The track “How the West Was Really Won” includes these cues that recur throughout the score and to me, it’s like an addictive mix of ominous sci-fi and retro electronic. Can you talk us through your inspiration for what I think is the most identifiable track on the score?

TR: With that piece, it was right at the beginning of our collaboration and Atticus and I were talking about this the other day. When we first met with Damon, it was to get an understanding of what his approach was going to be with “Watchmen” property. We had an eventful hour or so meeting with him and the producers and writers and we left knowing less than we did when we went in there ‘cause we were bombarded with an impenetrably dense, unfinished Season 1 arc but we did know that it was going to be cerebral and it was well thought through and it was made with passion and it was made with integrity. We didn’t really know what role music was gonna play. Was it a supporting role? Was it something that sublimely influences the viewer or is it more of a feature character, almost? We wrote, what, Atticus, about an hour of music, an hour and a half?

Atticus Ross: Yeah, we wrote I think it was about an hour and a half, 15 pieces based off the scripts.

TR: And the scripts at that time were Episode 1 and maybe 2. We hadn’t seen anything. It was really just to see where Damon’s head was at, ‘cause he didn’t leave a lot of clues as to what he was looking for, which was good. He didn’t define, “I want exactly this.” Those situations we find can be a little tedious at times so we were just feeling around and “How the West Was Really Won” just came to us as a nice moody piece, certainly [John] Carpenter influenced, a little retro but felt like it had the right level of menace and something sexy about it. We liked it. When we turned these in to Damon and we wrote a lot of music, as we said, that wasn’t picture, just, “Does it seem like it’s in the ballpark? Does it inspire you? Does it feel right?” Not long after that, we saw a real rough cut of Episode 1 and just where he and his editor placed a few things of what we did really informed us as to what the series was gonna be. For example, music was going to be much more in the forefront driving certain scenes rather than it being effects-driven or sound effects driven. It was going to almost play like a music video at times. That was exciting for us because we had a larger palette to paint on, a larger canvas to paint on. I could ramble on.

AR: I’ll add a little something to that. That particular track was, I think, the only one that made it into the show for that original batch of writing based on the scripts. It was one that Damon immediately responded to. He was like, “This sounds like ‘Watchmen.’” And then like Trent said, when we got the pilot or whatever you want to call it, Episode 1, and we saw, like Trent described, what role the music gives, that was when we could really take off and start putting the foot on the gas. It was interesting as well because we got that pilot, we were actually touring at the time so we got the pilot in, I think we had like 10 days off or something and we did traffic stop, something else, and then Sister Night’s theme was written in a hotel in Chicago as we took off on the next leg of the tour. There was an interesting kind of journey physically and emotionally in the early bit.

GD: Yeah. There’s a lot of tracks that are beautifully meditative and ambient. There are some that are very percussive. But obviously, a lot of your scores use these really interesting synth sounds and bass. Th track like “Nun with a Motherfucking Gun” is a really good example of how that perfectly fits that bill and it’s one of the first tracks on “Volume 1” which really gets us into the mood of it. What is it about EDM and working in that space that you find effective for film scoring?

AR: I would be very loathe to use the term EDM in our work. I don’t particularly know why.

TR: Well I know why. ‘Cause EDM kind of says, “Sahara dance tent laptop music.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that but it’s not what interests us that much. I think what you’re getting at, we included a few things that were more beat-driven that could’ve gone in another direction into a Nine Inch Nails demo perhaps. Normally, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to venture into that space in a score situation. That was a lot of stuff that Damon, really clicked with him. We thought, “Okay, this could be fun in a way that’s not the other side of the planet from Nine Inch Nails-based music.” It allowed us to open up the toolkit or open up our toolbox into the stuff we could do in the band, the techniques and the arrangements and the recording styles and the instrumentation and things like that. This was a refreshing project mainly because the people we were working with were excellent. Damon primarily, just a smart guy that will not settle for anything less than excellence and that’s what drives us as well. Additionally, it allowed us to play in a sandbox we don’t get to play in much in the world of scoring. We got to get into distortion and guitars and rhythms and drums and electric-distorted bass and things like that. I think it was the right call for the series. It gave it, I don’t wanna say a playfulness, but the first episode was radically different from where we see her running across the field and that music’s playing, driving her car fast and you hear that raunchy bass, it’s kind of sleazy sounding, it really gives it an attitude that we were glad he was up for trying that sort of approach to it.

AR: That was the track I was talking about that was written in the hotel room, “Nun with a Motherfucking Gun” and we had the picture then so we knew what we’re dealing with. In some ways, I’d say it was like being let off the leash with Damon. That’s not to say there wasn’t heavy discussion, sometimes disagreement, never with any malice or anything, but there was talk of what should be what. Later on, when Manhattan is finally captured, we very much didn’t want to play the action and there was some idea that maybe it should have this or that. It was a process but I feel, like Trent said, this is certainly one of the best operations we’ve ever had and it was also one of the funnest recording score experiences for the reasons that you just mentioned, even though it wasn’t EDM.

GD: Apologies for using that term but I totally get where you’re coming from. For me, I thought “Watchmen” was a masterpiece. I just thought the show was one of the best things I’ve ever seen and that’s because I spent many episodes working at what were the motivations of these characters, who’s good, who’s bad, and I wonder, when you’re scoring something like that, normally a score underpins the emotional motivation of the characters and tries to help the audience feel something. Your score doesn’t do that, just like a lot of your other scores, actually. How challenging is it, though, to play that essential role in the film or the TV show without quite understanding what the characters are trying to achieve?

TR: A lot of it really is instinct. I don’t mean to sound arrogant saying that but we’d read the script, we would usually before we’d start on an episode have a discussion with Damon about general arcs and motivation, not too specific but general things and then we’d turn a bunch of stuff in and then get feedback. I’d say 80% of the time it’d be right on with these tweaks. Sometimes it would be, “You’ve misread my intent. It’s actually this. It’s the opposite of that.” ‘Cause of my terrible short-term memory I can’t give you a good example of one of those, but there would be a handful of times where we’re playing a certain thing and he’d come back and say, “No, this is the moment when X or Y happens, build up to that.” That was helpful and I can’t think of any through the whole series where we disagreed and after we’d done it his way, his wasn’t better. That’s pretty much it. There wasn’t a ton of agonizing about motivation. You really immerse yourself in the script and before we start writing for picture, we’ve spent some time deeply thinking about what’s being said. I’ll mention a strategy that Atticus and I discovered when we were doing “The Social Network.” I’d often wondered, not ever having composed for picture, “Hey, here’s a 15-second piece of music where someone turns a corner and walks up the stairs. How do you write that? Is there a melody? Is there a chorus in there? Does it matter if there’s a chord change?” I mean, I know how to write a song but I don’t know how to write for that scene. What we realized was if we just emotionally get in the space, then it comes out, if we’re not overthinking it. That’s what we do when we write a song. We’ve got a story to tell, usually. What is that story? How does that story feel? How do I wanna make people feel when they hear this song? Do I wanna play with the lyric? Do I wanna play against the lyric? Do I want it to feel uncomfortable? Do I want it to feel like it’s sliding into something that’s release, etc. And we just think about scoring for picture that way and start to make music. It’s pretty clear to us, then it goes through a taste filter, saving, “This is pretty cool,” or “Hey, this sucks, or this doesn’t work.” We will spend a lot of time overthinking things but that’s not one of them. That, we go with trusting our emotional impulse and then if it’s wrong, the director has no problem bringing that up and we pivot.

AR: I think that some people, and I do have friends… well, I don’t really have many friends but I have acquaintances who are film composers who look at it in a different light to what we do, which is more artisan in the sense of, “I’m getting a film in, it has some temp, I have to make a cue that’s this long for this bit and sounds like this, and this long for this bit that sounds like that,” and that’s almost the opposite of how we approach things. Going back to the idea of world-building and particularly within “Watchmen,” we are trying to create a world, but it’s approaching it more from the standpoint of being an artist than an artisan. I’m not saying that with any judgment or any bullshit. I’m just saying that’s how we come at it.

GD: I’m gonna pivot to a few other things before we wrap up. You won plenty of awards in your careers but the Oscar win in 2011 would’ve, I assume, been one of the highlights. You guys looked genuinely stunned and almost speechless when Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman announced your names and you walked up to the stage and you thanked your loved ones. Trent, you said it was humbling and flattering beyond words and Atticus, you called Trent a genius. For all of us fans, “Hand Covers Bruise” and “In Motion” for me are some of the greatest tracks of all time. I listen to them all the time. I love that soundtrack. We were so happy to see you guys win in that establishment. Talk us through that night and winning that award.

AR: I’ll start and you can take over. For me, it was a terrifying experience. The Golden Globes, I mean, we don’t drink, but everybody else is drunk and it feels more like a party type situation. And we went to some other ones, Critics’ Choice, we’d been through this thing, all of which was new to us, and when we finally got to the Oscars, we’re a bit more familiar with the stakes and whatnot and you could tell that was radically different to the Golden Globes, the level of stress. It was just different. Under your seat you actually have an energy bar just in case the fears make you pass out, you can eat it, which I did. Then when we were called, for me it was more about I really wanna make it up the staircase without falling over ‘cause I was wearing some rather smart shoes that were a bit slippery. Trent had had the good idea to put some sellotape on the bottom of his, I think. Anyway, I made it up there and then we have these two giants, they’re both like eight feet tall. Very nice but incredibly tall. Then it just became a kind of thing of… I don’t remember the talking bit and then suddenly you’re rushed backstage and Oprah Winfrey’s there and then you’re in another place. It was insane. For some reason, the stress, even though it is an incredible thing to have happened in one’s life, personally for me, life is all about can I be in that moment or not, and I found the Golden Globes, it really was one of the rare occasions when I could really actually enjoy what was happening. I think in the Oscars I was just too stressed out to really be able to comprehend it at that moment. So that was mine. Trent, do say.

TR: My experience that day mirrored Atticus’s. To put it in context, we were primarily concerned with just not fucking up the movie, seeing if we could get something they could tolerate as a score was our first thing. Fincher and his team were firing on a 1,000% and we were just trying to not hurt their film ‘cause we felt like we didn’t know what we were doing, we were just kind of making it up, and then as we finished it, and we felt very proud of the film, we had never gone into that film even thinking about award season or really knowing what that is. it’s not something I had ever even thought about. As we started to hear buzz about the movie and suddenly there’s interest in the movie and suddenly there’s wins from critics’ awards and then there was probably 20 events that each one you needed to dress up for, the Palm Springs Film Festival, and there’s the Producers Guild and there’s the Directors’ Guild and there’s the Actors’ Guild and there’s the Critics’ Choice, the Society of Lyricists and Composers wants you to come to their house, it’s all weird. It’s all intimidating because we feel like, man, we don’t belong here. We bullshit our way into this. Seeing the amount of care and how serious the Academy takes that award, to finally win it was pretty profoundly fulfilling. When you win a Grammy, it’s bullshit. Some dude in the backroom for some reason thought of your name and it’s not earned. The Oscar felt like, “Wow, we’re being appreciated for our work here from a pretty significant place, people that actually do it,” and it felt good. That day, though, was at the tail-end of all those other events and like Atticus said, it’s a surreal, fairly unpleasant day of terrifying experiences stacked up against each other from a red carpet that is unlike anything a normal human ever has to experience in their life to sitting in a tiny theater, that theater’s much smaller than it feels like and you’ve been there for 15 hours, no one’s eaten and everyone’s got bad breath and they’re scared and you’re sitting right next to the people you’re competing with and you know they hate you and you hate them. I’m kidding. Kind of kidding. Then to hear your name, it’s fantastic but it’s a slow-motion car crash, get up, hold this, don’t trip, step out, jump over these cables, watch out for the camera, don’t wipe out going up the steps, they’re giants, move the mic, remember what you had planned in case you did win, big number counting down, “14, 13.” When you look at the audience, every single face you recognize — Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp. Every single person out there and they’re looking at you. It’s pretty overwhelming. As Atticus said, I wasn’t kicking back enjoying it. It was like jumping out of a plane for the first time. I just don’t wanna die or shit my pants.

GD: You did real good. Unfortunately, we’re running out of time but I will mention that Nine Inch Nails has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has been postponed until November alongside Depeche Mode, the Doobie Brothers, Whitney Houston, Notorious B.I.G., T. Rex. In like 20 seconds, how thrilled are you about that?

TR: I think that’s pretty cool. I’d been a cynic because I think the concept of the Hall of Fame for rock and roll, let’s award the art form that’s about not conforming, it kind of seems absurd. When you look who’s not in it, Kraftwerk for example, it’s hard to feel excited about how legitimate something is when somebody who’s that important hasn’t been acknowledged. With that said, I was asked to induct the Cure last year. I did it because I love the Cure and I knew I would do a good speech ‘cause I was gonna work my ass off and it felt good. When I was there, a lot of my cynicism went away. When I was there in that room, I saw the Cure come out and I heard the screams of the crowd and I watched the Cure play and I saw Robert Smith and the band smile at what I said, and I see that to the people in that room, it is a pretty significant thing. But I thought, “I’m sitting at a table with the guys from Radiohead, we’re watching Roxy Music, David Byrne, okay, I can step away from some of my snarkiness and cynicism.” It did feel nice to be acknowledged and that’s what it is. As a lifetime achievement thing, it feels pretty good.

GD: I have to move on and let you guys go but my final question is obviously you’ve collaborated with David Fincher a few times like on “Gone Girl” and “The Social Network” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” You’re working on “Mank.” You’ve got “Soul” coming up, which seems like a departure for you guys and then you have “Mank.” Firstly, what can you tell us about that highly anticipated project, both of them, and then also, what’s special about working with Fincher?

AR: We’ve actually signed NDAs so we can’t tell you what to expect but I can tell you that we’re very proud of the work and obviously Fincher’s is in progress so we’re certainly not done with that by any means, but I’ve seen the film, the first cut, and I thought it was incredible. I can’t remember the second bit of the question so I’ll pass it along to Trent.

TR: Why is Fincher great to work with? We respond to excellence and respect and generosity. As our introduction into the world of scoring with “Social Network,” I was real honest with David that I don’t really know what I’m doing and he provided a very safe and encouraging workspace where it’s like, “You do know what you’re doing and you’re gonna be fine and let’s go.” And throughout the process, it felt like if we ran as fast as we could, we could just keep up and it was an exhilarating feeling. We’re with people that every person working on that film was at the top of their game. It really felt like these are the people I wanna be around, these are the people I feel inspired by. It taught us both a lesson of, I think, as we worked independently for so long, you can become insular and get complacent in a sense because you’re in your own camp. To be exposed to somebody that is firing at that high a cylinder and really wants what is best for the picture at all costs, who will fight and scream and yell to make sure you have the space to do what’s uncompromisingly the best thing for this thing, we’re all in this to make the very best picture we can possibly make, that is an inspiring, exciting energy that the world and art needs more of. Love him as a person and it’s always a great time working with him.

AR: Fincher actually told me about [Stanley] Kubrick and the way he would work would be to make sure that he employed the people that he respected and thought were good and then empowered them to let them be good at what he did. The film experiences that we’ve had that have been less fulfilling are where you feel like you’re being micromanaged and in essence, you’re now being allowed to do your best work because somebody else thinks they know how to do your job better than you do. That is the opposite experience with Fincher because certainly he’ll have opinions and whatever but he brings out the best in you because he allows you to be your best.

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