Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the different process for composing scores for ‘Soul’ and ‘Mank’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the scores for two very different films in 2020, “Soul” and “Mank.” They are nominated for Best Original Score at the Golden Globes for both films and they may become the rare composers nominated for two films at the Oscars as well.

Reznor and Ross recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about collaborating again with David Fincher on “Mank,” working with Disney-Pixar for the first time with “Soul” and whether they plan to compose a musical to complete their EGOT. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: What is the difference, now that you’ve worked with both of them, between Pete Docter and David Fincher? They don’t seem like they would be all that similar. 

Atticus Ross: Pete is quite a bit taller. 

GD: (Laughs.) What other differences are there? 

AR: Unquestionably, they’re both artists. Trying to think of a clever answer, which I don’t have. Yeah, I don’t have a clever answer between them. 

GD: What about you, Trent? 

Trent Reznor: I’ll start with how they’re similar. They’re similar in the sense that they both are very impressively meticulous, able to have a great macro picture of everything that’s happening and also able to get incredibly down into the details and weeds with an astounding amount of attention to detail and somehow maintaining a sense of objectivity in our experience with both of them. We know David Fincher a lot better, as we’ve worked with him a lot longer and have a much longer-term friendship. The processes are very different between Pixar and the way that Fincher works, in a way that when you ask that question, it was puzzling to even think about because they feel like radically different ways of working. 

With Pixar, we were quite impressed and flattered by the inclusion. The Pixar process that we witnessed is one where it’s very collaborative in terms of almost everybody up at Pixar, their opinions are being valued and considered and very regularly, everything from the script to the way things look is run by a large group of people and it’s an interesting culture up there. With Fincher, it’s us and him and his core team of people that we worked with quite a lot. Kirk Baxter, editing, Ren Klyce, sound designer, for example, and that’s also a very collaborative situation to be in, a very respectful situation, but it feels more contained. It feels more intimate in a lot of ways. 

GD: Atticus, when you sign on to do a movie, and of course you’ve done quite a few David Fincher movies now, let’s start with “Mank” and let’s start with Fincher. What’s the very first step when you’re coming on board a project? 

AR: Well, the very first step is we’re sent the script, and in the case of “Mank,” it was a fairly dense script, and I remember reading it. Then I remember doing a lot of Googling to understand the people, basically, life in Hollywood in the late ‘30s, going into 1940, read it a couple more times, and then we had a breakfast. That’s usually the kind of beginnings of a project and in that meeting at breakfast, we discuss the notion of the film. But Fincher himself, he’s very generous and he’s an empower-er, so the concept of how to approach the music, I remember he said, “Well, maybe it’s solo piano. Maybe it’s orchestra, somewhat inspired by Bernard Herrmann, maybe it’s going against it and all synthesizers.” So there’s an openness and usually, we leave those meetings not with any firm decision and it’s left up to us and we go back and spend a couple of days digesting the information that we’ve got and what would be the best approach. 

GD: Trent, I love this period, from the films of that period and also when movies go back to that period, late ‘30s, early ‘40s. How did that period influence the choices you made on putting the score together? 

TR: Well, like Atticus was saying, the primary directive when we start a project, just to back up one second, I look at the creative process as two branches. One is more editorial, thoughtful, cerebral planning type phase, and the other side of it, which can happen concurrently, is tuning out emotional gut instinct, where I think the main creativity comes from. So in the case of “Mank,” for example, typically when we start a project, we listen for clues as to what kind of story David’s trying to tell, but at the same time being mindful of our own reaction to our first exposure to it, because we miss out on the final experience that everyone else gets because we’re making the sausage.

I think it’s important to keep tabs on where your emotional reaction or gut instinct leads you, to make that make more sense. The breadcrumbs given by Fincher initially were, to me, the most important one was, “I’d like this film to feel like we found it in the archives. It hasn’t been touched since 1940. It’s been on the shelf somewhere collecting dust. I’m going to shoot it in 4:3. It’s going to shoot in black and white. We’re going to mix it in mono. We want it to feel like it’s an artifact.” And I said, “Are you going to shoot on film?” “Well, we’re not going to do that.” “OK, so we’ve got a little breathing room.” But the impression was one that we want it to seem like that, so we then, as Atticus said, had the ability to kind of take it wherever we wanted, but felt after a short amount of experimentation that the talent of an orchestra, the talent of something that felt inspired by Bernard Herrmann, what he might do in that time period seemed like an interesting challenge.

And then, the reason I mention that other branch of creativity is it would be easy, I think, for it to become gimmicky and corny by, “OK, here’s the stunt for this score. We’re going to just do this, do it this way. We’re going to make it sound old-timey. We’re going to only use these instruments,” and once we figured out we think that’s the canvas we want to paint on, then it was surprisingly natural to kick into that other world of just gut composing, using that palette as the paints. We learned a lot and it was fun and it was interesting and it became the set of containing parameters for us to work within. 

GD: I’m glad you both mentioned Bernard Herrmann. I felt that influence a little bit here, and I wanted to ask you today, I’ve seen both of you either in print or on video, talk about rock influences in your lives, especially with Nine Inch Nails. But I haven’t really heard you talk about, and I’m not talking about just “Mank” here, but just influences you’ve had from other film composers over your life, scores you’ve loved or film composers you’ve loved. I’d love to hear more about that. 

TR: Well, I think it’s important to say that neither of us come from a formal background and training in film composition. We’re not saying that as a badge of honor. It’s just we were asked 10 or so years ago with Fincher to do “The Social Network” with the kind of time frame of, “Can you do it in the next few months?” We were faced with, “How do you score a film?” And what served us well in that situation was transferring what we did know how to do, say, arrange songs, emotionally know how to arrange music in a rock song format over to stripping it of the structure, but applying some of the same techniques and emotional mining that we would do to support the lyrics of what we’re trying to go for with the song against dialogue and scripting in a different kind of package. So we’ve modified that process, but it’s been essentially the same since then, of kind of turning inward, going with gut reaction to try to find things that are appropriate for each project we work on.

In terms of what’s influenced me, Atticus and I would both say that “Taxi Driver,” that feels inseparable from the picture. That would be a different movie without that music playing in there and what we will consciously do at the beginning of a project is aspire to create something as unique but yet appropriate for whatever project it is, as what that was able to attain, something that isn’t cookie cutter. It could be any score just serving a mechanical function, but something that elevates the story or elevates the presentation into something that has its own uniqueness to it. Aside from that, I find the sound design of David Lynch and how he uses sound and music in his pictures is something that’s been hugely inspiring, not just in our scoring work, but Nine Inch Nails. I find John Carpenter‘s scores back in the ‘80s did something that really resonated with me in a lot of ways. 

AR: I was just going to pick up on the idea of the inseparable and the aspiration, and that ties into our process and it’s one of the reasons why we start so early. In the case of “Mank,” we were writing as they were shooting. In the case of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” we’d already done a couple of hours of music based off the script. The idea is not to kind of pre-score. It’s to find that voice, like, what could be a unique way to tell this story that sits in service to the picture and the story and the emotional content but really is part of the DNA of the creation? We’ve mentioned before, it’s not the best business model because obviously, we spend a lot longer on each film, and in the case of “Mank,” the point that Trent was talking of, for me, I was actually pretty nervous about jumping into this world. But when we did start, it sounds trite to say, but we had a lot of fun. And that initial composition, again, was trying to find the voice and it separated somewhat just organically between big band and the orchestral and some solo piano, which we sent to Fincher and got the best response you can get, all in capitals. 

In terms of “Mank” specifically, Fincher gave us a playlist and there was a lot of exploration in terms of music of the era, discs constantly playing, living in that for a while. But I don’t listen to scores in the car very often. I think the last score that I would listen to as an album when I’m driving around was Mica Levi’s “Under the Skin.” I’m aware and I’m often in awe of other composers, but I feel like we have our little world and there’s certainly a lot of investigation that goes into each project, but I’m not consciously referencing other composers unless it’s required. And in this case, there was a specific, “[Citizen] Kane” being Herrmann’s first film school. 

GD: And Trent, on “Soul,” an animated feature, you mentioned Pixar and the relationship working with them. Is there any difference in the way you started out in your process for working on animation as opposed to a feature theatrical? 

TR: The process ended up being quite a bit different, but the relationship was different because it was a new entity, and I mean, being totally frank, when we first were brought on board, I remember roughly hearing, “Well, we’d like to have some music by the end of next year.” It was that long ahead of time, which gave us plenty of time to be anxious about it. Plenty of sleepless nights. I think the honest part being we were a little intimidated and we sensed, whether it was real or not, we felt like we needed to kind of show them, “Hey, we can do this. We can do something that’s outside our wheelhouse that’s appropriate for this film.” And I’d say the first huge chunk of time was really noodling around in concepts of positivity and pleasantness and giving a kind of demo reel of, “Here’s some things we can do that kind of feel optimistic and feel less threatening,” let’s say, of which almost none of it ended up being in the movie, which was a long ways away from even being realized at that point. 

Where it felt a lot different, and I think in hindsight, we started a bit too early, was there was no script for “Soul.” It was all animatics. So they’d send you a 90-minute version of the film with a couple of frames a second hand-drawn animation with temp voiceovers and it was a surprisingly articulate way to experience the film. It felt, after the first 30 seconds, you were used to that and you could really get the story and get the pacing and the feel of it. But what I think would have made a difference was as we started scoring to picture, because it was malleable, it wasn’t actors and shot film, you’d find that there’s a new cut that showed up, download the reels and a certain character’s not in the film anymore. There’s a whole new act where there’s a chase scene that never existed before. The ending’s totally different. There’s a new character that wasn’t there before. So all that stuff we did is irrelevant because it was a different film, and we went through that quite a number of times.

Part of their process is a constant revision and tightening and improvement of, well, everything, not just a few frames moving but whole sequences disappearing and orders of events changing and endings being different, up until when it’s time to pull the trigger, to start rendering animate properly, when the real money gets deployed. So it was a lot of pieces in motion, more than we’re accustomed to, in a much later time. And I think he mentioned at one point, Pete, “Normally we don’t get a composer involved until all this is done.” That was an example of us thinking, “I could see the benefit of that from the composition side,” because it was a lot of work that will never be seen. It was part of our process of winding up where we did, which we’re happy with. 

AR: I think that’s why I struggled with your first question. The process between animation and live-action, or Pixar’s version of it, is just so different. Once you understand a script, you kind of understand parameters of what you’re working with, but with Pixar, that is the script. So the script is constantly changing and evolving as you’re working and it just puts you in a different mind-space, I suppose, and like Trent mentioned, it does radically affect the process of how one’s interacting with the film. 

GD: Well, as we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about one other thing. You had such a good year in terms of creatively and career-wise with these two films coming out at the end of the year, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Emmy win for “Watchmen” back in September. So congratulations on all of that, even though we’ve all had a rough year personally. I guess I wanted to ask in terms of the Emmy win, that means you’ve got the Oscar, the Grammy and the Emmy. Only 16 people have gotten all four, with the Tony included. Is there anything you’ve thought about that would take the two of you to Broadway and go after that Tony award? 

TR: (Laughs.) We’re always up for a challenge. When I heard you say that list of accomplishments set against this past year, set against the backdrop of the kind of brutality and the relentlessness of this pandemic, and politically what’s happening, as parents trying to keep our kids safe and sane and happy in some sense of normality, it has been a weird juxtaposition of accolades set against this year that I think we all would like to put in the rearview mirror. I guess the summary of what I’m trying to get at is we’re just grateful that we’ve had the opportunity to work with really great people. Going back to your first question, the similarities of Pete and David are that they’re both geniuses, different styles of genius, but they’re both the very best at what they do and being around it, we thrive on that. We’re searching out excellence because we are inspired by it and I think what scoring is filling up for us, we’re not looking at it as trying to conquer the world and get every film or prove we can do every type of genre.

It’s really just, as we’ve had a minute to kind of reflect on things in the last few years, it’s searching out that opportunity to be in contained, forced collaborative situations with different camps of people and that feeling of doing the best you could, doing your part on this project around people that are inspiring. You come out the other end and you’re changed. And usually for the better. You’ve had an experience that you wouldn’t have had had we just been in a rock band. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but we come out usually exhausted and inspired and ready to try something different. If there was something in the musical world that came up that we thought we could do, we’re all for it. But it’s not the directive to try to tick the box so much. 

GD: Well, I loved the film that they put together on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame about the band and your careers. I thought that was quite well-edited and put together and I wish we could have seen you perform in person. 

TR: Yeah, we wanted to. That was Morgan Neville that did that and I thought he did a great job on that. I’m super uncomfortable watching stuff like that and I hadn’t seen how it turned out and I watched it with my family and I’m sweaty and I didn’t see what Iggy Pop had said. I knew he was going to say something and it just makes me feel kind of…. I’m proud, but I’m not one to enjoy the spotlight. And I know Atticus is the same way. 

GD: Right. Well, I’m hoping when they do another Hall of Fame ceremony and it can be live hopefully later this year, around October or November, the three bands that are still active and working, Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode and Doobie Brothers, I hope they’ll figure out a way. They’ll have a new induction class late this year. But I hope they’ll figure out a way to have all of you on there and perform as you should have gotten a chance to do this last time. 

TR: Me too. I appreciate that. I agree with you. 

GD: Well, good luck with award season. You’d be one of the rare composers to get in for two films but I think it certainly could happen with “Soul” and “Mank” and we wish you all the best. 

AR: That’s very kind of you.

TR: We really appreciate it, thank you. 

More News from GoldDerby