Composers of the Year Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: “It’s Been an Intimidating Journey”

With Mank and Soul, the two musicians stepped out of their comfort zone in 2020

Composers of the Year Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Our Annual Report continues today with the announcement of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as our Composers of the Year. Stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles in the days and weeks to come about the best music, film, and TV of the year. If you’ve missed any part of our Annual Report, you can check out all the coverage here

“You’re naming us Best Composers of All Time, right,” Trent Reznor asks over the phone. His partner-in-crime Atticus Ross laughs on another line. He’s joking, of course, but he’s also not exactly out of his element. While all-time might be a stretch — at least, for now — the two are certainly in contention for the last decade. After all, it’s been a wild 10 years for Reznor and Ross, one that began with a deafening bang.

That big bang arrived at the 83rd Academy Awards in 2011, when Reznor and Ross triumphed over the likes of Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat to win Best Original Score for David Fincher’s The Social Network. Their debut score wound up being an opening salvo as Hollywood came calling — and fast. Since then, they’ve amassed an eclectic resume that most composers spend decades building up.

They’ve worked with veterans (Peter Berg, Susanne Bier), they’ve gone indie (Jonah Hill, Trey Edward Schulz), they’ve even found success on television (HBO’s Watchmen). Yet none of their collaborations have felt more succinct than their ensuing work with Fincher. They’re the Bernard Herrmann to his Alfred Hitchcock, the Giovanni Fusco to his Michelangelo Antonioni, the John Williams to his Steven Spielberg.

It’s a fitting marriage, not only in sound, but also in mind. Fincher is a perfectionist — meticulous for details, particular with pictures — and that ideology is right in line with Reznor and Ross (see: Nine Inch Nails, How to Destroy Angels). The two parties are carnivorous for challenges, and their working relationship has been nothing but a series of hurdles. Hurdles that have only notched higher and higher as the years pass them.

Mank is by far their most arduous collaboration yet. As if making a movie about the greatest movie of all time wasn’t tough enough, Reznor and Ross tasked themselves in using only period-authentic instruments from the 1940s. It’s a major departure from anything the two have done up to this point, eschewing their industrial minimalism for a dusty assortment of horns, swinging tempos, and nostalgia-tinged sounds.

Yet Fincher wasn’t the only call Reznor and Ross received, as far as 2020 movies are concerned. Pixar also rang for their latest spirited venture, Soul. Working alongside Inside Out director Pete Docter, the two composers dove headfirst into the sprawling, animated underworld. Together, they dreamed up a specific piece of music for each one of the film’s imaginative locales: The Great Before, The Great Beyond, The Astral Plane, and The You Seminar.

So, yes, it’s been a year for Reznor and Ross. In celebration, Consequence of Sound spoke to the award-winning composers about their outstanding run through the past and purgatory. Together, they weighed in on their long-storied history with Fincher, flexing new muscles with old instruments, the differences in working with animation, and past scores that inspired them. Needless to say, there are many decades to come.

On Working with David Fincher

David Fincher announces first movie in five years

David Fincher

Trent Reznor: David initiated us into the world of composing for picture with The Social Network 10 years ago. It’s been an intimidating journey, because it wasn’t really a career trajectory that we had paved a lot of way towards. It just came upon us, and we took advantage of it. And we found that David as a collaborator was the most generous, kind, supportive, and encouraging partner one could ever hope for. We didn’t realize that at the time of The Social Network, but we realized shortly thereafter that we were in such a privileged place because of the culture he was able to establish from his own clout, meaning there were no producers or studios interfering. It was really just us, David, and his creative team in an environment where you were encouraged: “Let’s make the very best thing we can. Let’s put everything we have on the screen, and let’s push each other.”

We came out of that first film, The Social Network, really exhilarated. This was before there were any awards or recognition from the outside world. We knew we had stumbled into something, a really creatively excellent environment outside the world of rock and roll and Nine Inch Nails. It was a really intense way to kind of mutate our skill set into a different arena. It was great. And we were thrilled when David said, “Hey, I’m working on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Let’s keep this going. Fantastic!” That turned us down a completely different adventure for the next 18 months or so.

And we’re always hoping that the phone rings when and if he feels we’re appropriate for his next project, because now we’re friends. Now, there is a camaraderie and an intuitive bond between all of us. By “us,” I mean David and also sound designer Ren Klyce and Kirk Baxter, the editor. We have a very open community that is not afraid to say, “This sucks,” and are quite often blown away by what comes back from the other people. So, it really has become something we’re very proud and grateful to be involved in. And I think as we worked on other projects, and we’ve seen different cultures, mainly dictated by the directors or showrunners of these projects, we can see things completely differently with different groups. It’s made us really cherish working with David.

Atticus Ross: It’s also incredible when you think how fortunate we are to work with what one could argue is the greatest living director. He’s certainly one of them, and to have this kind of 10-year relationship that starts off with one film in one place, and here we are 10 years later in an arena that couldn’t be more different from The Social Network one. But still getting that call and still having an incredible eight months of experience … these are the kind of memories, not to sound morose or anything, that you take with you to the grave. Because they have been big moments. They have been big, creative journeys and incredible learning experiences. Frankly, it’s been a privilege.

On Scoring a Film That Takes Place in the Big Band Era

David Fincher's Mank Is a Dense, Technically Marvelous Ode to Old Hollywood: Review

Mank (Netflix)

Reznor: Fuck, yes, [composing for Mank] was challenging. I think it’s important to start with the choices made, or not made, to do what’s right for the story that David’s trying to tell. We don’t get into the “let’s see if we could come up with this thing so we can show off” kind of attitude. It’s always us trying to just put our ego out of the picture. Let’s truly think and absorb the storytelling. Let’s try to take as many cues as we can from not only the scripts, but the way David talks about it or what other material might be available when the composition starts. It might be stills. It might be footage shot. Any input we can hear to kind of understand how he’s trying to tell the story and what he’s trying to get across emotionally from the role of music in the picture.

And this seemed pretty clear, but David wouldn’t say that he needed us to do an orchestra or big band. It was always, “It could be this. It could be that. It could be a piano, or it could be a synthesizer. I don’t know. I want to see what you guys think.” And I think that kind of openness … It was very similar to working on The Social Network. He said, “I kinda hear it synthy, but I don’t know.” And there’s an awesome freedom and an awesome, intimidating responsibility that comes with that freedom. And in this case, we thought long and hard about it. We tried some things, and it seemed pretty clear. Our main directive from David was that the film should feel like something that we found in the archives that’s been sitting on a shelf since 1940. “I’m going to film it in black and white. We might mix in some mono, but we don’t have to play by those rules.” Okay, so we could bring in digital reverb if we wanted to, or we could play against it and go completely synthetic.

But as we started down the path of composition, it was a bit intimidating because the orchestra and the big band are two different sorts of instruments for us to consider. What was on our side was we had quite a bit of time. And, the way I remember it, the real initial composition took place about a year ago, towards the holidays. But we had known about this for several months ahead of that … maybe as early as summer of that year. And we’d had another couple of projects sold for Pixar and Watchmen for HBO and Nine Inch Nails were on tour. We had enough time that we could spread the panic across several months before realizing, “Oh, shit. It’s not six months away. Now it’s four months away. Now, it’s two weeks, eight days. We’ve got to get our shit together.”

During that time, we spent a lot of time really absorbing the music of the era, watching and kind of analyzing Bernard Herrmann scores, which was another point of reference. This is a companion piece to Citizen Kane. Perhaps it could feel inspired by dot dot dot … And when we actually sat down and started exchanging musical compositions, before we had any picture, the results surprised us. They sounded really good right off the bat. We believe in doing the thing that we can do, which is translate emotion into sound. And we’re just using a different tool to achieve that. If we thought about it that way, suddenly, it didn’t seem quite so impossible or intimidating. There’s plenty of time for revision. So, we initially sent David a batch of music early this year, probably in January. It might have been February, maybe 90 minutes of stuff. It was kind of half-orchestra and half-big band arrangements. And a little bit of solo piano stuff.

And Atticus reminded me … I can’t tell you how great it feels so receive that text in all caps: “I WANT TO USE IT ALL”. Because they were out shooting at the time. It really felt like validation that we’ll be able to pull this off. And then the real work began of actually scoring and getting into it.

Ross: And I’d only add, because it’s something I’m proud of … we did demos for the whole movie that you could play. And they did screen the film prior to us going out to the orchestra, and you could play the film as it is now with the demos. Basically, we would score each scene with samples and go through the process of David’s notes, which, in this case, were pretty specific, and get to a point where, like I said, the film would play so that people actually got used to the demos. I don’t know if you checked it out, but we did release a version of the album that does have a few of the demos on them. And it’s obviously different when you go out and record with the live musicians, but they sound pretty darn good. And then, of course, David’s got the whole thing from when we did go out and try to record an orchestra and big band in the middle of lockdown, which is a whole other set of problems.

Read ahead for their thoughts on working with Pixar and their favorite scores…

On Composing for an Animated Movie

soul pixar disney plus release christmas

Soul (Pixar)

Reznor: Well, we did Soul before we did Mank. We were pretty much finished with Soul.

Ross: They just crossed over at the tail end a bit is all.

Reznor: But Soul was another one where there were years before we had started on that. There was a long lead time. It was a completely different mindset and a completely different set of filmmakers in a rapid process, and I’m not sure how other animated films work, but that staff had a number of things ready for us. For one, getting, as Pixar fans from the outside, to know them and visit the shop and see the culture and be exposed to it and welcomed into it. It was pretty remarkable in the sense that it lived up to whatever expectations I might have had. It was kind of like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in a good way, like everyone there seemed to be really into what they were doing.

And there’s a childlike enthusiasm and positivity and openness, where quite frequently during the process, we would start working with very rough animated storylines that do a surprisingly good job of conveying watching the film, with temp voice acting and temp music, and you get a real sense of what the picture’s going to be like. And they’ll show an animatic to the entire team, and I mean hundreds of people and Pete Docter [writer-director of Soul] would sit for three hours and listen to every comment. “Did you like this? Did you like that? That makes sense. Fill up this part.” And two months later, there’s a movie that might have a radically different ending or middle or new character that comes into the meeting. And that’s kind of the fluid process that there might not be later on if you were filming actors on a set.

And what that meant for us was, we scored about six different movies. As we started early on, it’s like, “I can’t wait to see this character” … that doesn’t exist because he’s not even in the film anymore. Or this expansive moment where you’re watching a beautiful scene for a minute and a half, which is now three seconds, because a joked popped up, and now it’s a different thing. So, I think we started a lot earlier last time than we would in the future. But it was fascinating to see the process. And I remember as we were getting into it, they could say, “Let’s see. Trust the process. We’ve come up with a way to do this.” And I don’t mean a factory assembly line, but a strategy of openness and collaboration between not just two or three or four or five people but possibly lots of people.

I remember getting a call from Pete at one point. Probably halfway through when the plot was starting to get nailed down, and he called not to talk about the music we’d done but to be like, “Hey, what do you think about…? You’ve seen the film. Do you know what it’s about? Do you think that’s a believable reaction that the main character would have had? How do you feel?” We were talking about the scene when he [SPOILER ALERT] was on stage and he walks out. The lights and the billboard go off from the marquee, and he’s still alone and didn’t fix anything. I thought for probably half an hour about that. Then I started to see that it felt great to be included not just as music people that they needed but as collaborators whose input and DNA started to inhabit the picture. It was a cool process.

pixar soul Composers of the Year Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: Its Been an Intimidating Journey

Soul (Pixar)

Ross: I don’t really have anything to add beyond there is a bit of an amusing aspect. In the beginning, they did want to make sure that we were capable of making optimistic music. We had to do a bit of early writing.

Reznor: I wonder why. I don’t know why they wouldn’t know.

Ross: That is a bit of truth. But, anyway, we managed to cross that hurdle. Like Trent said, the actual animation happens at the very last second, because it’s so expensive. So, when you’re talking about the difference between live-action and animated film, or at least our experience of it, the script is still the script. You know what I mean? The script that we read for Mank was the script. And it’s not going to change. But it’s the notion that you could be, you know, 11 months in, final mix is in three weeks, and there still can be major changes made to what you’re working on prior to that moment of pulling the trigger on the animation. In that way, it is a different process.

On the Risks of Leaving Their Wheelhouse

Trent Reznor Atticus Ross Mank OST score soundtrack stream

Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor

Reznor: I’ve had people ask, “Why would you guys want to do a movie that’s about jazz?” But it was never presented to us that way. It was more about Pixar making a kind of risky, themed movie about a main character who dies right at the beginning, what happens after you die, and what makes your life that you live worth living or what was worthwhile. A lot of the movie is going to take place in the real world, in New York City, and a lot takes place in planes nobody’s ever heard or visited before. And it’s going to kind of be split up between us doing the otherworldly stuff and others doing the jazz-driven, grounded, real-world stuff. Great. That sounds interesting.

So, the way we approached it from the beginning was when [SPOILER ALERT] Joe falls down the manhole and dies, there was a lot of talk and many discussions with Pixar and Pete and Kemp about what temperature is needed. It doesn’t need to be intimidating and terrifying, but it also shouldn’t be completely welcoming. Because it could be any number of things. You’re on a walkway with a bunch of ghosts walking into a vacuum, a hole that sucks you into someplace, and you’re realizing you’re not alive anymore. That can’t feel real good. Until you’re like, “Wow, fuck yeah!”

Soul Wears an Old Hat But Opens New Doors for Pixar: Review

Soul (Pixar)

We started working on the film chronologically, so that’s the first cue we really dug into. And we thought part of our process was to think, “acoustic, electronic, sonics, digital, warm, cold? What kind of instrumentation are we thinking about?” And when we approached it like that, we thought that it should sound like everything: not just the sound of an orchestra tuning up but the sound of all nature and sound pleasant, unpleasant, dissonant, and comforting — all tuned together in a series of stems we could bring up and down where it would sound like everything but not white noise, where it would feel like it’s got elements and oomph.

And so, we delivered probably 50 different stem options. If it needs to be a little more warm, there are these three. If it needs to be a little creepier, here are these, etc. It was kind of working as sound effects earlier on as the camera pans around and we’re looking at what’s happening. Just by raising and lowering these stems, we could achieve quite a variety of emotional tones based around one key sitting there, so it didn’t feel like a melody necessarily, but it didn’t feel non-musical either.

I’m pretty proud of how that turned out, because it was really easy to take it the other way, where the first 10 minutes of the film are like Hellraiser. That’s a really unpleasant way to go. But at the same time, it shouldn’t feel like Saturday afternoon at the movies because something pretty heavy is happening. If we get that wrong, the temperature of the whole movie feels misplaced.

On Whether Fatherhood Had an Impact on Composing for a Pixar Movie



Reznor: I’d been a fan of Pixar pre-fatherhood. I’ve always appreciated them and their approach to animation and storytelling. And that was kind of the key. We had actually written down a list of potential collaborators that we might be intrigued by rather than just waiting for the phone to ring. In fact, we proactively kind of write who we’d love to knock on their doors and just say, “If you ever had anything appropriate…” But being a parent kind of adjusts all the emotional dials in ways that are hard to imagine what life was like before. I was in my 40s when I started having kids, and I’ve got five now. Now, I can find myself crying during an insurance commercial. It certainly has changed my sensitivity a lot.

Ross: And I do think, ultimately, that particular film [Soul], in terms of adults and children, the message it delivers is a substantial one. I mean, for Pete Docter to take on a film about the meaning of life — that’s large subject matter. I’m looking forward to my kid seeing it, because what Pete’s made speaks to me, and I would hope my family, in a way that’s kind of important.

On a Classic Movie They Wish They Had the Chance to Score

taxi driver feat e1460128509960 Composers of the Year Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: Its Been an Intimidating Journey

Reznor: That question has Atticus Ross written all over it.

Ross: To be honest, there isn’t for me, because the movies that I really love — and really love the score to … Take Taxi Driver. There was only one composer for that movie. Bernard Herrmann made one of the greatest scores of all time, and one can’t disassociate the music from that film or be arrogant enough to say, “I think I could’ve done that…” Do you know what I’m trying to say? It’s impossible for me to remove the music from my favorite movie. So, I can’t dismantle one in that way and say that I wish I could have done the music.

Reznor: Neither of us are very social. And we avoid collaboration just because we’re awkward, and it’s easier to be in our own cave. And the idea of “let’s get together and jam,” that sounds like a terrible idea. And through filmmaking, or being involved in the work, one score allowed us to get into these intense, finite — can range from a few months to a couple years — processes with camps of people. That’s when it’s great; it’s really great. And we leave that feeling easily exhausted, but then aged and smarter, and our minds are expanded, and that infectious inspiration then carries over into making another Nine Inch Nails record or doing something in another field. And we wouldn’t have gotten that had we not had to do these things and gotten into them.

So, when we try to think of projects to take on, what gets us excited is feeling like we’ve immersed ourselves and really done the best work we can. And the idea of trying to find interesting people, interesting camps, immersing ourselves and learning from them and doing battle if necessary. It’s really become fun — and sometimes maddening — that they’re each little mini adventures. I don’t think I would’ve stumbled into the equivalent had the trajectory of my career stayed in rock music

I’m thankful for the rock thing. I’m super glad I can still do it. I’m still excited about it. It’s just nice to have some things that keep it exciting, like would I ever have taken a year to deep-dive into Big Band and ’40s orchestral style? Probably not. But man, I’m glad I was kind of pressured into seeing if I could try to do it. Because it has changed how I think about things and the options that feel available to me. And I’m just grateful. We both feel like we’re still learning and have a lot to learn about a lot of things. This has been a nice avenue to be able to kind of keep things fresh.