Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won Oscars for their score to The Social Network, David Fincher’s 2010 film about Facebook’s birth. The music, pairing delicate piano and menacing buzz, is a crucial part of the storytelling, an emotional shadow to the otherwise tonedeaf Mark Zuckerburg character as he attracts a surge of money and burns his friends. Reznor and Fincher both started their careers as masters of human brutality, championing outsiders who disrupted social order. Here, the director talks about what it’s like to shake a bad boy image, and what makes Reznor a great communicator.
What was your first impression of Trent? I met Trent with Mark Romanek. He was in makeup and performing for one of the videos that Romanek did, maybe “The Perfect Drug.” I thought he was very shy and self-effacing and quiet. I was a huge fan of the “Closer” video, and had used “Closer” in Se7en. Later, we did a video together [for “Only,” in 2005]. He didn’t have much time, because he was going out on the road. We tried to do a video in two days and sort of cobbled it together, because it was an idea I’d always wanted to play with, this pincushion thing. With that, I definitely felt, as far as the Trent Reznor experience, I was short-shrifted.
At the time, people didn’t think of Trent as a shy guy. He was the I want to fuck you like an animal guy. What’s it like to be pegged as dark as a young artist? “Closer” is a menacing, genius song with a genius lyric, and I don’t think it has anything to do with Trent’s personal preferences. I think it had to do with communicating that idea. He’s talking about anger and getting close to the flame. Trent’s a serious voice. I mean that sonically and poetically, but it’s way too dismissive to say he’s the prince of darkness. There are all kinds of things in this guy. Your early work is oftentimes a reaction against something. In my case, if you have a different philosophy about how a story should be laid out or you think most endings are sugarcoated, then you find a movie like Se7en, and you go, Wow, let’s put a head in a box. It doesn’t get much more back-the-fuck-off than a head in a box. And when I was trying to figure out what track to put under the titles that would put me in the headset of a guy cutting the tips of his fingers off so he doesn’t leave fingerprints, I was like, Yeah, I want to fuck you like an animal, that would work. So our two worlds crossed over at that moment in time. But I don’t think when Trent wrote “Closer” he was saying, This is my brand, I’m the guy who stands for this. Nine Inch Nails isn’t a brand—it’s just three or four people.
Why was Trent the right guy to score a movie about how the internet is changing the way we communicate? I called him for The Social Network because I had been listening to Ghosts I-IV. I lifted from Ghosts to do the temporary soundtrack for the movie. I knew he’d never been responsible for an hour and 28 minutes worth of music that had to fit under another narrative before. But I felt like, once unleashed, he had a very innate sense of what needed coaxing and prodding. I wasn’t surprised when it turned out that he was great at that. Some of the cues we had temped in before he got involved—one needle drop we had used from Ghosts—he would look at it and go, “Yeah, that blows, I don’t want to use it.” We’d say, “Wait, we really like it” and he’d go, “No, no, you’re going to like this.” Then you’d get something and go, “Wow, that’s even better. He’s right.”
The brief was: I want to do a John Hughes movie for the 21st century. I want it to be a dorks-in-the-dorm-room movie and I want it to harken to synthesizer scores of the ’80s. I said to him, “I want you to think of this as fun and anarchic and anti-establishment. You can do that without breaking a sweat. But on top of it, I want you to have fun with the idea that it’s a coming-of-age movie in the age of the internet startup.” And then I sat back. Trent is so prolific. I’m sure there was an inordinate amount of blood loss in the studio, but I was amazed at how many facets he was prepared to explore in any given 45-second stretch. The movie we initially showed him was maybe five minutes longer than the movie we ended up showing the world. The trims we did were in a lot of ways based on a response to him: Wow, this music helps us underpin what we’re trying to talk about. As you mature, you’re much more attuned to the notion of the distilled, the reduced. It’s less of a question of meticulousness—I can’t let this go until I’m done brain-fucking it—as it is, I don’t want to turn this over until I feel it succinctly. Trent’s a very good communicator. He’s very knowing and very wry and very wise. He communicates a lot with a very little smile.
fail, you don’t learn anything.”
Is Trent anything like Mark Zuckerburg? I think Trent can relate to the idea of being a commodity and that your take on things can be valued. It’s a weird thing when you’re in your 20s and people are going, “Well, what do you think?” I had a different experience, of people saying, “We want what you do, we just want you to do it like this.” I’m sure that happened very early on for Trent. I’m sure there was a whole cadre of people saying, “This is not music.” I’m sure he had to go through the shit that Tangerine Dream or anyone who made music with a machine noise component had to overcome. I know he’s had frustrations, getting out of his first record deal and making his second record deal—all that shit’s complicated. But pretty quickly he became the kind of person who was known for what he brought to it.
You and Trent both have a lot of confidence in your respective creative visions. Neither of us feels like there’s all this great work we’re trying to do, or so many people that we’ve had to overcome to do it. The people who pay for this stuff have every right to say what they think it should be like. But it’s a very different thing having your name on something. Any person making decisions about the final experience has to be able to imagine what that’s going to be. You have to be able to define what your project is not going to be and try to avoid all the pitfalls of it becoming like everything else. If you do what you think is right and you fail, you learn something. If you do what somebody else thinks is right and you fail, you don’t learn anything. You don’t get anything from it.
The director of a movie and the composer of a song are making something that they hope to love, and they hope other people love it too. But you can’t second-guess it. You have to say, This is the way I think it should be and I’m hoping that other people out there agree with me. Even if you can’t be sure. In all the work that I’ve done with him, his approach is, Well, what about this? You find your way through, based on what you think you’re trying to communicate. That’s where the discussion takes place. There were times when I’d say, “This feels too sinister here.” And he’d say “Wow, really? I thought that was a love theme.” You don’t want your thing to be like everybody else’s, so you go to someone like Trent and say, “Let me try to get inside your head, you try to get inside mine, and let’s talk.”
What’s fun about getting into Trent’s head and solving problems with him? Well, he makes me laugh. There are people who push you because they feel that’s expected, and there are people who push you because they see something that had never occurred to you. You slap your forehead and you just go, God damn, why haven’t I answered this question yet for myself? How did I shoot this scene without realizing this was an element of it? He makes you better. He makes you say what you mean. He makes you ask questions. He can embarrass you, because he’ll go, “Well, don’t you think if she’s saying this on page three and then we have this on page 94, aren’t those two ideas connected?” And you go, Fuck, of course they are. Above and beyond all the great music he’s made for me, I appreciate him for being somebody who’s seeing clearer and better.
Do you have plans to work together in the future? God, I’m hoping. Yeah. If he’ll have me.