Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: How the NIN Masterminds Balance Scoring and Touring

Ahead of their appearance at Variety's Music for Screens summit, the pair took time out to discuss juggling scores for projects like "Watchmen" and "Mid90s" with an international Nine Inch Nails tour.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross Studio
Courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross just got off tour. They also just got out of the recording studio. These are not contradictory statements. In recent months, it’s been Nine Inch Nails by night, film scoring by day — sometimes right up to the moment they walk on stage. They wrapped up work on Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, “Mid90s,” in hotel rooms and backstages in England, and finished the music for the Netflix apocalyptic thriller “Bird Box” here in the States on the first leg of NIN’s U.S. tour. It sounds like a recipe for nerves as frayed as the typically anxious sounds of Nine Inch Nails suggest, yet they seem tighter as friends and collaborators than ever… no downward spirals here.

Reznor and Ross will soon take up the second leg of the NIN tour, with some two dozen dates booked through the end of the year. Have they learned any lessons about not multi-tasking? No — as they ready to hit the road again, they’re digging into work on Damon Lindelof’s HBO limited series “Watchmen” and director Joe Wright’s “Woman in the Window,” both set for 2019.

Reznor and Ross will discuss their borderline workaholic tendencies in a keynote interview conducted by “The Treatment” host Elvis Mitchell at Variety’s inaugural Music for Screens Summit, taking place Oct. 30 at L.A.’s NeueHouse. As in this pre-event interview, expect Reznor to do most of the talking, much like he does most of the composing, with U.K. native Ross, who plays more of an editor/arranger role in their collaboration, popping in with clarifying thoughts.

VARIETY: Nine Inch Nails is doing a lot of touring this fall … and you have four film projects that are either recently finished or soon to start. How closely do these things jut up against one another?

ROSS: When you say “jutting up,” a fairer description might be “landing on top of.” We actually had a traveling studio with us on the road that fully occupies a hotel room.

REZNOR: In the summer we were writing music for “Mid90s” while on tour in England; I remember we got to the Royal Albert Hall early and finished the closing credits cue and then went on stage. We wrapped up “Bird Box” over the time we’ve been on this first leg of the tour, due to the film shifting in schedule a little bit and some questionable time management prioritization on our own part. But we discovered over the last several years that by having a couple different things happening at once, it allows us some degree of objectivity on each project, and to actually do better work — when it’s within reason. We did “Vietnam” for Ken Burns at the same time as the Nine Inch Nails record, and although both were pretty heavy thematically, stylistically it was different, so it felt like a good, complementary thing. This fall was the first time, however, we’ve actually been having to tour as one of those (simultaneous) things, and it presented a whole new level of logistical, mental and physical challenges. We probably won’t aim for that in the future.

What do movies offer that record-making doesn’t?

REZNOR: Film and scoring forces us to collaborate with people we generally don’t know, and our first attempt at doing that with [director David] Fincher and his camp became one of the most creatively rewarding experiences we ever had. It was us learning on the fly, but being surrounded by a camp of people that were all functioning at the highest level of excellence — and we didn’t want to be the ones that f—ed it up. Maybe that’s additionally set against the backdrop of the music industry, which kind of sucks in general and is filled with diminishing returns and a sense of being somewhat less culturally relevant than it used to be.

You could have gone as far as a Danny Elfman, who loved scoring so much he effectively said, “Screw it, I’m never doing a rock show again…”

REZNOR: Well, I have said that same thing; I did a farewell tour, 10 years ago or whenever it was, and then ate my words. Because something about being able to step away from it gave me a fresh perspective I was lacking when it was the only thing. With this tour we’re on right now, aside from being exhausted right this minute, it has been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

It’s been surprising to see you have this ongoing collaboration with Atticus, because people thought of you as an auteurist, bordering on one-man band, before then. Has collaborating with him led you toward being more open to collaborating with directors who are perfect strangers, after so many years of having things completely your own way?

REZNOR: That’s a good question, as I’m kind of really thinking about it for the first time, which is good right now. I think back to the beginning of writing songs and feeling super-lonely about it, wishing I could find a band where it would be like U2 where it’s friends that could go out on this crusade to try to change the world. Living in Cleveland at the time, I couldn’t find the right people that felt the same way I did, so it trained me to just have the courage to do it yourself and put yourself out there. Plus I had a terrible experience with the first record label that hated what it was — and were wrong about it! — and that made me even more say, “I’m going to do this myself. I don’t need your help or even your opinion.” But a significant point in my life was getting sober, and the act of surrendering to get clean taught me a world of things about how maybe my way isn’t necessarily the best way, certainly in terms of my health and my behavior. I think the lessons that one learns from that carried over. And I met Atticus during that process. I believe I was more open than I had been in the past, and I started to realize a lot of what he was bringing to the table is much better than I could have done on my own. I guess that’s what collaboration is.

So making the transition from control freak to team member wasn’t a problem?

REZNOR: When “Social Network” came up, having done NIN for quite some time, I’d had every decision ultimately hang on my head, from what color the lights are down to what outfit somebody’s wearing, and it was exciting to be able to step into a role that was more supportive and not being the top of that pyramid, The feeling that you could contribute something to make that better was an exciting professional change. And coming out of an intense few months of working in service to the team, then it became a little more fun to be the boss again in a Nine Inch Nails situation for a little while. It’s that thing of being able to kind of wear different hats for different power dynamics with different people, and realizing something that couldn’t have existed without this group of people working together. (The film projects) haven’t all felt that way. And that’s taught us some lessons, too.

Did that first experience with “Social Network” spoil you?

REZNOR: Your head spins a little bit when your first film goes on to win an Oscar. There’s nowhere to go but down from there, right? And you start to wonder — should it be “F— rock and roll! I’ve got a new lease on life that doesn’t have quite the age limit restrictions that playing in a rock band does? Should I put all my eggs in that basket? Should I take every film that comes around?” Because now lots of films were coming by. It wasn’t that our egos were out of control. Because one thing about us is, as great as winning an Oscar is, the next day by lunchtime, we were back to being the same not-good-enough assholes that we were before we’d won one. It felt good for maybe 18 hours. It was a great experience and I have a lot of respect for the institution, but it didn’t fix everything that’s wrong with our brains, and our inadequacies remained. It caused us to kind of think about, if we do take on more roles of scoring, are we trying to be completists? Are we trying to tick every box, to want to be able to do everything from a complicated orchestral score to a rom-com? Do we want to be journeymen, or jacks of all styles and techniques?

We’re still waiting to hear your rom-com score. Your wheelhouse seems to involve films with tension. How much do you want to test yourself, genre-wise?

REZNOR: That’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I don’t by any means feel that I’ve got a great handle on a large swath of skill sets that are out there. There are things I’d like to learn. Conducting an orchestra: I’m not that good at it. I understand complex orchestral arrangements, but I haven’t actually done them myself. I think my initial reaction right after “Social Network” was that now I’ve got to take on films that have a different sort of instrumentation, to show everything I can do right off the bat — and that’s tempered a bit. We’re concerned about not being pigeonholed to a certain thing as the only thing we can do. But it’s been more about looking for people and projects that feel inspiring, rather than ‘Let’s try to show off everything we can pull out of a hat.”

ROSS: You don’t want to abandon yourself for some idea that you should do this because that’s what film music is or isn’t. And I doubt that we would do a rom-com. But I think you can play to your strengths and still simultaneously take risks without making yourself look stupid. Even in the confines of Nine Inch Nails, I think that there are some songs on [2018’s] “Bad Witch” that people would not have expected. There was some risk-taking involved in that record. And the other thing is that if you’re in the studio every day, as we are, there has to be a sense of moving forward.

Looking at some of the films you’ve done recently, or are about to, “Mid90s” sounds a little bit left-field for you. How did you connect with Jonah Hill and what were his thoughts on the music?

REZNOR: Out of the blue, we got a call from Scott Rudin, who we worked with on “Social Network” and “Dragon Tattoo,” and he said, “Jonah has directed his debut film and it just needs a small bit of music.” We already had a pretty full plate and the tour was coming up, but we did watch it and were blown away. We said, “We’d love to be involved. What do you actually need?” I think the quote was, “Five minutes of music.” And then we started talking with Jonah and of course it became significantly more work than that, but it was a labor of love. We didn’t know Jonah — I met him one time at party — but we just knew about the filmmaking, and he was super cool, and we hit it off right away in terms of how to work. Jonah said, “What I would like to hear is the sound of the elation and the confusion and the pain of childhood.” I haven’t written a song about that. I don’t know that that would come up in the docket of things I would do as Trent Reznor, songwriting musician. But having that on the plate as something to think about was an interesting exercise. it’s not a major project for us. It was really just a few weeks’ worth of work on a small bit of supplemental music to kind of fill it out. but we feel very proud of how that turned out… With “Bird Box,” it’s mixing right now, and we’ve been working on that on and off pretty much all this year.

How about “Watchmen”? 

REZNOR: We reached out to Damon and the HBO camp when I first heard about it, because I’ve been a fan of Damon since “Lost.” I was completely blown away by “The Leftovers.” Also, as a big fan of “Watchmen” [in other incarnations], I appreciated the fearlessness that taking on that property and that IP would require. I thought, if anybody was to do it at any place, HBO and Damon sounds exciting to me. I’ve never done TV, but needless to say, it’s been a great several years for television, and long-form storytelling is exciting. So I told our agent, “Hey, let him know that we’d be definitely interested in working on that.” The next thing I know, we’re in a meeting with Damon, and we were all-in. For “Watchmen” we’ve had the challenge of working almost blind, off a bit of a script for the first episode of 10. But we spent enough time with Damon to know that we’re kindred spirits. The pace of television seems interesting. Ask me in a few months how we feel about it, but right now we’re very excited about it.

You said earlier that not all the projects have felt as rewarding as the first ones with Fincher. What have some of the others taught you not to do?

REZNOR: Out of character for me, I don’t want to get into shit-talking. [Laughs] Usually when I pay attention to a score, it’s either because it’s excellent and I can’t imagine this film without this music, or the opposite, where it feels like it’s not serving any purpose other than the generic What Music Is Supposed to Do Here. Like, there’s an action scene, so you should have something that’s rhythmic under it — a pulse. And we consciously are attempting to to have this parallel career as scoring composers ideally never become the thing that we’re relying on to pay the check, or that feels like just doing the thing that’s obvious. That means paying attention and attempting to read the tarot cards as to the people we’re getting involved with. I’m just trying to be involved in making something excellent — trying to make the very best work you can do, even when good enough is OK, where it really doesn’t matter if anyone else agrees or not, because you know in your soul you’ve done something that has real value to it. So as we get into the world of collaboration, and now are dependent on other people in the film world, it’s trying to find other people that are really trying to do something excellent, too.

ROSS: And I think even in the experiences that have been more testing, there still has never been a moment of compromise on that mandate, that this is the best that we can do. And those tougher situations play into to the choices that we might make in the future. We haven’t been doing films for that long.

REZNOR: We still have no idea what we’re doing. We’re still faking it.

ROSS: But we know more about the personalities now.

What was the most intimidating part of the learning curve, coming into this different world of scoring?

REZNOR: When we first landed on “Social Network”, there was a terrifying ride home for Atticus and myself after watching 20 minutes of the first cut and wondering, “What in the hell are we going to do for this movie? There’s not room for any music! It’s constant dialogue. How do you write music for a scene where someone turns the corner and goes down the stairs and it’s eight seconds? I’m not even sure how you even start on that.” And after a panicked couple hours of wondering if we should beg Hans Zimmer to let us come make coffee and watch what he does, we thought, let’s try a different approach. Let’s apply to this skill set what we do know how to do. And if I think about the songwriting process, normally what I’m doing is just writing down words and blindly creating music and subconsciously kind of throwing what feels instinctually right together until a song comes out that feels good enough to present it to Atticus or anyone else in the world. And if I think of it that way, I replace my lyrics with the script, and my own experience with that of the character. In “Social Network,” I could relate to the character on the page of Mark Zuckerberg — to the feel of somebody that believed in something so much and maybe went to any length to get it to work, and then realized, well, maybe I f—ed some people over in the process, and that weird sense of unfulfillment or melancholy. I know that feeling. Thinking about it that way,  we just impressionistically wrote an hour’s worth of music and turned over to David and said, “This isn’t really for any scenes or anything, but feels like it could be in the right universe of what this story is. Are we close?”

And that got you over wanting to apprentice with Hans Zimmer?

REZNOR: That got us off to the races. I could take a six-minute piece of music that was in a certain wheelhouse of emotion, and for that scene coming down the steps, I could take something from that, and now it makes sense because it relates to something that I do know how to do. As simple as that sounds, figuring that out became the blueprint for how we approach the hump of intimidation of how to get into the world of scoring — distilling it down to its emotional core, and how can we translate that into sound? Once we thought of it that way, then it became fun.

Your collaboration as a duo is probably a bit of a mystery to other film scorers who are used to composing in isolation.

REZNOR: You know, I am someone that kind of keeps to himself, and I’m not proud of that. My skill set of maintaining friends is not great, and I’m not sure why I am that way, but I am that way. And with Atticus, our relationship came out of a working environment when he was helping out with the record “Mother.” We became close friends, as I think we were very similar in a lot of ways, but we have complementary skill sets. Generally, I’d be the one more behind an instrument and he would be the one arranging and making sense of what comes out of my head in a way that I found to be invaluable. It isn’t a Hall and Oates scenario. I don’t know why I just said that — I don’t know what their working method is! But it’s much more Lennon and McCartney, in that there’s two people who are equally contributing to things in a way that allows us both to get much more done and get over our own handicaps, I’m not good at organizing or making sense of what comes out of my head, and for me to have the privilege and freedom to work on a subconscious and gut-level pure creation level and not have to think organizationally or about arrangements and play free-form for an hour is awesome. I leave the room for half an hour and come back and hear it back in a way that sounds better and fertile as a starting point to move forward. We can kick through a 10-hour day and get a significant amount of things done because we’re bouncing it back off each other. There’s no bullshit where it ever feels like we’re out of ideas, or stuck.

Is Nine Inch Nails back on the back burner after you finish the next round of touring? 

REZNOR: Once we get a significant amount of scoring things out of us right now, we know what the next Nine Inch Nails project is going to be. In six weeks we’re going to have a few weeks off. Maybe we could start on it there, or we may not, but it’s nice to be looking forward to that thing and subconsciously know that it’s coming up and you’re putting things in that bucket… ideas to try when it comes up. We’re just trying to make the best music possible in whatever format that might be.

You finally had Atticus join the official lineup of Nine Inch Nails after working together for years on scores. Did you have an ulterior motive, knowing that any time you toured, he’d always be around every day to work on scores, too? 

REZNOR: You may be onto something, but don’t say that out loud in front of him.