Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross Faced the Impossible Scoring ‘Empire of Light’: Director Sam Mendes Wanted Four Days Worth of Music

Empire of Light
Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are doing double duty this awards season: the duo scored Luca Guadagnino’s cannibal love story “Bones and All,” and they also teamed up with Sam Mendes for “Empire of Light.”

Olivia Colman takes center stage in “Empire of Light” as Hillary, a manager at a small-town cinema. Hillary lives alone and has very few friends, but she finds herself drawn to the Empire’s newest employee, Stephen, played by Micheal Ward. Colman’s character is one close to Mendes’ heart, as a woman modeled after his mother who suffered from mental illness. The music not only explores a love affair, but the story of a woman who finds love for herself.

“Sam shed very personal stuff about what informs this film,” Ross explained. “Where we’re scoring Hillary’s journey, it’s an intimate movement and it needed to carry a weighty journey.”

Mendes, who brought the pair in while he was in the script-writing stage, gave Reznor and Ross photos of British seaside towns so they could picture the film’s setting. With that, Reznor and Ross spent some weeks composing music based on what they thought Mendes was looking for.

“We don’t automatically use an orchestra or have a sound set in terms of instruments,” Reznor said. “We’re just trying to understand how far we can push the boundaries of what’s acceptable in his mind.”

Mendes told Reznor and Ross that he needed four days worth of music — a large task for a film only two hours long — and referenced a musical cue from a different film where he thought they had used an orchestral arrangement. But, Ross said, “there was no orchestration on that particular piece.” Rather, the cue Mendes was referring to was rooted in a piano foundation, and thus the instrument became an integral part of “Empire of Light’s” score.

“In our skill set and vocabulary of being able to hear things in our head and to translate it out, the piano is probably the only instrument I know how to play well enough to do that,” Reznor said. “It felt the most obvious where it could convey sadness, intimacy and vulnerability in a language we knew how to speak.”

Human voices (mainly Reznor’s) and strings also feature atop the piano music. “There’s a lot more going on than just the piano,” Reznor said. “It’s all around the edges and it’s subtle – a nice, warm orchestration around the foundation of the piano.”

In putting the music together, Reznor and Ross didn’t want the score to feel pretentious, but rather serve as a subtle soundtrack to an emotional journey of self-love. And while there might have been a lot of music in the pre-production building of the score, the end result is quiet and restrained.

“I think we were able to deliver that level of emotion and scale using things that felt unique to this particular story,” Ross said.