In the late aughts, David Fincher propositioned Trent Reznor, frontman for the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, to compose original music for his biopic about the founding of Facebook. With some convincing, Reznor agreed and enlisted his friend and longtime collaborator, Atticus Ross, to complete their first-ever film score for The Social Network, a synth-laden soundtrack as atmospheric as it was ambitious.
At the 83rd Oscars the following year, Reznor and Ross won Best Original Score, marking a groundbreaking moment for non-traditional and non-orchestral film scores and a declaration announcing the duo's arrival as film composers.
"We were just concerned about trying to figure out how to score a film," Reznor confesses. "Not being from the film world, we hadn't, not once, even imagined or considered or even thought about that it would be praised by people that know what they're doing."
"It was just such a weird experience to be there, to have done that film and to end up winning. It just seemed so insane," says Ross. "It was terrifying. That's how I remember it — being in the seat thinking, 'What if we do win? Am I going to fall over going up the stairs? And then what am I going to say? And then when it all happened, luckily I didn't fall over."
"And then the weirdest thing I hadn't thought about, is when you're up there and you look out at the audience, every single face you can see is someone famous. 'Oh, it's Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and they're all staring at me,'" Reznor remembers. "To be honored by that was truly a pretty life-changing experience."
Reznor and Ross have come on to become one of the most prolific composing teams working in film, reteaming with Fincher on his next films, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, in addition to diversifying their scoring portfolio. Last year, the duo earned dual Best Original Score nominations for Mank, Fincher's Golden Age of Hollywood movie, and Disney's Soul, for which they won their second Oscar with jazz musician Jon Batiste.
"After we did a few films with Dave and gained our footing a bit, we started to think about what is it that we want to get out of this?" Reznor tells A.frame from the duo's studio, sitting side-by-side and bathed in neon blue light. "We're in a really fortunate situation, because we still have our day job playing in a band" — Nine Inch Nails, which Reznor founded in 1988 and Ross would officially join in 2016 — "and we can fill up as much time as we want with that. So if we're going to work in film, now that we've gotten over the hump of we can figure out how to do, what is it that we have to say?"
Reznor and Ross' latest film scores are for Bones and All, from director Luca Guadagnino, and Empire of Light, from writer-director Sam Mendes. (The projects mark the first collaborations between the composers and both filmmakers.) Neither score is necessarily experimental by nature — which might be the most experimental part of it all for the duo. After a decade of forging their own inimitable sound, Bones and All and Empire of Light are more traditional-sounding scores, by design, though no less carefully considered than Reznor and Ross' past work.
"Each film is very, very, very different, sonically and approach-wise, and Luca and Sam are very different personalities — both brilliant, both radically different filmmakers in terms of how they work," says Reznor. "So it's interesting to see how we can adapt the way we work, and it's been challenging.
Bones and All stars Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet in a coming-of-age love story about a couple of cannibals on a road trip across the U.S. Wanting to draw out the romanticism of the film, Guadagnino imagined an acoustic guitar-driven score inspired by the classic sounds of the American heartland. Though Reznor and Ross are perhaps not the most obvious composers to meet that brief, Guadagnino says, "They're great, great composers. I've admired their work ever since I started to hear Nine Inch Nails and then even more so when I started to see what they could do in the field of composing, so why not?"
"We really grew to enjoy the intense collaborative," Reznor says. With their work on Nine Inch Nails, all creative choices come down to the two of them. ("We can get very insular and kind of become hermits.") On a film, "We found we really enjoy going on a six-month to 18-month — sometimes longer — journey of intense creation, where we're not in control, where we're in service to."
Bones and All, Reznor explains, was "one of the most incredible transformations from what we read on the page in the script, to what we saw come back as the first edit. The execution was so beautiful and human and goosebump-inducing and brought levels of depth that we didn't read on the page. And when you talk to Luca, he is a very warm and human and open, but there's not an infinite amount of details. There's not, 'Let's talk about the scene for an hour.' It feels impulsive. It feels instinctual with him. And the rhythm that we would find, as we got into the actual scoring of the film, was, 'I love it. I love it. It's great.' And that was the notes for that scene."
Empire of Light was a radically different experience that required a radically different way of thinking about the music. The period drama centers on a seaside movie palace, the titular Empire, in 1980s England. Olivia Colman stars as Hilary, a lonely, middle-aged theater worker who finds herself brought back to life upon the arrival of a new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward). The film marks Mendes' debut solo screenplay, which Reznor felt made the stakes that much higher.
"Sam established a rhythm of speaking very regularly on lengthy Zoom calls to get to know each other and talk about things and was incredibly open about what state the film and script was in, at that point. We started when he was still writing the script," he says. "We felt very included, and he was a very generous and open collaborator, which can also be intimidating because we're involved in the recipe of what's about to be created."
The score is largely piano-based, which Reznor explains, "presents itself as traditional, but with closer listen, has a unique curiosity to it that isn't quite exactly what you thought it was, in a very non-showy way. We weren't looking to make a score that announces, 'Hey, listen to me! Look how clever this arrangement is!'"
"The whole score," Ross says, "it lives on a razor edge."
Empire of Light, they say, was their most challenging film score. They point to an emotionally climactic scene in which Colman's character sits down in the theater to watch a film, with the scene unfolding for several minutes uninterrupted on her face ("she's acting her a** off," says Reznor). The composers needed to write a piece that swelled perfectly in sync with her internal journey.
"And it was a tricky one to get right because it could easily go one way or the other or feel too sentimental or feel too corny," Reznor elucidates. "You could overdo it in a variety of ways, and I think we wrote 15 separate arranged compositions to try to fit that. And we were watching the time tick away too because that was one of the last things that we were really into—"
"It was the very last one," Ross says.
"There was a couple times where I was sure, 'This is it! This is the one.' And it would get a, 'It's good, but...' And it got me near the breaking point, not in terms of anger, just in terms of I think that one is good. I think it's really good. But what I found was, going back and trying again, and resetting my own emotions and being able to try again not from a place of defeat or anger or frustration, it's better. It's a lot better, and it's better because Sam made it better. We wouldn't have gotten there without being pushed to that place. And it wasn't easy, but the results speak for themselves."
"It's about storytelling," Ross resolves of their work in film. "To me, Nine Inch Nails is about emotion. With storytelling in film, I think where our strength is, and this is why we take so long on films sometimes, is in trying to understand the emotional intent of what that story may be and then transfer that into music."
Bones and All and Empire of Light are both films about lost and lonely people reaching out in desperate search of connection. The films, however, could not be more different, and Reznor and Ross' music for each distills that thesis into a distinct melody. Listen to the soundtracks in tandem, and you'll hear the different notes of artists who are ever evolving their sound.
"In the last week, we spent time with Luca intensely working on his next film, Challengers." (A romantic tennis drama starring Zendaya and Josh O’Connor.) "We were at a premier with Luca and the cast for Bones," Reznor rattles off. "We just were up at Skywalker two days ago to listen to a final mix of Fincher's new film, Killer, feeling great about it." (Of their collaboration process with Fincher, they say, "He knows what he wants, but we know each other enough now that a lot of it he'll say, 'But do what you want because that's going to be the right thing.'")
They returned to Los Angeles for their first premiere of Empire of Light.
"We got to sit in a room filled with people for the first time to watch Empire," Reznor recounts. "And I see my wife starting to cry at one point. And I'm starting to tear up. I got goosebumps watching it, and I've seen it 5,000 times. And I thought, 'I feel very, very fortunate that we've been able to work with these people and be in these situations and feel like we've contributed to them in a meaningful way.' I'm very grateful to have the opportunity. We couldn't ask for more."
By John Boone