Trent Reznor and David Fincher
By Ryan Dombal for Pitchfork on September 27, 2010
Trent Reznor and director David Fincher are both masters of exploring the bleakest side of humanity. With Nine Inch Nails, Reznor cornered the music market on anger, frustration, and obsession. Meanwhile, Fincher was making films about serial killers and psychopaths including Se7en, Zodiac, and Fight Club. And though a remix of NIN's "Closer" was used to open Se7en and Fincher directed the video for 2005 NIN single "Only", the pair's deepest collaboration yet finds Reznor and frequent studio associate Atticus Ross scoring the director's latest feature, The Social Network, which comes out this Friday, October 1.
The film dramatizes the beginnings of Facebook and stars Jesse Eisenberg as the site's controversial nerd-king founder, Mark Zuckerberg. It's a bit unexpected from these Lords of Darkness-- nobody is stabbed, shot, or murdered in the movie. And it's propelled by a rapid-fire script courtesy of Aaron Sorkin ("Sports Night", "The West Wing", A Few Good Men) that's oftentimes quite funny. But Fincher and Reznor manage to turn the relatively light origin story into something more ominous and trenchant-- a critique of a generation raised on Internet relationships and over-sharing. Though they were on different coasts, we were able to wrangle both men in on a conference call last week.
Reznor spoke in low, patient tones that neared Ben Stein levels of dryness; Fincher was a little more excitable. Both of these guys have little left to prove-- they're experts in their fields and only have to answer to their own respectably lofty expectations. We spoke about their creative partnership, the tenuous bond between the Internet and art, and whether Facebook is evil or not:
Pitchfork: Trent, you've said that you had some reservations about working on this movie at first. What made you go ahead and do the score?
Trent Reznor: Originally, when I heard the phrase "Facebook movie," I thought, "Is it just going to be a bunch of people on Facebook?" Facebook sucks, so it just felt like: "Ugh." But then David-- who's somebody I've always respected as a director and also as a friend-- gave me Aaron Sorkin's script, and I wasn't worried about the Facebook aspect anymore. But still, when David first approached me about doing the score last fall, I couldn't do it because I was burnt out.
I'd just come off the several-year cycle of tour after record after tour, and I'd just gotten married. I realized doing the score could be a year-long commitment of hard work, and I was really looking forward to not knowing what I would do the next day. So I called him back and I said, "I'm really sorry but I can't give you my best work right now. Please don't be insulted." It was just a matter of me not feeling like I had the confidence to pull it off.
But, a few months later, it was still nagging me. I felt like I'd let David down, and I couldn't get it out of my mind. I just felt like a fuck-up. So I got back in touch with him and said, "I want to reiterate how sorry I am about not doing the score, and keep me in mind if anything comes up in the future." And he was like, "I'm still waiting on you to say yes."
Pitchfork: Watching the film, I felt like it could have gone in a much more lighthearted or comedic direction if not for David's direction and your music, which is characteristically ominous. How did you guys figure out that darker tone?
TR: When I got involved in spring of this year, I saw a rough cut of the title sequence and they had some jangly college rock temped in that immediately gave the film this John Hughes vibe. I thought, "Hmm, I hope he doesn't want anything like that."
After that, David and I talked quite a bit. We decided right away that we didn't want to go with an orchestral score. And a few things from [NIN instrumental album] Ghosts were temped into spots, so I had an idea of what they were looking for. The whole process was fun for me because I liked answering to someone I respect and not having to make all the decisions for a change.
So after I saw that early cut, Atticus [Ross] and myself spent a few weeks generating what I thought would just be sketches for the score. I figured we would end up going back and revising them probably 10 times. But I delivered them to David and I didn't hear anything. He finally got back to me and said, "I don't have anything bad to say-- that's never happened before."
Then I went to another screening where they temped our music in and changed the college rock title-sequence song to the piece we made called "Hand Covers Bruise". When I saw it, I got goosebumps and thought, "Holy shit, that works. I'm into this now. It's completely changed what to expect from the film." ["Hand Covers Bruise" automatically plays in the background at the official Social Network site.] That provided a good template, and it went very smoothly from that point on.
[David Fincher joins the conference call]
Pitchfork: Hey David, we were talking about the process of putting Trent's music into the film...
TR: ... and I just made a bunch of shit up.
David Fincher: [laughs] Well, I second whatever Trent said because I've known him to be nothing but rigorously honest about all of it.
Pitchfork: Trent mentioned how your collaboration for this movie came pretty naturally. It made me think about how, given the similarities of your respective work, it seems like you guys have worked together in the past more than you actually have.
DF: We've talked about it a lot. At one point I was trying to get Trent to consider doing a musical based on Fight Club. But he's a pretty busy guy, so it's always been sort of a dream. For The Social Network, I wanted to do an odd John Hughes-style movie, but it needed to be a little meaner than what that would imply.
Pitchfork: Considering how the basis of the film is centered around these college kids and it isn't as sinister as some of your other films, did you ever worry about the music mismatching the plot?
DF: No. I feel like Trent's uniquely positioned as somebody who is a technologist as well as an expert in communication. He has a very specific relationship to his wide-ranging audience, and he takes that very seriously. Musically, who better to talk about innovation and technology and communication and connectivity than Trent? I hate to say it was a no-brainer, but it was kind of a no-brainer.
Pitchfork: Trent, it seems like you've lived some of the issues going in the film about privacy and giving things away online as far as releasing your music and going on and off Twitter.
TR: Yeah, what I've had to do in the last few years has just been out of necessity, really. After coming from a major label, I realized the entire business has been decimated, and you can't look to labels to try to figure it out because they don't even use the technology and they're oblivious to how people consume music these days. So my methodology was just to submerse myself in it.
I've been the artist that was pissed off after toiling over a record for a year plus, and then it leaks before it's ready. I was mad at fans for consuming it, which made me think, "Wait a minute, I'm getting pissed off at the people who are excited about what I've been working on. Something's not right about this."
In the last few years it's been a matter of trying different ideas and thinking about how people like to consume music. Like, why is the iTunes store insulting in a lot of ways? What's the point of even putting out a CD? Who even wants a CD? Some people do. Why can't you get things in high resolution? Why can't people that are interested in it feel good about being interested in it? And then the trick is how can you also make some sort of living off of doing it when everything is free? I'm just trying to figure out the right balance between making fans feel good and also maintaining some dignity for myself in the process.
I think the whole aspect of social networking is vulgar and repulsive in a lot of ways. But I also see why it's appealing-- I've had that little high you get from posting stuff online. But then you think, "Did I need to say that?" I've explored that enough to know to stay kind of quiet these days.
Pitchfork: One of the scenes that stood out to me is when the Mark Zuckerberg character's ex-girlfriend chews him out for over-sharing online. Do you think putting too much out there is something you have to consider with your music now, too?
TR: I'm a lot less precious than I used to be about putting things out, for better or for worse. The result of a public that has a very high consumption rate and turnover rate is people listen to more music but spend less time with individual bits of music. It's made me more likely to put things up quickly and treat it more like a magazine instead of a novel. That's how I feel now. I may look back and say, "Maybe I should have edited some of this shit down and thought about it a bit more."
But there's something exciting and incredibly liberating for an artist to finish something Friday night and the world hears it Friday night instead of eight months later after marketing people and all those assholes get involved. [Fincher laughs]
Pitchfork: David, this film is on a much smaller scale than your last one, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Was that part of the appeal for doing it?
DF: No, it's just the reality of making a talky movie about people who aren't wearing spandex or capes. Hollywood has a hard time marketing semi-adult dramas and has no faith that people want to see them, so you have to make them for a price. And that was fine because we could make what we wanted to make for that price.
Pitchfork: Would you say this film was less difficult to make on a logistical level than some of your other ones?
DF: It's fairly straightforward and meat-and-potatoes, except for having to create twins and do the Henley Royal Regatta sequence, which was difficult. But, for the most part, you get a great ensemble, put a great script in their mouths, and give them the time to do great work. And that's what happened.
TR: What was interesting for me to watch-- because this isn't something I get to witness often-- was seeing things progress from that very first cut. Watching it through the editing process, every revision felt shorter even though it wasn't actually getting shorter length-wise. And I experienced that on our end too, thinking, "OK, how do we get through this long and wordy scene that needs to be there without making it feel like paint drying?" I just watched the finished film last week and thought it flew by.
Pitchfork: The most noticeable music moment in the film is the Henley Royal Regatta scene, which shows two main characters in a rowing race and doesn't have any dialogue. It's almost like a music video stuck in the middle of the movie.
DF: Well, it kind of is. It's the only type of action sequence in the movie. In the script, Aaron described what happens: cut-- we're in the middle of this race... and they lose. From a dramatic standpoint, it's an odd sequence because you're being dropped into something you're not prepared for. It's not like Rocky where you know he's gonna end up having to fight Apollo Creed and you know what the stakes are. Here, it's like: Welcome to the Henley Royal Regatta. What is that? How does it work? Why does anybody care?
I thought it would help me know what to shoot if I had a piece of music to cut the scene to. So when we were scouting we found out the whole idea of the Henley Royal Regatta was based on an Edwardian-period garden party. I didn't know anything about Edwardian-period garden parties, so I called [sound designer] Ren [Klyce] and asked him for an example of an Edwardian composer. Ironically, we ended up with [Edvard Grieg's] "In the Hall of the Mountain King". First, I was too embarrassed to call Trent about it. [laughs] But then I asked him, "What do you think about doing like a Wendy Carlos version of 'Hall of the Mountain King'?" And it was off my plate. [laughs]
TR: [dryly] And then the fun began. I was almost divorced over that one. It was like: "If I hear that fuckin' song one more time..." [Fincher laughs] That one took us a good four weeks. The Wendy Carlos thing threw me for a loop, so I came up with probably the most unsexy-sounding version of the song. [Listen to the track below.]
Pitchfork: David, do you personally think we're as doomed with regard to technology and human connections as the movie may lead us to believe?
DF: The simple-minded always look for something-- if it's not pornography, it's DVDs or the Internet or video games-- but I don't think there's anything inherently evil about Facebook. Human beings are amazing at finding ways to waste their own time. I know I probably lost a couple of my formative years to "Gilligan's Island" and "Bewitched". In retrospect, I would wanna have that time back. But I don't think it's the TV networks' fault.