Trent Reznor on finding the right notes for the 'Social Network' score: 'I saw a story about a guy who needs to prove himself'

By Todd Martens for LA Times (Pop & Hiss) on February 28, 2011

There was no shortage of critical accolades heaped upon the score to "The Social Network," yet the work was far from conventional. In other words, the composition from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which is heavy on electronic atmospheres and forgoes the use of an orchestra, was not typical Academy Awards fare. 

Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails fame, and his frequent collaborator Ross stood out in an Oscar field that contained film composer veterans. Among the pair's competitors Sunday night at the Academy Awards were Hans Zimmer, whose booming work in "Inception" was hard to ignore; A.R. Rahman, who brought a Western-leaning rock 'n' roll slickness to "127 Hours"; and Alexandre Desplat, who used an orchestra with minimal grace in "The King's Speech." 

Once an early favorite for best picture, David Fincher's legal drama "The Social Network," which takes its inspiration from the battle over Facebook and focuses on the company's enigmatic young leader Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), is action-less and heavy on the dialogue.

Reznor and Ross spoke with Pop & Hiss about composing the music for the film in late 2010. Now that the pair are Oscar winners ("To be standing up here in this company is humbling and flattering beyond words," Reznor said from the stage), Pop & Hiss presents the full, unedited transcript of the interview. 

Trent, you initially turned this down, didn't you?

Reznor: Sometime late summer, early fall, of last year, David approached me about my interest level in scoring a film with him. I’ve always been an admirer, and said I was interested, but I had just finished several years of touring, and I had made a promise to myself to take a bit of time to get centered and figure out what I want to do artistically. I wanted a fresh, clean mind. I didn’t want to rush into anything.

He sent me the script. I thought it was fantastic, and we talked about a few things, but he hadn’t shot the film yet. A few days after the meeting, I was torn. I really felt like I was depleted. I lacked the confidence, and wasn’t feeling particularly creative. I was afraid I was going to get myself involved into a disappoint I wasn’t sure I could do.

In my day job with Nine Inch Nails, I had alternated between periods of time in the studio that were quiet and reflective and creative, and the other half of the job is being on tour and executing. That’s more about survival, and it becomes a routine. You’re just trying to stay alive and you keep playing the same music. You try to do it with integrity, but you’re using a different part of your brain, and I was deep in ending that phase when this offer came up. I felt like I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t David. It wasn’t the material. It was just me. But I felt lousy about that.

So what changed, besides the guilt? 

Reznor: Out of tour mode, I was at home and Atticus and I had worked on various production projects. We started working, and things were flowing. The David scenario was nagging at me. I got back in touch with him and said it wasn’t him or the material, but I just didn’t think I was in the place where I could pull it off. I asked him to keep me in mind for the future. He came back and said, ‘I’d love it if you could still do it.’

Atticus had scored ‘The Book of Eli’ last year, and we had made a commitment to work on a variety of things throughout this year. I asked if he’d do it with me.

At that point, how far along was David in shooting/editing the film? How did that impact your direction?

Reznor: David was in very early edits. We saw 40 minutes of the rough cut, with temp music in it. It gave us an idea of the pacing and look. We spent some time with David, extracting what he wanted from us. I’m saying this very naively. I hadn’t done this before. I think if this were an action picture, or ‘Seven’ or something, it may have been more obvious what was needed. This being a movie with a lot of people in rooms talking, one where you need to pay attention to the dialogue, and a lot of underlying emotions and tension.

Did you feel pressure to do a more typical film score, like one with an orchestra?

Reznor:We got an idea from David that he wanted something that was not orchestral and not traditional. He referenced 'Blade Runner' and Tangerine Dream. He mentioned sounds that were a synthetic landscape of sorts. Then we just spent a couple weeks with no picture and no imput and thinking of how we could create a world of sound.

How did you arrive at that "world"?

Reznor: We did that by putting up restrictions to which instruments we would use, and we wanted to articulate this guy’s journey -- an act of creativity and the pursuit of a great idea and the consequences that come from that. We thought we would create a very synthetic landscape, and when there was to be a melody, we would make it a very frail acoustic piano. We generated a bunch of things for him to pick through. We weren’t being precious. We just gave him a grab bag full of ideas, and we wanted to see what resonated with him. We thought we’d be going back to the well numerous times. What we heard back was, ‘This was what I had in mind.’

Talk about the lack of freedom inherent in doing a film score. You're hired to place music to someone else's project, and you also have a strict deadline. After years of working in NIN, was that a challenge, or welcome?

Reznor: Looking back on how we did this, the smartest thing we did was gather as much information from David. Unlike a Nine Inch Nails record, the music is in a supporting role that’s serving the picture. That was very clear to us. So the smartest thing we did was listen to what David had to say. We weren’t setting the bar too high for ourselves. We were throwing everything down. We told David that this was clay to be molded. Everything just happened to line up. It was exciting for me to work under somebody. I am the top of the pyramid in the Nine Inch Nails camp. I found it very refreshing to serve another master. It was inspiring and challenging, but refreshing.

Ross: I have a friend who says he will never work until he has a [finished] picture. What seemed to make sense for us, and once we saw an early edit and read the script, we knew the world, and we could create without constraint. We could live in that world and make a world sonically that may be appropriate for the emotional scenes that we picked up on. From that, you get to a place that’s really helpful. We had a sonic library, if you like, that would go with the picture but not necessarily in an expected way.

So was it a relief that Fincher wanted a more atmospheric, non-orchestral score?

Reznor:There was a part of me that was really disappointed. The orchestral route was a challenge that I thought would be fun to address. In hindsight, it was the best move. What Atticus and I have done over the years is develop our own skill set. We know what instruments we can get to sound certain ways. We really spent the time wanting it to sound like it came from a place. We wanted it to sound like it came from this movie, in which the way a track from ‘Blade Runner’ sounds like ‘Blade Runner.’ One of the lessons we’ve learned is setting limitation. Record to record and project to project, we force new creative limitations.

You talk a lot about creating rules and limitations. Was this a process of elimination? How many ideas were tossed aside for not fitting the constraints?

Reznor:We spent time in advance, setting those rules up. If we were working orchestrally, we’d have these sounds and this kind of voicing to us. We adapted that to a world of modular synthesizers and an acoustic piano, and a general aesthetic of X,Y  and Z. What you hear in the film has been fine-tuned as we got more into working the picture.

Working with an electronic score, is there a line to walk between creating something modern versus something that will sound dated in five years?

Reznor: In the initial writing batch, there was a bit more 8-bit chip-tune-sounding  elements that would creep in and out. The only thing left of that is on the track 'In Motion.' It just started to feel like a gimmick. It was one of those things where there are no bad ideas, and we were letting ideas roll and then narrowing them down. Having watched the film a number of times in different theaters and with audiences, and without trying to sound too boastful, I’m really proud of how this turned out. A lot of that came from Atticus and myself, but a lot of it was the fearlessness of Fincher.

A lot of the score is pretty dark -- and surely wouldn't catch NIN fans off-guard. But in a film that's largely dialogue, could you overdue it? Meaning, did you want -- or not want -- the music to hint at an emotion the viewer should be feeling?

Reznor:When we were creating these ideas, which weren’t scene specific, we thought, ‘This could be the sound of an asteroid hitting the Earth at the end of humanity.’ It was pretty intense dissonance, and diminished ugly stuff. But I don’t know if that fits in with the tale of founding Facebook, when someone finds out someone stole their website. Is that the appropriate level of drama, or is comically overdone? We gave Fincher those options with general earmarks of where they would go. But he fit them in.

It's not all electronic, though. A piano is used to great effect, lending a sort of sadness to the score.

Reznor:A perfect example of that is the [opening] title track, ‘Hand’ I wrote that with frailty in mind. I wrote that with melancholy in mind. It felt kind of noble. The melody felt classic in a way. It felt a bit broken, and it felt remorseful in a sense. But I didn’t write that thinking that would be where the credits roll in the beginning. It goes from a bar breakup scene, which is very familiar territory. It’s a college bar, a guy is being dumped, there’s a lot of verbal jousting and the White Stripes are playing in the background.

Then all of a sudden -- ‘Whoa, where are we now?’ It suddenly takes a different turn. It is suddenly not the movie you thought it would be. The whole movie takes a different turn. There’s a level of tension, a level of reserve and a level of anger. It’s not a bombastic title scene. It’s not a comfortable rock song. Seeing David have the taste and insight to try that in that spot defined how the rest of the score would go.

I'm not sure of the best way to articulate this question, but in a film that has inspired some debate as to whether Zuckerberg is framed in a positive or negative light, as a composer what kind of responsibility did you feel? This is a film about a real person, and the score, in many uses, can be used to telegraph whether the character is heroic or tragic.

Reznor:From my point of view, whoever the real Zuckerberg is and whatever the real truth of the situation is, it’s not my job to judge that. I’m trying to serve [Aaron] Sorkin’s script and David’s direction. From the onset of this, David wanted to make sure that it had multiple points of view, and the truth is somewhat subjective to what you think it is.

Applied to what I related to, sitting at the piano, and I don’t know if this is the real Zuckerberg or not, but I saw a story about a guy who needs to prove himself. He’s come up with a really good idea, and he’s going to pursue it, and the momentum of that idea is going to take him places. Maybe he’s not thinking of the consequences, or maybe he’s not caring, but in order to make this grand idea that’s bigger than him, he winds up in a variety of scenarios. There are emotional, friendship and moral consequences.

You saw a relatable character. 

Reznor: I’ve been that guy in my own mind with the pursuit of my own career in Nine Inch Nails. I know that feeling of having a good idea that’s more important than anything, and more important than any relationship I had at the time. It cost me friendships. I look back and say, ‘Wow, what a [jerk] I was at this period of my life.’ I can see that now, but at the time I was on a quest that was more important. That was the well I dug into.

To aid in what David was trying to accomplish, and readying Sorkin’s script with no picture, it was impossible for me to feel like this guy wasn’t a complete [jerk] in this film. Seeing it, with what I thought Eisenberg did an amazing job taking his looks of disgust, sadness or repulsion or whatever it might be, there’s an element of sympathy. You can see the weight of these consequences in his face. Musically, it’s our responsibility to this film to add an element -- for instance, when you see him leave the classroom after being [called out] and runs out into the hallway and runs into the [Winklevoss] twins -- musically, there’s a real ominous feel. You feel that something bad is happening, that evil is cooking. Without that, it feels differently, but we set it up so a seed of evil has been born. Something devious is about to happen. The reoccurance of the title track at certain points in the film, when you’re seeing Zuckerberg reduced, and coming back in a diminished fashion, that was our main role. We wanted to add a level of humanity. You can say, ‘What a [jerk],’ but I think it became more human.

That contrast between what you hear and what you see adds a sense of mystery. 

Ross: There’s no single truth. There’s a lot of questions thrown up. The music remains a certain ambiguity. I’ve seen David talk about that piece and use words as seething, and I see that as well. The music kind of goes along with the idea that ‘You take this. You make your own decisions.’ The music is not one of those ones where you see someone sad, and this sad music goes along with it.

How did working on the instrumental "Ghosts I–IV" project inform this score? There's even a couple snippets of "Ghosts I–IV" in the score.

Reznor:There’s been times when I’ve made a record and I’ve said, 'I love the B-side of David Bowie’s "Low" album." I love it so much that it becomes an archetype. I loved it so much that ‘The Downward Spiral’ was inspired by the B-side of that album by an insane amount. There are times where I say, ‘I love the Talking Heads’ "Remain in Light" album,’ and I try to ape it -- the production and the way the rhythms are put together. For this, it really just came from the first few weeks of inspiration where Attitcus and I wrote a lot of music. Everyday, two or three things come out. They come from a subconscious place.

We set up rules. We will use these instruments. We will exist in this space. We don’t record anything as MIDI into a computer that can be fixed and quantized. Generally, everything is a live performance and treated as a performance. It’s treated as something that’s pulled out of the ether. Sometimes it’s off. Sometimes it isn’t turned right. That was an example of the rules of this record. It feels synthetic, but it has to feel like people are involved. It’s not coming out of a laptop. It doesn’t sound like what’s on the radio. It feels like people, and it feels imperfect.

So how about performing this live?

Reznor:We’re deep into the Angels record, but the idea  of performing this live is intriguing. As I’m trying to move away from Nine Inch Nails as a live rock band that tours endlessly, the idea of being thrust into something that feels like there’s no safety -- performing this live in a stripped down environment, of some sort, that’s a very appealing idea that we get into later.

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