LIKE: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross Discuss Their Social Network Soundtrack
How a film about social networking and geeks at war revitalised the creativity of one of post-industrial's finest pairings
By Luke Turner for The Quietus on December 15, 2010
The soundtrack to a David Fincher-directed film about the misanthropic foundations of everyone's favourite social networking site that actually means you never leave the house again was always going to require something special for the soundtrack. The selection of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, musical partners for years (via in the latter's production work for Nine Inch Nails, and their continuing How To Destroy Angels band) was therefore inspired. Through the contrast of cauterising drones and the occasional drop of piano or melody, they add an atmosphere of dark and, at times absurd, menace to what should at core perhaps be a deeply uninspiring story. Interestingly, its sparser moments make fo a brilliant foil for the machinegun delivery of the splittling geeks We took up the old-fashioned communication method of the undersea transatlantic telephone cable to speak to Reznor and Finch about their collaboration, and how it might impact on their future work together.
How did this project differ from your previous collaborations?
Trent Reznor: Our relationship is about ten years deep, based on a friendship and also a working relationship. We started with Atticus being a programmer for Nine Inch Nails, with How To Destroy Angels it's more of a variation on that where we're all working together and making a conscious effort to be more democratic and communal. When the opportunity to do this movie came up Fincher reached out to me, we'd had a good relationship over the years and had asked me if I was interested. Atticus and I were in a very healthy working flow together and he just scored Book Of Eli, and with that bit of experience I thought it would be helpful to have him involved in this, and we were in a great creative period, so I floated the idea out to him. It really was a continuation of the processes that we've come up with over the years. The writing proportion of this happened very quickly. In a few weeks the bulk of the music was composed. Over the years of knowing each other, the amount of shared taste and our brains complement each other so we can finish each other's sentences. Our relationship really is greater than the sum of its parts.
Atticus Ross: There are obviously different directions, but the way that we work together is quite different across projects.
TR: With a project like How To Destroy Angels we have a general idea of what realm we might be in, but we let the process dictate what becomes exciting. Then we might use old analogue drum machines and try to get a feel that's sexy or slow, or whatever it is. Then we'll start to decide that this or that is more exciting, and we might radically change directions. In Social Network the end result ended up designing itself in the process. The Social Network the aesthetic is different because the music is in a supportive role and being used to help narrate the story, so it needs to adhere to certain boundaries. We really thought about what we felt it should be like, meaning we'd seen the script, we'd seen a bit of the film that he'd shot to get an idea of the pacing and the look of it. We went back home and said well let's think about what we feel might fit, emotionally, in the space we've been given in this film. We then set off on a course of creating things to run by David to see what he responded to, without really knowing if we were on the mark or not. We didn't treat anything as precious, we were just creating raw things for him to respond to. I'd like to say it was an incredible insight and talent, but it was probably luck as well that we just hit the nail right on the head.
AR: We had seen an early rough cut, it was a kind of intuitive thing where, with seeing the script and the picture, it had thrown up a number of questions. What is similar to an album is there's usually a bit at the beginning where it's unfettered creativity, without sounding pretentious, putting no constraints on anything, just letting go and seeing what happens. In the Social Network case there was a lot of thought put into that process, but like Trent says it did yield surprising results.
Why bring in 'In The Hall Of The Mountain King'?
TR: We had basically finished the whole picture, but with a big hole in the middle that said 'Henley Regatta scene, to be filmed'. Now we knew the whole landscape of the film and we knew the sonic territory we were in. David wanted to film that at the actual event, which I think is fourth of July so... his team came up with the idea of 'Hall of the Mountain King' in the vein of Wendy Carlos, from the 1970s, but not comical. 'OK...' But we went down the wrong path, and it ended up sounding goofy, like a Switched On Bach. Authentic, I thought, but in the context of the film it felt stupid. We spent about three weeks agonising over that track, trying to beat it into submission, and finally when we eased up on the restrictions we'd placed on ourselves it turned out great. I think maybe it needed three weeks to get to that place. It was the one moment in the process where it felt like there may be a homicide... it was pretty tense.
Speaking of homicides, when I interviewed Warren Ellis about his soundtrack work with Nick Cave, he said studio interference was so infuriating that he ended up smashing his phone. Did you have any similar troubles?
AF: I've heard of that story, by the way. I love the scores that they've done, but I heard that on The Road that there were some problems. Luckily we didn't have to deal with any of that. In my two experiences I've been very fortunate, both with the Hughes Brothers and David Fincher. With David I think that he's probably got such an amazing track record that there's no executive interference, it couldn't be any better.
TR: I had never done this before, and I emerged from this process feeling like it was one of the most rewarding creative experiences of my whole career. This is because I was working with people who had the same level of integrity as I try to keep in my own house. It was also interesting to work in a capacity where I'm serving picture, and I'm trying to work under David and serve what he wants, I found it very refreshing and inspiring to work in that context. As far as studio, we had no interaction with them during the creative part of it, and post finishing the film they've been... I'm coming from the record business where it feels like everybody is the stupidest person you've ever met, and this was a very refreshing experience. I'm sure it's not the norm, but the studio came down to me and said 'do you want to put the record out, it seems like you guys know what you're doing.'
It's interesting that your soundtrack, the work from Cave and Ellis, and British Sea Power's Man of Aran can all be listened to as albums in their own rights. Was that a deliberate intention?
AR: It's funny that you mention those three because we all come from making records. In this case, we went back, and we'd done the score for the film that was the best we could do. We wanted to make the record the best we could in terms of a listening experience. So we went back and extended versions, added parts, just tried to tweak the record to be as much like a record as we could while still being faithful to the film.
TR: We thought we'd write some impressions of what we thought would fit this film. We tried to emotionally get behind the scenes of what Fincher is trying to create, and to make them into pieces of music. Those were originally three to six minute long chunks that worked in the format, we started inserting them into the picture and then started working in the more traditional sense of fitting things around dialogue, still trying to maintain some form of musicality when frames disappear in the editing process. When we finished Atticus and I went back and listened and found we pretty much had a listenable album, and I'm pleased with the way that the soundtrack as an album came out.
AF: There are a couple of things on it that were inspired by the film in those original writing sessions but didn't actually end up in the film, and we felt that would be an appropriate place for them to live.
What equipment were you using? There are some nice old sounds on there
TR: I've always fancied myself as a synth guy, but then my infatuation with plugins and everything being digital has given way now to the realisation that an old or new modular synth plugged into things... psychologically the knowledge that you're making a sound that's going to be gone next time you bump a nob or tweak something makes you treat the sound and the instrument a little bit differently. You can also start treating it like a performance, which we've started doing on the last few albums, and the result of that on your own creativity is that you can get records or pieces of music that sound like there is humanity in them, via imperfections or things not being quite in tune, or a little distortion, whatever it might be. For the aesthetic we were trying to achieve for this record David gave us the reference that he wanted something synthetic sounding, he referenced some of the iconic work of Tangerine Dream, or Bladerunner, but we thought we can use that as the scenery and stage for this, but let's add some imperfection to this, because through the film Zuckerberg is a very imperfect character. His noble traits would be his pursuit of inspiration, and his willingness to put all things aside in order to pursue this thing that is bigger than himself, but there are casualties of that.
Trent, you were a famous consumer of social media. Did that have an impact?
TR: Honestly, not really. I have a knowledge of what is going on in that world which I think is good to have. When I think of this film I don't think it's about Facebook, it's about the process of creativity, ironically in this case somebody who can't communicate building a tool that helps people communicate. Any lessons I've learned in social media â€“ which is generally avoid it â€“ didn't apply to this.
How much did your love of industrial music, especially the cinematic work of Coil, work as an influence?
TR: I can't say consciously we said let's pull from that, but I know subconsciously I have always pulled from those sources you've named. Atticus and I both share the same aesthetic, and that's what drew us together initially, where we treat the arrangement of music as the creation of a sculpture, and it doesn't matter what's making the sound, it's a sonic collage. For me personally I can cite Coil as a group who could create a space that just felt uncomfortable, more in line with a David Lynch music than pop music. It wasn't afraid to use noise or found things or elements of conversation happening while the music is playing to put you the listener in a place that feels like what they're wanting it to be. I definitely learned that from them.
How will this impact your next How To Destroy Angels record?
AR: "It's funny because we were talking about directions for [the How To Destroy Angels] record because it was something that I brought up. It was so much fun doing the soundtrack, and I think it challenged us in ways that we had in us, but weren't at the forefront of one's mind. There are no clear plans for what the sound of that record will be born out of is experimentation, which is what we're working on at the moment. But I love the idea that some of the expansiveness and I'm really proud of how the film and the album came out. The idea of including some of those lessons seems entirely appropriate to me."
TR: What I took out of this process was... my life has revolved around music, and I knew that this is what I wanted to do, or some variation of this, from my earliest memory. I liked playing music, I related to it, it is the soundtrack to everything I have done, and every memory has music associated with it, but being in a band and being in the music business and getting older, I can't tell you how many times I've realised that some of the magic has gone, that I've become cynical or jaded, or felt that the climate for making music beats you down. Watching how the music we made transformed this film from the rough cut we saw, which had no music, when the film felt a certain way, to seeing this whole different impression of the film come out.
At first, the film felt comfortable and familiar, college kids doing their thing, fucking people over, but when we put 'Hand Covers Bruise' in there it felt completely different. It felt that there was something going on under the surface, it felt that there was a frailty and vulnerability to it, and I was blown away at how music could do that. "I knew it could, but I hadn't been involved in putting the ingredients together and making it happen. It seemed to make people respond positively to the film and our work in it, and it has felt flattering, it has felt good, it has felt energising and I get goosebumps when I think about it. It was a nice charge that I needed â€“ music is a powerful thing, and sometimes I forget that in my day job. It has been a great inspiration and I'm sure it'll transfer into what we'll do next, because it feels as if we've been recharged now."