Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross' Billboard/THR Film & TV Conference Keynote Q&A: Watch Highlights

Atticus Ross, composer, and Trent Reznor, composer, with Shirley Halperin
Arnold Turner

Atticus Ross, composer, and Trent Reznor, composer, with Shirley Halperin, Music Editor, Billboard + The Hollywood Reporter at the Billboard & The Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference 2014 on Nov. 5 2014.

'Darkness has been my energy,' Reznor says of his film collaborations with David Fincher.

"There is no smiling in my head," joked notoriously dark musician Trent Reznor at Wednesday's keynote panel at the Billboard and Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference. His lighthearted response came after the issue of how he deals with his darkness and if he could ever create a more lighthearted score.

Later, however, he did admit that "darkness has been my energy."

Reznor along with collaborator Atticus Ross outlined their working methods composing the thrilling score to director David Fincher's new film Gone Girl. As interviewer Shirley Halperin, Billboard music editor, pointed out, this is Reznor and Ross' third film with Fincher and the director's most successful to date, following their team efforts on Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2011 and 2010's The Social Network, for which Reznor and Ross won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.

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Reznor explained their process of working with the acclaimed director: In the early stages, they familiarize themselves with the material; then they discuss with Fincher what role music is going to have in the film; and then they "decode" what he's trying to convey. From there, Reznor and Fincher go into a sort of isolation, he said, creating music without editorial input, just composing "from guts." They'll then bring that material to Fincher to get a better read of whether the "drama meter," as Reznor called it, should be "hovering at 3, or can it go to 11?"

"Our role is to help realize his vision the best we can," Reznor said. 

Ross elaborated on their roles as composers with music playing a crucial role in Fincher's films, saying it's not like the director is building a house and then asks them to "splash some paint on the walls. It's much more of building the house from the ground up."

Creating the Gone Girl score was a far different experience for Reznor and Ross than their previous work, in part because they were forced due to unforeseen circumstances to work while Reznor toured with Nine Inch Nails. Unlike the nonstop workflow that led them from The Social Network to Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to Reznor's How to Destroy Angels project and then Nine Inch Nails previously, creating this score was less intensely focused and instead came in bursts when Reznor's schedule permitted it. In this case, they said, the situation allowed them to have more perspective and come to the material with a fresh perspective rather than getting "stuck in the weeds."

Speaking to his own insecurities, Reznor said composing scores after three films hasn't gotten any easier. Though he enjoys it, he spoke of having a feeling of "am I working hard enough at it?" And on The Social Network, he said, the score's "undercurrent of terror" came from his own nervousness of scoring his first film, adding, "I didn't want to screw up his movie."

On Gone Girl, their focus was to create a tone to the film of false sincerity, almost designed as muzak, posing the question, "How do you make bad music sound good?"

"It's easy to make bad music in general," Reznor joked, saying the idea "set the tone of how the project would feel different. But it was a good starting point."

With Halperin, Reznor and Ross reviewed clips from Gone Girl and discussed the thought, inspiration and creative process behind scoring specific scenes in the film, often implementing what they called a "false facade" that would hit at a relationship seemingly in good shape but souring on the inside. Sometimes that would be in simple production techniques, but more often than not, it would mean tuning and using almost unnatural sounds such as an incinerator's whirr, an artificial heartbeat thump or other looping sounds that aren't quite repetitive and would refuse viewers' minds the sort of resolution we are typically accustomed to hearing. 

Though Reznor has only so far scored films by Fincher, he said he is not opposed to working with other directors, but his standards have been set high now.

"I'm open to any possibility," he said. "Scoring for film kind of came up unexpectedly. It was always something I'd been interested in and it was really a great experience and I've learned a lot. Naturally, I think I should do more of that. Deeply thinking about it, I've had such a good time working with David, I do think I'm spoiled. ... It's collaborative, respectful and inspiring because this guy and his team, they're on it. ... There's a pursuit and dedication to uncompromised excellence."