Oscar Winner Atticus Ross on the Challenges of Scoring John Hillcoat's 'Triple 9'

Atticus Ross
Courtesy Photo

Atticus Ross

John Hillcoat’s latest film Triple 9, opening Feb. 26 in theaters, is a dark, taut drama that pits one good Atlanta cop (Casey Affleck) against corrupt members of his own force (Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr.) and a fierce Russian mob leader (Kate Winslet), as he attempts to unspool a series of high-level heists.

For the film, Australian director Hillcoat, best known for The Road and Lawless, wanted a provocative, edgy, electronic score, so he turned to Atticus Ross, the Oscar-winning composer of The Social Network.

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Instead of working with his Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo partner Trent Reznor, Ross, 48, collaborated with his wife Claudia Sarne, brother Leopold Ross and and Robert Krlic on the tension-filled, intense score. He talked to Billboard about the challenges of composing for Triple 9, getting his young kids in on the act, working with director David Fincher, and, as Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony looms, if he was disappointed that his score for Love & Mercy was deemed ineligible for Oscar contention. (We asked, but he wouldn’t reveal whom he voted for for best original score.)

How did you approach this score, especially given that you knew that John had previously worked with Nick Cave for his movies? 

John had this early idea that it would be a very electronic score and a kind of unsophisticated one in the sense [that] not everything [would be] fixed and made perfect in Pro Tools -- like this performance piece but with synthesizers. He said no piano, no strings, and obviously they were hallmarks of some of the earlier films. That’s why he, I think, came knocking. He also had this idea that there should be a saxophone for some unknown reason.

Did you ever figure out why? 

He’s obsessed with Coltrane. On the album, you can hear the saxophone just fine; I was just a little disappointed it wasn’t a bit louder in the film after all the effort. That was the basic landscape -- something that felt oppressive, electronic, uncomfortable and had a saxophone.

Speaking of uncomfortable, you’ve said you do better work when you feel more uncomfortable. Were you unsettled through this process?

I feel like I do better work when there’s a real challenge. An easier example is Love & Mercy, where it was having all the tapes to Brian [Wilson]’s work, and [it] freaked me out because he’s an iconic guy and how are we going to sample all this stuff and make it not sound terrible? With John, coming up with the basic landscape and some of the ideas wasn’t too hard. The challenge on the film was more to do with when you have an ensemble piece like that, you need to understand the relationships early on.

Was that hard to do here? 

With Triple 9. it took an awful long time to get this story right. Scenes were changing, reshoots were happening right up until [the end]. The last scene of Woody [Harrelson] in the car was flown in on the last day of [John’s] mix. So there was, more so than in other cases, a shifting palate, if you like, in terms of the story. Keeping up with that in musical terms certainly kept me on my feet. 

So you were writing all along and not to a locked picture or close to final edit?

There was no locked, really, except maybe for two hours. [Laughs] In an ideal world, I like to be working from the script from the very start. That’s what Trent and I follow together, apart from The Social Network, which had already been shot. Generally, we start with the script and with the movie in our heads. What you are doing is creating a world much like that director and cinematographer and everybody on set is. My favorite scores are ones where you really feel like, [whether it’s] Taxi Driver, Blade Runner or Twin Peaks, you’re entering a world and you know you’re in that place.

If you start that early, it means you never have to compete with the temporary score that a director puts in place until the real score is done.

I f---ing hate temp. I understand the purpose of it, but you’ve just muddied the water in my opinion. If there is a temp, I usually just switch it off and never listen to it.

I feel like in the right scenario, music can be as much of the DNA of the film as the lead actor’s performance or the production design or the directing. What it shouldn’t be -- and what it often is, in my humble opinion -- is a splash of paint on the walls after the house is built. That line I stole from David Fincher. That’s how he described it.

You worked with your wife and your brother on this, as well as Robert Krlic, an electronic artist who goes by The Haxan Cloak. How did that come about? 

He’s a good friend and he’s been really wanting to do film stuff, so I said, "Why don’t you take the Russian story [line]," because that felt like it could have its own thing. I don’t think anyone would really notice you’re jumping from one person to another. I love my family and I love making music, and those are the two things that basically all my time is spent doing.

Compare working with John with working with David Fincher.

With David, we’re given complete latitude. He’s always present because we work using this program on the Internet, so we can  always be in contact. He’ll have some ideas in the beginning. His respect and understanding of the music and the role that it plays has just been incredible. Generally on the Fincher films -- on Gone Girl, for instance -- the first time we sat down and saw a rough cut was three weeks before the end of shooting. It was basically the film with a few scenes missing. With Triple 9, there was so much work in terms of finding this story. John has the same respect for music, but it may be a very different process because the landscape of the film was constantly shifting, so musical concepts have to be rethought at times.

The red-band trailer features your remix of Cypress Hill’s “Pigs.” How did that come about? 

John and I sat down and I was like, “I’m so sick of trailers that tell the story of the film. Let’s do something that’s impressionistic rather than detail-oriented.” I love that trailer. That’s my kids singing “This Little Piggy.” I think they were 8 and 4 at the time. [They] didn’t see the film. John and I mixed it at my studios. It was great. I’m at an age where I can remember Cypress Hill’s [1991] album [with “Pigs”] coming out and how important it was to me.

The Oscars are Sunday. Your score for Love & Mercy was deemed ineligible because you incorporated some of Brian Wilson’s existing music. Thoughts?

There’s a thing on the Oscar form that says no piece of music has been released before, or words to that effect. But I wouldn’t have done the film unless Brian had been so generous to hand over the tapes, because I couldn’t see another way of communicating his mental state without being able to do this kind of hybrid score and this sampling of his own work, because we want to be inside his head in 1964. It’s not like I thought about it for more than one second -- “That’s going to make it ineligible for any awards” -- but I’m not doing it for the awards. I’m happy to have some awards, but my motivating force is to do something I feel proud of.

What do you have coming up? 

Trent and I always do a day a week together. I can’t be more specific [on what], because there’s a lot of different things and they will be revealed during the year. The next thing for me that’s coming out is [paranormal drama] Outcast on [Cinemax]. It’s a Robert Kirkman [who created The Walking Dead] show, and it doesn’t have any zombies in it, but I’m really happy with the way the music’s come out on that. They’re going to play the pilot at SXSW, so we’ll see what people think. I find myself disturbed by it, and I think I have a fairly high tolerance for being disturbed.

Oscars 2016