Awards

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross Talk Double Oscar Nomination: 'Surreal and Humbling'

Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Corinne Schiavone

(L-R) Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

By now, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross should be getting use to their names being called in the score category when awards season rolls around. The pair -- who won an Academy Award in 2011 for their pulse-pounding work on David Fincher's The Social Network -- saw their names in the mix not once but twice on Monday (March 15) when the nominations for the upcoming Oscars were announced.

The longtime musical compatriots earned a bid in the best original score category for their classic jazz-age music for frequent collaborator David Fincher's Mank, as well as their lighter touch in the music for Pixar's sentimental Soul.

In addition to tearing up stages with their day job -- during non-COVID times, of course -- the duo have developed a reputation for spinning gold when they get to scoring, including a Grammy for their music from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2012, a 2020 Emmy for their score to the HBO series Watchmen, a best original score Golden Globe for The Social Network and another one just this year for Soul.

Billboard hopped on the phone with the pair on Monday to get their reaction to the double Oscar nomination and to find out why this year's awards season has had 100% less angst than their first one nearly a decade ago.

First things first: How does it feel to get two Oscar nominations on the same day?

Reznor: It's surreal and humbling and incredibly flattering -- another thing that kind of doesn't seem real in a year when everything starts to blur together. But we're very grateful.

Ross: It's very flattering.

You two are the first to do that since Alexandre Desplat did it six years ago, and he described it as like "being hit twice in the head." John Williams has also pulled it off, so what's it feel like to achieve this very rare feat?

Reznor: We haven't had time to fully process what's happening. When we work on a project, much like when we're siting down to write a song for NIN -- we aren't really thinking about writing something we really hope charts. We're just trying to make the best song we can write ... we'll deal with the consequences of that later.

When we're working on a film, we put a lot of thought into trying to make the right choice as to what film that we're offered that we should pursue. And it comes down to "Who would we like to intensely have a relationship with for the next six months to two years and learn from?" We try to find camps that really seem interesting and we can learn from and be inspired from. Then you get into the world, you immerse yourself in it, and lose track of time and try to do the best work we can.

You've obviously developed a shorthand with Fincher after multiple projects -- you seem to have figured out a relationship that's in the vein of Spielberg and Williams and Hitchcock and Hermann. What keeps you coming back?

Ross: To my mind, he's one of the greatest living directors, and when I first met David, I was incredibly intimidated by him partly because his vocabulary is so wide ranging. But every experience has been like a journey that I will always remember. And I can't stress enough how rewarding each experience has been.

Mank was obviously different in the sense that it was period. So we came out of Soul, which is obviously a more synthetic score, straight into Mank. At the time we weren't consciously thinking, "Oh, this one has synths and this one has orchestra." We were just thinking, "What is the best way to support this story and convey the message?"

Looking back now, what's most interesting is how radically different those two scores are. But in terms of David and the whole team, it feels great to get the call, "Hey, I'm doing a film if you guys want to work on it." They've been some of the most fulfilling, creative experiences of my life.

Trent, you've obviously developed a symbiotic relationship with Atticus, but what is it like when you -- a prince of musical darkness by reputation -- are tapped to work on a Pixar movie with someone like Jon Batiste? And how do you integrate his bright and shiny vibe into the world you have built over the decades?

Reznor: What we've discovered with the privilege of working on films -- which started with Fincher 10-plus years ago -- what attracted us to that was the challenge. Here's something we're not sure we know how to do.

To chime in on what Atticus was saying about Fincher, David represents excellence. I don't mean perfection, but excellence, and that excellence is intoxicating and it's infectious. And that's what we respond to -- we aim for that, the best we can do. Not the perfect thing, but what's the best we can do? We get excited about putting everything into something, and film became another avenue where we could do that. It felt like it was drawing from our skill set we've nurtured in this other lane, but having new challenges and scenarios to see what we can do with that thing we learned how to do.

As we got a little more confident over the years, the idea was, "What would be interesting to try?" And Pixar was on that list of dream collaborators. Why? Because we just love Pixar. There's a humanity and a greatness to them that's several notches above ... I won't even limit it to animation, there's just a quality that always appealed to us. We thought if the right thing came along that we could do, hell yeah we'd like to see how those guys work! What could we learn from them in that intense filmmaking experience? Somehow the planets lined up and we got the invite and had the experience of not only working with, but being welcomed into that camp and that culture and becoming  friends with those guys, which lived up to the impossible expectations we placed on them in our own heads.

What about working with Jon?

Reznor: With Jon Batiste ... we got involved real early on, a couple of years ago, and a lot of talk about things about what the planes might sound like. There was talk from the beginning of who might be the right person to come for the jazz-oriented material.

Not long after we got involved, Jon's name came up and we thought that was a great idea. We met Jon and were just taken aback by what a warm, inviting kind of personality he was. We hadn't met or been in the studio and heard him play or engaged with him on a musical level, but we knew we liked him right off the bat. After we discussed how we'd work together, it really amounted to "We're working on one chunk of the film and he's working on another, but let's make sure we keep each other abreast of every development and share our homework and see what inspires or informs the other." There were a few key places where our worlds intersect, so let's come up with a plan of how we can strategically try this out and see how it works.

When we did get in the studio, it became crystal clear that he's not just a great player, but he has that thing that great musicians have ... he understands without words. "Here's a piece we're working on ... 'yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.'" And he sits down and is someone who's in the right key and has every note figured out. And, there, it's become better and you can hear his experience coming through on the notes he's playing. That's the magic of music, and that was great to witness and I'm proud and grateful for the experience and proud to call him a friend.

Is there any part of that Big Black-loving punk from Cleveland who still can't believe that he's somehow glided into this improbable second act? Or does the trajectory make perfect sense, going from destroying keyboards to making space for a potential Oscar thanks to a Pixar movie score?

Reznor: I look at it like ... and I'm not objective, I'm stuck in my own head and my own experience ... but it's the same thing. NIN was me being as true as I could be, a set of emotions and feelings that I experienced and needed to exorcise in some fashion. And it remains that thing.

When we tried working on film, it was really understanding how to mine that same territory. It might be a different set of emotions that one is reacting to, but it's the same process, the same strategy. It came after some brief experimentations of thinking about, "OK, how do you score a film? You need a theme." Which led to some bulls--t that sounded like bulls--t. It was quickly figuring out, "No, this is what we do and I wonder if we can adapt that, modify it and use that same skill set mining from a different fertile ground?" I'm also not the same person emotionally that I was 30 years ago. Gratefully.

That merging of the world you talk about is really obvious on the Soul score. It's you bringing your experience to this different realm. On tracks like "Epiphany" and "The Great Beyond" there is a, pardon the tired cliché, darkness that you add that doesn't sound like typical animation music while also having strains of some of your instrumental NIN work.

Reznor: Yeah, I hear it. [laughs]

Whatever the Oscars look like this year, if you pick up a second best score Oscar, what will that mean to you?

Ross: It's so weird, all this stuff. It is incredibly flattering and humbling, but it's strange because when one's making music the way we do, like Trent mentioned, it's really just about doing what's best for the film and trying to convey the emotion that will support the storytelling. One's never thinking about the awards. So to find oneself here is pretty psychedelic, especially after this year. The whole year has felt like an acid trip, some very bad bits and some very good bits and this has been the very good bits and if we won that would be the peak of the trip, as it were.

Reznor: We want to be do the best we can and we're also competitive people, so, sure, it would be nice to win. Quite honestly, [with] the recognition, we feel like we've exceeded our expectations today. I'm in my office and I can see an Oscar sitting on the shelf, and that's nice.

But when I see that, what I remember is sweating profusely in those tiny seats in the theater wondering if our names are going be called, and when it does [thinking]: "Don't throw up, stand up, kiss wife, don't trip on that cord, don't fall, please don't fall! Nicole Kidman is 25 feet tall!" And a host of other experiences like that, the terror of the red carpet, weeks of anxiety leading up to the experience.

All of that hasn't happened this year. We've had a pretty spectacular awards-oriented year: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Emmys. But all of it feels like a blur, like a dream that might have happened because there isn't any of those things. There have been a couple Zoom calls, writing emails, a couple phone calls, there wasn't any weird tuxedo pictures, none of that stuff happened. We've been in this weird state of suspended animation. I'm missing the experience of the year, and at the same time, I'm very grateful to be recognized by my peers.

The Oscars air live on Sunday, April 25, at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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