This profile of “The Social Network” composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross was originally published in late 2010. The duo have since gone on to garner an Oscar nomination for best original score.
In David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” the music is a character just as much as Mark Zuckerberg is. From the moment Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ hynoptic score first appears over the opening credits, the film’s tone is unmistakably set, and continues to be set time and time again as Reznor and Ross weave their provocative electronic voices through Fincher’s vision. It is a considerable piece in a cinematic puzzle that has been winning a remarkable amount of accolades recently, including a Los Angeles Critics Association Award and a Golden Globe nomination for Reznor and Ross’s contribution.
At the Golden Globes, Reznor and Ross find themselves competing against the likes of Danny Elfman (“Alice in Wonderland”), Alexandre Desplat (“The King’s Speech”) and Hans Zimmer (“Inception”), big names in a world that neither Reznor nor Ross are dominantly associated with. Ross had his debut as a feature film composer with the Hughes Brothers’ “The Book of Eli” (released earlier this year), while Reznor had yet to score a film, and clearly is best known as the icon of industrial rock behind the band Nine Inch Nails. Reznor and Ross have been working together for some time, with Ross credited as a producer and/or programmer on four Nine Inch Nails albums, and as well a founding member in Reznor’s new band How To Destroy Angels (alongside Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig).
“What we bring into this situation is a kind of knowledge of various processes of writing and arranging,” Reznor told indieWIRE of his relationship with Ross. “We learned that we not only have a strong friendship and enjoy working together but it also yields results pretty quickly because we can finish each other’s sentences and our skill sets are pretty complimentary.”
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As for how the two came to be part of “The Social Network,” that all began via Reznor’s relationship with David Fincher, who he had known for quite some time. Fincher had directed a Nine Inch Nails video (2005’s “Only”), Reznor’s music can be found over the opening credits of Fincher’s “Seven,” and at one point the two had actually discussed working together on a musical version of “Fight Club.” When Fincher approached Reznor late last year to take on “The Social Network,” it seemed like a perfect opportunity to Reznor – except for its unfortunate timing.
“The idea of scoring a film was something that had always been very appealing to me but I’d never set aside time to do it,” Reznor explained. “And when David came to me with this, I was about to take an indefinite break, and I’d just got married. I read the script – which I thought was excellent – but reluctantly passed, only because I didn’t feel like I was in full speed. I just got off a long wave of touring and that part of the creative side of my brain is more execution than creation and it usually takes a while to switch back into getting those creative juices flowing. It just came at a point when I really felt insecure about the process, and I’d promised myself some time off. So I said ‘I’m afraid I have to pass. It’s certainly not you, and it’s certainly not the material. I just have to learn to say no once in a while. I can’t allow myself to get into something that’s very disciplinary.'”
A couple of months later, Reznor and Ross had together set aside all of 2010 to work on various projects. But it had been nagging Reznor that he’d declined Fincher’s offer.
“I’d think about it all the time,” he said.
So Reznor got back in touch with Fincher to reiterate his reasoning for turning down the project and to suggest they should work together in the future.
“Well, I’m still hoping you’ll do ‘Social Network,'” Fincher told him.
Reznor decided to go to Ross, who had just scored the Hughes Brothers’ “Book of Eli,” and asked what he thought about taking it on together.
“We’d started a creative momentum, me and Atticus,” Reznor said. “We’d worked on the How The Destroy Angels EP and things really took off. I didn’t want to mess that up or jeopardize that but you can’t always predict when the planets are going to align and we were in a real flow.”
Ross was into the idea, and Fincher showed them 40 minutes of the film (which appropriately enough used Nine Inch Nails’ “Ghosts” project as temp music). From there, the duo immediately started putting together what would become “The Social Network”‘s score.
“On that early viewing there was some also temp music that was sort of this college rock-y type music in,” Ross said. “And in that familiar setting, that type of music casts a very different light over the film. And I know I speak for both us when I say that the real turning moment was when we came back from that viewing and starting talking and thinking and generating ideas that seemed appropriate.”
“[What David showed us] was enough for us to get an idea of the pacing and have some sort of visual to go with what we knew was the script,” Reznor explained. “So we went off to our studio and just blindly spent a few weeks generating music that was not to picture and it wasn’t scene-specific. It was just things that we thought felt like it was in the right emotional tone of what David wanted for this picture. And we took direction from David in terms of the overall style. He said he wanted something that wasn’t orchestral, but instead something electronic-based. He referenced iconic scores like ‘Blade Runner’ as well as the work of Tangerine Dream. Things like that. So we really set about to try and come up with some things that felt like they were in the right emotional world.”
Reznor and Ross sent Fincher what resulted with a note saying “these may or may not be in the right world… let us know.” Fincher had very little criticism about what he heard.
“What we had showed him,” Reznor said, “tended to come from us not overthink the process. We’d set up the parameter of how we’re going to work and what instruments we’re going to us. We tried to create a world through limiting ourselves to using just this gear or these instruments or this type of voicing. And some of the things, we’d think, well, let’s remember what film we’re writing this for. It’s not asteroids destroying the Earth, which a couple of the pieces could have been the soundtrack for… Very tense, dissonant clusters of sound.”
Fincher put together a quick edit to show some people at the studio using some of music Reznor and Ross had created, including “Hand Covers Bruise,” the track that plays over the film’s opening credits.
“It was amazing,” Reznor said, specifically regarding “Bruise,” which had been placed over the credits even in that early edit. “Because neither of us thought that track would be in that place. And putting it up there was a real testament to Fincher’s vision and the way he was approaching this, and it really educated us to the parameters of this thing. It was a goosebumpy moment.”
“It all speaks to David Fincher,” Ross added. “Having a director that’s brave enough to play the music as a character. With ‘Hand Covers Bruise,’ specifically, when we were writing that there were questions brought up between us like ‘is this going too far?’ But then when you see that placed over the titles and see the emotional – and also filmic – place it puts you in. You come out of this familiar setting of a bar with all this very clever dialogue and then suddenly there’s that first noise and you think as a viewer ‘actually, I don’t know where I am right now.'”
Reznor said the experience of seeing “Bruise” over the titles made him realize that he and Ross had much more power in creating the narrative of the film then they had initially thought.
“All of a sudden it was like, we have a real say in how this thing goes,” Reznor said. “It’s not just background music. We can really help manipulate the viewer into emotionally responding in ways that we – and David – think are appropriate.”
Reznor and Ross said that with Fincher, there was a mass amount of respect that was reciprocal between them all
“We’d see what comes back from David – and it wasn’t always ‘yes,'” Reznor said. “But it was always better. It was like ‘okay, he is looking at this in a more macro way than we are, and it is better that way. So that process continued throughout the whole thing. It was a real education with the best teachers I can imagine in a very artist friendly environment with studio support and no interference to speak of. It was just a really incredible experience from start to finish.”
Just like Ross and Reznor’s score itself.