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Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross Discuss ‘Gone Girl,’ David Fincher & Making Something Subversive For The Masses

Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross Discuss ‘Gone Girl,’ David Fincher & Making Something Subversive For The Masses

The score to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ “Gone Girlsoundtrack has a Trojan horse effect. During the movie, it’s impossible to miss: sinister, slithering, gauzy and throbbing with the ominous tones that have made Reznor and Ross filmmaker David Fincher’s go-to composers for his last three movies. But on subsequent listens to the “Gone Girl” soundtrack outside the context of the film, what brilliantly unfolds is the composers’ own arch narrative and commentary on the brilliantly textured movie. It’s disquieting of course, but in spots it’s also disarmingly warm and fuzzy in a devilishly ironic way (see the track “Sugar Storm”). Functioning as its own form of unreliable narrator, it features cues of misdirection, and features hilariously straight-faced piano sonnets that sound like Reznor, Ross and Fincher having a laugh (see the mid-section of “Just Like You” which sounds like a bit like a sardonic version of Erik Satie). Throughout, the music is like a subtle tour guide that helps you question all the characters’ motives.

Two words that came up often during our conversation with Reznor and Finch regarding Fincher were “uncompromising” and “generous.” It’s clear the filmmaker knows exactly what he wants but has pretty soft, non-dictatorial way of getting there. “David has a lot of disclaimers that are now pretty amusing to us,” Reznor laughed. “It’s like ‘hey, this might be a terrible idea, but…’ but it’s his generous way of gently pointing you in a certain direction. It’s often a great clue of what he’s thinking and what feeling or picture he has in his head.”

Already nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Score, Reznor and Ross already won the scoring Academy Award for Fincher’s “The Social Network” in 2009, and they seem poised to repeat that awards-season success once again. Far from dark, brooding miserablists, I found Reznor and Ross to be self-deprecating, humble, wry and even a little cheeky. Here’s highlights from our recent conversation in a noisy New York hotel restaurant.

Their Process Isn’t Efficient But It Works For Them
“Our approach is entirely backwards and far too time-consuming,” Reznor said of their exploratory methodology to creating their soundtrack work. “And as such it’s not very lucrative.” The composers said they often work up to a year in advance on the scores after speaking to Fincher about the basic idea, and then hone in much later like an “enhance!” computer camera. “David is very generous with us. He’s unbelievably trusting,” Reznor said. “On most of the movies we’ve scored for him, we start to discuss in some broad terms what his idea and approach is, and then we go away often for several months to go down our discovery path. Then as production begins, he starts to show us edits and cuts and we start taking ideas, recomposing and refining them to the picture in a more traditional manner. It keeps evolving and growing, starting broad and then going minute, but still very much based on what we conceived.”

Fincher’s precision extends to every avenue of filmmaking including the music.
The process becomes more exacting as the picture takes shape. Frames are tweaked on edits, and pieces of music are adjusted accordingly. Crescendos, waves and beats are meticulously planned so when Fincher and his editing team —editor Kirk Baxter and sound designer Ren Klyce— change the rhythm of a scene ever so slightly, the music changes as well. “It could seem a bit maddening at first,” Ross said. “A scene gets cut a few frames here and there, but there’s a cumulative effect to it and then the music needs to be reworked. It’s demanding, but when you see the improved cuts, it’s always better.”

How The Social Network score was totally transformed by one small moment.
Reznor and Ross said when they first began working on “The Social Network” score, they were apprehensive and unsure of themselves, particularly Reznor who had never scored a film before. The duo related how Fincher’s Facebook drama opened with a Elvis Costello song [“Beyond Belief”] as a placeholder— something they would never dream of writing. Did Fincher want that? Were they supposed to compose something similar? The duo went away a little unnerved, but started creation on what became their score. But a eureka moment emerged early on. As they handed in a piece of music for consideration, Fincher and his editors took the now-famous “Hand Covers Bruise” track —not originally intended for that sequence— and situated it atop the opening scene of the movie which tracks Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg character as he walks across campus. “That changed everything. It was revelatory,” Reznor said. “The movie came alive, the scene came alive, and we were awed. And then we started to go down that rabbit hole and push and hone in on those ideas.”

It was Fincher’s unorthodox approach that gave the pair the self-confidence to keep pushing forward. “We had a bit of panic about it all at first, to be honest. I think we were pretty conservative at first,” Reznor admitted. “But when we saw [that scene] and what they had done with it with our music, it was like ‘you can do that?’ It gave us a sense that there were no rules.”

“It quickly became clear that David was up for anything,” Ross said. “The sky was the limit. No idea was a bad one, and all of the out-there, seemingly risky ideas were the ones that David was fearlessly receptive to. It was a wonderful way to work.”

“He definitely created a safe, nurturing environment that’s extremely collaborative,” Reznor added. “If there were nervous studio chiefs giving anxious notes about what we were doing, we were totally oblivious to them. We were just able to create and express ourselves in a highly creative incubator.”

Fincher knows when to be hands-on and when to give breathing room.
The composers both marveled at what they now realize was Fincher’s plan all along. “He’s extremely charitable. And in retrospect, he’s really smart about how he kid-gloved us,” Reznor explained. “At first, he was almost a bit vague. We had to pick David’s brain, so as to extract clues of what he might want, like what kind of instrumentation was appropriate. And we realized much, much later on, maybe even during other films down the road, that he’s intentionally giving you room to explore, and he doesn’t want to place too many pre-conceived ideas on you. Then when you’ve come around to something and he’s looked at a it through his perspective, he can understand it, tilt it ever so slightly and say, ‘ok, so take this and now just bend just a little this way…’ and then the process begins to take shape.”

“Yeah, very much so,” Ross concurred. “It’s intuitive too. It’s like he’s laying clues and breadcrumb trails on where he might want us to go and giving us some general themes and ideas he wants to explore, but it’s a vast room rather than a little box to play in.”

“Gone Girl” features Ross and Reznor’s version of cheesy muzak, and they’re ok with that.
“David’s obviously talked about that in the past —the ‘spa music,’ or like New Age-y fromage music he heard when getting his back adjusted or something, and it’s a terrifically original starting point that we would have never thought of,” Reznor said. “So composing our version of that feeling, which can be corny and as you said slyly amusing, that’s a lot of fun. We weren’t afraid of making ourselves sound a little silly if that’s what the scene or David demanded,” Reznor explained. “It’s a good challenge.”

The subversive and layered texture of the score.
I can’t remember the last time a film score has had this much duality and layers: music that’s soft, gauzy and dreamy but also wickedly sarcastic. I gushed about that aspect of the score, but both were quick to deflect the complement towards Fincher. “Well, thanks,” Reznor said. “But a lot of that comes from David’s ideas on the material, like the layers of pretense and perspective that each character has. I think insincerity became one of the important feelings we had to capture. It’s true: you don’t see or hear that a lot in movies these days, not the least of which are big-budget mainstream projects.

The movie’s now-infamous murder scene (semi-spoilers).
If you’ve seen “Gone Girl” by now, and we assume you have (spoiler alerts, obviously), you know that one of the most talked-about moments in the film is the crescendoing murder scene where Rosamund Pike lures Neil Patrick Harris’ character into a black-widow-like trap. It is shocking, brutal and visceral, perhaps one of the greatest ever marriages of music and visuals to murder, and as such brings to mind to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Wickedly titled “Consummation,” the score piece is blistering and throbbing. “That was really great, because we really drew outside the lines there and tried to go with our gut,” Reznor said. “We did several versions, some a little bit tamer than the most challenging version and David instantly gravitated to the most extreme version of the music we made. He was like, ‘that’s the one.’ And it was inspiring and heartening to see him incline toward the extreme, because it reminds us how fruitful this collaboration is.”

The joys of making something so subversive for mainstream audiences.
“Gone Girl” has been a global, R-Rated adult hit that features cunnilingus, the notions of relationship decay, the fallacy of trust and the lies and masks we wear for our better halves —it’s engineered to get couples talking. Both composers take a lot of pride in being part of something so intelligent and subversive. “The arthouse is great. I love those movies, but there’s something amazing about bringing a movie this nasty and dark to the masses,” Ross said. “It’s a testament to David, who is uncompromising and doesn’t dilute his work for anyone. We’re very fortunate to be part of this team which can work within the studio system but brings challenging material to mainstream audiences. It renews your faith that it’s possible.”

Why Trent Reznor hadn’t got into scoring sooner or worked with David Fincher earlier.
It’s a wonder Fincher and Reznor hadn’t worked together sooner (Ross had been scoring movies on his own for a few years prior to “The Social Network,” Reznor’s official film scoring debut). Mutual admirers for several years, Fincher used Nine Inch Nails famously in the opening credits of “Seven” and then directed the video for “Only” in 2005, but their courtship didn’t take off until several years later.

“We met on the set of “The Perfect Drug,” the Mark Romanek video he directed for us,” Reznor explained. “I’d always loved his films, his look and aesthetic…” he trailed off. “I was a big drunk in the ‘90s before I got married,” Reznor laughed, clunking his wedding ring on the table. Right on cue, amusingly, a crashing sound came from the kitchen, Ross and Reznor shared a laugh and he smiled and Reznor said “yeah, a bit like that.”

There’s potentially more “Gone Girl” music left to release.
“Everything you hear on the [soundtrack] album is like the long form version of what’s maybe a few seconds of a snippet in the movie,” Ross said. “Then the album version is like the extended piece that goes on for five or six minutes, but you don’t always get that entire flavor in the movie.”

“We have more music too, don’t we,” Reznor said. Are they planning to release it? The men flashed a look at each other, as if to say “maybe?” “Why did we bring that up again?” with a grin.

Their favorite score of the year.
Asked about their favorite scores of the year, the pair said they were still catching up with 2014’s movies, but they both loved Alejandro Innaritu’s “Birdman” and the drum solo score by Antonio Sanchez. “That movie is brilliant,” Ross said. “The score is tremendous.” Reznor added. “A drum score that can evoke humor, feeling, scatterbrained intense feelings all through just tempo and the crashing of snares and cymbals? Yes, please.”

Will they score any of David Fincher’s HBO TV projects? Maybe, but TV’s where it’s at.
Will Reznor and Ross work on Utopia,” Fincher’s next collaboration with Gillian Flynn and a series for HBO that the filmmaker will direct in its entirety? Nothing’s set in stone yet. “We hope so,” Reznor said. Outside of working with [Ross] and my band, this has been the best collaborative experience of my life without question. It’s still a bit early, but all he has to do is ask and we’re there” (it’s interesting to note that Ross and Reznor said they would have worked on Fincher’s “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,” tentpole, which would have been awesome if only to see Reznor work on music for what would have been a Disney film).

“Gone Girl” is in theaters now and has become David Fincher’s highest grossing movie ever, both worldwide and domestically. “The Gone Girl” soundtrack is available in stores and on all digital outlets.

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