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Trent Reznor on the 'Gone Girl' music, working with David Fincher, and translating David Lynch

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Trent Reznor
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Gone Girl is celebrating its second straight week as the number one movie in the country, and one of the secrets of director David Fincher’s spell-casting is his partnership with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have provided the scores to Fincher’s last three films.

Reznor and Ross, whose day job as Nine Inch Nails has given them plenty of practice creating creepy soundscapes, have a somewhat unusual way of working: Instead of writing music specifically to finished scenes, they read the script and take input from Fincher about tone, and then craft a series of thematic pieces that are then inserted into the action.

“It’s like dressing a set,” Reznor says. “What feels like it belongs in that space? What feels like Missouri? What feels like erosion of this relationship? What feels like a real ugly thing hidden beneath the surface, with a nice paint job on the outside? It might feel pretty, but it’s spoiled under the surface.”

Like his work for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo before it, Reznor’s work on Gone Girl is subtle, genuinely unnerving, and an integral part of the film as a whole. And like those scores, it makes for great listening even when you aren’t watching Ben Affleck’s life unravel. The Gone Girl soundtrack is currently available on iTunes, and will be getting a deluxe CD release on November 24, with a vinyl edition arriving early next year. (You can pre-order both in the official Nine Inch Nails store.)

The morning after Gone Girl had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, EW caught up with Trent Reznor to talk about his science of scoring, what he learned from David Lynch, and why he thinks most movie music is terrible.

Entertainment Weekly: What was it like watching the movie with an audience?

Trent Reznor: It’s always interesting. That was my first time with an audience. It’s always interesting seeing it through different eyes. Same thing with an album. I could listen to an album a million times, and if I bring a friend in that hasn’t heard it, it feels completely different. I immediately know I should have changed that thing, or that isn’t the right order of songs. It’s weird how that works. It was interesting gauging the audience reaction. They laughed at things that I didn’t realize would be funny to people who haven’t seen it 200 times. Or there was applause at one moment in the middle of the film that was interesting.

Could you tell if people were reacting to yours and Atticus’ work on the soundtrack?

That’s tough for me to judge. Because I’ve seen it so many times, I found myself paying attention to the audience and the sound in the theater and the surround speakers—s— that nobody cares about. To me, it kind of meshes with the film enough that I can’t tell. I’m not arrogant enough to think people thought, “Man, listen to that great piano note right there. The acting was OK, but f—ing listen to that string part!”

When you and Atticus work on a score, is it similar to how you would approach a Nine Inch Nails album?

Pretty much so, yeah. There’s no real demos. We don’t do a mock version and then have someone score it and then the real version gets recorded. Same with a Nine Inch Nails record. We’ve learned that first thing you might do, that rough vocal, that might be the best vocal. I’ve learned that many times. I’ve tried to re-create that thing that was kind of an accident, but it just sounds s—-y. Yes, the mic is better and there’s not an air conditioner blowing in the background, but the performance lacked that…sometimes it’s the inexperience or the insecurity or the uncertainty that gets captured. It might just be laziness, too.

So the way that we compose with David, which I think is fairly non-traditional compared to the composer who knows how to do it properly, is we don’t work to picture during the initial ideas. We read the script, read the book, talk at length—that’s really the most important part, to talk with David about what he wants the role of music to be or what he’s envisioning. He doesn’t speak in terms of “I’m thinking quartet of strings.” It’s more like, “It needs to feel,” or it’s about colors or tone. But there’s clues in there that become guidelines and set us down a path that is either right or wrong, and we’ve been pretty good about feeling right right off the bat. In the case of Gone Girl, I’d read the book and seen the script, talked to David, and then we just sat in a room without any picture, and then just thought about what feels like it belongs in this movie. Not for a scene or for when this happens, but for these characters.

Has that changed much over the course of the three movies you’ve done with Fincher?

Atticus and I have learned how to work together, and we’ve learned over the years at least two things. We’ve learned that by starting with rules and limitations, we get better results. So if we’re gonna start a new Nine Inch Nails record, I’ll usually come in and say “Here’s the rules,” and these change and they usually do change. But take the Nine Inch Nails record The Slip. The rule was everything is a live performance. If it’s a vocal, it’s one take, no punching, no tuning. If there’s a synth part, it’s played as if it’s tape. We’re not midi-tweaking anything, it’s just the performance. We want to envision garage electronics. What does that look like? I can kind of visualize what that sounds like, and that’s what we’re going to try to make it sound like. I think we did that on that record. For Ghosts, every day from beginning to end, it was start composition and end mix every day, no matter way. And if it sucks, we throw it out and just keep going until we have a record finished. We’re gonna start with an image of a place—here’s a bayou with a little pier and a building and a candle in the building, and what does that sound like? What’s the dressing of that space sonically? We have a room full of s— and the abilities of everyone in here, let’s try to make it happen. That was the rule for that.

With the films, we try to get an idea of what David’s thinking, what he wants the role of music to be, and then try to translate that into a subset of instruments and processes we’ll use to achieve that. In the case of Gone Girl, it felt more organic. It felt like something that should be able to make you feel everything’s OK, but maybe not. It didn’t feel propulsive and sequenced like The Social Network, it didn’t feel icy and all about landscapes like Dragon Tattoo, which was meant to make you feel like you needed to put a sweater on while you’re watching it. That led us through our knowledge of how to do things, to choose a certain set of instruments and a certain style. So far, it’s worked pretty well, and it’s been fun. It’s not that dissimilar in terms of the act of composing than it would be for Nine Inch Nails. It’s just starting with a different thing. Rather than start with a picture I came up with and an emotion I’m trying to convey, let’s adapt this set of ideas. It leads us to places we wouldn’t go from a different initiation point.

You got your first taste of working on films on David Lynch’s Lost Highway. What did you take away from that experience?

I’ve always been a huge fan of David Lynch. When the call came in, it was a point in my life when I was about to bottom out, so I wasn’t at my best. I had a drug and alcohol problem that was about to become inescapable. The call comes in and I believe David had lost a key member of his team that was involved in sound design and helping him shape the sound of his films. That alone has been a big influence in my life. I still think about Eraserhead when I’m writing a song, and the role of sound in that film, and its ability to make you feel. I was flattered and star struck, and he came to New Orleans for a few days. Primarily we were listening to sounds and noises, and the tone and tune of things. That led to a couple of small little bits of stuff he needed for the film.

And then I had the very different job of constructing a soundtrack album to sell in a store, which is not scoring. Natural Born Killers was a different version of that that I think was a piece of art. That was a collage of sound rather than some pop songs we got from people that we’re calling a soundtrack. That was a trend for a while, way back in the ’90s. What I took away from that experience with David was his kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm and love for what he’s doing. He didn’t disappoint as a character. I remember him sitting down and he starts scribbling on a piece of paper and says, real loud like you’d expect, “Trent, that’s what I want it to sound like. That is the sound that I’m talking about.” And it’s just a series of weird squiggly lines. I didn’t know if he’s just f—ing with me, and I was kind of scared, but it was interesting. I left that experience convinced of his authenticity. It was like hanging out with one of your heroes for a while. It was cool.

Are there similarities between the way Lynch and Fincher work?

I haven’t been on a set with Lynch. I just sat in a studio and then did a video with him last year. I wouldn’t imagine they work the same. They seem like very different types of people. David Fincher is much more aligned with my way of logically executing things, and I mean that as a compliment. He has incredible attention to detail. He could be very concerned about a tiny mark on a table that might not even be in the shot, but he’s also aware of how that scene plays four scenes after that. Or with the music leading out of that, remember that people have just seen five minutes earlier. There’s a lot of multi-tasking going on, and he has the ability to keep this giant ship afloat and all the different pieces moving, but he’s still very zoomed in. It’s pretty amazing. Lynch might be the same way, I just haven’t seen him in that way. He seems more abstract. I’m assuming things.

You’ve done three films with Fincher now. Are you fielding offers from other directors for scoring work?

There’s been some. The phone has rang. What it’s caused me to do is really think about what interests me, and what I mean by that is I had always been interested in seeing if I could score films, but I never had a plan. When the phone call came in from David Fincher, it was unexpected and caught me off guard. I had just got off tour and I was kind of burned out. I’d like to do that, but man, I don’t know how to do it and I’m tired and I don’t creatively feel like I’ve got any gas in the tank right now, and do I want to put myself in a position to fail? But when I finally got my s— together and did it and started on it, and it was fun, and it was unexpectedly creatively rewarding. When I finished that film, before anyone had even seen it or any accolades came in, I thought it was the most rewarding creative experiences I’ve ever had.

I remember I took a course in my brief stint in college. It was contemporary composition, and it was above the level that I should have taken but I knew the professor, and I was in there with seniors who were music majors. If I sat forward in my chair concentrating and thinking as hard as I could, I could keep up with the pace of what was being said. It got me in the moment. I’d leave the class exhausted. Somehow I kept up. I shouldn’t have really been in that class. This felt like the same kind of thing. I’m doing something that I think I know how to do from a compositional point of view and I have something to say, but I’ve got to learn the process and learn the interaction, and now I’m not the boss. It isn’t about the music being featured. It’s about the music helping to tell that story and influencing that story. I don’t want you to leave thinking, “Wow, the music was great.” I want you to leave thinking, “The film was great.” That’s different. Usually I want you to think the music was great.

I guess I have an alternate career if I wanted to. Do I think music is that good in a lot of films coming out of Hollywood? Not really. Do I want to something that sounds like everything else? That’s really the role of a lot of music in film, and a lot of it is just tick the box. I think I’m also spoiled, because the friends I have that do this have reminded me that I’m in a very exceptional situation with David, where you’ve got somebody who is truly trying to make the best art he can possibly make with no compromises, and he’s carved out a place where you can do that and he protects you. I’m not answering to f—ing producers or involved in test screenings or audience bulls—. It’s just about making the best thing we can. That’s a fortunate situation, and I’m privileged to be in it. I only answer to him and to myself. And if it sucks, I can still blame him.