Known for their long standing collaboration with David Fincher, from The Social Network through Gone Girl, Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have gone on in recent years to work with a wider variety of directors on both narrative features and documentaries—including Fisher Stevens’ climate change doc Before the Flood—with their score for Peter Berg’s Patriots Day being their latest to enter the awards race.
While demonstrating a concern for contemporary world events with their recent efforts, in the case of Berg’s film, it wasn’t the subject matter that was instantly compelling—a thriller ripped from the headlines, the film depicts the Boston Marathon bombings and the police pursuit of terrorist suspects that followed. Ultimately, for the Nine Inch Nails musicians, it was the opportunity to enter a new arena with new collaborators and an entirely different process that was alluring.
Speaking with Deadline, Reznor and Ross discuss the differences in the methods of Peter Berg and David Fincher, and the tape looping technique that contributed to the music’s unique feel.
Between your work in narrative features and documentaries, is it fair to say that you share an interest in nonfiction material?
Trent Reznor: I don’t think either of us have consciously thought about that that much. In my experience of scoring, it went from, “Wow, it’d be an honor to actually work on a film, I don’t know if I could do it,” to having enough offers that the burden of picking and choosing and trying to keep it interesting has fallen on us.
We both think Pete [Berg] does an interesting kind of experiential filmmaking style we hadn’t experienced necessarily with [David] Fincher. What lured us in was the challenge of seeing if we could try to color outside the lines a little bit of what music might be expected to do in a picture like that.
This film is a number of things—a thriller, a procedural, and a love story of sorts. How did you go about finding a balance in the music to reflect these coexisting elements?
Reznor: To be honest with you, if the pitch is you want to score a film on current event Boston Bombing, not really. [Laughs] I don’t even necessarily want to see a film about that. When we talked with Pete and read the script, it felt to us like a procedural. Pete was quick to point out, it’s a pretty harrowing journey we’re putting the viewer on. We don’t want to push it too far. We want to make sure that at the end of the day, this is a story of hope and community coming together. We were drawn in—it felt like it was going to play as a lot of music and a lot of pursuit. It was interesting to try to marry that with a heartfelt sincerity and humanity.
Ross: We did have access early on to this FBI Dropbox which had a lot of stuff that was shocking, really. It certainly was impactful. One got to see a perspective that you might not have seen before, like into the real heart of it. Going back to what Trent said, there is a thing where if one were to look at it as genre, it could be this or it could be something else—like a way of serving the picture that isn’t necessarily against genre, but feels natural to us. I can’t think of the amount of bombings I’ve seen with thundering drums, and it was a kind of point of view at the outset that maybe we could simultaneously do something that felt unique and part of the DNA of the film.
Having done so much work on David Fincher’s films, what is it like to adjust to a new director and a new approach?
Reznor: I know David well, as a friend. My approach, trying to figure how to start on scoring, is based on the way he works. When you sit down with him, a lot of the goal is to extract from him, because he’s thought about it. He may not be able to articulate it, or choose not to articulate it—to kind of steer you too much—but he knows the role of music. Is it carrying the picture? Is it subtly in the background? Is it part of the set design? A lot of the initial burden with David is just to sit and observe and pick up clues. In that instance, we’ve learned to go in fairly blank, as a blank canvas, and absorb. Ask a lot of questions. Then experiment, and early on, get feedback from him.
With Pete, it was a different kind of process, where a lot of the film was finished when we got on board. What we were looking for was to be in something that felt unfamiliar. See what it’s like, because we don’t know what we’re doing. We’ve gone purely by instinct up to this point. With Pete, it was a little freer. His process of filmmaking is different—I could say looser. It was a different experience, all in all.
Ross: It was a lot of moving parts. The film premiered closing the AFI festival, which was on a Thursday. On Wednesday night, there were picture changes.
Reznor: Came in a little hot.
Ross: What’s been a luxury on the Fincher ones, for the most part, is that there’s a period of time where the changes are going to be pretty small. Whereas, I think a lot of footage had been shot in this, and it was an accelerated timeline. The film was changing in fairly significant ways, right up to and during the final mix.
Reznor: I think the schedule dictated the climate. It changes the way you approach things, because everything is a sprint; there wasn’t time to reflect or regain objectivity. That felt foreign to us.
The biggest surprise was [Berg’s] desire for more music was much greater than other situations we’ve been in. Being honest, that threw us for a loop because we’re more in the world of, “Look, we can make you get goosebumps here, but we can’t make ten feel like ten if we’ve been at nine for ten minutes before that. Let’s try some space, let’s see if we can back off.” We found ourselves in the odd opposition of someone yelling at us to be more aggressive with it.
How did you begin the process on Patriots Day, in terms of landing on the instrumentation and general feeling of the music?
Reznor: One thing Pete did go on about initially was, as I mentioned, we don’t want to punish people too much. I think he was concerned that we would create a soundscape that amplified that to a point where it was unnecessary. I said, “We’re capable of other things.” We started the process thinking, “Let’s cover the other ground first.”
We started thinking about the characters and considering the effect—these are all people that love this city. The event would happen that might forever taint or change your perception of that place. What that might feel like. It felt to us like melancholy and reflective. Trying to think back before the incident, what that might feel like and how those memories might start to disintegrate and change.
What we try to do when we start a project, whether it be a Nine Inch Nails record or a film, each thing we aim to have be it’s own container, it’s own thing that has it’s own set of rules and it’s own world. An identity, ideally. We sit in the same room and use the same gear and work on a variety of different things. Because we have so many options in terms of what instrumentation and sounds and techniques we can deploy, we found it’s helpful to, before any notes are recorded or any ideas are logged down, think about what limits could we put on ourselves to contain ourselves in this thing.
Sometimes, that’s the simplest thing. It’s choice of instrumentation orchestration. Is is acoustic? Is it an orchestra? Is it a string quartet? Is it a synthesizer? Whatever it might be. Also, sometimes technique can creep into that equation. If it’s a Nine Inch Nails record, when we did The Slip, we were excited about improvisation. We didn’t correct anything—as we played stuff, that was the performance, like it was tape. We didn’t tune vocals. Everything had a new kind of urgency.
On this film, we started experimenting with tape loops. We created something that had two different cassette decks. It would record something back and forth, forever, until you stopped it. You’d play a piano motif that’s maybe eight bars long and just let it go, and it starts to feel like a Xerox copy, a little bit. If you left it all night and came back the next day, it sounds strangely familiar and warm, in a way that a computer couldn’t have done, or a plug in couldn’t have done. It started to invoke the sense of memory or place. It had a real kind of homey, organic human sound. We created probably 30 of those things and would let them go for various amount of time, depending on how well they deteriorated. That provided the foundation for all of the heartfelt motifs in the picture.
It was a recording technique we discovered that we’d been thinking about, but we hadn’t really had a reason to deploy it. That become something that we then used for everything else in the whole score. We’re not imagining anyone would hear that and say, “I wonder if they used several tape decks talking to each other?” It provides a road map that, if we pay attention initially, we start to wait for those things to kind of reveal themselves. That gives us the kind of fenced-in world for that film.
Then, when we realized we had 90 minutes of chase scene to make music to, it was going back to things we knew we could do. We knew we could do that stuff. We wanted to get the tapestry of the other side of things and see how that dictated for that more aggressive stuff.
How did you find the pace of the music for those chase sequences, giving its propulsive rhythm and drive? At times, it feels like there’s the sonic equivalent of a ticking clock underlining the music.
Ross: There are parts that are complicated in it, from a compositional point of view. Certainly, in the middle of the film, we’ve got five storylines converging, each where we’ve assigned a thematic basis, in the way a theme works for us.
It did become a lot of work. The actual sound that you’re talking about is a dentist scraping on a tooth.
Reznor: We actually sampled some of that.
Ross: I think that the pacing, there were points, leading up to the bombing, where I felt like, “We know that there’s going to be a bombing. Do we need tension in here?” And that’s one of the places where I think Pete made a really good call. It’s Trent on the piano—it just adds a sense of dread that’s building up, but isn’t that yet. And when it gets to the bombing, instead of going to drums of war, we let the bombing do that, and we go Lynchian, kind of abstract against it. And later, as the procedural stuff starts picking up, the tempo comes in. My favorite bit of the film is actually the drive—the drive toward town with Meng and the two brothers. That’s where everything converges.
Reznor: We made a choice to create a number of different things in complementary keys, and time signatures where this could work as a quarter note triplet against that, because what we realized was going to happen, and did happen, was, “Hey, we added four minutes you’ve never seen before to this scene, and we took that one out.” About a third of the way in, we decided to start composing, almost in modular chunks, where if these things had to meld into each other, we could bring up Theme A with Theme B, and we could arrange it in a sense that’s complementary. It was an interesting way, out of necessity, to have to work.