When composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross first met with Damon Lindelof about his HBO superhero drama Watchmen, they had a hard time putting their finger on the tone of the show, and the kind of music that would be right for it.
Based on a DC comics series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons—which was previously adapted into a film by Zack Snyder—the gritty drama is set in an alternate reality, exploring episodes of racial violence erupting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the police face off with a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry.
In comparison to the 2009 film, Lindelof’s take on Watchmen would be much more serious in tone, thoughtfully examining systemic racism within America, in a way that couldn’t be more timely. At the same time, the series was playful and incredibly fun, both to watch and to compose music for.
“Obviously, he took a huge swing with the project,” Ross says of Lindelof. “I think what he managed to keep in tact [from the original ’80s comics] was this kind of anarchic viewpoint—incredible storytelling [that’s] in essence kind of punk rock.”
For the most part, Reznor and Ross’s score for the series was darkly hypnotic, in the vein of the music they’ve created over the years for their Grammy-winning band Nine Inch Nails. But encompassing so many worlds, and traversing so many time periods, Watchmen would require the pair to work through many musical modes, including jazz, gospel, vintage orchestral and silent movie piano accompaniment, for the very first time.
“I’ve got to admit, it’s never been presented to us: ‘Could you write a big band track that sounds like it would be a needle drop?’” says Reznor, who has been working most recently with Ross on Pixar’s Soul, and David Fincher’s upcoming Mank. “I think that’s what keeps drawing us back to trying things like this, where [it’s like], ‘Let’s see what predicament we can get ourselves in, and then get ourselves out of it, show that we can do it, and be better because of it.’”
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Watchmen? What was it that drew you to the project?
TRENT REZNOR: We had been speaking with our film agent quite a while ago about, “Hey, we’ll make a list of some projects and people that we find interesting, and maybe just throw feelers out to see if there’s any interest in working with us.” Just to kind of work backwards, instead of waiting for the phone to ring. When we got wind that HBO green-lit Watchmen, we made a point to say, “Please, call them up. There’s no shame here.” I think the excitement was, we love Watchmen. It’s certainly meant a lot to us as a graphic novel, but even more so, we’re big fans of Damon’s. Particularly, what he did with Leftovers was groundbreaking for the medium of television.
The more Atticus and I have worked in scoring projects, what we’ve come to consider the currency, or the reason to do them, is not the money or exposure. It’s that we’re into a forced collaborative situation with different camps of people that we find interesting. Sometimes, it’s fantastic; sometimes, it isn’t, and we try to think about, the best we can, what would that person be like? Is it worth getting into an intense relationship with this camp for what could be a year of time or more? And Damon was one of those people.
DEADLINE: What did you discuss with Damon in your first conversations about the series?
ATTICUS ROSS: We didn’t actually spend a lot of time talking to him about what the sound was going to be, prior to seeing the pilot.
[Going into it], Trent was incredibly enthusiastic. I was a little more nervous, just because the Watchmen [comic] dropped in a totally different kind of popular culture to today. I think Damon subsequently [shared] his own sort of fears about it. I think it’s an awful lot to take on. As we know, he knows how to knock it out of the park, but it was really the pilot…
The pilot came in two chunks. He did a version that was 60% great, and then he did a version, which was the final one. I’ve never seen anyone take the same picture and transform it in the way he did between version one and version two, and seeing version two was really what gave us all the information we needed about what this show is going to be.
REZNOR: We had spoken on the phone about, “Yeah, let’s do this. It sounds great.” Then, there was an in-person meeting where we were trying to gather, what is this show about? You know, what’s your take? There were a thousand things on the wall, stuff that didn’t make any sense, and 20 minutes of passionate explanation, and I was thinking…You know when someone’s talking [and] you realize, I don’t even know what he’s saying right now? I’m aware that I’m not comprehending what’s happening, and when it was finished, I knew less about what was going to happen than before I started.
But what we could tell was an immense amount of thought and care had gone into whatever it was that they were trying to explain to us. Also, what was clear was, there wasn’t going to be any real directive, as to “It should sound like this.”
What we’ve kind of figured out is, there’s some projects we’ve gotten into where it’s almost color by numbers. “Hey, I’m thinking this. I kind of want you guys to do this.” Maybe they even made a temp score, like “This is what we need to do,” and those end up being the least interesting because the road map’s laid out.
Then, there’s other situations—Fincher comes to mind, and in this case, Damon—where it feels more collaborative. You’ve been brought in for the right reasons—not to do the thing they have in mind, but what do you think? So, what we try to do is listen to the clues about, is the music a character in this? Is it driving the narrative? Is it invisible? Is it lifting quietly in the background, manipulating feelings? Or is it a Star Wars theme? Is there an opening title that sets the tone of what the series is going to be, or does it play a more subtle, perhaps nefarious role?
And we didn’t get any of that [initially]. It wasn’t out of not knowing. I think it was out of, “We’ll figure it out.”
DEADLINE: How did you figure out the tone of the show, and the kind of music that would suit it?
REZNOR: We’d read the script for the first episode, which is all that really existed at that time, and it was tough to tell, is the tone of this dead serious? Is it self-aware? Is there any humor? Is it pitch black? When we saw the first cut, which wasn’t perfected yet, it really defined what it was. There’s a playfulness to this, which we hadn’t expected. With this cattle battle in Episode 1, it’s intense, but it’s also ridiculous, as it should be, and the role of music can be driving, almost like a music video. So, it kind of revealed itself. Like I said, the best projects reveal themselves to you, if there’s not someone making sure it colors within the lines.
So, it started off on the right foot, and what began as a bit of, “God, I have no idea what is going to work here,” quickly turned to, “Yeah, okay. Now, there’s a hell of a lot of work ahead of us, but we get it, and we understand how we can really be effective here.” I think we can both safely say, it was one of the greatest collaborative, fun, respectful, challenging projects we’ve ever worked on.
ROSS: It definitely was. I think when you’re in the position where you don’t know what day of the week it is, or what time it is, but you know you’re doing something that you believe in, and you’re involved to the depths of your being, that’s what a great collaboration is. I think this was one of the great collaborations.
It was one of those collaborations where, of course, we’d have intense discussions about certain things, and he may think one way, and we may think the other, but we were always traveling in the same direction. I also feel like, in terms of the general score stuff that we’ve done, it did feel like being let off the leash, in terms of the type of instrumentation, the type of music, and it wasn’t ever at odds with his vision. I think that the vision grew as the series grew. We hit our stride in the first episode, and carried on from there.
DEADLINE: What did your early musical experiments on Watchmen look like?
REZNOR: Every time we take on a new project, the first chunk of time is us sitting around, overthinking it. But constructively, what we’ll do is kind of take options, and remove options from the table, to find the limited set of tools or instruments to help define what this thing is.
Is it acoustic? Is it orchestral? Is electronic? Is it synthetic? Does it feel dated? Does it feel current? Does it feel futuristic? Does it feel cold? Does it feel warm? And kind of whittle it down to some things that can help define the process of composition.
On this one, we realized the role of music being sometimes a bit more beat-driven, aggressive, raunchy, there’s room for a distorted bass, and some loud drums. That kind of opened up that somewhat familiar toolkit to the Nine Inch Nails side of things. It became maybe a little less purely experimental, and more, “Let’s draw upon the skill set we have over here that we rarely get to do in composition score work.” But that was kind of the leading, defining thing, when we realized something like that cattle battle, or the Sister Night presence, can have a kind of kick-ass groove under, that feels raunchy, and feels a little sleazy. It makes it playful in its own way; it has its own attitude.
We didn’t know off the bat if music was going to play that role in this series, [but] seeing that that’s what he really responded to was energizing for us, because we haven’t had a chance to really do that in this context. So, that was a real kind of light bulb turning on.
ROSS: Oftentimes, we’ll start writing to the script before we see picture, and that may well form the basis of the score. In this case, we did write about 12 pieces to the script without seeing picture, and this is one of those cases where only one or two of them became part of the DNA of the show. It was getting the picture that really [was informative].
REZNOR: I think we were living in the margins a bit. We were playing music as a kind of, “Let’s creep a little in here,” and what he [said] was, “No, I want it to take over. Let’s turn off the sound effects and have this track drive this whole sequence.” That became a kind of repeating motif, but during the mixing of the first episode, put us in conflict with the sound designer team. [Laughs]. Like, “Sorry, boys. I’m going to turn us up, and turn you down—or we’re going to call dad in, and he’s going to tell you.” There was a learning curve there, which we quickly all adapted to.
ROSS: Also, we were on tour at the very beginning. So like the Sister Night theme, at that point, we’d seen the pilot. We wrote the Sister Night theme in a hotel room in Chicago.
DEADLINE: Could you describe the core set of instruments heard in your score?
ROSS: Like Trent mentioned, some of it is what we might be doing if we were doing a Nine Inch Nails record, so there’s beats, and guitars, and synths, and real bass. The orchestral stuff is really in [Watchmen’s show-within-a-show] American Hero Story, and Damon’s idea for that was that we’d troll Marvel movies—I mean, not in a mean way…We’d never done that type of, ‘Okay, every punch has a horn stab, and every kick has this and that,’ and that, in itself, was fun. I mean, the overriding emotion, when I think back on Watchmen, was fun. It was a lot of f**king fun doing it. But as the series got on, there’s some incredibly intense, emotional subplots going on. We’re taking on the story of race in America. I mean, it’s not fun and games. It’s serious s**t, and as the series progressed, you’ve got one side, which is the distorted guitars, and the beats, and the this, and the other, and you’ve got another side of it, which I think is pretty deep, emotionally, and travels that journey.
DEADLINE: It must have been challenging to tackle a project that required such stylistic diversity in its music.
REZNOR: I’ve got to say, we started off in somewhat familiar territory for us, and it allowed us to grow confident in ourselves and our abilities. Because we always start a project with crippling insecurity. Then, we got to know Damon and realized he was one of us—meaning, he has crippling insecurity, too—and we kind of thought the same way. Then, we get through our first couple sessions of butting heads about an idea and realized, he’s right. He was always right. Often, he was thinking about this through a different lens than we were, and that was the right way.
With that footing, as we started to feel each other out a bit, in terms of our trust and abilities, the palette started to open up, as to some truly challenging things being laid at our feet. It was kind of absurd situations…I can say, now that it all worked out, “That was fun.” But at the time, it wasn’t fun. It was terrifying, because man, we don’t want to let Damon down. We want to show him we can do anything.
DEADLINE: What are you most proud of with Watchmen? Why do you think the series has resonated to the degree that it has?
ROSS: Art used to be something that challenged you. It was put out there with an attitude of not how many likes will this get, but, “Here it is. This is it. Do you like it or not?” And of course, everybody wanted you to like it. But there’s also a kind of aura of, “I don’t care if you like it. This is coming from my heart.”
Popular culture feels like it’s become a bit more homogenized, so when you get a Watchmen, when you get people who are reaching for something that feels authentic and challenging, and outside of what we’ve come to expect, I feel like it’s something that we’ve got to honor. I think we’re very lucky to get the opportunity to work with these people who are willing to take that risk.
I think no one can deny that the storytelling in Watchmen is probably—certainly, in my experience—the most in-depth, layered, intellectual kind of spider web of American history and today.