Nearly five years have passed since Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and NIN producer and programmer Atticus Ross were each presented with an Academy Award for composing the captivating score for director David Fincher’s tech drama “The Social Network.” Until then, most critical acclaim for a film’s score went to musicians who benefited from a background in conducting and orchestral composition—John Williams, Alexandre Desplat and Howard Shore, to name a few.
There were other rockers-turned-composers, of course, who paved the way, like Frank Zappa, Danny Elfman, Mark Mothersbaugh and Cliff Martinez. But the addition of Reznor and Ross into a somewhat traditional industry transformed the playing field. Still, Reznor and Ross are humble when they talk about the work they did on “The Social Network”—work that has propelled them into the upper echelons of their film composing profession.
“We just tried to instinctually serve the picture the best way we could and not come in thinking about how others would do it,” Reznor, 51, told me during a phone interview last month. “I think the concept of what is appropriate for real film music has expanded to incorporate things that aren’t just an orchestra. It never entered our minds the concept of being rewarded or recognized for it.”
Since “The Social Network,” Reznor and Ross continued to work exclusively with Fincher on his next two projects, the American remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl,” the latter of which garnered them another Oscar nomination for Best Score in 2014. In their latest collaboration on a feature narrative, the duo switched gears and decided to try their hand with a new filmmaker, Peter Berg (“Deepwater Horizon”). In “Patriots Day,” Berg tells the story of the Boston Marathon bombing that took place on April 15, 2013 and the four-day manhunt that followed.
After “doing separate things for the last couple of years,” as Reznor explained, he and Ross made a commitment to take on a variety of projects together over the next few years that would feel distinctly different and challenge them as musicians. It started with Patriots Day and a meeting with Berg to discuss the one concern they had in working on a film about a real-life event.
“We wanted to make sure it was going to be respectful and wasn’t a pro-American, kill-em’-all, Donald Trump [type of movie],” Reznor said. “Being familiar with [Peter’s] other work, I knew he would be capable of this style of experiential filmmaking, which was different for us. He gave us a blank canvas to do whatever we wanted and we were off to the races.”
Reznor described the early stages of writing the score as “a lot of beard scratching and sitting around thinking about the nature of the film.” Ross explained that although they weren’t quite sure what kind of score they wanted to write, they agreed on what they didn’t want it to become.
“All we knew was that we didn’t want a generic action [score] one might associate with this kind of film,” Ross, 48, said. “Often when we’re working in broad strokes, the early experimentation might include a set of instruments or a set of processes that may inform the sound. Sometimes we hit a bullseye on a target and sometimes we find something by chance.”
In the case of “Patriots Day,” Reznor and Ross admit they sort of stumbled into the recording technique they ultimately used for the film’s score. To create it, they built a machine in their studio that recorded on a series of looping cassette tapes. As different instruments and sounds were added into the mix, the tapes would start to distort and degrade in unusual ways. From the layers of sounds, complex pieces would form and Reznor and Ross would then extract portions and record over them.
“It started to take on the traits of all the various components that we had recorded on piano and strings and glued everything together, which would’ve been very hard to do through traditional methods or modern studio techniques,” Reznor said. “We created some really long, meditative pieces and started to arrange the score around that.”
For Reznor and Ross, the final score strengthens the overarching themes that come with a film like “Patriots Day.” Not only did they want to convey redemption and a sense of community in a city like Boston through their score, they wanted to express the idea of a fond memory being shattered by a tragic event, but without a sense of discomfort.
“We wanted a sound of melancholy, nostalgia and longing, but with a sweetness involved in it,” Reznor said. “I think we developed that in a way that feels tasteful and interesting, but also experimental and adventurous.”