Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross on their Patriots Day score
The musicians talk about the challenges of scoring a mainstream movie and breaking out of their comfort zones
Jan 13, 2017
The new film Patriots Day will be familiar to many viewers throughout the United States, especially New England. It is a dramatic retelling of the bombing that occurred at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, leaving three people dead and a city on edge. Its subject matter is ripe for adaptation as it has built-in tension and its setting will hit close to home, though it could be heavily scrutinized to ensure it’s not sensational in its depiction.
As recognizable as the story may be, it is unlikely the names Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor would be the first to come to mind when thinking of the musical score. Ross and Reznor have collaborated on the David Fincher films The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl, getting Academy Award recognition for the first. Despite a resume of highly regarded work, the duo is not the obvious choice to handle the material. And, according to them, that’s the point.
“One of the things that’s interesting to us is to not necessarily to do the expected and to try and find things that are going to be challenging and a learning experience,” Ross said. “Maybe, with a film like this…one could imagine it as a kind of by-the-numbers type thing.”
“To be in service to the film and simultaneously in service to ourselves in terms of making music that we’re proud of and tell the story in a way that feels unusual,” Ross continued. “Not for the sake of being weird, but because it feels the most appropriate way to do it. That felt like the most important thing.”
Reznor extends this by saying he wanted to avoid entering any kind of creative rut. The two had decided to continue working on projects for the next few years, resulting in a new Nine Inch Nails EP in December, the score for the documentary Before the Flood, and now the score for Patriots Day.
“Forget about career paths or what we should do, (and) focus on what we think would be an interesting repertoire of things to look at,” Reznor said. “We were fortunate enough to have a number of things to consider, included in that were art house, interesting films from great directors, some of which are award contenders right now. Then we saw Patriots Day and we thought, ‘that sounds risky,’ a kind of big Hollywood picture about a current event. It’s an experiential film as opposed to arthouse film. We hadn’t done anything like that. I wondered if we could take our vision and our instinct and apply it to that sort of thing and would it work?”
The two said that director Peter Berg, who has tackled recent current events stories in the last few years in films like Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor (all starring Mark Wahlberg), was on board for whatever their direction would be with the score. They didn’t know Berg personally before the film, so there was a feeling out process. Berg and company had made a film expected to carry some heavy emotions along with it.
“He’s making a film that gets pretty brutal,” Reznor said. “It’s a pretty tough watch. There’s a good section of the film that is tough to see. He was concerned we’d take it too far. [He] didn’t want anyone to leave the film feeling brutalized. They need to feel affected and they need to feel emotional and we could go too far. When we did see the footage, this made sense.”
“There’s a long chunk of it that goes there. He kept reminding us that the film he was making was ultimately one of human resolve and of a community coming together and a sense of humanity and love that holds it together at the seams,” Reznor continued. “We really focused on that aspect of it through the first month of composing. Melancholy, human, tender connectivity. We knew we could to take it where it had to go in terms of aggression, tension and dread.”
The goal was to strike a balance between the melancholy and the humanity, allowing rays of sunshine to peek through the darkness surrounding the events in the film. Ross said there is a sense of hyper-realism at play within the film where it cuts to actual footage and a real 911 call.
“And that, of course, plays into the music because beyond the bombing that happened, there’s no question that we live in a different normal right now. And while we were making it, other things were happening. And it’s not taking one side of the coin. It’s part of the world,” Ross said. “It’s multi-faceted. Some of it is to do with honesty and some is to do with feeling like something that’s vital. If you feel something’s vital…you’re going to put your best energy into it trying to make the best thing that you can to tell that story.”
Having worked with David Fincher extensively, they knew this experience would be different beyond the style of movie. Deadlines were tighter and changes continued until the very end. Ross mentioned that the last picture change came on a Wednesday and that the first screening of the film followed the very next day. Throughout the final mix, the film was changing, and it kept them on their toes.
Ross continued by saying their score was never going to feature swelling strings or timpani drums often associated with films dealing with overcoming of large-scale tragedy. Instead, their score for Patriots Day would be their own creation in their own vision, in a vein less traditional than perhaps is expected while still being true to the material.
“I don’t want to sound like a dick, but sometimes people go to the cinema and I genuinely feel like I don’t hear any ideas,” Ross said. “It’s by the numbers. We’re trying to avoid that.”
“We take pride in trying to create our own world for each project we work on, whether that be a Nine Inch Nails record or a film,” Reznor added. “A lot of time is spent considering what would give it its own identity. And I mean that in the sense of the instrumentation, the approach and the techniques involved. With this film we spent a lot of time thinking about how to get that sense of humanity and emotion.”
Reznor and Ross view the studio itself as the instrument, allowing them fewer boundaries. Despite this, it’s far from anarchic; they go in with a plan, discussing the process every step of the way. While they don’t prescribe to any particular rigid set of rules on how to approach a project, they do need structure and something of a map of where they’re going. Ross added that he feels, “too many choices in any aspect of my life is not a good thing, I’ve found. The idea of throwing shit at the wall doesn’t work. Often when we start work on a film or an album or a piece of music, it doesn’t start with the music. It starts with an idea and a conversation.”
These ideas led to the creation of a machine, which featured cassette loops feeding sound from one end to the other. This caused sound to deteriorate over time.
“You could leave it for an hour, or you could leave it for 20 hours and it would have different degrees of degradation that triggered a feeling in us that felt like what it might feel like to be in a place that was forever tarnished by a terrible event taking place,” Reznor said. “That technique is an example of something that informs us to a process on how to approach something.”
While the technique and process they choose doesn’t always result in the creation of a new musical machine – often it’s as simple as choosing the right instrument in the right moment – they have developed their own process of creating film scores. Neither went to school for this, and both are in demand.
Patriots Day opens in theaters today. For more information, check out its website or watch the trailer below.
Patriots Day: Music From the Motion Picture by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is now available digitally from Lakeshore Records.
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