LOS ANGELES — As the sole member and lone artistic voice of Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor regularly had the pleasure of answering to no one during NIN's approximately 20-year run of emotionally damaged hard rock. Now at age 46 and into his second career as a film composer, Reznor has to not only learn a new discipline but also adjust to ceding control and holding back his reflex of saying "no."
Take, for instance, the music that opens The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the second film score for Reznor and his latter-days NIN producer Atticus Ross. The tune is familiar — Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song — and the sound recalls the underground, synthetic aggressiveness of Reznor's work with NIN. It's a collaboration with Yeah Yeah Yeahs' singer Karen O, and none of it was Reznor's idea.
Said Reznor, "That was David coming to me and saying, 'What do you think about a version of this?' I wouldn't have thought of it. But I don't think of it in terms of how he sees it in the film, and he doesn't always explain himself. You learn to fill in the blanks. David didn't just make this up. That was not an off-the-cuff suggestion. So whereas I may look at it and go, 'Well, I'm not sure about that,' I have to stop myself and think it through."
The song was used in early promos for director David Fincher's American take on Swedish writer Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the full track is used as the film's credit sequence. "When you see it," Reznor said, "it's like, 'Oh, now I get it!' What we've learned is that he has a vision, and we should trust him."
Reznor and Ross first partnered with Fincher on last year's The Social Network, which ultimately won the pair the Oscar for original score. The composers were late additions to The Social Network, but for Dragon Tattoo, they worked with Fincher from Day One, spending 14 months in Reznor's home studio in Beverly Hills, Calif., crafting a score that uses familiar instruments (a piano, for instance), but digitally twists them so they sound slightly unfamiliar.
With NIN essentially retired as a touring entity, Reznor said his collaboration with Fincher has, for the first time, given him the sense of feeling that he's in a band.
"In my world, I never let anyone hear anything until it's at a point where I feel it's great. This is foreign, sure," Reznor said. "Atticus and I don't work that way. For two people who have never really been in a band with other people, this is that sense of collaboration I have always longed for. I could never find this in a band environment. I always wished I could have three other guys help carry the load and share in the rewards and failures, but it was always too difficult to allow that to happen."
The collaboration works, perhaps, because the director isn't in the studio micro-managing Reznor's or Ross's work, but Reznor also sees a direct parallel between his music and Fincher's cinematic vision.
"David is interested in making movies that can appeal to people, but not in a way in which he's catering, dumbing down," Reznor said. "He expects his audience to be smart. The more of that, the better. ... But he also does not aim for the art house. He aims for the cineplex. I felt the same with NIN. I made music that I thought was uncompromising, but a lot of people appeared to like it."
Reznor and Ross crafted more than three hours of music for Dragon Tattoo. Sitting poolside last month on Reznor's outdoor porch, Ross said it was one of the first days in more than a year that the pair would not be locking themselves in the studio. Whereas noted film composers Hans Zimmer or Alexandre Desplat will take on five to eight projects in a typical year, Reznor and Ross said their process is slower because they compose songs rather than cues for a scene.
"When we're generating raw stuff to submit into the pile, we create chunks," Reznor said. "They don't appear in the film that way. We give David big chunks that are three- or eight-minute suites. They go from here and travel around the corner and go underground and come back up and wind up over there. We do not have 30 15-second beats of sound."
Reznor and Ross said they would happily work with Fincher again, and they are open to composing for other directors — although Reznor said the latter tentatively.
"When I look at other directors and think, 'Wow, I'd like to work with that guy,' a lot of it is based on what they've done with other composers," Reznor said. "I love (Steven) Soderbergh's work with Cliff Martinez. I hear that and think, 'Wow, I want to work with Soderbergh.' But he already has somebody who's doing something really good. I would be trying to emulate what he already has somebody doing."