Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on ‘Watchmen’ score and ‘godlike power’ of affecting emotions

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Trent Reznor (left) and Atticus Ross (right) collaborated on the score for HBO’s “Watchmen.” Photo by Corinne Schiavone.

Trent Reznor has made a significant mark on music, first with Nine Inch Nails, whose industrial rock colored the sound of the 1990s. Then he shifted gears, composing the score to “The Social Network” with producer Atticus Ross. Since then, they have worked together on other scores for movies and TV shows, including the Emmy-nominated HBO series “Watchmen.” 

KCRW speaks with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

KCRW: The song “This is How The West Was Really Won” sounds eerie and sets the tone for the show. Tell us how you came up with the idea for that, and how you worked together to convey the sense of the watchmen through this music. 

Trent Reznor: “We had a bit of a tricky time putting our finger on really where to start. It wasn't until we saw a rough cut of the pilot when we understood that there was room for this to kind of be fun as well and playful. 

And what we learned way back in “The Social Network” is neither one of us really knew how to approach scoring a film. We stumbled into a process that's been good for us, and that was to try to understand what story they're trying to tell. And then rather than think about a scene or a specific moment, just kind of sit in the studio and create music almost subconsciously, music that feels like it might belong in the world, next to that story. 

And then we'll turn over a batch of music to the director, showrunner and say, 'Does any of us feel like it's in the universe of the story you're telling?’ Even if it comes up that it isn't, it tells us what not to do. It's informative. 

And with “Watchmen,” 5% of what we came up with wound up being what was utilized. It wasn't really frustrating. That's just part of the process, and it provides answers. That piece, ‘How the West Was Really Won,’ is one of the ones that was part of that initial batch. Might be the only one, actually.” 

Atticus Ross: “I think it is. I mean, ultimately, that part of the process is worldbuilding. So it's not like any moment of it is wasted. It's all a journey to find what's right.” 

The first episode begins with the Tulsa Race Massacre. The powerful opening scene of the chaos sets up the entire show. Did either one of you know much about the massacre before this? 

Reznor: “Embarrassingly, I did not, and my mind was blown. And I feel ashamed that I didn't know that. But it was a very eye-opening experience.”  

Ross: “I didn't know it either. And there were two cuts of the pilot. And on the first one, I did think it was something fictional. And then on the second one, I spent a bit of time on Google, and I was frankly amazed that I didn't know about it.” 

A lot of people didn't know about the massacre. I talked with Damon Lindelof, and he admitted he didn’t know about it. So after you learned more about it, did it shift your thinking on the music composition? 

Reznor: "Not consciously. When we started to hear the context and what he was attempting to pull off by expanding the world of ‘Watchmen’ and making this a sort of sequel remix, we had full confidence that he would approach it with an integrity, and intelligence, and a sensitivity, and a brilliance, and being proud to be a part of this thing.” 

KCRW: One song from the series that doesn't sound anything like your traditional music is “The Way It Used to Be.” Who is singing?How did you delve into a jazz standard there? 

Reznor: “It's Laura Dickinson singing that song.” 

Ross: “This plays over a particularly brutal scene. It leads up to a lynching. And there was a piece of music in this slot that the publisher refused to license because of the picture. And that particular publisher happens to own supposedly almost all of the catalog of what one might want to put in that scene. And they said, ‘Not only will we not license you that, we will not license you anything.” 

Was that because they didn't want to be associated with a lynching? 

Ross: “Exactly. And we'd got to a point in the relationship with Damon where we were close. And he called up, explained the situation, said, 'Do you think you'd be able to write something recorded with a big band, have a haunting vocal, the right lyrics, and could you do it in six days?'

Reznor: “That's the kind of thing that made this project really special, was the gift that kept on giving. And it definitely branched off in the corners of things that we'd never done before. 

… The pace of television was also a new treat for us, where in film, you've got maybe two hours and several months to do it. And I mistakenly thought, well, this will be like a nine-hour movie. 

But it isn't really like that because that first hour needs to be done in three weeks, and you haven't even seen what the fifth hour is going to be at or what's in it. So there's a lot of need to be nimble and malleable and leaving the pathways open so that, hopefully, themes can have connections and can feel like a cohesive whole, even though you're working before you've seen what where it goes necessarily.” 

Had you ever written a jazz standard? 

Reznor: “No, I hadn't. I know how to write a song. And I know how to do Nine Inch Nails things, but I'm not sure how to write someone walking down the steps. What's that music? There's no chorus in there. There's no verse. Should there be a melody or what's the role of underscore? What is underscore? How does it work? 

… We kind of initially wrote from a very subconscious ‘what's the feeling of the thing?’ … What are the feelings of the characters? And if I thought of the analogy of writing a song, as usually I'm starting with [the] story I'm trying to tell, and then I want to dress that story with music — and maybe the music plays with what I'm saying, maybe it plays against it — I know how to do that. 

We know how to kind of make things feel a certain way, and it was a charge. It's really exciting seeing that all come together. And it becomes one of several things in the process of working on “Watchmen” that made it a special time. Having those kinds of experiences, we are forced into something that feels impossible, pushed out of your comfort zone, wondering if you can pull it out of your ass, and it came out.” 

KCRW: Composing songs for particular scenes is also about a subtextual understanding of what is happening. So you might not have to say onscreen, 'Our entire American musical history is based on Black music.’ You just play it and then juxtapose it with this scene of the lynching, and it becomes another story altogether. It's not just a lynching, it's about Black history. 

Ross: “Exactly."

“Lincoln Tunnel” is another beautiful, haunting piece. Can you talk  about scoring that scene? I believe you've described it as the emotional climax of the series.

Reznor: “We kind of went against what we were told to do as an experiment to try. The scene takes place in an emotional reveal. We're trying to lead characters who are trying to prevent something that's inevitable from happening. And then there's a pretty violent shootout that happens, and it could have been played as an exciting gunfight, pulse-racing moment. And it was kind of suggested we start down that path because we need to amplify the feeling right here. We need to make it seem exciting. And we stumbled into this chord progression ... that just felt tragic. We immediately fell in love with it, and it felt like that story. 

But it was the opposite of that pulse-racing music. So we kind of pushed the case to say, ‘Let's see if we can play it all this way. You know, it's going to end in tragedy. Let's play up that rather than it be a surprise. Let's let you know for the full couple of minutes leading up to that — that this isn't going to end on a positive light.’ 

And it is probably my favorite moment in the whole series, not because we went against what we were told to do, but it was an awesome power when scoring. 

I've watched countless films in my life and television shows, and sometimes I pay attention to music, sometimes I don't. I wasn't studying them to kind of learn how to do this my whole life. I just enjoy watching films. I enjoy being lost in stories and being outside my own head for a while. 

… The godlike power that you have of affecting the emotional response of the viewer is incredible. And this was one of those times where it felt godlike. We could transform this whole couple of minutes sequence into something that went from, 'Yeah!' to something that went goosebump teary-eyed, 'Yeah.' 

… You leave that experience feeling like this is why I'm doing this stuff. When you tap into it, you just feel like you're doing the right thing. You're in the right place at the right time.”

— Written by Caleigh Wells and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski