It was a sublimely weird moment, the sort of surprise that make the Oscars just barely worth watching, when Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor took the stage at the Academy Awards in 2011 to accept the Best Original Score statuette for their coldly sinister music for The Social Network. Viewers who shut their eyes at that moment and listened closely, heard the sound of a nation muttering in unison, “Huh, aren’t those the Nine Inch Nails guys?” They were indeed the Nine Inch Nails guys, frontman Reznor and engineer/programmer Ross having translated their distinctive brand of chugging industrial electronica to fit David Fincher’s visuals, and to great effect. They did so again with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, and in addition to his contributions to NIN, How to Destroy Angels, and a number of other side projects, Ross has also taken on other score work. His latest project is Triple 9, a star-studded thriller pitting a criminal collective against the Russian mafia, directed by Ross’ old pal from the early English electronic scene, John Hillcoat.
Ross’ score matches the same precise, mechanized rhythms that characterize his musical work to Hillcoat’s rigorously technical action sequences. The cheekily-named “Ticking Glock” uses a stopwatch as its percussive skeleton, heightening the intensity of the music surrounding it until the whole thing feels ready to blow. With Triple 9 now in release, Ross spoke with Uproxx about the core difference between composing a score and traditional songcraft, anxieties over comparisons to Brian Wilson, and the strange Amsterdam adventure that first acquainted him with Hillcoat.
I was curious about the extent to which writing music for film is a chicken-egg scenario. How much footage of the film are you able to see while you’re developing your score? Or, after you’ve written your music, does the film’s editor contour the cuts to sync up with your compositions? What’s the interplay there?
Normally, the case is that everything is done in my and Trent’s studio and nothing is changed at all by a music editor. In this case, the music was altered a bit in the mix and edited, because Triple 9 itself was in constant motion. The last scene, for instance, that shot was flown in. It was shot by John on Skype with Woody in London the day before the end of the final mix of the film. So that was thrown in, like, the day before everything finished. This particular film was changing and evolving, there was no lock on it.
How did that affect your process?
Well, it made it more frustrating. I love John, and it was an excellent piece with a really difficult story to tell, because he had to understand the relationships in this very big cast. A complicated story. When I saw the finished version for the first time last week, I thought it was the best it had ever played. And musically, I can say I wish this or that or the other because some things had been changed, but as a film, the way the story plays is the best version yet. In terms of the music, why that can be challenging is that there were many times during the film when we thought “this is stable, this is set,” so we’d write a piece that travels through three storylines and is intricately linked to the picture. Then in the next cut of the picture, all those scenes are moved around. It can feel a bit disjointed, but that’s the nature of the beast. Sometimes you work on a film and you see rough cuts and it hardly changes from there to the final mix, sometimes you work on something in constant motion.