Atticus Ross knows when your film score is being lazy

Atticus Ross spent no time thinking when I asked if he thought Brian Wilson is a genius.

He is, said the Academy Award-winning composer. Which is why — in part — Ross spent more than a week trying to write just a single minute of music for the Beach Boy's biopic “Love & Mercy,” why he felt responsibility to craft something that wasn't “lame” to tell Wilson's troubled history. It's Wilson's legacy that informed Ross' risk-taking action, to chop, screw and build off of stems from Wilson and the Beach Boys' actual recording sessions and make a score that can still stand alone as a singular artwork.

Below is an abridged interview with Ross, about his work on “Love & Mercy.”  The composer/musician/Nine Inch Nails member also spoke on John Hillcoat's next film, writing with Trent Reznor, ] how Radiohead broke their own mold, making a soundtrack to a drug trip, and why his model for making good music is actually “bad business.”

You can watch my interviews with “Love & Mercy” stars Paul Dano, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks here.

HitFix: Did you find yourself struggling between being a fan and kind a composer tasking yourself with pulling through all the stems?

Atticus Ross: That was my idea. That was what I picked to do for the score. My immediate response to Bill about writing a score for is “Absolutely no f*cking way.” Because what”s it going to be? [Brian] is what he is, he is one of the greatest musical minds ever — certainly in the last 100 years. And so what”s it gonna be, some “Good Vibrations,” followed by some bit of score? That”s just going to be lame, in my opinion.

I know all Beach Boys stuff because I grew up with it. My dad used to have a ham radio station in England, and then he did a nightclub out here. So a lot of the Beach Boys music, I knew all their songs, because they were kind of ingrained in my consciousness in being a kid. But I wasn”t one of those people who was like, “I”ve got this mic because it was used on Pet Sounds.”

So before I wrote the film off, I was urged to just read the script. And I read the script and I thought the script was brilliant. Bill Pohlad undeniably is a man of great taste, from the films that he”s been involved with. Having read the script and knowing the story and knowing what they”re going for and knowing that it”s really a very original approach to the story and the points in time that they”ve picked to juxtapose… it felt like if we interweave Brian into the music, then it wouldn”t be like this jarring thing. Like, here”s the film and here”s this itty bitty score. We treated it more like the subject matter, tried to have the music reflect that.

There”s that part in the movie where Brian puts the headphones on and it”s just all this screaming chaos. That ended up being my wife singing — my wife is Brian's darkest moment. But towards the end of that, it builds in this cacophony and I deliberately lead to that awful “Sun, Sun, Sun” track, which becomes more and more unfiltered and then we”re using horns and stuff from his own music to build up into that moment of him sitting outside, totally out of it.

For actors, it can be difficult to portray somebody who is on a drug trip, or drunk, or somebody who is mentally ill, because it can come off looking fake. For you is there a similar struggle for composing music and arranging music, like when Brian's tripping or having an episode, or other psychedelic scenes?

It was just really the hours that were put in. I think for everybody involved it became a labor of love. Something like dinner utensils scene, it”s only a minute long that scene but I probably spent at least seven to ten days just working on that one minute of music. Because — like you say — it could be so awful, that moment of the knives and forks are coming alive, to do it in a way that felt alive and threatening and not overdone. There are some warped vocals from “God Only Knows” come in. But they”ve been re-tuned and messed with, just to try and get that sense of always being in his head.

We had the [session] tapes, and then I had all this stuff where they would just leave the tape rolling. I”d just have the stereo tracks where [Wilson”s] rehearsing with [studio band] the Wrecking Crew. And some of those sessions would go on for 40 minutes, and you can hear Brian talking back on the tapes.

You may think of Brian Wilson being spaced-out or whatever, but what you may not realize — and what comes across in the film — is just how focused he was during those years. And this isn”t space-out, or a guy who doesn”t know what he wants. He”s totally in control. He”s totally in charge of the sessions. He”s on it.

For dramatic films, what is — in your opinion — a lazy score?

This sounds too generalized, but I feel if you”re working with good actors, you can operate opposite, or juxtaposed, to them. It should be a dance.

If it”s a sad scene, people feel like it really needs sentimental music over the top of it. Like I feel a lot of stuff…

…is too on-the-nose.

Yeah. The stuff that drives me crazy is when it”s telegraphed, that sense of your being forced how to feel.

All the films I really like are the films that don”t necessarily give you the answer. Do you know what I mean? You can take away your own reading of it. I think you can do it yourself with “Love & Mercy.” How you experience it can be different for everyone. And I think that of all the good films I”ve worked on. There”s always a semblance of question marks. I don”t particularly appreciate being told how to feel in any part of my life in cinema or anywhere else.

You certainly wouldn”t want to make the same album over and over again. And I feel like with this film and with all the films I”ve worked on there seems to be a lot of effort put into the idea that the music exists as its own entity. And that”s something that you can recognize from that entity. For “Gone Girl,” there was a very clear idea behind that score – I”m not saying that we always succeed or anything. I”m just saying that the goal is to create, much like the film is in its own space and is its own story. I think the music should be in its own space and its own story and just made for that.

And I think that requires effort and time. It”s not a good business model. Like, my model is a bad business model.

I”m looking forward to your work on I guess on “Triple Nine.” John Hillcoat is somebody I really associate with Nick Cave. Can you talk a little bit about what you”ve been charged to do on that score?

John is a good friend of mine and the reason it wasn”t Nick — and I”m friends with Nick as well — is just simply that John had a vision for that one, which was it be very electronic, but not be kind of electronica, like… what”s the word?

Not like EDM.

Yes, absolutely not, nothing like that. Like early Depeche Mode or something where the electronics revel in the electronics.

It”s very raw sounding. He had that vision before and the film itself is another ensemble piece. When you”re working with 12 characters as opposed to two, what we realized early on was you really need to understand the relationships between these 12 characters in the first half-hour or the film doesn”t work.

Like, you can”t just assign each of them an instrument or a little melody line and throw it all together.

Yeah, so that was definitely a process. We”re just getting the last little bit finished right now. But John is John. He”s super talented and it”s a completely different film. It”s very dark and confined story. I haven”t actually seen the finished mix of it but still tend to have nerves because you just never know.

The way you kind of describe it kind of sounds like you”re using kind of analog sounds, almost minimalist electronic sounds. It made me think of Cliff Martinez on “The Knick.”

Yeah I love his stuff. I love “The Knick” as well. I think it works great.

When I was talking about juxtapositions earlier, I think that”s a good example where, on paper you don”t necessarily say “Oh, that”s gonna work.” But it gives it a kind of definition in terms of the whole piece. You might say, “Well that”s not from the period” but at the same time I feel like it”s perfect.

It almost feels native to it.

Yeah! “Native” is the word I was thinking of earlier, about films as a whole. Like, the idea that the music feels native to that specific piece I think is a goal — certainly in terms of composition as my goal. I think if you treat a film scene-by-scene, it”s different than looking at it whole. To give it its own life that is native to that specific piece, it”s definitely more work. It”s definitely more challenging. But I think in the end it”s ultimately more rewarding.

For you, what does Trent Reznor bring out in you as a composer? What do you bring out in each other that you kind of from project to project that you do happen to work on?

Collaborating with him brings out the best in me, and I would hope he would say it brings out the best in him. We”ve worked together for a long time and being in the studio is a bit like being stranded on a ship in the middle of the ocean. You develop a friendship that”s different to other friendships because… me and Trent have spent more time together in the last 10 years than we have spent with our families. And within that, beyond the friendship, I think you develop a language between the two of you that just becomes second nature.

I”ve learned a lot of what I”m talking about now from Trent, from the early days. Just how nothing leaves the studio — and nothing has left this studio for many years — without me thinking that”s the best I can do. Like, “I can”t do any better.” Of “You like it, but it doesn”t really matter to me anymore because I know that I”ve done my best.” That”s always been paramount with Trent. It really is like no stone left unturned

When we”re working together, before we pick up anything, there”s probably a couple of days of conversations about “What is it going to be?”. The problem with the digital age is you can have an orchestra in your computer. There”s every synth model. There”s every amp. There”s everything. There”s literally everything. So to me – and to Trent as well — the idea of making sound from scratch versus in a computer, there”s an idea about having to move the instruments can dictate ideas of the music. It”s like a process of subtraction rather than addition.

Making the process more work for you.

Yes, but, you know, you can”t do 10 films a year like that. There”s no way you can.

What”s next for you and Trent? Are you going to work on another score together or another Nine Inch Nails album?

We are working together on something coming out. We”re not actually talking about it.

Hopefully by “together” you mean you and him on maybe another score?


We talked about “The Knick,” are you a fan of other TV music? Watching anything that excites you?

I love the music on “The Fall.” Not that it”s new news to anyone but I feel like in television there”s been this incredible sense of risk-taking over the last decade or the past five years.

I guess you”re a fan of taking risks.

Ha, not necessarily in the car, but I hope in music. Going back to Brian [Wilson] I do think it”s impossible to make good art without taking some risks. And I mean this in the most humble way: the score for [“Love & Mercy”] could have gone horribly wrong. It”s a great risk to take on trying to integrate his music, looking at him and his career.

I always think of Radiohead, when they did “Kid A” that was one of their greatest moves and they were kind of big band, one of the biggest rock bands in the world and they made that album, and I love that album. And with “Pet Sounds,” when [Wilson”s] whole life led up to that point, and it was this giant step.

I think I do better work when I”m feeling more uncomfortable, when it feels like it”s a bigger stretch for me. And I think a lot of people feel the same.

Do you have a favorite song from a movie or a television show of all time?

That”s almost impossible… I would say, off the top of my head, “Laura”s Theme” from “Twin Peaks.” It”s one of the greatest. That”s another great example of something that it”s played a lot in major key, like it”s almost happy but at the same time it”s terrifying.