In the 1990s, Trent Reznor brought industrial dance music to the mainstream as the frontman for Nine Inch Nails. His profane, epigrammatic lyrics and provocative music videos made him a hero to rebellious teenagers, but his gift for melody and arrangement was present in even his most abrasive moments—“Down In It”, Nine Inch Nails’ first single, has a chorus that could get stuck in your head for days, and the instrumental “Help Me I Am in Hell” pulls listeners into a distressing current with a pulsing drum track and a minor-key guitar riff. Throughout the decade, Reznor branched out into film by producing the Natural Born Killers soundtrack and collaborating with David Lynch on some surreal soundscapes for Lost Highway.
The musician would soon meet his match with filmmaker David Fincher, whose directorial career had begun its ascent as Nine Inch Nails were winding down the promotional cycle for their breakthrough album The Downward Spiral. Though Fincher’s work as a music video director had more commercial roots than Reznor’s, movies like Fight Club and Seven took a confrontational approach to true crime and toxic masculinity that mirrored the lyrical subject matter in Reznor’s songs. Twenty years after Reznor’s earlier soundtracks, he and Fincher would begin a collaboration that extended across four feature films.
By the time Fincher tapped Reznor to score The Social Network, the pair had developed a mutual admiration society; a remix of Nine Inch Nails’ signature song “Closer” appeared in the opening credits for Seven and Fincher directed the video for the 2005 single “Only”. Their more substantial creative partnership on The Social Network almost didn’t happen. “I’d just spent several years touring and I’d just gotten married, and I made a promise that I was going to let my brain cool off for a while,” Reznor said in a 2009 interview with SoundWorks Collection. After completing a record for How to Destroy Angels, his band with Atticus Ross, Reznor reconsidered this decision and viewed a partial rough cut of The Social Network. Editor Angus Wall had temped in some pieces of music from the 2008 album Ghosts I-IV, which inspired Reznor and Ross on how they would score the film. “We spent a couple weeks generating music blindly, not for any specific scene,” he recalled. “When I sent them to David, I said ‘here’s a collection of swatches. Tape them on the wall, see if anything resonates with you.’”
One of these swatches, “Hand Covers Bruise,” resonated with the rapid-fire opening scene. A simple piano line with slight reverb was placed against the low hum of a violin, setting a melancholy and menacing mood that perfectly set the stage for the film. According to sound editor Ren Klyce, he and Fincher discovered it by accident. “Every single piece they gave us, we said, ‘oh, that’s really nice,’” he told SoundWorks Collection. “They all worked differently in their own way, but… when (‘Hand Covers Bruise’) got put on, we all reacted like ‘wow, this wasn’t what we were expecting, but it’s very beautiful.’”
The vaunted Ivy League setting and normcore tech bros of The Social Network contrast sharply with the sleek aesthetic and raging loners of Nine Inch Nails’ music, but both works share the themes of male entitlement, personal betrayal, and the dehumanizing effects of technology. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the opening scenes of the film, in which Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) after he delivers a condescending monologue about how lucky she would be to accompany him to Harvard’s prestigious final clubs. “Hand Covers Bruise”, which accompanies Mark’s solitary walk back to his dorm, gives the audience a chance to catch its breath after the snappy dialogue of the opening scene, and the echoing piano riff—which never seems to resolve to the home note—parallels Mark’s dissatisfaction with his place at the school. Klyce cites the piano riff as echoing Mark Zuckerberg’s character: “Despite the fact that he becomes this billionaire at the end of the film, he’s still this little, tiny person who’s fragile on the inside, and those piano notes say that about his character. That’s what David got really excited about.”
The Social Network was a critical and commercial success on its 2010 release. By the time Reznor had won his first Oscar for the film’s score, he’d begun his second collaboration with Fincher on the English language remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The subject matter for this film seemed to align more with the aesthetic Reznor had established in Nine Inch Nails: “when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came up, I thought, ‘Great. I see landscapes, terrible scenarios, and stuff I can understand’,” he told The Film Stage in a 2011 interview. Some of the film’s more brutal scenes, such as title character Lisbeth Salander’s revenge on her rapist and the torture scene towards the end of the film, look like Hollywood versions of Nine Inch Nails’ infamous Broken Movie.
Though Reznor had read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy—the source material for the film—he and Ross were once again composing music for an unfinished film. “We didn’t have the script, and we had not seen a frame of footage,” Reznor told Terry Gross in a 2011 Fresh Air interview. “But I’d spoken with David at length about what he visualized the shape of the sound to be. And right off the bat, he said: ‘I don’t want to use an orchestra. I’d like things to sound textural. I want to create the sound of coldness, emotionally and also physically’.”
Digitally manipulated recordings of bells and xylophones blanket the opening scenes of the film, lining the snow-filled, magic hour establishing shots with a sense of dread. Reznor spoke at length about his use of acoustic and electronic instruments on Fresh Air: “[The instrumental sounds are] processed and stretched and manipulated into a setting where it may sound harmonically familiar, but if you tune into it, it’s not behaving in a way that you’re accustomed to that type of sound behaving. I find experimenting around in that is an interesting place to work.” In other scenes, like one where protagonist Mikael Blomqvist is reviewing evidence from a decades-old murder, Reznor’s percussion skills build on the suspense of the secret Blomqvist is uncovering. A melody tapped out on a treated piano plays under a transition between a previous scene—in which Lisbeth Salander is assaulted by her court-appointed caretaker—to a close-up of Blomqvist shuffling through a stack of photos. When he finds an image of the woman whose disappearance he’s investigating, a percussive riff on a xylophone shifts onto the soundtrack. The beats accelerate as Blomqvist adds the photo to his wall of evidence and scans through a stack of photos from the day of her murder, zooming in on the camera angle and other people in the background of the pictures. When the shot cuts to Blomqvist standing on the street where the photos were taken, a buzzing, staccato drumbeat joins the acoustic instruments to amplify the tension. As Blomqvist enters a photo archive, the music fades into the background part by part; the xylophone riff that opened the scene is the last to recede, reminding us that the evil he’s investigating has yet to be discovered. This short piece of music sounds like the bridge between Reznor’s signature song “Closer”—which builds to a crescendo with a melody played on a treated piano under a bass-heavy beat—and his second career in film.
Reznor’s next collaboration with Fincher, Gone Girl, had a long enough gestation period that he was able to see a cut of the film before he started composing the score. The director told Film Comment in a 2014 interview that “when he came out of the screening, he was laughing, almost giddily. And he said: ‘…It makes me feel bad about myself.’” The Gillian Flynn adaptation draws on true crime tropes to explore the toxic marriage between kid-lit icon “Amazing Amy” Dunne (Rosamund Pike) and her gormless husband Nick (Ben Affleck).
Fincher once again had strong ideas for how he wanted Reznor’s score to sound. “David was at the chiropractor and heard this music that was inauthentically trying to make him feel OK, and that became a perfect metaphor for this film,” Reznor told Consequence of Sound in 2014. “The challenge was, simply, what is the musical equivalent of the same sort of façade of comfort and a feeling of insincerity that that music represented?” In the earliest scenes, the honeyed cinematography, slow editing, and aspirational, appealing costume design give Gone Girl the appearance of a respectable version of a made-for-Lifetime movie, and Reznor’s music follows that lead. The music in the first third of the film amplifies the mood with pillowy synth beds and sucrose-laden violin lines. Reznor finds the menace and musicality in found sound; a clacking drumbeat under the opening theme suggests the sound of a lawn sprinkler, and a two-note riff in “Sugar Storm” evokes a car alarm until the notes elongate and start aligning with the main melody. A glass harmonica weaves its way through the score, its pure, reverberating tone aligning with moments where Amy follows her most manipulative impulses.
If the pretty, tinkly menace of Gone Girl was a step outside of Reznor’s artistic comfort zone, the period-appropriate music of 2020’s Mank is almost unrecognizable as his work. In the promotional spot The Music of Mank, he observes that “[Ross and I] were intimidated, as usual, but I think any good project starts with a level of discomfort.” The pair opted for a period-appropriate score with a full orchestra, complete with swooning string themes and brass charts that could have come from a lush MGM drama of Herman Mankewicz’s day. A few of the sound cues that score especially painful scenes use a harmonic trick that Reznor frequently employs in his own music, in which a melodic theme plays against a minor-key chord progression that resolves the notes in the melody. The climbing melody and a slightly dissonant horn chart in the main theme for Mank uses this technique, which you can also hear in the instrumental at the end of “Closer”. A scene towards the end of the film, in which Herman and his wife Sara attend an election-night party at a Los Angeles nightclub, also puts Reznor’s acuity with percolating rhythm to good use. A tympani bangs out a rhythm that a piano doubles with a melody that matches the drum part. While other instruments swirl in and out of the mix as Herman and Sara join the party, the percussion part remains, underscoring the bustle of the party and the cacophony of views around their table.
After Reznor left the majors to forge an independent career in music, he’s thrived on having a sense of agency and creative control—a perspective Fincher has shared. “Everyone was jealous at the situation we’d walked into: the freedom granted by David,” Reznor told the Guardian in March of this year. “You’re just doing the best work you can, and you’re making art.”