Last week, DiS was lucky enough to see a screening of one of the finest films we've seen since Fight Club, with some of the greatest dialogue since The West Wing and with a soundtrack as incredible as Lost Highway. Needless to say, the names Fincher, Sorkin and Reznor feature on all three of those projects, and the coming together of these gentlemen, to tell the story of the inception of Facebook, makes for not just incredible cinema about something which could easily be quite dull but one of the most inspiring feasts of ideas, imagination and artistry these two eyes of mine have seen for quite some time.
DiS was stunned to find DiS' request to chat with Trent Reznor - one of my/our all-time heroes - was accepted. Here's what he had to say down the phone to me, with an incredibly thoughtful tone and his surprisingly soft-spoken voice...
DiS: Congratulations on a great soundtrack, it must have been great to have been involved in such a brilliant film with such a fantastic triad of people...
Trent: Yeah, it was and I really agree with the other people involved. It was a pleasure.
DIS: Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue was great in The West Wing but this felt like he’d turned things up another notch. Did you get a sense of that when you first read the screenplay on the page?
Trent: Absolutely! When David [Fincher] first got in touch with me about scoring a movie I was like ‘Yes!’ but then I asked ‘what was the movie’ and he said ‘about the founding of Facebook, and these are the scripts’. As soon as I started reading them I realised this was excellent. The question then was how to get all those words into a watchable and entertaining film, and I think he did a great job.
DiS: To what extent did he give you a brief? I read in some places online that he was using tracks from Ghosts in early versions of the film - did he ask for more of the same, please? Or did he give you a lot of direction?
Trent: We did quite a bit of talking. When I officially took this on, late winter, he had shot the film and was in the process of putting together a rough edit. I’d read the script a couple of times and then saw the first 40 minutes to get a rough idea of the look and the pacing and the overall look to get a sense of the vibe. We talked at length, to try to get inside his head to find out what he wanted from me, why did he want me on this project. David isn’t the kind of guy who just wings it. He can tell you a very clear idea of what he thinks you should be like. So, he suggested let’s avoid an orchestra, let’s keep things somewhat synthetic. He threw out names like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. He set-up some parameters, and gave me a phase one of spending two weeks generating sort of let sketches, and then said if anything resonates, I’ll go down that path. In my mind it wasn’t so much scene specific things but tones and tonal ranges. Now that Atticus Ross and I have been working on the last couple of projects together, we’re kind of at the point where we can finish each others sentences. We know our goals, we went in quite focussed on what we wanted to create.
DiS: What was the chicken & egg scenario and the process in terms of tracks for specific scenes?
Trent: Well, the way this one worked is that with that 40 minutes of material he had created, he used the Ghosts material. From that I thought I could tell what he wanted us to do. I could also see that for a movie that is primarily people talking in a room, how important the emotion and tempo of the music could drive the film.
After the very first break up scene, those opening shots were so powerful with him running across campus and the credits coming up but the first cut I saw had some college-rock, I can’t remember what it was...
DiS: I read somewhere it was Elvis Costello he was using at some point in the film...
Trent: ...I don’t think it was that, for that scene. I could be wrong. I just remember some jangly college rock, a sort of ‘everything’s alright, let’s all have a beer’ sort of track. The film then sort of became some sort of John Hughes-esque, kids at college, light life. Which is not what the film should be.
DiS: I agree. I guess it’s sort of the way Shawn Parker talked about the digitalization of human beings and I guess you felt the film should have a digital palette of sounds...
Trent: The jangly guitars didn’t work and it really made the film feel different off the bat, with this afternoon movie vibe. I think we all felt that. We generated these things and David responded very positively and respectfully. I went to a screening a few days later at Sony. We showed up to a room full of people and that scene I was mentioning earlier with him running across the street, felt so much different. It felt like a much darker and more brooding movie. It was great for all of us to get over that first hurdle and realise we had gotten the tone and emotion of the film right.
DiS: How did it feel for you to have some limitations to writing music for a specific purpose, rather than the freedom you have when writing for yourself? Did you quite like having a restriction and an end goal?
Trent: I think, in hindsight, the most refreshing or interesting element, was not being the boss, realising I was working for a picture and I was serving what was best for the film. The relationship between David [Fincher] and myself was very positive, which meant we could say that’s great or that sucks or just make this little change. The process was really back, back and forth. It felt like a collaboration, which was interesting for me, because in my own realm, I’m top of the pyramid and I’ve got to say, it was refreshing to not have that burden. To work under someone, someone I respect, made for a great process.
DiS: I imagine that’s very different to when you were starting out making music because you didn’t want to have to answer to anybody...
Trent: Yeah, and the people you come across in the early days who are sort of like bosses are record company people and you know they don’t really know what’s best for your music, so you become protective and disregard them. This was really different. I have some friends in film and you hear stories about audience tests and the audience votes and the film changes based on their responses. This was really different to that, there was a lot of respect in this situation and the studio has been great.
I get what you were asking before...When I’m working on music for Nine Inch Nails, it’s very different. I’m approaching this based on what’s coming into your ear and I want the sound and the lyrics to have your full attention. Whereas working with film, music isn’t the master and what I’m creating isn’t dominating your attention. I’m just thinking how it can emotionally serve its purpose, rather than just being snippets of stuff thrown together. It was an interesting kind of challenge. What I think surprised us most when we finally finished and thought about turning this into a soundtrack record, we started listening back to stuff and realised it would make a pretty good album, and wondered how we could finish this off. Instead of just having some songs being twenty seconds, we tried to turn them into a full four minute track and we felt pretty good about that.
DiS: On a broader scale, when music was written hundreds of years ago it was being commissioned by Kings and Queens, written to a brief, which is an experience similar to what you seem to have been through. Do you think there’s a shift, with the likes of Mountain Dew getting involved in labels like Green Label Sound and advertisers buddying up with creatives, like with a film like this, there is perhaps a shift toward a future music business model which can work to support the careers of musicians?
Trent: That’s an interesting point. It’s strange how the business has changed so much and so little. Every time I turn on the TV there’s a commercial for GPS navigation or something that sucks, with Modest Mouse on the soundtrack. I’ll find myself humming Modest Mouse and thinking: assholes in cars. And you think, I wish you hadn’t tainted your song. Every time I hear a certain Led Zepellin track, I think of a Cadillac roaring down a highway, and I’m not sure I want to feel that when I hear music. I understand and appreciate the economics to keep doing your art, in a climate where people think music is free, and you can Google something and it is free.
DiS: Yes, the lowest price you can purchase something, is its value and a search with .mp3 usually makes that free...
Trent: Totally. When I look at people online and I see things like ‘I really like this band, and I like four or five tracks on this record but I’m not sure I’m gonna spend five dollars on it’ and I’m like ‘fuck you, you just spent that on a coffee’. Trying to keep your head above water as a musician, I can see there isn’t a clear cut right answer. I’d hate to think that American Express or someone are going to deem someone worthy enough or be the tastemakers, providing people funds to make their art. I think it’s an individual choice but it wouldn’t be my first choice.
DiS: I completely agree. I found myself watching the movie, with all the talk of Mark Zuckerberg with all his money, and wondering whether if he was you or me, would we buy up all the record companies?
Trent: Yeah, I often think about some of the people who are mega rich like that and they run out of things to spend their money on, I often wonder why they don’t realise they could radically impact the culture, and fund the arts.
DiS: Like the Medici bank and the renaissance, which leads in, to a different question. In years gone by, people formed bands because they had a message to spread or because, like Zuckerberg, they’ve had their heart broken and they want to change the world. Did you see him as like a rockstar character and could you relate to the vision, ambition and loneliness?
Trent: Yeah, I really could, to the character, as I’m not really sure how close to the real Mark Zuckerberg he is. If that was me, being portrayed on the screen, certainly I would feel uncomfortable because it’s not completely flattering but there are so many things he does that you wish you could do. Like the scene where he says I could have sold a piece of software to Microsoft for a million dollars but I gave it away for free, and it’s like, fuckyeah!
I could definitely relate to the idea of wanting to change the world. Growing up in a small town in the middle of nowhere and I was bought up to believe the television screen, and what’s on the other side of the screen, you can’t get to and that your destiny was what’s down the street, a gas station or the somwhat meandering lifestyle is what you might end up in. I think the main inspiration for me was that realisation. It sort of explains why I’m 45 and I’m about to have my first child and I just got married, as I put my life on hold because I had a drive to see what I could do, to see if I could change the world. I started making music to break out of this shitty town. I now find myself asking ‘why am I still doing this’ but I have no complaints about that.
In the character of Zuckerberg, I see that drive and ahead of all other things, ambition, that cost him on multiple levels. At the no point in the film do you see him realising that ‘I’m at the finishing line and I’m happy now’ because doesn’t hold true. So I imagine it was a great experience but I imagine he sees that accomplishment came at a price.
DiS: People have bigged you up as one of the foremost musicians at embracing the web and technology. You tend to treat social media the way a skateboarder treats a handrail, why do you think other musicians don’t quite ‘get’ the web?
Trent: Well, I don’t know why other musicians behave the way they do. In the last several years, I’ve been more present in trying to understand how people communicate online, because it interests me and I have a curiosity but also because I’ve watched the business model of the music industry collapse and I’m a part of it, I was, like everyone else, I was waiting for the answer, looking to everyone else thinking ‘what’s the solution here?’. As an artist you make music, you toil over, you hope you can first and foremost get it out to people and hope they respond to it but also right up there is that it’d be nice to be compensated for what you’ve designed your life to do.
It’s strange when you’ve got a public that’s interested in your work but doesn’t feel obliged to compensate you in any way. That’s a result of bigger problems than I can change. I can stand on a podium and say that music shouldn’t be free and I don’t [think it should be free], but I’m not gonna yell at you, as I’m losing that end of the argument. I understand why people steal, I steal myself and it’s not because I don’t respect artists, it’s because I want something I can’t get in any other way. I know people who feel that way, they’re not doing it so they can pirate it and resell it, they’re doing it because they love it.
DiS: Do you think your giving away of Ghosts, is a rare example which proves a lot of Wired Editor Chris Anderson’s theory about Freemium, in that you gave it away and got commissioned?
Trent: I guess so. Ghosts was really more a response to the fact we had just gotten off a major record label and I was like ‘hey, what can I do now that I couldn’t do before?’ One of the things I wanted to do was put out a sprawling record as that’s something I’d always wanted to do. I wanted it in a incredibly nice packaging, as I knew they [the major label] wouldn’t understand that. It was something that felt like the right thing to do, even if we only sold a few. Then we thought about how we would get people excited about this and we went back to the computer games, shareware model, give a chunk of it [away for free], if you want the rest, here it is. That was the real inspiration for it. Getting it into as many heads and iPods as possible was important but treating fans with respect and also getting back the release date being important as no-one could get hold of it until that date.
DiS: You’ve said in a few interviews that “Facebook sucks”, is it the abundance and cheapening of friendship - and love, as outlined in this recent piece by The New Inquiry - or something else that you don’t like about it?
Trent: I said that in passing. But that said, in the age of over-sharing and hyper-real versions of people presenting and representing themselves on the web, that if as many people really listened to Joy Division as list them on their Facebook page, Joy Division would be bigger than U2. That sense of, here’s the books I’m supposed to have read for the social archetype I want to fit into, so I’ll portray myself this way. I've seen that with people I know in real life, and I check them out online, it’s not always the same person.
DiS: Is it the falseness of it you don’t like?
Trent: I think the falseness is part of that. If you’re presenting yourself as false and you’re meeting people through the internet who are also portraying themselves not as they really are...I guess I’m just coming from an older school of: when you met people you met them. Whether you spoke to them on person or talked on the phone, when you interact with them it would be a real person and not some avatar of themselves.
When I was referencing Facebook, I was talking about the idea I was referencing, the idea of the social network. Facebook is a good idea, I guess. Certainly, I don’t really use it that much but it has got me closer to people that I hadn’t been in contact with that I actually know as real human beings, so that’s good.
As far as the concept goes, I don’t think it’s actually executed that well. The layout's kind of foolish and the processing is terrible, as a tool. When I see the media heralding Zuckerburg, putting him up on a pedestal of genius and mentioned in the same breath as Steve Jobs, I highly disagree with that. He was in the right place, at the right time, with a functional tool. I think if something came along doing what Facebook does and was just a lot better at it, then, well, most people use Facebook because everyone’s on Facebook but then you see how quickly Friendster and MySpace crashed. But as a tool, it’s OK.
And with that, the press officer asks me to stop, and my 24 other questions will have to wait for another time.
The Social Network is released on Friday and the soundtrack is out now. Ghosts, which is mentioned several times above is available for free from http://ghosts.nin.com/.