When the nominees for the 2020 Emmy Awards were announced Tuesday (July 28) morning, few were surprised that HBO’s critically acclaimed sci-fi drama Watchmen was the leader of the pack. Among Watchmen’s 26 nominations were two in the musical categories, meaning Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have earned their first-ever Emmy nods.
Over the last decade, Reznor and Ross’ film scores have demonstrated a malleable mastery of styles, winning over skeptics who thought the guys in Nine Inch Nails should stick to their day jobs. But after an Oscar win (for The Social Network in 2011) and Grammy gold (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2012) for the duo, it’s clear they’re bringing an unpredictable musical vitality to what can often be a fairly paint-by-numbers field. For instance, not only does Watchmen earn an ‘outstanding music composition for a limited series, movie or special (original dramatic score)’ nod for the series’ throbbing, foreboding electronic score, but “The Way It Used to Be” – their you-can’t-believe-it’s-not-authentic version of a 1940s big band ballad – is up for outstanding original music and lyrics.
In the midst of wrapping up work on the upcoming film Mank about under-sung Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, Reznor and Ross hopped on the phone to talk about the “high wire act” that was scoring Watchmen, how ego fueled their work and why this particular project was “exhausting” but ultimately a “dream.”
Congratulations on some good news during these times. Were you surprised to see it, or considering that you already have an Oscar as a team, was part of it like, “well, this makes sense”?
Trent Reznor: In all honesty we don’t think a whole lot about the awards side of thing. We really immerse ourselves in the work and try to do the best we can. I think we’ve learned from doing years of putting out records, it’s that moment when you know it’s finished and the best it can be — that’s the moment you can’t wait for people to hear it. With an album you never know what’s going to happen, if it’s going to be ignored or lauded, and we’ve taken that process with us into the scoring world. You hope people will respond but it’s out of your hands. Having had the experience where you get heartbroken or something isn’t received as well or movies get ignored, it can taint your impression of the work you did on it.
It’s a form of self-preservation: we look at it as ‘whatever happens, happens.’ That said, it does feel good particularly when it’s something where you have a lot of skin in the game and that is the case with Watchmen. The experience of doing Watchmen and working with [creator] Damon [Lindelof] and being challenged by the team and getting to know the team and the amazingness of the material and the riskiness on all levels — taking on this sacred IP, the things he was trying to do in terms of race relationships — nothing felt safe. It felt like a high wire act all the way to the end. But it was fun, and it feels great to see it getting the recognition it deserves. We feel proud of being part of that team and holding up your end of the deal.
“High wire act” is a great way of putting it. I’m a huge fan of the graphic novel and was knocked out how well the series hits these different tones and plot lines. But with the music so front and center, that must have been a huge challenge.
TR: Like you, we love the graphic novel; it’s part of our DNA. We also have great admiration and faith in Damon Lindelof. And when those two were coming together, we reached out to HBO to say, “Hey, raising our hand — we’d love to be a part of this.” We go into it with that feeling of [being] safe but we had no idea where the story was going to lead. Even to the point where when we were working on it, we didn’t have all nine episodes [in hand]; we only knew the first few that we started on. There were lots and lots of twists and turns and challenges thrown at us. It never got boring, let’s put it that way.
Atticus Ross: It’s simultaneously exhausting and a dream project. But being a fan of the graphic novel and seeing that first episode, you knew that Damon had done the graphic novel justice and was carrying the same torch into 2019.
Watching the completed series, was there a moment that stuck out as particularly brilliant for you as a fan?
TR: I’m not at the point where I can be objective yet. We watched it a hundred times before it came out. When it came out, we were watching it and we were stunned at how prescient it’s become with this sad state of affairs in America right now. In general, thinking about it, it still has that – you know, when you listen to music, it tends to emotionally connect you to a place or experience. Certain songs remind me when I was eight years old listening to it in my parents’ [place], whatever it is. This really has that in a number of ways. It’s a place we miss being immersed in: that adrenaline of the next episode coming in and these characters that we became quite fond of and the team that worked on it.
AR: I don’t have a particular favorite moment because I remember being stunned as each episode came in — even having read the script with the sophistication of the storytelling involved. In terms of a story on top of a story on top of a story dealing with the most important issues facing our country at this moment, I don’t know if you can take a bigger swing than that. And it was remarkable that it landed. But it was like Trent said, when I think back to it, I kind of miss it. That was the main thing. Not to say we’re not inspired by what we’re doing now, but that will always be a special experience as far as I’m concerned.
“The Way It Used to Be” earned a separate Emmy nomination. It’s such a convincing jazz lounge throwback, people online were searching for it as if it were a real song from the era.
TR: That was one of those things. I was asked the other day, “what’s the difference between working on film and working on television?” Having had no experience in television [before this] I wrongly thought, “well, it’s just like a nine-hour movie.” But we don’t have scripts for the later episodes when we start. We have a vague understanding [of where it goes] but some of it is kept under wraps, so we’re starting our end of the craft with a general idea of where it might end up, but not for sure. So you have to be a little quicker on your feet than in film where you know where everything is going to happen and when it’s going to happen; it’s been orchestrated.
So “The Way It Used to Be” came up pretty late in the process. We were getting to that episode, we worked pretty much chronologically. We had gained respect and a comfort level – we had become friends with Damon and the team. Now what might have started as a feeling-out – “hey, could uh…” — had become replaced with a familiarity and confidence of “they can do this or that.” Or we could say, “It’s not music but I really think that scene falls flat the way it’s edited.” It felt like you were part of a team. So as that comfort level progressed and we got to episode six — which had always been one they’d earmarked as important and were proud of — it came up to a big roadblock. They had planned on temping in a piece of music for the lynching scene but there were issues with licensing because the publishers didn’t want that song, their song, any song, related to that imagery. So with the deadline of about a week [they asked] “Do you think you guys could write a song that could carry the same weight as this piece?” It had a haunting quality to it and it needed to feel of the period and be indistinguishable from an authentic song from the 1940s. Ideally the lyrics could work in a juxtaposed fashion, hearing what could be perceived as a love song set against this horrific imagery. “Could you consider writing something that could do all that? And can we have it in a week?” And it wasn’t like everything else is done and we’re sitting around waiting for Emmy time: We were trying to keep our heads above water with the other workload on our plate.
I think of the example of that ask as something that draws us to working with scoring. It’s very different from a rock band, from Nine Inch Nails. What’s great about it – and can be terrible too – is that it’s unlikely in my normal job I’d be asked, “Could you write a big band arrangement of a song, and can it be done with high stakes in a limited amount of time?” It puts you in a zone where it’s, “alright, let’s think how we can do this.” I had been absorbing a lot of music of that era somewhat in preparation for the project that was going to follow Watchmen, which we’re finishing now, the film Mank, which is the exact same time period. So I’d been moonlighting, absorbing that time period. The initial response to Damon was “give us the weekend and we’ll be able to say if it’s likely or not.” And the poles aligned, inspiration struck and we were able to work up a demo that felt like it could be good, and we could then get it arranged properly.
I will admit ego does come into play as a driving factor sometimes while we’re working. When it was asked, we thought, “man, wouldn’t it be great if we could pull this off? Be the team member that pulled this rabbit out of the hat.” And we did it and we’re proud of what we did there. In the vast sea of song candidates for the Emmys we thought it was too deep in the cracks for them to take notice, so it’s a nice surprise to see.
Trent, I have to say, this is quite a TV arc for you, going from that Hard Copy investigation 30 years ago to being an Emmy nominated composer.
[chuckles] I thought that was the pinnacle.