From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes, the personal tale in Empire of Light follows Hilary (Academy Award winner Olivia Colman), a woman who’s trying not to let her difficult past consume her present, even though she’s making some unhealthy choices that push her to the edge. Set in a coastal town in Southern England in the early 1980s, Hilary finds comfort in the Empire Cinema, where she works alongside the newest employee Stephen (Michael Ward), and solace in the power of movies.
Adding to the emotion of the story, Empire of Light is filled with music, both with songs of the era that really illustrate what was going on musically, as well as a score composed by two-time Academy Award winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that highlights the mood and tone of the world. During this interview with Collider, Reznor and Ross talked about what intrigued them about working with Mendes, how working with a filmmaker for the first time feels a bit like a courtship, improvising and experimenting to see what’s best suited musically, how the initial music they created compares to what’s ultimately in the film, and that every film they compose for is like a masterclass. Reznor also discussed how he’s surprised to still be making music with Nine Inch Nails that feels vital, and constantly reassessing to keep things real and authentic.
Collider: You guys hadn’t worked with Sam Mendes before. You’ve said that you were intrigued by and were admirers of his work, so which of his films had most stood out to you, or made an impression on you? What did you find yourself drawn in by, with his work?
ATTICUS ROSS: For me, front of mind was 1917, just because it was his last one. I thought that was a masterclass in filmmaking. I know it probably wasn’t technically one shot, but it certainly read as one, and it felt like a piece that was simultaneously visceral and incredibly beautiful. And you can track that all the way back to American Beauty. He’s made so many classic films. He’s an undeniable force, both in theater and film. If you get a call from Sam Mendes, saying that he’d like to talk to you, he’s exactly the type of person where you say, “Well, he’s a master. So, yes, that’s fine.”
It’s at least worth a chat, I would imagine. So, when you have that first meeting or conversation with a filmmaker that you haven’t worked with before, do those early days feel like something of a courtship? Do you tend to know right away, if you want to work with someone? Does it sometimes take a few conversations? What is that feeling-out process like?
TRENT REZNOR: It does feel like a courtship. Atticus and I spent quite a lot of time, over the years, thinking about what we wanna get out of working in film because we’ve been lucky and fortunate. Having a day job that’s playing in a rock band has allowed us to look at the career of scoring for films as something we wanna be selective about and deeply think about what we’re trying to get out of it, rather than going, “More, more, more.” We had to think about what the trajectory was that we were aiming for in this world, and what we landed on was really trying to choose people or choose situations where we think we would learn and expand our minds. It’s never about what we can make the most money from, or what has the best chance of an award. That’s not front of mind. It’s about who would be an interesting personality to engage in a several-month, intense working, forced collaborative relationship where, at the end of the day, we’re not in charge and we’re not calling all the shots.
With that in mind, when Sam rang up, we were intrigued and flattered and curious, as to what he saw in us that would be appropriate for this project. And with Sam, we quickly came to the assumption that, if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, we probably would have lots of breakfasts and meetings. He wants to get to know you. He was very open, right from the beginning. He was still refining the script, and we got into a rhythm where, every couple of weeks, there would be a multiple-hour Zoom call, where we’d just talk about stuff. And I realized it was his way of getting to know us because we are going to share an intimate experience, and particularly on this film, which we knew was dear to him because it had a lot of personal input from him. He would call and chat about really just anything, but often it would be talking about the setting of the film and experiences he’d had, and he showed us photos of things. We realized it was an attempt to jumpstart what would’ve more organically happened, if we could sit down in the same room, because we were in the midst of pandemic world.
We come into these situations often with prepackaged insecurity, and we felt like we needed to show him that we could adequately cover this space in a way that would embellish and suit what he had in his mind. For us, it always feels like our mission, initially, particularly with someone we don’t know, is to try to, as quickly as possible, read between the lines, as to what they’re saying. All directors pretty much know what they’re looking for, sonically, and we were trying to decode the role of music in this particular film, what parameters we were allowed to use, in terms of a canvas of sound we can paint with, what instruments, what kind of sound, how traditional or how avant garde, et cetera. With Sam, because he’s so intelligent and literate and articulate, it revealed itself pretty quickly. We pretty quickly found a rhythm. With the Englishness of Sam and Atticus, there was a secret language being spoken with them.
I don’t and have never composed music, but it feels like it would be similar, especially very early on, to a writer staring at a blank page and wondering what to put on it. What were those first compositions like, that you guys experimented with on this, before you really had the visual? How does that compare to what the final composition ended up being? If we went back and listened to where you started, would we be very surprised by how it sounds now, in comparison?
REZNOR: When you mentioned the blank page, to me, writing the song is starting from complete scratch. “What’s this gonna be about? What am I trying to say? How can I arrange sound to support or contradict that message? How can I frame that message? What emotional reaction am I trying to get?” With film, we’re starting with lots of components in place that we didn’t put there – the script, the director’s opinions, later, the picture of the timing, et cetera. And then, there are parameters in place and there are limitations set by those things. It feels less intimidating than a blank page because there are things that need to be done, and now it’s a riddle that needs to be solved, in an emotionally authentic and pure way.
With that said, what we’ll do, at the beginning of a relationship with someone for a film is usually feel them out, as to what sonic character they’re looking for. When we did Mank with David Fincher, he said, “I’d be curious to know what it would sound like, if it was scored orchestrally in the style of Bernard Herrmann, and this was canisters of film that they found on a shelf that hadn’t been touched since 1936.” That’s a pretty specific ask. And then, we were like, “Okay, we think we know what you mean. We know where to start.”
With this film, we knew what it was about. We knew the story Sam was trying to tell. We weren’t sure what would be appropriate, sonically. “Should it be a string quartet? Should it just be a solo piano? It probably doesn’t want to be avant-garde electronics throughout, but maybe.” So, we started by just composing, not to picture because nothing had been filmed yet. It was just sketches of things that sounded like they could be in the world. We purposely go a little off track to see. Sometimes we’re surprised that what they’re looking for is stranger or more left of center than we thought.
ROSS: Yeah, and that is part of that process of getting to know the director, from the last question. We’re having these long conversations with Sam and we can talk about, “The music is gonna be really cool, and it’s gonna have this and that.” It’s just easier to make music and play it and have a conversation, rather than try to have an imaginary conversation. If you’re using film music language, I suppose you’d say we create suites, but really, they’re just us going off into the world, trying to world-build around the script.
REZNOR: It’s usually improvisations where we would say, “Today, let’s write a piece, if the magic is there.” That piece could be five minutes, or in this case, there were a couple that were 20 minutes, of things we’re not precious about, that feel in the spirit of examples of what we’re hinting at and what feels instinctually like the right place for us, for the film.
ROSS: We were not trying to find Hilary’s theme in this. We were trying to feel Sam out, in terms of how far we could go and where his head was at. To your question of, “What would you find, if we gave you those in the film?,” probably not that much. But what you would find is a discovery process that arrived at a place where we knew the parameters of how we were going to approach the score.
REZNOR: I can’t remember exactly what we sent out on this film, but we probably would’ve sent out, “Here’s the solo piano by itself. This was improvisation that feels like a thing. Here’s something that’s much more Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, ambient, very spatial, not atonal, but less traditional.” We’d send things like that to see, when he hears, if he’ll come back and say, “Oh, as soon as I heard that, I was thinking, when we pan across the cold ocean in the winter, that’s the perfect sound. That feeling is right.” It’s easier to have an example of it, rather than saying, “Imagine a dusty piano, slightly out of tune, sitting in a room.” It’s just easier to say, “What about this?”
Trent, there are a lot of bands that don’t last over the decades. Are you surprised to still be making music and touring with Nine Inch Nails? Do you still want to return there because it is something that is different than what you’re getting from composing music?
REZNOR: Yes, I’m surprised. When Nine Inch Nails started, if you would’ve said, “Would it be around 30 years later?,” no, I wouldn’t think so. It felt finite and volatile. I think over the years, the rule behind Nine Inch Nails is to be as honest with myself as I can be, at the time I’m making it, and search for it feeling authentic and real, and not a posture. That has served me well. The decision, early on, not to listen to what the record label said and put records out in timely fashion, and wait until I was ready to do it, cost me a career fork, but I think added to longevity because it maintained its integrity.
When we play shows, which we just did a couple of months ago, it feels relevant, and it feels vital still. It doesn’t feel like we’re putting on a costume and pretending we’re someone we aren’t anymore. It doesn’t feel like nostalgia. There are nostalgic elements in there, certainly, but it feels like it still has power and finds a connection. We are excited about making a new album and continuing to see what we can learn about ourselves in the process, and that search for truthfulness. Unexpectedly, as the world of film became an avenue for us, the two play off each other in a way that we find refreshing. To be thrust into these situations, and to enter into these forced collaborative scenarios, which is the opposite of Nine Inch Nails, where we can sit in a room and just indulge our whims was, at first, super intimidating. Now, it’s still intimidating, but we’ve learned so much.
Every film is a masterclass in something. Being presented with these riddles that need solved, these tasks that we wouldn’t electively place upon ourselves, we’ve learned an immense amount. We’ve learned a lot about what it is we bring to songwriting, and why we’re musicians, and lots of things that have real value to us feeling good about ourselves and feeling alive and connected to the world. So, our thinking for the last few years, and our continued way of thinking, for the time being, is that being able to alternate between those things in a reasonable amount keeps things fresh. Right now, having done four films in a row, and working on a fifth and sixth, we’re ready to carve a little time out for closing the door and resting, and also we’re ready to dig in, ourselves, a bit, and see what we have to say, and see if it’s worth putting out, and see if it’s worth sharing with the world.
As an audience member, I’ve been to many Nine Inch Nails shows. I’m also a concert photographer, and I’ve shot you in concert many times. You can feel it when people are no longer into it anymore, and they’re just doing it because they feel they have to. But with the shows that I’ve seen of yours, it seems like there is something that you’re discovering in it, even sometimes in the older music, that is surprising. That’s rare. That doesn’t happen with every band that’s still around, if they’re even still around anymore.
REZNOR: Well, I appreciate you saying that. When I think about peers, it’s weirder getting older. You’re also changing. The world is changing, but your perspective is also shifting, so there’s no constant. It’s a constant reassessment. And I’ve often wondered, because there aren’t that many peers from our era that are around or performing at an A-level, or a C-level, “Man, am I the one that’s stuck? Am I the one that’s in a state of avoiding maturing?” But I do think it is about placing it on a pedestal and making sure that, if you’re gonna do it, do it with your whole heart and full commitment. And it needs to feel real. If it doesn’t, like you said, you can sense it. I think people can read that, and then it becomes nostalgic, it becomes a thing that’s not the reason we’re doing it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking back at something and getting a warm hug from the feeling in the past, but that’s not what this project is about, as long as I can hold onto that.
Well, I love the music that you put out. Whether it’s composition, or the band, or whatever it is, it’s always interesting. It always feels like it’s keeping my ears excited and open, and I never know what to expect, so thank you for that.
REZNOR: Well, that’s a fantastic compliment. I appreciate it.
ROSS: Yeah. Thank you.
Empire of Light is now playing in theaters. Check out our interview with Mendes from 1917 below: