It’s been a trying year for Trent Reznor, to say the least—one that began with the death of his idol and tourmate David Bowie, who inspired the Nine Inch Nails frontman to kick heroin in the late ’90s, and may end with the election of a racist, pussy-grabbing ex-reality-TV host as president of the United States.
Amid the cacophony, the man Dave Grohl called “my generation’s most talented musician-producer-songwriter” has kept himself occupied recording NIN’s ninth studio album, which may land sometime this year, and scoring a pair of hot-button films: the climate-change documentary Before the Flood and Boston Marathon bombing drama Patriots Day.
Directed by Fisher Stevens and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Before the Flood follows Hollywood star, lady-killer, and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio as he delivers a crash course on the reality of climate change, from the disappearing Sumatran forests to the melting glaciers of the Arctic Circle. He picks the brains of scientists, Harvard economists, President Obama, and Pope Francis, all of whom agree that climate change is not only real, but a grave threat to future generations.
The ambient score of the film was composed by the Oscar-winning duo of Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network), along with the band Mogwai and Gustavo Santaolalla.
The Daily Beast spoke to Reznor about the film, the Republican Party’s war on science, and more.
I was wondering if you could walk me through your process of scoring a film. I heard that the first movie you scored was One Hour Photo, except it was later scrapped. [Laughs] Oh yeah, I forgot about that! The one I almost did. There was no process in place back then. The process begins by cleansing the palate and understanding what the director’s vision is—what they see in the space, or the role music plays in the film. Then working with Atticus [Ross], what we normally do is sit around and overthink it for a while, then try to make some intelligent decisions about what arrangement we’re going to use: what types of instruments, what types of instrumentation. Is it more organic? Is it natural or synthetic? Is it abrasive? Those choices can always mutate as the process starts. Generally what we’ll then do, while we’re fresh and enthused, is go off on tangents a couple of weeks at a time of composing raw music—usually without any picture—to immerse ourselves in what feels like the right environment for the film. Sometimes you’ve just read the script, sometimes you’ve seen a nearly finished cut. In the case of Before the Flood, we had seen an early assemblage of footage and had a good idea of what the tone was. From the beginning, Fisher [Stevens] was very precise about not wanting it to feel too gloomy or like the end of the world, and always wanted it to end on a note of optimism. So it could get dark, but we didn’t want people feeling defeated or helpless. Then we just go off and have fun for a while, which is usually the most exciting part of the process because you’re not chained in with anything and are creating an environment that would complement the visual images and the director’s vision.
Since you’ve scored Before the Flood, climate change must be an issue that’s pretty close to your heart. But it doesn’t seem like we discuss it nearly enough. It being so politicized—and the repulsive climate that’s emerged the last however many years over whether you’re choosing to believe or not in facts—is absurd. In an environment where a Trump can rise to create as much chaos as he has, it’s alarming to see society devolve in a lot of ways. I have my own theories of what’s behind a lot of that—the dumbing-down and anti-intellectualism that’s taking place.
What’s your theory? I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in a small town, pre-internet, feeling away from the world. What happened on the television screen was a world away from what was in the range of my experience. I grew up with my grandparents and didn’t travel. I didn’t look at myself as a redneck or “backward,” but I know the feeling of exclusion. And when I’ve gone back there to visit—I still have family back there—I have seen what the housing crisis has done to the small town I grew up in, where the biggest house the rich people lived in on the block you can buy for $35,000 now, and the shadow of the dead coal industry looms over it all. It’s an economically depressed area. Living in California or on the coasts, it’s easy to lose touch with what a lot of the country is.
Yeah, I agree. People in major metropolitan cities do seem divorced from the feelings and needs of people in the heartland. And with the distracted culture that we live in where we’re bombarded with entertainment options, 24-hour news, and the death of journalism through clickbait being the business model, and lots of people getting their news on Facebook, where it sure feels like a high percentage of it is false, and I can choose what version of reality I want to live in by what channel I watch my news on or whatever source I get that from. It’s functioning as entertainment masquerading as news. That climate has made it so we’re somehow arguing about facts.
Doesn’t religion also play a sizable role in the anti-science movement? Well, the fossil-fuel industry and the Republican agenda has done a masterful job of polarizing elements of the country and turned [climate change] into something where we’re debating its existence. Being the father of three small boys has changed my worldview quite radically. I don’t want them to inherit a place that we’ve ruined because we’re too fucking stupid to pay attention to these things.
The 2016 presidential election is a pretty consequential one when it comes to climate change. You have Hillary Clinton who believes that climate change is an issue of grave importance, and Donald Trump who thinks it was invented by the Chinese. Also, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence doesn’t even believe in evolution. [Laughs] How do you even engage in a dialogue when that’s the stance? What attracted me to this when it came up, because we had a pretty full schedule to start with, but the idea of taking one of the most recognizable celebrities on the planet who cares deeply about this and presenting a digestible overview of this, and putting it out in a fashion where there’s a low barrier of entry to see it—it’s being broadcast everywhere and available on all platforms—and the fact that they were always trying to get this out before the election, if I can contribute in some small way to make this a little bit louder then it’s my duty to do that.
What do you say to people who are a bit wary of being lectured about climate change by Hollywood celebrities who fly around in private jets? We live in a society now where it’s real easy from your armchair or basement to complain, make a meme, minimalize, and attack. It’s the culture of sniping and strange forms of political correctness and armchair activism. But who can argue that? I get it. But behind it all, it certainly seems to me like somebody who’s trying to do something from a good place—to enlighten as many people about something that does matter, that is real—and if it turns a few people on, it gets a conversation started, or it at least calls to attention the many, many flaws of this candidate [Trump], one of which is the denial of science, then that’s a good thing.
What are your thoughts on the rise of candidate Trump? It almost doesn’t seem real. It is surreal. I’ll admit that I was entertained during the Republican debates and the whole process of whittling them down. It’s kind of fun to see a grenade go off and see these guys—I hate every one of them—be eliminated and humiliated. But it stopped being funny months ago. It’s sad to see the discourse be dragged this low. It’s absurd that this is even happening.
Aside from this documentary, what do you think can be done to help inform the public about climate change and combat the forces of denial? I think the right and the fossil-fuel industry have done a great job of muddying the waters to the point where one can even engage in an argument about the legitimacy of it. Nobody is arguing about gravity right now—we’ve pretty much accepted that as fact. We can help through things like this film and just reminding people in a sea of distraction that this is a real thing that we as a society can still prevent from getting worse and potentially reverse it. But we have to be aware of it. There is a great moment in the movie where it’s articulated in a way that I hadn’t really thought about it: Politicians follow what the people want. They use the example of gay marriage with Obama. Once the public is aware of and excited about a certain policy, then politicians fall in line and follow that through. Things like this film help to continue that dialogue and remind people that climate change isn’t going away.
One thing that may not go away is Donald Trump, who may very well launch a TV news network with advisers Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon post-election. Are you worried about Trump’s lasting effect on the political landscape? I’m absolutely terrified about that. Hopefully, Trump will flame out any minute now, but the effect of him—or he himself—is not going to go away, and there’s going to be an awful lot of very energized followers. We all know they’re not going to say, “Well, let’s support Hillary because she’s the president now.” She’s walking into a terrible situation.
I’m not sure how much worse it can get than having your husband’s accusers present at a presidential debate with your husband and daughter a stone’s throw away. Oh, it was terrible. And you think, “Who would want that job?” What a humiliating and terrible ordeal to have to even put up with. Since it’s down to two people, there’s no question that 100 percent of my support is going towards her. I’ll admit that I was more enthused about Bernie in terms of the sense of upheaval and revolution. I’m not saying anything that isn’t very obvious here, but that passion and that ignition of feelings—of wow, we could affect change—is the same way I felt before Obama got in. I feel less passionate about Clinton, personally. It feels establishment and generally I think that turns people off.
Now, I’d be culturally remiss if I didn’t ask you when we can expect a new Nine Inch Nails album. Will it be sometime this year? [Laughs] I am working on music right now. That’s all I can say!