A version of this story about Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross first appeared in the Nominations Preview issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Oscar winners for their score to “The Social Network,” Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor and his longtime collaborator Atticus Ross wrote the score for Fisher Stevens and Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate-change doc “Before the Flood” and also created a new song, “A Minute to Breathe,” which is Reznor’s first vocal performance in six years.
How did you come to work on “Before the Flood?”
TRENT REZNOR We saw the film and wanted to do whatever we could, because we believe in the cause and we felt a connection with Fisher as a director and a person. And about two-thirds of the way through scoring the film, I thought it would be interesting to do a vocal song.
I was purely motivated by “I wonder if we could pull this off?” It really was a challenge to ourselves to see if we could write something that could function as a song on its own, and feel small and intimate and work within the context of this film, which is about the most important issue we face as a species.
When you’re writing a song for a film, particularly for a documentary, there’s always the question of how pointed and direct you want to get with the lyrics.
REZNOR That was the hardest part. As we were immersed into this world of the film, this sadness started to permeate things. I thought it would be interesting to do a song that doesn’t feel on-the-nose at all — if you heard it outside this film, you would just hear a sense of loss and longing. But then the risk is, and this is me as an insecure songwriter, does it work in the context of the film if it’s too off the mark?
But I am genuinely proud of what we did. I think we made something that works on its own, that doesn’t feel directly like, “That’s a love song to the planet.” Sting can write that song.
ATTICUS ROSS Because I had nothing to do with the lyrics, I can be more direct. When I first heard it, I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to end the movie than the way it lands with that song. I was blown away. And also, at one point Trent was trying to convince me that someone else should sing it, because it’s not in his natural register. It’s a very fragile and emotional moment in the film, and it would have been easy for the song to slip into corniness. And there’s not a hint of it.
You haven’t sung on a recording in six years, Trent — were you unsure about recording the vocals yourself?
REZNOR I wrote this in my head, primarily — and in my head, my voice sounded really good. But when I got behind the mic, it quickly became apparent that it was in an unfamiliar register, and it sounded unsure of itself. I could hear the frailty.
The most rewarding and difficult time as a songwriter for me comes when it gets uncomfortable, when it doesn’t feel safe, when I think, “This might be too naked, why would I want to open myself up to this exposure?” I was in that space, and I started thinking, “I like the song, but I’m not sure if I’m the vessel to deliver it.” That was me showing fear, but I got bullied into doing it by Atticus. I had a list of cool singers who could have done it, but he was firm. And he was right.
ROSS It’s the personal honesty in the song that I respond to. We’re in a time where music is often all smoke and mirrors, with a lot of fluff and little substance. And there was something about breaking it down to the rawness in this particular piece that adds to its power and effectiveness.
REZNOR Not to get overblown about it, but it was a reminder to me that what has always drawn me to being an artist is those moments when you’re the least secure and you feel the ice is the thinnest. It’s a lot easier to say, “I like to be out of my comfort zone” than to actually be out of your comfort zone. That’s uncomfortable — but you’re in the moment, you’re alive, you’re not numbed by the overstimulation of this planet and this culture.
Click here to read more from the Nominations Preview issue of TheWrap Oscar magazine.