Interview: Oscar-winning ‘Triple 9’ composer Atticus Ross on why he thrives with collaboration

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Composer and music producer Atticus Ross won an Oscar with his writing partner Trent Reznor for their score for The Social Network. They worked together for David Fincher’s next two films The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, but when he’s not working with Reznor he’s often working with his wife Claudia Sarnes and his brother Leopold Ross. He collaborated with them both along with Bobby Krlic for their score for John Hillcoat’s Triple 9, of whom was his first score without composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

How were you brought on board onto Triple 9?

John [Hillcoat] was a friend and I knew him because I used to work a lot with Barry Adamson from The Bad Seeds [Nick Cave’s band]. He did a video for a band that I’m in and I did a commercial with him too. He has always had this relationship with Nick [Cave] but when Triple 9 came along he had a vision for the music which was to be a wall of an electronic landscape. The only instrument he wanted was a saxophone.

As John Hillcoat had only worked with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis before, did their previous work influence your approach?

I’m friends with both these guys but they didn’t necessarily influence my work here. They’ve certainly influenced me as a person. Nick stands as someone who’s never compromised. Those are the type of people that I really look up to, beyond being a really nice guy, which Warren is too. I think the last Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album [Push the Sky Away] was the best one yet. When I saw them play at the Henry Fonda it was one of the best shows I’d ever seen.

We do have history working in film though. We all won the Mexican Oscar, the Ariel, together for the film Days of Grace. It was three different storylines that linked together and the director wanted three different sounds so he got Nick and Warren and then Shigeru Umebayashi along with myself, my wife Claudia [Sarne] and my brother Leo [Ross] to do the score.

How does that collaboration with your brother and wife work?

I like working with other people just all around but we’ll go off and write separately and then come together and we just see what works and what doesn’t. To be honest I was kinda disappointed with the sound mix of the film but on the album you can clearly hear the voices, that’s generally my wife or my brother. Leo is a phenomenal guitar player and Claudia is a trained pianist. I don’t have any classical training myself so I know can rely on someone who actually knows what they’re doing.

There’s also Bobby Krlic who worked with us and that was because he’s become a friend and he’s someone who I think is really good. We were doing it over the internet but he took more of the Russian story. I feel if you do have the opportunity to help someone you like, it’s good to take it.

What was John’s ethos in directing you for this score?

You know how everyone’s slightly sweating the whole time? There’s a kind of oppressive sense to the whole picture that he wanted to capture. We wanted a way to work the saxophone in that didn’t sound corny. He had this concept for hardware synth sounds rather than music made inside the computer.

I try to find the big picture, find out the parameters and reduce the choices of instrumentation which at the same time allows you to be creative. To me the scores that I love are the ones where I feel transported and unaware that I’m in the cinema when I’m watching. If you think of it as a series of cues with the mindset is to get this tune approved by the director then you’re not in a world.

I do like to come on early to a project, so the way you’re working is like developing a straight road. However, this road was more of a maze because John was shooting all the time and re-editing. I did read the script but it was difficult to tell what was going on when you have that many characters. I think if John had a couple more months he could have taken it to what could be a classic film, but it’s tough when you’re on someone else’s financial clock.

Given the way the score is so deliberately overwhelming, how did you and John compromise the way the score does the heavy lifting of building momentum in a scene?

I think with good actors you don’t need to telegraph the emotions. I don’t think a well acted sad scene needs sad music to drive a point home. However, it was a difficult journey for both of us. I like music that plays across several scenes and since the film has so many different plots I could have one piece that works really nicely across three or four scenes then the next draft of the film had them moved around. Finding the story was the hardest part. Generally it involved going back to the drawing board as it always does on any film.

You only seem to collaborate with Trent Reznor on David Fincher films when it comes to scores. Is that a sacred relationship or simply a coincidence for now?

You might see something else.

I assume you’re working on his next one, whatever that may be.

Well, Trent and I are working together at the moment and things will be revealed when the time comes. That’s all I can say, but I’m very excited on the work we’re doing. It doesn’t matter what’s going on even if we’re completely on disparate things, we always do one day a week together. It’s been an amazing journey and obviously he’s my best friend.

You’re co-credited with another composer for most of your scores. Why do you not fly solo? Is that a misconception?

I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it before. I come from bands and those have always been a collaborative process. I like that energy when you get when you’re bouncing off other people. I can’t imagine changing, I think everyone would be pissed off if I suddenly said the next one is just me. There are plenty of composers who work with many more people than I do. The difference is that I credit them.

What did you learn from the past few scores you’ve written including Triple 9Blackhat and Love & Mercy?

If I’ve learned anything then it’s that story is King and I think that when I read a script now I’m more focused on the translation of that than I was before. When reading the script we are often writing music to the film that’s in our head and then when the picture does come in it becomes more of a traditional score.

Does it ever stay close to your initial vision of the film?

It’s less ‘here’s a scene that’s 2 minutes long’, it’s more creating pieces of music that could inhabit that world. Like The Social Network for instance, ‘Hand Covers Bruise’ was simply working from the script. [Aaron] Sorkin has such a brilliant script so it wasn’t hard to get down and start writing, but what we realized was how much you can change the temperature of a film with a piece of music. Originally it had been an Elvis Costello song and it did feel more like a John Hughes thing, so when our score went in it set the temperature at a place that made it possible to keep that landscape of music throughout the movie.

Besides Love & Mercy’s romance, you often work on dark films. Would you say that’s your taste in film?

Not necessarily, to be honest with you. Love & Mercy was challenging as it was in a different place. I think as a musician and composer I certainly don’t just want to do dark films but it’s not a volume business, it has to be the right thing.

Are there any films people would be surprised to hear you liked?

Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places… Elf. Is that enough?

I think so, yes.

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