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‘Empire of Light’: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the Film Score

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Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are doing double duty this award season: The duo scored Luca Guadagnino’s cannibal romance “Bones and All,” and they also collaborated with Sam Mendes on Empire of Light.

Olivia Colman takes center stage in Empire of Light as Hilary, a small-town movie director. Hilary lives alone and has very few friends, but finds herself drawn to Empire’s newest employee, Stephen, played by Michael Ward. Coleman’s character is close to Mendes’ heart, as a woman modeled after his mother, who struggled with mental illness. The music explores not just a love affair, but the story of a woman finding love for herself.

“Sam has thrown in very personal things about what fuels this movie,” Ross explained. “As we record Hillary’s journey, it’s an intimate move and she needs to make a heavy journey.”

Mendes, who had brought the duo along when he was in the scriptwriting stage, gave Reznor and Ross photographs of British coastal towns so they could shoot the film’s setting. Still, Reznor and Ross spent a few weeks creating music based on what they thought Mendes was looking for.

“We don’t automatically use an orchestra or have a vocal range in terms of instruments,” Reznor said. “We’re just trying to understand how far we can push the boundaries of what is acceptable in his mind.”

Mendes told Reznor and Ross that he needed four days of music—a lot of work for a movie that’s only two hours long—and referenced a musical cue from a different movie where he thought they used an orchestral arrangement. But, Ross said, “There was no orchestration for this particular piece.” Instead, the signal Mendes is referring to was rooted in the piano’s foundation, and thus the instrument became an integral part of “Empire of Light’s” score.

“In our skill set and vocabulary for being able to hear things in our heads and translate them, the piano is probably the only instrument I know well enough to do that,” said Reznor. “It felt most vividly as it could convey grief, familiarity, and vulnerability in a language we knew how to speak.”

Human voices (especially Reznor) and strings also appear over the piano music. “There’s a lot more going on than just the piano,” said Reznor. “It’s all around the edges and subtle—nice, warm harmonies around the piano foundation.”

In putting the music together, Reznor and Ross didn’t want the score to feel pretentious, but rather act as a nuanced soundtrack to an emotional journey of self-love. And while there may have been a lot of music in the pre-production building for the score, the final result is quiet and restrained.

“I think we were able to bring that level of emotion and scale by using things that were unique to this particular story,” Ross said.