With Trent Reznor and his close collaborator Atticus Ross winning multiple awards for their soundtrack work across genres of film and musical style, from long collaboration with David Fincher (The Social Network, Gone Girl, Mank, in 2010, 2014 and 2020 respectively) to innovative scores for feature films such as Pixar’s Soul (Peter Docter and Kemp Powers, 2020) and even television series (Vietnam, Watchmen, etc), it’s time to consider the Top 10 great soundtracks that never were, the “lost” projects, and the might-have-been music to films that seemed to spill their heart and guts straight from the Nine Inch Nails universe, inspired by the lifeblood seeping out from Trent Reznor’s crushed and broken genius skull…
The list below includes eight imagined soundtracks to existing movies as well as two soundtracks to movies that were never made!
1. The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994):
A weird combination of the NIN aesthetic and Trent Reznor’s persona of the post-Pretty Hate Machine phase seems to have inspired the film and its alt-rock musical selections; perhaps Reznor himself drew upon the original comic book series The Crow from 1989. As Reznor’s music became darker and heavier so he grew his hair out and adopted more of the S&M straps and leather look we would see on the video for Closer. Although Reznor would contribute a faithful cover of Joy Division’s Dead Souls it is unfortunate not to hear a raft of original tracks from Reznor and his band at that time, particularly given the similar anger-driven revenge plot of The Crow as a dead man tries to right the wrong of his own murder. There would be echoes of Brandon Lee’s costume in the much bigger mainstream movie of Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990), its own Gothic-edged look at an outsider forced to take centre stage.
2. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999):
Again, the jilted and socially maladjusted mindset of Fight Club and Tyler Durden’s internal war with the self seemed straight out of the major themes of The Downward Spiral. Indeed, author Chuck Palahniuk wrote the original novel with The Downward Spiral on repeat in the background many years before the release of the 1999 movie, so it seems inevitable that some of its mood and spirit would seep into his own writing.
The shifting voices of I/You/We in Fight Club are also a present challenge for Reznor’s narrator character on TDS. These blurred lines would become clearer in Trent’s songwriting as he moved from the internalized rage of early NIN to The Fragile’s broader concern with one-on-one relationships; to wider social concern with the politically minded Year Zero.
Although The Dust Brothers excellent trip-hop score manages to jump between anemic elevator music and screwball beats, the film’s music never hits the red zone peaks of emotional extremity presented by the characters, whereas on The Fragile this would still have been popular musical currency for Reznor. Think of Mr Self Destruct’s percussive tone and other intense drumming patterns across TDS and you also have a serious contender for the projection of sonic violence. Perhaps in 1999 Reznor was already too preoccupied with the long-delayed release and year-long touring commitments of his new album to consider taking on other projects as he spiralled out into addiction and exhaustion the tour collapsed in 2000 after Reznor experienced an accidental overdose.
3. The Machinist (Brad Anderson, 2005):
A redux of Dostoyesvky’s Crime And Punishment. As with The Crow, it echoed the cinematic scope of The Downward Spiral’s degenerate ‘arc’ and the persona of Trent Reznor. Its main character, Trevor Reznik, is a shadow of Spiral’s disassociated narrator, trapped in a mental labyrinth of his own making. It presents the challenge of living with self-delusion, or facing-up to the true self of ‘becoming’. Reznik thrives on his paranoia which feeds further alienation from other people, to become a self-perpetuating decline. Other weird references abound, such as the film’s poster adopting the backwards ‘N’ of the NIN logo and quoting Spiral lyrics in the film’s press release.
As the film’s title and its key setting of the workshop floor suggests the movie is rich in sound design and built upon a haunting score. It relies upon swooning, moody strings to the point that it can fade into the background. It would have been good to hear a more electronica take from Reznor that builds upon the mechanically driven heart of the film. An Uncut interview from 2005 with the film’s director, Brad Anderson, pointed out the absurdist, Kafka-like elements of the story, which could also be applied to The Downward Spiral: “There’s something bizarrely funny about a guy who doesn’t realise he’s in essence a dog chasing his own tail. Sure it’s horrific and disturbing, but there’s also a twisted ridiculousness to his quest.” It is perhaps because Reznik was modeled so closely after Reznor and his persona, that the director shied away from asking him for any involvement with the project.
4. The movie that doesn’t exist:
Reznor created his own interpretation of a 21st century protest album through an imagined dystopia of America in the year 2022, ruled over by the Bureau of Morality and a megalomaniacal president (sound familiar?). A rather convoluted sort-of concept album Year Zero was supported by an innovative and immersive marketing campaign involving websites, hidden messages to fans leaving a digital paper trail for people to find more clues of artwork, lyrics and videos. The creation of a world outside of the music itself presented great possibilities for a feature film or the more contemporary 12-episode streaming series that would allow for all of the creative ideas in the songs to be fully explored and fleshed out.
Reznor would refer to the album Year Zero  as: “part of a bigger picture of a number of things I’m working on. Essentially, I wrote the soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist.” a HBO TV or film adaptation was planned but never realised. This remains a great lost opportunity, and hopefully something Trent can still revisit sonically and in securing filming partners to extend the NIN universe from sound to screen. And of course the remix version of the album, Y34RZ3r0r3mix3d, is also brilliant and provides a natural jumping-off point for the soundtrack. Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO – we are still waiting…
5. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977):
David Lynch’s debut feature film presents a nightmarish, nocturnal world of decaying industry that reflects Reznor’s music on The Downward Spiral and inspired much of his approach to blending songs with sound design.
The film coined many of Lynch’s preoccupations with the ordinary-surreal and his sonic touchstone of black and white expressionism channeled bleakest Philadelphia, and the claustrophobia of LA soundstages at his film school, turning them into nightmarish abandoned silhouettes haunting every window, propping-up the skyline with their ghost breaths of steam and mysterious detached clanking – were these machines idly sleeping or slowly dying?
“Subconscious feelings is very much what the record (The Downward spiral) is about” The record is layered with incidental sounds that encourage the listener to ‘lean-in’ and listen closely to discover new things with each listen – as in Eraserhead – the minute ambience of a hissing radiator becomes loud enough in your head that it stops you sleeping at night. Reznor used a powerful fuzz and scratch background noise on the track Hurt in order to unsettle the listener, as well as sampling a studio testing noise generator’s tuning noises at different frequencies, also the loose guitar-playing expressed the imprecision of human playing against the harsh precision of machines.
Engineer for The Downward Spiral sessions, Sean Beavan remembers 1980s Cleveland’s atmosphere of terminal decline: “Cleveland never picked up. The whole midwest scene was harsh, industrial landscape and decrepit buildings; the economy was not good, not many prospects at that time. You saw the coming dystopia of 1989/90 – we were making the sounds that reflected it.”
6. SE7EN (David Fincher, 1997):
Future Reznor and Ross collaborator director David Fincher added a NIN remix to the opening credit sequence of his seminal serial killer movie of biblical themes. Closer (Preursor) is an abstract take on the original single remixed by Coil, its sweary hook submerged under layers of atmospheric noise, but from its lyrics to the sound, it suited SE7EN’s merging of human vices into a carnival of flesh that blurred the lines between extreme practices of torture and pleasure. Of course, Reznor and Atticus Ross would go on to produce numerous great soundtracks to Fincher’s films that made a pure hybrid of sound and vision, but it would have been cool to hear Reznor’s sonic interpretation of the rest of the film. From the violent intensity of Broken and the submerged rage that we see begin to emerge both in Kevin Spacey’s murderer and Brad Pitt’s heroic young cop out to catch him, so much of The Downward Spiral would express the anguish of wrestling with conflicting emotions and desires in a world that can often seem cruel and pitiless.
7. Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987):
Early in his career Reznor was once asked which film he would love to have soundtracked – his quick response was Hellraiser. Trent took a considerable legacy from the original author of Hellraiser Clive Barker. A kindred spirit to Reznor, Barker was well versed in the transgressive atmosphere of New York’s meatpacking district and he felt that sexual liberation was in its own way a creative act (of living) – eat your heart out Oscar Wilde. He channeled this energy directly into the sadomasochistic cenobite characters of the Hellraiser franchise for whom pain and pleasure are one physiological experience, interdimensional sexual tourists. In some respects Reznor and many of his generation were the inheritors of this “do what thou wilt” attitude and the horrific extremities of Hellraiser and its increasingly wacky sequels spoke to them of perversity on many levels.
The film had its own complicated scoring history, Barker had wisely chosen Coil to write the soundtrack (the band featuring a former member of industrial progenitors Throbbing Gristle would later work alongside Reznor producing remixes and shooting music videos) but the production company rejected the music offered. Although the film was released in 1987, more Reznor’s “synth pop” phase of Exotic Birds, it would be fascinating to hear him make a soundtrack for a film to which he felt an intuitive connection and was so sympathetic to his own tastes and passions.
The sequel they thought could never be made, the film provided a worthy successor to the trailblazing original. Perhaps the real challenge presented by the original Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) movie was for collaborators Benjamin Wallfisch and veteran Hans Zimmer to create a score that would become as integral to the movie as Vangelis’s score. Their soundtrack is excellent and works as both tribute; adapting original themes and musical motifs into the new music, and as a solid piece of music in its own right. Like Vangelis’s music they used the natural sounds present in the film to sit alongside the reverb-heavy throb of synths and empty spaces in between, making for a widescreen listening experience.
These sonic signatures are also common to Reznor’s soundtracking work with Atticus Ross who as much they rely upon organic instrumentation, strings and electronic disruption, make the mood and larger, abstract themes of each film their focus to bring together something that enriches the footage on screen. The recent trilogy of NIN EPs pushed more into the territory of open-ended songs, not leaning on big hooks or choruses, less about singles, more about the overarching character of the songs alongside one another – an evolution from Ghosts I-IV – an alternative score to the sombre isolation, lurid neon and epic landscapes of the return to the near future beyond Blade Runner’s setting of the present.
9. The Downward Spiral – Extended Cut (the movie that Derek Jarman never made):
The great lost promo film which might have been the inheritor of the infamous Broken Movie. In an interview with Spin Reznor makes tantalising mention that he had contacted the great British avant-garde filmmaker Derek Jarman to discuss the possibility of making a long-form music video to sit alongside The Downward Spiral album. Jarman was known for his open homosexuality and use of erotic gay scenes in his movies, as well as his rough and ready auteur style to make visually striking films, often employing the more DIY aesthetic of Super-8 film to give his footage an intense sense of colour and grainy, authentic look, not dissimilar to Russell Mills’s Wound artwork used on the cover of the album.
Jarman was unafraid to focus on extreme subject matter that challenged the moral hypocrisy and as he saw it totalitarian rule of governments, a pure rebel, he was quick to spot the cultural crisis that gave birth to the punk scene, making a metaphor out of the emergent music scene in his seminal movie Jubilee (1978), and later the death of democracy in The Last Of England (1987). Jarman’s early death aged 52 from Aids-related illness in 1994 meant the project never materialised, but at least we have his extended short film produced for The Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead” a riot of action and colour that expressed The Smiths anti-monarchist stance and a call for freedom of all sexual stripes, the ‘other’ side of “alternative”, no doubt a project that chimed with the-then S&M leanings of Reznor at his most salacious and explicit.
10. Recut of Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981):
After all my speculative notions – something concrete – in 2014 director Steven Soderbergh took it upon himself to flip Raiders Of The Lost Ark into black and white, removing the dialogue, and set the film alongside various Reznor / NIN compositions, particularly Ghosts I-V, to soundtrack the film. Essentially turning the Indiana Jones classic into a silent movie, along with musical accompaniment, shifting its tonal atmosphere slightly, but allowing Reznor’s music to do the talking for the rise and fall of dramatic tension.
Adam Steiner is the author of the book Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails and The Creation Of The Downward Spiral – a deep dive into the making of the album and its cultural impact.
The image at the top of this article is by Mark Benney.