Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has been in talks in with HBO about making a two-season maxi-series out of “Year Zero,” the dark future tale that Reznor has chronicled in his music as well as in a celebrated Alternate Reality Game (ARG) with the same title that was created by 42 Entertainment.
“It’s the most exciting thing on the horizon, it’s the thing that when I wake up in the morning it makes me say, ‘God it would be cool if that happened,” Reznor told me this week while sitting backstage before a Nails concert in Toronto. “This is my grand ambition. Will it happen? I don’t know. It was fun sitting and telling [the HBO] guys and watching them shake their head and having writers on board and producers that are in to it. It’s been a fun thing.”
“Year Zero” began (as so many things do in the music of NIN) from a place of negative emotion and sonic experimentation. Reznor was increasingly outraged by the geopolitical situation during the Bush years and he wanted to channel that fury into music, but he was loath to drift into the limiting lexicon of protest lyrics.
“How could I express what I was feeling in a way that didn’t sound like bitching about George Bush? I mean, you know, I love Neil Young but I didn’t want to listen to that record, really,” he said, referring to the singer-songwriter’s “Living with War.” “My reaction to that kind of record is, ‘We know this. It’s obvious.'”
“So it started with me trying to write it as a piece of fiction. I was thinking, ‘It could be the worst idea ever in the world but, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t have to come out.’ I started by writing a kind of world bible about what life would be like around 15 or 20 years from now if things continue on the same path. I spent a few weeks filling it in with the events that could lead to this kind of time and place. Then as an experiment I started writing songs about people in this place and from different points of view.”
The problem was the music was compelling and powerful, but it was more about sensation than story.
“I had a record that would make sense to me but no one else would ever know what it was because there was no narrative. It’s modular, its a collection of snapshots. These were glimpses of a place. Maybe with liner notes I could communicate some of it, but how do you get liner notes in 2007?”
He considered a graphic novel. “That was the route we were going to go with initially. We talked to a different companies about releasing it. But it didn’t feel quite right. We thought about a film, but that has a different timetable and too many people need to say yes. That wouldn’t line up right. then I started thinking about how I could make it really interactive, something you experience rather than something you read.”
Reznor remembered reading about 42 Entertainment and their deeply layered ARG for the Steven Spielberg film “A.I.” He met with them and the result was a truly amazing through-the-looking-glass creation on-line, shaped by the 42 team working closely with the rock star and his art director, Rob Sheridan. “It’s hard to explain it,” Reznor said, and he’s right. But the best way to get your head around it is through the nifty (and entertaining) case-study presentation that you can find here.
Reznor was delighted with the result. “It was probably the most fun thing I’ve done.” Now he wants to finish the story he started and do it across a range of media.
“I just pitched it to HBO two weeks ago in L.A. It went great. Ideally, we’re trying to get them to do a two-year limited series. I prefer that over a film. We would have a second ARG tying into the second album and ties into the series and they all happen together with a budget needed to pull that all off. There would be a tour down the road. The record completes the story, the ending that no one knows. I know what happens. I knew when I started it. And it’s not what people think. “
– Geoff Boucher
Photo of Trent Reznor by Myung J. Chun\Los Angeles Times