David Fincher and Ren Klyce came of age during a seminal time for Hollywood: when the pair were just kids, a group of ’70s filmmakers was reshaping what it meant to make movies, right from the pair’s native Bay Area. In a biographical detail almost too perfect to be true, George Lucas rented a house in Marin County to edit his “THX 1138,” that just so happened to be located right next door to the Klyce family’s home. A single suburban lawn is all that separated a then-9-year-old Ren from the great Walter Murch, just as he was starting to change modern movie sound forever, work he’d continue throughout the decade with another NorCal auteur, Francis Ford Coppola. And it would be on a Lucas-produced animated feature, “Twice Upon a Time,” that future sound designer Klyce would meet his Coppola, a then-19-year-old Fincher.
Over the last 25 years, as Hollywood has utilized the multi-channel surround technology pioneered by Murch to create bombastic soundtracks that all too often mask a lack of craft, Klyce has helped Fincher explore the subconscious underbelly of his own films, constantly refining how sound can be used to shape a viewer’s emotional response.
“To me, sound design is not about 96 channels all at 11, and two side cars giving you this sound pressure-gasm; to me, it’s very much about the detail and the nuance and maybe things that you wouldn’t even be aware that you heard until the second or third time you saw it,” said Fincher in an interview about his collaboration with Klyce. “I can’t talk more enthusiastically about someone [Klyce] I feel has very subtly pushed what sound designers do.”
On “Twice Upon a Time,” Fincher was working in visual effects and Klyce was a summer hire, an assistant in the art department while studying music at UC Santa Cruz. As the two youngest people in the building, they naturally gravitated toward one another, but it was Fincher’s ambition to prove that they belonged that truly forged their creative partnership.
“David was already on another level of creativity, and he got tasked with a visual effects sequence with cannon fire and lens flares, and he wanted this six-second moment to be fully produced, so that when dailies were playing, there would be sound,” said Klyce, who started to chuckle as he recalled the story, explaining that every morning it was routine for the film’s animators to screen their previous days work MOS (without sound). “I’m like, ‘David, this isn’t going to go in the movie.’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t care! I want this presentation to be the best.’ It was that kind of thinking, it was that sort of determination, ‘We’re going to kick ass despite people telling us we can’t.’”
From the start, Fincher realized he needed sound to complete his bold visual ideas. A year later, when the director landed a commercial that warned pregnant women against the dangers of smoking, he came up with the provocative idea of creating a special effects rig that would allow him to film a fetus puffing on a cigarette. As the camera pulls back and around the floating bubble-like uterus — imagery that is more a nod to Kubrick’s “2001” than actual female anatomy — it is Klyce’s underwater-sounding heartbeat and swelling music that sells it.
New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection
“It’s terrible, that commercial, but we were so into it when we were making it,” said Klyce with a laugh. “I think that’s the most important thing to take away from a collaboration is, you have a spirit, ‘This is the most important that we’re doing.’ We would obsess about it, talk about it, working on it over and over again. We loved movies and this was our world.”
It was that same determination that landed Klyce the sound designing gig on “Se7en.” Fincher, after an unsuccessful attempt to get his partner in sound a gig on his directorial debut, “Alien 3,” wore his producers and the studio down until finally convincing them to hire a sound designer with no real movie credits. It became clear to everyone this wasn’t another young director wanting to work with a friend, but rather the rare filmmaker whose vision was, as Lucas preached, actually 50 percent sound.
Be sure to check out our exclusive video essays, focusing on Fincher, Klyce, and their shared body of work, below.
We often talk about the interplay between lighting and production design, but with “Se7en,” sound compresses the film’s darkly lit, decrepit spaces with a layered density that brings to life the horrors just beyond the walls. The result is a suffocating feeling, the unshakable sense that this dark world is inescapable.
“Those earlier films like ‘Se7en’ had this claustrophobia to them, it was always raining, people are screaming in the distance, David wanted to hear pipes and create this world,” said Klyce. “It’s more psychological to have sound beyond the frame. A big part of the architecture of what David’s trying to do, he doesn’t necessarily need to show it, he just needs to give the feeling that it’s lurking out there somewhere. In many ways, that’s much more terrifying because we in the audience start to become afraid of where we are, or our reality.”
The “Se7en” sound design did more than just add a sense of anxiety, it created an evocative atmosphere that filled the shadows, giving each location and set its own distinct texture and aural presence.
“He doesn’t know how to use noise as anything other than this glorious tapestry, or dense window into the world you are trying to impart to strangers,” explained Fincher, who pointed to “Panic Room” as one of his favorite examples of this.
During production on that film, Klyce would visit the townhouse set on weekends to meticulously record his library. “I understand that almost every sound designer records their own stuff, but I remember just listening to the ambient [sound] on ‘Panic Room’ and thinking, ‘Wow, we might be able to do this without music,’” Fincher recalled. “It was that textured and transportive, it was just right, everything sat where it needed to.”
When you watch Klyce deconstruct the different natural, expressionistic, and ambient layers of how he built the sonic signatures of something like the basement in “Fight Club” or the safe room in “Panic Room,” two things stand out beyond the aural mastery. One is the way these subtle layers can be barely audible, but give the sets a distinctive character and allow the audience to really feel what it is like to be in those spaces. The other is just how much story is wrapped up in Fincher and Klyce’s sound design.
This has remained true as their collaboration has progressed, except that Klyce and Fincher have discovered they can, at times, allow their sound to fade even further into the backdrop and deeper into the viewer’s subconscious. Take Klyce’s work on Fincher’s series “Mindhunter,” which can be mistaken as minimalistic but is every bit as effective in its storytelling.
In Season 1,” as FBI agents Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Tench (Holt McCallany) are dismissed to the bowels of Quantico to conduct their research into the psychology of serial killers, the basement soundscape is less like a horror film dungeon, but instead underlines how the bureau regards their disturbing work: out-of-sight and cut-off from the day-to-day operations. “It was really important to David that that had a distinct sonic signature, sort of ‘down here is a different world,’” explained Klyce. “He wanted to literally hear sewage water going through the pipes and a sort of an underbelly hum of what’s upstairs, where the lucky folks get to have their normal offices.”
In Season 2, as Ford and Tench investigate the missing and murdered children of Atlanta, the buzzing of insects brings an aural density that makes you feel the relentless heat of summer, but there is also the terrible sound of airplanes overhead and the machine noise of a city that is forcing itself to grow too fast and leaving its citizens behind. That exposition of the dire effects of the expanding city is baked into the story, but it’s the sound that allows the viewer to feel just how off-kilter and uncomfortable a place it’s become.
“You don’t really notice it because you’re just paying attention to the dialogue,” said Klyce, “But we’re constantly inundated, even when they’re in the hotel, with just noisy traffic, humming, buzzing, air conditioners. We try to always put this annoying sound in, that would just at the right level to where you would be irritated, but you wouldn’t really necessarily clock it. You would just go, ‘God, this is just making me really anxious. Why is that?’“
When discussing how they convert sound into feeling, Fincher is quick to highlight the sound designer’s music background and that Klyce is, at his core, a composer himself. “He’s so wise about the musicality of the aural background,” said Fincher. “I don’t know that there is anything that he does that isn’t informed by his innate musicality and his love of that.”
Klyce was not formally trained in sound design, but at UC Santa Cruz, he fell in love with Musique Concrète and the 1940s French composers who considered sound to be a form of music. In his electronic music class, Klyce learned to record different noises and cut them together into sound montages that were, in part, a form of music.
In a very real sense, Klyce learned to think of sound and music as inseparable, which he carried into Fincher’s films. Fincher, in turn, relied on the sound designer to help pick composers and help spot their music.
Merrick Morton/©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
On “The Social Network,” Fincher wanted to return to a collaboration like he had with the Dust Brothers on “Fight Club,” and work with musicians with no movie composing experience. Specifically, he was looking to avoid the rigid traditional temp, then score-to-picture process. He wanted to give the musicians the freedom to just write music, and in turn gain the ability to experiment with where to spot [place] their tracks and discover what color of music lifts a specific emotion from the screen.
“The Social Network” would be the first-ever score for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The Nine Inch Nails duo initially created 22 demo tracks off an early cut, which they trusted Fincher’s team to move around, and they’d get a chance to rewrite and re-record them once they were temped.
“One of the reasons why we get along so well is because David would say, ‘Can you just take this stuff, and try some stuff?’ And for me it’s very fun, ‘Let’s take a scene and cut music three or four or five different ways,’” said Klyce. “And what’s great about that is he’ll watch them and go, ‘Wow, I never thought I would feel that character right there, but that music somehow makes me feel that feeling right here.’ It allows David to experiment with pushes and pulls emotionally without having to be, ‘Well, that’s the music we gotta use for that moment.’ It’s a great situation that he created.”
For the opening credit sequence of “The Social Network,” Fincher initially planned to jumpstart the film with a big piece of music — Elvis Costello’s “Beyond Belief” — playing over images of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) running through Cambridge Square back to his dorm. But when they tried an intimate, introspective piece (later titled “Hand Covers Bruise”) that Reznor and Ross had written for another part of the film, it changed the scene completely. Even through the distant camera tracking Zuckerberg across the Harvard quad, the music connects us to the fragile state of the recently dumped Zuckerberg’s ego. It’s grounding a character that’s almost impossible to now imagine the film without, as is it being replaced by a more traditional opening credit sequence banger.
How Klyce then incorporates music and sound design has also evolved. By taking over (starting on “Zodiac”) the job being the re-recording mixer of the music tracks, Klyce has positioned himself to explore the best way to meld the two together. “When I’m working on sound design only, I’m very much in that world of what I’m contributing to the film, and I’m very much hearing and feeling the film from a certain perspective,” said Klyce. “But then when I’m touching the faders on the music, it gives me a different perspective on what the composer’s communicating.”
This different vantage point on music has resulted in a special alchemy of sound and score in Klyce and Fincher’s now decade-long collaboration with Reznor and Ross, whose music, by its very nature, spills into sound design. As the re-recording mixer on their tracks, Klyce isolates each layer [stem] of their music and studies it against picture, which will often lead to discovery. For example, on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” it was a distortion noise that sounded almost like a growl playing against Lisbeth Salander’s (Rooney Mara) motorcycle in a way Klyce found interesting. Rather than simply blend his motorcycle sound effect and their music together, Klyce said he’s increasingly allowed himself to play with how sound and score can give way to, and open up space for, each other.
“When you talk about Ren, you talk about Trent and Atticus, there’s an incredible synergy because of their relentless curiosity about how sonic frequencies change how people feel about what they are seeing,” said Fincher. “They are very flexible, very plastic thinkers, and it’s kind of hard to see where one discipline ends and the other discipline takes over, and I want that in how the images dovetail with all the sonic support.”
In “Se7en,” you can hear elements of Klyce’s discordant musical sound design complement and play off Howard Shore’s brassy noir score in effective and interesting ways. What’s changed is that it’s become hard to delineate any one layer in the intricate soundscape of a Fincher project. The emotional underpinning that stems from that cacophony of claustrophobia in their early films is still there, but it is now something you more intensely feel than noticeably hear. In a period when movies have gotten louder, the soundscapes of Fincher’s work have managed to become more refined.
Klyce is sympathetic to his fellow sound designers working in Hollywood who see that a disconnect has emerged between the director and the sound team. “It’s not a disconnect because of any negative reason, it’s just the way films are made. There’s so much going on people don’t know what is important, so they prepare everything and then that’s when you get films with too much sound in them, or as David says, ‘They’re too loud,’” explained Klyce. “But one of the nice things about our relationship, he and I can talk about what is important and sometimes it’s not a lot of stuff. There’s not a lot of elements.”
Klyce and Fincher have developed a process where they can experiment and explore — never more so than on their new film “Mank,” as you’ll see in the video essay below — to find the best way to create those aural elements. But it’s a process guided with laser-like precision by the emotion Fincher is trying to illicit from the audience. And it’s a process that doesn’t happen at the end of production, but rather when two old friends talk on the phone and get excited about their next project months before cameras start to roll. —Chris O’Falt