Director David Fincher talks the music of Mank with composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Opening photo by
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have written a dozen film and television scores together. Not just partners in Nine Inch Nails, they have won multiple awards for music in visual media: an Oscar and a Golden Globe for The Social Network, a Grammy for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, an Emmy for Watchmen. But they had never tackled a project quite like Mank.Director David Fincher, whose films The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl Reznor and Ross also scored, came to the duo with a period piece set between 1930 and 1940 and shot in black and white, the story of Hollywood screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman).Reznor and Ross’s previous scores had been created with synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers in their Los Angeles studios, where they recorded all of the music themselves. Mank required something different: a more traditionally orchestral score, with swing-jazz and dance-band elements appropriate to the era. It was an arena in which neither Reznor nor Ross had any prior experience.So they listened to the popular music of the 30s and 40s and, intriguingly, the early film scores of Bernard Herrmann, the longtime Orson Welles collaborator. His music for Citizen Kane proved inspirational in terms of the style of orchestral writing that frames Mank.Ultimately, they created more than 90 minutes of original music, played by the equivalent of a 70-piece orchestra and big band. Because of the pandemic raging through the summer and fall of 2020, all of the musicians performed individually in their home studios and were mixed together into a seamless whole.“It was an incredibly intoxicating, inspiring environment,” Reznor says of working with Fincher. “We felt like artists, not artisans, being challenged to try to make something awesome.”We talked to the musicians and the director about creating the music for Mank.
Hand-drawn score by Conrad Pope
Jon Burlingame: What role did you envision music playing in your film?
David Fincher: I initially went to Trent and Atticus basically to say that I didn’t know whether this needed to be symphonic and tipping its hat to Bernard Herrmann, or if it should be synthesizers. I just dropped it in their laps and said, “You guys are much better at this than I am. What should we be doing?” They made 45, 50 minutes’ worth of music and sent it over. Within seconds of hearing it I wrote them and said that we wanted to use it all.
At this point did you prepare a team that would help you realize your ideas orchestrally and in terms of the big band? Or did you write the material and then worry about how to record it later?
TR: We developed a new technique. Usually, it’s the two of us in the studio and when we finish, it’s done. This, we endlessly tweaked back and forth with David. There is also no recording stage in our typical process because we’ve already played the final music ourselves. We did fully orchestrate the entire film with samples and programming, but in the meantime we looked to who would be the right arrangers to translate that into actual people playing it.
What about the source music, the various band pieces heard in the background? You could have licensed songs from the era, but you actually wrote a lot of that.
TR: David had described in detail a scene with music that would be playing while Mank is on the film set. It needed to feel a little stuffy and not cool. It was the music playing on a turntable while the dialogue’s taking place. That’s incredibly rich and it’s a great creative seed. What would that sound like? We wrote a number of pieces as we started gaining confidence that we could actually do this, and then part of it was just studying the music of the era and trying things and having fun with it.
on Netflix now.