One of the US’s greatest living directors is keeping his camera switched off for our Zoom call, but he sounds so cheerful – “Hey! It’s Fincher!” – that he might as well be communicating in smiley-face emojis. Perhaps it is the effect of the 10 Oscar nominations announced a few days earlier for Mank, his acclaimed, affectionate film about the writing of Citizen Kane. Meanwhile, Trent Reznor – who, with his musical partner in Nine Inch Nails, Atticus Ross, has composed the scores for all the director’s movies since 2010 – joins the call a moment later, and proves less camera-shy. He pops up in a brown tracksuit, seated beside a keyboard in a bright, cluttered room. Fincher gives him a chipper greeting: “Trent-O!”
They are here to discuss a partnership that has spanned four pictures: the Facebook origin story The Social Network, the thrillers The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, and now Mank. It has also brought awards nominations for each of them, as well as an Oscar in 2011 for the baleful, festering music composed by Reznor and Ross for The Social Network, their first film score. I congratulate both men on their most recent nominations. Reznor has received two this year for his scores with Ross: one for Mank, the other for the Pixar fantasy Soul. “It’s brought the ratio down a bit,” he says softly. “It was always nice being able to say: ‘One film, one win.’”
Those 10 nods, which include Fincher’s third for best director, mean that Mank has more nominations than any other film in contention, though perhaps it doesn’t do to get
carried away: The Irishman, another prestigious Netflix title, got the same number last year but left empty handed. It feels perverse, though, that a movie about an Oscar-winning writer (Herman J Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman) has been overlooked in the best original screenplay category.
“Listen, you can’t expect other people to see the exact same value in things that you do,” Fincher says. “That’s just childish. Ten’s nice. I got no complaints about 10. He won’t be upset.”
“He” might apply to Mankiewicz himself, or to Fincher’s journalist father, Jack, who wrote Mank in 1990 at his son’s prompting. Fincher Sr died in 2003. Did he leave behind any hints about the sort of music he wanted? “I don’t think my father could have imagined this movie being shot, much less getting into post-production. He had written it off. We tried to get it made in 1997. I saw Mankiewicz as this funny, strange, fringe character and I loved the idea of giving him his own movie. People were like: ‘Huh. This is very niche.’.”
Fincher had no preconceived ideas about which musical approach to take with Mank. “I went to Trent and Atticus, and said: ‘Please help me, I don’t know what this should be.’ It could’ve been like Bernard Herrmann [who composed music for Hitchcock as well as for Citizen Kane]. It could’ve been Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. They could probably have talked me into anything.”
The possibility of period-specific instrumentation came up. “David said he was thinking the film could be like something that was found in the vault, made in the same period as Citizen Kane,” says Reznor. “We thought we’d start in that world and see where it took us. What happened, to our surprise, was that it felt wildly exciting.” The musical palette ranges from big-band arrangements and percussive, rat-a-tat jazz to orchestral pieces in the foreboding style of Herrmann’s Citizen Kane score. “It was hard to read how playful the film was gonna be. How funny might it get? How much menace is involved?”
The first musical cue heard on screen, as Mankiewicz pulls up to the desert ranch where he will write Citizen Kane for Welles, is fit for a horror film. “The question that got asked was: ‘Is it too sinister for a drive up to a guest ranch?’” says Fincher. “And I was, like, ‘If Bernard Herrmann had his way, everything would sound like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.’ He hit that shit hard. He tended to overplay an innocuous shot of shoe leather. In that first cue we were consciously saying: ‘Maybe we should go that way, too.’ It seemed to set up Mank’s banishment to the desert.”
Although The Social Network was Reznor’s first score, he had worked in a minor capacity with David Lynch on that director’s twisted 1997 thriller Lost Highway. “That was several odd days spent looking for sounds,” he says. “He would scribble a thing on a pad: ‘This is what I want it to sound like.’ And it would literally be a spider-web scribble.” Until Fincher came calling, though, a film career was a vague ambition for Reznor. “It could’ve forever remained on that list of things I meant to do one day.”
Director and musician had already crossed paths. Fincher used a remix of Closer, by Nine Inch Nails, over the opening credits of Seven in 1995; a decade later, he directed the video for Only, where Reznor’s likeness is reproduced as pin art. There was also talk of the pair collaborating on a stage musical of Fincher’s bareknuckle satire Fight Club.
“I liked the idea of taking something that’s supposed to be naughty and underground, and bringing it to Broadway,” the film-maker says. “Its time may have passed. There are so many disgruntled factions now that I don’t think anyone wants to drive across a bridge or through a tunnel to see white male angst. There probably wouldn’t be a big line for that on the Great White Way [Broadway].”
The Social Network, though, was a perfect fit, right from the credits sequence in which Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) crosses the Harvard campus at night to the sound of the main theme, Hand Covers Bruise, with its desolate piano and fretful, sawing layers of synths. “Hand Covers Bruise does more for the setup of who Zuckerberg is than almost anything else in the movie,” says Fincher, still sounding awestruck all these years later. “It comes to personify him. Music is about more than just supporting an idea. What Trent and Atticus do is give us a good healthy vein to get into a stranger’s operating system.”
That mix of the corporeal and the computerised in Fincher’s choice of imagery evokes not only The Social Network, and Zuckerberg himself, but Nine Inch Nails. “One of the things I always found compelling about them is the world-building aspect. You’re not hearing a song. You’re hearing a song inside a state of mind inside a place you can go to if you’re willing to give it time.”
Fincher’s attitude toward the music in his movies is decidedly non-prescriptive. “It’s always seemed silly to me to take someone who can imbue your film with this whole other perspective, and then just tell them: ‘When the door shuts, we need some going-down-the-stairs music.’”
Not everyone is so accommodating. Reznor has been vocal recently, for instance, about the unhappy experience he and Ross had scoring the Netflix thriller Bird Box. “On some films, I think: ‘Am I the only person who read the script? Did you notice this doesn’t make any sense?’ When you feel you care more than other people, that’s when toxicity and resentment enter the situation. That’s never the case with David.” Fincher is chuckling down the line: “I can out-passion anyone,” he says.
The more Reznor met other composers, the more he realised how fortunate he was. “As The Social Network took off, Atticus and I would find ourselves in this foreign world of awards season roundtables, feeling like impostors. I remember everyone was jealous at the situation we’d walked into: the freedom granted by David, no interference, no producers weighing in, no preview audiences voting, none of that bullshit. You’re just doing the best work you can, and you’re making art.”
Of course, the alchemy of collaboration is one of the subjects of Mank. And Welles, although he features only fleetingly, is largely responsible for the enduringly romantic myth of a young auteur knocking it out of the park on the first go. Fincher notoriously didn’t have that experience directing Alien 3 in the early 1990s but I wonder whether he found the idea seductive when he was starting out.
“I had come from music videos and commercials, and that had not been my experience in either of those realms,” he says. “I was tempered by the idea that you would have to punch the clock and pay your dues. So no, I don’t think I had those expectations. And whatever promise I saw in Alien 3, it was fairly well beaten out of me by my second month in London. I called my agent on the first day of shooting and said: ‘They did this to me today, and they did this to me …’ He said: ‘Well, you’re just gonna have to put your head down, and on the next one you’ve got to get more control.’ And I said: ‘This is Day One. Of 90! What do you mean ‘on the next one’? And then I fired him.”
Did the spectre of the trail-blazing debut hold any allure for Reznor when he recorded Pretty Hate Machine in 1989? “When I made that record, it wasn’t about any big statement,” he says. “I felt Nine Inch Nails hadn’t fully realised its vision yet, so I didn’t want to get into ‘wear these clothes and make your hair look like that’ and find myself shaped into something that wasn’t me. I really believed in that record but I didn’t think it was going to conquer the world. In those days, you were looking for a career like the Cure and Depeche Mode, where you’re four albums in and the number keeps growing. The goal was never Thriller.”
Although Fincher and Reznor hope their partnership will continue, Mank represents for the director the end of one particular road. The script’s first draft predates Alien 3, which means that the project has been in his life, in one form or another, for longer than he has been a film-maker. How does it feel to finally be done with it?
“Maybe I’m just too disconnected from my emotions,” he says with a derisive snort. “But I think of it now as about 19 inches of free shelf space.” What is he planning to put there now that all those drafts of the screenplay have been taken down? “Maybe a turntable?” It sounds like ample room for an Oscar, I suggest, but he refuses to take the bait. “I would never say that,” he laughs.