The first time I saw David Fincher’s Mank, I was immediately transformed to my local old-school movie palace, The Rialto. I could imagine myself reclined in the plush red seats, surrounded by red curtains with gold fringe. I could smell the freshly popped corn. And I could hear the film booming in that classic movie palace sound, waves of 1930s-era monaural luxury wafting through a giant center speaker.
Given the current pandemic, that kind of escapism is pretty priceless. It’s exactly what sound designer Ren Klyce and director David Fincher wanted the user to feel while watching Mank.
“That was David’s wish — that you would feel that when watching the film, but our fear along with that wish was that somehow we wouldn’t be able to convey that response,” Klyce explained. “I’m so glad that you picked up on that.”
Sound in Mank, which stars Gary Oldman as screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he created Citizen Kane in a tempestuous partnership with Orson Wells, emerges as a critical component in the film’s 1930s esthetic. Notorious for an ear (and eye) for detail, Fincher wanted period sound in all aspects. He approaches all of his films with the same attention to sound detail, Klyce remarked. Car sounds needed to stem from actual 1930s cars. The sound team scoured eBay for classic Underwood typewriters. Fincher would know if the sounds didn’t fit.
But to achieve that classic movie theater sound, Fincher originally wanted to record the film using period recording technology. The team abandoned that idea given the film’s large volume of dialogue – from the brilliant Jack Fincher screenplay – that would at times render inaudibly with classic microphones.
“This is a very dialogue-centric film with snappy dialogue well written and quickly performed. Some actors are very audible while others, let’s say Mank who is drunk or tired or lying down, are not quite so audible,” Klyce said. “So when we were applying this old fashioned sound, we would oftentimes lose intelligibility of dialogue, and if one does that to a soundtrack, you’re in trouble.”
Once they pivoted from that approach, Klyce and team designed a 3-pronged approach to deliver Fincher’s vision for the sound of Mank.
First, they mixed the film with a modern approach as they would any other film. Next, the team tweaked the sound design to be reminiscent of an old film. Finally, the effect of the old fashioned movie theater, most of which were converted from vaudeville or music halls, was applied to complete the design. Typically, craftspersons learn new tricks and update their skill sets as they move from project to project. Ironically, the sound requirements for Mank demanded that Klyce and team needed to unlearn the approaches they’d used in the past and rethink sound design completely.
So, to achieve that final step or the application of reverb or echo, Klyce and team actually played the film live in a large, cavernous space with 12 microphones catching the projected audio as realized through the echo of the room.
“It was a wonderful moment when we were all together in that room watching David’s movie, and David is there with a big smile on his face.”
Just as I was watching this masterpiece at home.