TECH SUPPORT INTERVIEW: The construction of ‘The Social Network’

Posted by · 12:28 pm · January 6th, 2011

One of the immediately striking things about Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for “The Social Network” is its assemblage, the manner in which he chose to tell the story with cascading elements of the narrative. And when you bring on a meticulous craftsman like David Fincher to direct a film already detailed in its larval stage, you can bet that the attention to each moving part and how it fits into the whole will be amplified.

So it is that the construction of “The Social Network” — and the contributions from its below-the-line crew toward those ends — could be the most defining aspect of a film dominating the precursor awards circuit to date.  I recently spoke to film editors Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, sound mixers Ren Klyce and Michael Semanick and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to discuss those various moving parts, as well as their collaboration with a filmmaker who shows great respect for their art forms.

Wall and Baxter don’t go back all that far with Fincher, believe it or not. They’re first pass on one of his films was 2007’s “Zodiac,” which was largely Wall’s film but Baxter was brought on to help out a bit. “Once I was in there I was difficult to move,” Baxter says.

On “The Social Network,” given the structure of the script, it almost seems valid to consider Sorkin an editor of sorts, which Wall freely concedes.

“A lot of movies you do re-sequencing of scenes,” he says. “I think we lifted three or four lines out of the movie. With Aaron and with David directing, our job becomes about making something as perfect as it can be. It’s not finding the through lines of the movie, unless you’re talking about performances, because just editorially, we have to make sure we have the best and most genuine performances in. But the construction of the movie really all came out of the script.”

Says Baxter, “It was performance and timing. It was a delicate thing. One sort of wrong beat of the eyes can show a look of guilt or holding on something a little bit too long. The movie was trying to be extremely sure-footed with everyone believing they were right.”

It also uniquely saw a first assembly that was shorter than the finished cut. With a script as dense as Sorkin’s 160-page draft was, which normally would translate to 160 minutes of screen time, there was fear of over-extending. But, as Wall notes, when you’re talking about an Aaron Sorkin script and a David Fincher film, you know it’s going to be fairly ballistic, in terms of pacing.

“One of the things David really wanted to stress was to just be propulsive in terms of the editing and make sure we were slightly ahead of the audience, but not too far ahead,” Wall says. “So it was trying to find the right balance where you had little micro-pauses to let things land where they needed to land.”

On the sound mixing side of things, Ren Klyce goes back with Fincher farther than the rest, having helped the director with music selections on his feature debut, “Alien 3.” Actually, things go back even father, to their work on the 1983 animated George Lucas production “Twice Upon a Time.” On “The Social Network,” Klyce was in charge of integrating the score, while his partner, Michael Semanick, mixed the sound effects. (I did not have a chance to speak with David Parker, who handled the dicey task of mixing dialogue on the film.)

Says Klyce of Fincher’s approach to sound in his work, “Stylistically he likes to change it up, but in terms of his aesthetic, once he grabs onto his approach and what he deems to be correct in terms of truth, he will hold onto that very rigorously. In this film, if there was anything that was sonically introduced that wasn’t part of reality or his memory of what an environment was, he would veto it.”

For example, when crew-rowing beefcake twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss bring bright-eyed Mark Zuckerberg into Harvard’s Porcellian Club, the director knew what the environment outside its doors on a very busy street sounded like. When he heard a first pass at the mix, he was disappointed at the echo effect on the voices that made them sound like they were in a sort of mausoleum.

“David was pretty adamant and sort of upset with me because I hadn’t done the research well enough to know that that street has busy trucks and voices right outside the window, goddamit, why aren’t they there,” Klyce says with a laugh. “So it was sort of like, ‘You’ve got to put those voices in the background. We need to hear people going by. We need to hear trucks going by. We need the windows rattling. We need to hear people upstairs on the piano rehearsing,’ and he would just go on and on about the textures we were missing. So his aesthetic, at least in this film, was one of accuracy and of truth.”

That “truth,” believe it or not, even extended to the sound of Zuckerberg’s flip-flops. They went through three or four passes on getting the “flip” and the “flop” just right, even digging in on something as detailed as the different sound a flip-flop makes against a socked foot.  And much has already been written about the Ruby Sky club sequence, which saw Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake shouting their lines on the set for the music to be laid over after the fact.

But this isn’t a film like “Fight Club,” of course (for which Klyce received a nomination for Best Sound Editing), in that there aren’t abstract and impressionistic textures at work, as he puts it. That said, “the the sound design competes with the dialogue in a way that I think Fincher was really trying to push,” Klyce says. “There was sort of a Yin and Yang balance that we tried to achieve between Aaron Sorkin’s writing and filling in as much sound pressure as we could on top of that. We wanted to really frustrate the audience somewhat, not in a bad way, but in a good way. We wanted to make it feel as if it was a realistic experience, and there’s a tendency when things are being mixed to pull everything back to expose the dialogue. That was what we would have normally done but David wanted to reverse that.

“From the very beginning it’s very difficult to follow along because the sound is getting in the way of the audience’s actual understanding of the writing. But what it does, by design, and it’s a strange design, is make you lean forward, because you have to actually hang on and pay attention. It’s not a film where you can be thinking about other things and then check in with the film. You can’t tune in, tune out with the film. You have to be paying attention from the very get-go, and so the opening sequence, for example, does that.”

Klyce is speaking of a pub-set, dialogue-heavy break-up scene between actors Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara that is nearly drowned out by the surrounding voices and music. Says Semanick of that particular sequence, “I cleared out a lot of the chatter around the dialogue and Fincher listened and said, ‘Guys, this is not good. This is a college bar. This is a break-up and I don’t care if the audience doesn’t get every single word but they need to get the main part of the word.’ So we busied it up a lot. Even in the scene where he starts to create Facesmash, David said, ‘I want the whole world going on around him. Nobody cares about this guy, what he’s doing. He’s immersed himself in this idea and has started to build Facebook. Just keep everything busy.'”

Speaking of the creation of Facesmash, that early sequence — as Zuckerberg makes his way through the Harvard campus after being dumped, with the seeds of an idea percolating — offers the first glimpse of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s unique score.

Reznor (front man for the band Nine Inch Nails) has known Fincher since the “hey-day of the music video,” he says. The director also used a remix of NIN’s “Closer” over the opening credits of “Se7en” and later helmed the video for the band’s 2005 single “Only.” They even had some discussions once upon a time about turning “Fight Club” into a musical.

Upon first reading the script, Reznor was ambivalent about taking Fincher up on an offer to score it. He had just finished what seemed like years and years of touring with Nine Inch Nails, he was getting married and he had promised himself he’d take some time off. But he also freely admits that he lacked the confidence to pull it off.

“I was a bit insecure about the whole notion of feeling that I could waltz in and score a film and knock it out of the park,” he says. “I regretfully got back with him and said, ‘Look, I really don’t think I can give you my best work. My mind has been in touring mode and it takes me a while to kind of switch over into creation mode and I don’t want to take on something that becomes a year of me trying to chase it and trying to figure out how to actually pull it off.’ It was a tough communication to make.”

Later, when things were clicking with production partner Atticus Ross on the “How to Destroy Angels” EP, Reznor began to realize he had made a mistake. “I wrote back to David and said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry that I flaked on you but it was really because I didn’t think I had it in me. Keep me in mind in the future for anything and I want to reiterate it had nothing to do with the material or you.'”

Fincher wasn’t having it. He wrote back and told Reznor to come on over and get to work.

The director wanted something electronic for the film’s original music. He referenced synth-based scores from Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, noting that some of those elements would give “The Social Network” a sense of place and identity. Reznor then asked Ross, who had just scored the Hughes brothers’ “The Book of Eli,” if he’d be into it and the two of them watched about 40 minutes of footage from the film.

“We went off in a room and just kind of free-form created a bunch of music that felt like it might live in that film,” Reznor says, “and might help emotionally convey what we felt could elevate the film from being a bunch of people reciting smart dialogue in rooms into something that played upon the undercurrents of tension and the darkness behind what’s going on there.”

Says Ross, “In terms of the imagery, we returned from seeing that and having read the script and just sat a day talking about the different aspects of the story that we felt we could go into musically and the kind of sonic world we were hoping to kind of build. And then it just became about kind of unrestrained creativity. It became more about designing the world, if you like. So we spent three weeks writing inspired by ‘The Social Network,’ to try and get the right kind of vocabulary and the kind of parameters.”

‘Blade Runner’ sounds like ‘Blade Runner,’” Reznor says. “‘Taxi Driver’ sounds like ‘Taxi Driver.’ We decided let’s do that with what we have in this room and with our own abilities and try to really build this place that has a sonic identity. Then let’s turn off thinking and just go from our gut. Let’s write something that feels like the spark of creativity. Let’s write something that feels like that sense of dread and loss when you fucked over your best friend, but it was for a good cause, you think. That sense of isolation, and that sense of empowerment that comes from having a great idea and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, and you know it’s a great idea and you’re chasing that idea to its fruition.

“When we turned the stuff over to David, it really resonated with him and Ren Klyce, his right-hand man. That spark from us helped them over a hump they were at when they had been working on this for so long, and everything really gelled into something that really was better than the sum of its parts. What we thought would be the first of several writing sessions of raw creation ended up being the bulk of the material used in the film.”

As of late, film music composition seems to be at something of a crossroads. It’s not to say that quality work isn’t out there every year, but everyone does seem to be working from a similar template and the form has stagnated. And it’s interesting that arguably two of the most accomplished scores of the year — Reznor and Ross’s work on “The Social Network” and Daft Punk’s on “TRON Legacy” — took unique approaches to the form.

“What you’re saying mirrors something that Atticus and I both discussed,” Reznor says, “and this is from an outsider’s point of view, not someone that does film scores all the time. But I think one of the reasons this turned out great is we went into it very much working from instinct, not a template and not being told the ‘right way’ to do it. And we’re happy with the way it turned out.”

“The Social Network” hits DVD and Blu-ray on January 11.

[Photos: Columbia Pictures, India E-music]

→ 2 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Interviews · Tech Support

2 responses so far

  • 1 1-06-2011 at 4:42 pm

    americanrequeim said...

    I think we have our best picture winner ultimately, great movie

  • 2 1-07-2011 at 9:23 am

    Zac said...

    The only other movie that I’m aware of where the initial cut was shorter than the final cut was The Godfather.

    How does one make a 2 hour movie out of 256 hours of footage? I imagine it’s easier than it sounds, but it boggles my mind.