David Fincher on the Music of ‘Mindhunter’

David Fincher on the set of Mindhunter.

David Fincher worked with composer Jason Hill and the Billboard Hot 100 song charts to come up with the perfect sound for the new Netflix show Mindhunter. (Photo: Merrick Morton/Netflix)

Director and producer David Fincher wanted a backing track that “didn’t sound like music” for his new Netflix series Mindhunter, which is exactly what he got in the 10-episode show’s original score by composer Jason Hill. Hill, a veteran of the early aughts indie rock scene with throwback style, invented a library of original sounds he processed into music. “I didn’t use any sound libraries,” said Hill, proprietor of the Department of Recording & Power. “I do use a computer, in terms of capture, but everything pretty much starts with a bunch of analog, weird stuff. I kind of get mad scientist brain when I press play.” Pitch perfect for a show about the genesis of the FBI’s elite Behavioral Sciences Unit, formed in 1978.  An inspired touch — the sound of Hill running his fingers around water-filled wine glasses — has become something of an audio signature for the series, which also features a rigorously curated complement of 1970s tunes.

Fincher is know as a meticulous craftsman who not only chooses great material, but applies his exacting style to bring it to the screen in a way that is both visually and narratively compelling. While his talent as a musical tastemaker has certainly been acknowledged, it’s emphasized to a lesser extent against the dazzle of his other gifts. But Fincher’s record stands: best score Oscars for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for 2010’s The Social Network, and a best soundtrack Grammy for the duo’s 2012 The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo as well as a nom for their work on Gone Girl. He

Fincher received his own Academy Award nominations for directing The Social Network and 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which also earned Oscar and Grammy nominations for composer Alexandre Desplat).  And that’s before even getting to the part about how in the ’80s he helped invent the music video genre as a founder of Propaganda Films (including Don Henley’s cinematic “The End of the Innocence” and helming entries for Madonna and Nine Inch Nails (as well as Loverboy and Rick Springfield, among many others. Hes collected his own Grammys for directing the 1994 clip for the Rolling Stones’ “Love is Strong” featuring the band and their friends as giants cavorting through Manhattan), and more recently, in 2014 for Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” (feat. Jay Z).  Fincher spoke to MaxTheTrax editor in chief Paula Parisi about the music for Mindhunter, his music video roots and (small!) contribution to Trent Reznor’s career as a film composer.

MaxTheTrax: Aside from the recognition you’ve received as a director, you’re kind of famous for having opened the door to film composing for Trent Reznor, leading to Academy Awards for him and co-composer Atticus Ross for 2010’s The Social Network.

David Fincher: There’s nothing even reasonable about making that assertion. Those guys are geniuses.

MaxTheTrax:  They may be geniuses, but Reznor, anyway, was not composing for film before The Social Network, so it’s questionable whether he’d be doing that today if it wasn’t for you.

David Fincher:  Only because he was sensible and probably thought, ‘Well, it looks like a lot of work, and we’re probably going to get cocked up by people who aren’t going to be serious about how to use our music.’ Trent’s a very serious guy, and I was lucky enough to prove to him that I wanted his take on things, beyond wanting his name on it. When you have a brand – and Trent and Atticus have a brand – Nine Inch Nails, I don’t want to make them sick, but they have a body of work that speaks to an active listener. You don’t passively listen to what they do – it can be an affront, it can be an exploration, it can be a vivisection of something, and I’m sure there is an aspect of them that said, “Here comes the MTV guy to co-opt our music.” And remember, this was a film known as “the Facebook movie,” so I’m sure there were a lot of people who thought it was going to be like Roller Boogie, exploiting a technology play.

When I was finally able to show them the movie I think they were able say, “Oh, I see. We’ll be okay, we’ll be sublimating our thing to the telling of this story.” I think when somebody gives you the opportunity to play, and the albatross of succeeding is not just around your neck, that’s a factor. They wanted to see what a movie about the founding of Facebook would be before they were going to try to figure out a way to support it aurally. But the fact that I don’t take no for an answer, even though they were extremely polite and said they were just exhausted and didn’t have it in ’em. We waited and waited and finally I just said “this Thursday if you want to come by I’ll show you 55 minutes,” and I think he said, “Oh, it’s not what I thought it was going to be. This could be cool.” The idea of discovering Trent Reznor is absurd on the face of it, and the idea of giving them this great opportunity is, from where I sit, absurd on the face of it, but I think we were lucky to get them at a point in time where they were weak and susceptible. (laughs)

MaxTheTrax: I’m really only familiar with one Nine Inch Nails song.

David Fincher: It’s not for everybody. That’s what I love about Trent. He’s doing what he believes is right and what he believes is music. You may not agree, and that’s okay.

MaxTheTrax: I liked the song, but not enough to make me seek out more Nine Inch Nails music. It’s called “I Want to F*#k You Like an Animal.”

David Fincher: It’s a great conversation starter, is it not? (laughs)

MaxTheTrax: Did you see a similar quality in Jason Hill’s music that prompted you to give him a try on your new Netflix series Mindhunter?

David Fincher:  I had been a big fan of Louis XIV, one of Jason’s early bands, because my wife [and producing partner, Ceán Chaffin] had about 20 of their songs on a playlist we were using on vacation, and she said “He’s somebody you should know,” because he’s so diverse, and the kind of things he had written.  So when we had a problem on [2014’s] Gone Girl Ceán said “Let’s call him.” We had spent about 8 or 9 weeks trying to get a Richard Butler cover of “She” for the Gone Girl trailer, and when we brought Jason in to produce, he nailed it. Then we asked him to do Videosyncrazy, for HBO. There was supposed to be a massive amount of interstitial segue pieces, kind of like the weird little bass line on Seinfeld, but instead we were using clips of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, or some Trevor Horn thing from an ABC record.

His job was to create these little interstitial wake-up calls that were supposed to remind people of the ’80s, or the milieu we were talking about – this naïve struggle. We were making a show where every person in every strata was taking advantage of every person beneath them, because the show was about the music video business in the 1980s. So we wanted stuff that could harken to the DX7 and the first generation emulator, and have it connect musically to 1983. Jason took that very seriously and did an enormous amount of production. I was happy to have him wait until we had cuts of all the episodes, but he is extremely enthusiastic, so he did all this music, and then the show got cancelled, and was like, ugh! Not wanting him to feel taken advantage of, I decided to offer him my next project, which was Mindhunter.

MaxTheTrax: Who came up with the concept of “playing” wine glasses?

 David Fincher:  That was him. We talked about the notion of the sonic envelope when visiting somebody in prison, that there would be a lot of the low ends eaten up by big, clanging iron doors and men’s voices and people screaming at each other echoing through the halls. We talked about the cacophony of prison and how the sound would fall toward the middle- and low end of the aural spectrum. So we kind of carved out the high end of the sonic frequencies for score.

We talked a lot about [composer] Bernard Hermann and Psycho, because the only thing going on there is strings. The whole thing is strings. We talked about the whole vibrato and how things working at that frenzied pitch. We didn’t want to do strings, we didn’t want to tread in that area, but we knew we’d have to have something high frequency. So he sent me this thing, and I was like what is that? Is it a synthesizer? And he said, “No, it’s just a bunch of glasses I filled with water and started playing.” And I was like, well, it’s pretty great. I like that it’s organic, this high-frequency thing, and that I couldn’t identify what instrument it was.

MaxTheTrax: It’s very mysterious, and interior, very fitting for exploring dubious mental depths.

David Fincher: I don’t know what he played for you. I’m assuming he played the theme song. He’s already done enough music for about four seasons. Just so everybody knows I didn’t take advantage of Jason. He loves to create. You just can’t stop him. He’s gonna come up with stuff.

MaxTheTrax: Considering the unpredictable nature of  the pop music industry, it sounds like you offered him an incredible opportunity to take his career in a new direction as a film composer. I wouldn’t worry too much about taking advantage.

David Fincher: Well, you have to be concerned. It’s not my intention to burn people out, but if they want to go deep I’m not going to stop them.

MaxTheTrax:  Jason told me, “David has rules: no piano, no xylophone!” Are those general rules, or were they specific to this project?

David Fincher: (laughs) The problem with piano, especially with this kind of stuff is it can start to feel too literal – like literally music performed at the edges of the frame. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me.

MaxTheTrax:  He said he snuck some in, that the trick was not to make it sound like a piano. And you use some synch-licensed songs, a pretty eclectic mix: the Boomtown Rats “I Don’t Like Mondays,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross,” the Carpenters “Calling Occupants of the Interplanetary Craft,” Dwight Twilley “Feeling in the Dark.”

Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter

Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff as FBI agents Bill Tench and Holden Ford in Mindhunter. (Photo: Patrick Harbron/Netflix)

David Fincher: We use a lot of period songs, from 1978 and before. Selecting them was difficult, because we didn’t want to sound like a classic rock radio station. It’s a very odd time in music, because there were a lot of songs we tried to license only to find out we couldn’t get the originals because they’ve been re-recorded, maybe because of a record company relationship, or because two people fell out and are not speaking to each other. When you’re talking about music that’s 40 years old, or older, you’re talking about stuff that’s… There are a lot of extenuating circumstances for Supertramp, you know? There’s a lot of things where you’d find yourself thinking this would be perfect, but  somebody owns the master and somebody else owns the publishing and they’re not speaking to each other and you’re going to have to find something else.

There are probably a handful of cases where we ended up getting something we never would have imagined going in, because we were forced to go back to the drawing board. In aggregate, I think it made it better. Anything that challenges you to define why you’d want to use X and not Y is just testing your mettle insofar as having organizing principles behind things. Because it’s expensive, this period of music. These are expensive tracks, and there were definitely times when there was, say, a Billy Joel song, but you kind of go well, it’s a great song, and something I can relate to as a radio song, but I’ve kind of lost whether it’s 1978 or 1982. We were using music hand-in-glove with production design and it had as much to do with the kind of car radio the song was coming out of as it did whether or not it’s good. The car radio in 1978 and 1979 is mostly how our characters experience source music the show, when they’re driving from one prison to the next, or going to the airport or whatever. Sometimes we use them in montages. But it is tricky to find things that say time and a place. Like “Afternoon Delight” is a song that maybe not for the right reasons but you remember that summer, you remember where you were. It hasn’t often been covered, so it’s specific to a time and place.

MaxTheTrax:  And you didn’t use a music supervisor?

David Fincher: We had a music editor, Jonathon Stevens, who sort of acted as a music supervisor. But I canvassed Jason, Kirk Baxter who edited the show, Ren Klyce, the sound designer. We did a lot of research using the Billboard charts. We started finding out that, like, Anne Murray had a bigger hit one year than the Bee Gees. That’s crazy. You wouldn’t remember it that way. Also, southern music – how much country-music-adjacent made it into the Hot 100 in the ’70s. Olivia Newton John, “Have You Never Been Mellow,” I forgot that that was in Jaws. There are things you forget about pop culture that can be interestingly illuminated when you start to dive into Billboard’s Hot 100 for 1976. Growing up, I wasn’t really a big record buyer but I listened to the radio 10-12 hours a day. I was more of a contemporary hit radio guy than a record-store guy.

MaxTheTrax:  Music is certainly an interesting way to explore the mood of the time, and the fine line between sanity and insanity…

David Fincher: We’re definitely not doing the ‘fine line between sanity and insanity’ thing. I don’t believe that a thin line separates the hunter from the hunted. That’s an interesting conceit that has fueled many a serial killer narrative but it was one of the things we discussed with the people at [the FBI training academy in] Quanitco, who were very kind to us and gave us incredible access so we could make our sets as realistic as possible. But the idea of Hannibal Lechter, opera aficionado and gourmet face-eater, is [not realistic]. We’re trying to explore the sad, mundane reality of this kind of depravity as opposed to a comic-book super villain.

MaxTheTrax:  Do you have a massive music library?

David Fincher: No. I’m almost entirely on Spotify now. I’m divesting myself of it, because it’s a lot to store. I’m much more interested when people say I’m going to send you something or “listen to this and let me know what you think.” This season we’re in ’78-’79. Next season we’re in 1980-1981 and plan to explore more African American music.

MaxTheTrax:  I’m kind of surprised about that, given your close association with the music video work, and helping to invent that whole art form.

David Fincher:  Really, that was just a way of getting somebody to pay for film school. I was the single worst director of music videos. I’d be like, “You know that part where you sing the thing twice?” And they’d be like, “The bridge?” And I’d say, “Yeah. Can we just take it from there?” I was terrible at it (laughs). I have no idea about musical construction. When I talk to a composer it’s more about “Here’s a seditious idea,” not about what kind of instrument I want to hear, or this should be a Sennheiser, this should be a U-87. What I do know is people whose work I admire. I can describe where I think the drama is and then see what they come back with, because I do like to be surprised and unsettled. My basic approach is hire people who are great at what they do and get out of their way.

The Mindhunter Original Score by Jason Hill album will be available digitally on Oct. 27 and on CD in December from Milan Records.

Anna Torv as Wendy Carr

Anna Torv as academic turned FBI behavioral scientist Wendy Carr in the Netflix drama Mindhunter. (Photo: Patrick Harbron/Netflix)



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