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Immersed in Movies: Ren Klyce Talks Sound and Subways for Fincher's 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 22, 2012 at 1:29PM

For David Fincher, the sounds of silence are equally as disturbing as loud noises. This is clearly evident in sound designer Ren Klyce's Oscar-nominated work for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Indeed, the underlying soundscape is a freezing, unsettling horror that perfectly complements the disturbing, graphic imagery.
Ren Klyce

For David Fincher, the sounds of silence are equally as disturbing as loud noises. This is clearly evident in sound designer Ren Klyce's Oscar-nominated work for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Indeed, the underlying soundscape is a freezing, unsettling horror that perfectly complements the creepy, graphic imagery.

And Fincher based his American version on a different set of criteria than the Swedish original. He wanted Lisbeth Salander's enigmatic yet beguiling hacker (Rooney Mara) to be more in keeping with the novel's depiction: less adult, less sexy, more damaged goods.

They captured city sounds in Stockholm and LA and then made them seamless when mixing at George Lucas' Skywalker Sound. The feeling of melting snow was prevalent everywhere and so your ear accepted it as being the same place because it's freezing, according to Klyce.

Klyce hired a friend from Sweden, Rune Palving, to collect the indigenous city sounds, which were compiled into a vast library. "I went through extracting these little moments that spoke to me about what I thought sounded Swedish and unique and singular because the last thing you want is it to sound like it's made in America," he explains. "All the tones had to be accurate even if it was a telephone ring, the trains, the whistle of the trains. With a few exceptions the overall aesthetic was to act as a supporting character to the image and bridge the gap between the photography that David did on location in Sweden and make that work with the interior work he did in Los Angeles."

But it's the surreal sounds that were most intriguing, including the mugging of Salander in the subway, culminating with her beating up her assailant on the escalator. Fincher wanted the sound to carry the violence with a screeching terror. 

"David didn't want to hear her punching him and he didn't want to hear Rooney screaming at the mugger," Klyce insists. "He wanted the environment louder than the screams. To do that was quite interesting because it involved going from a place of reality to a more surreal place, yet the sounds were manipulated. I had recorded sounds in 2000 at subways in Tokyo and I used those tones. I had found an almost screeching sound from the subways that would fill in that void with frightening noises, and layered those with the click-clack sounds of the trains going over the rails. That would get louder and louder. On top of that I put the sound of the subway announcer, which was a piercing, concentration camp-type megaphone yelling in your ear."

On the quieter side is the moment when discredited journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) visits Salander's to find out more about the hacker who has violated his privacy. Rather than reacting in anger, she politely lets him in because she's curious to know how he located her and what he knows about her. "The sounds of that scene subtly give you a sense of her world, which is a tenement and you're hearing other conversations through the walls and unpleasant freeway noises and motorbikes," Klyce adds. "It's a lot more than two people talking."

But, of course, the graphic rapes posed the biggest challenge. That's where the click-clacking came in handy. "You don't want to see her getting violated, yet David has constructed it to be very realistic," Klyce continues. "He wanted to have queues. After she gets choked and passes out, when the social worker chokes her, it fades to black and you hear the music by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, which is very freaky. It almost sounds like it's broken, with high-pitched noises that come in and out randomly," Klyce recalls.

"David wanted to have the first sound being her chained with handcuffs through the bedpost. And then of course he wanted to hear the guy's 350 pounds of tremendous weight even before he compromises her and then her screaming on top of it. But he wanted the idea of her screaming being muffled like he was pushing her face into the pillow. And then we thought: Wouldn't someone hear all this coming from his apartment? That's when we came up with the idea of masking her screams with the sounds of the subway. Again, in the revenge rape, when she turns the tables on him, the subway throbs through the scene."

Yet the weirdest sound of all was an eerie noise coming from a floor polisher run by a janitor outside the office where Salander is forced to give the social worker oral sex: "David was so on my case about that floor polisher, and it was funny because I wanted to get quieter with it and he wanted it to be louder. 'No, man, I need you to have that floor polisher pounding away. Check it out: That's the sound that tells the audience that no one is in the office.' It's after hours and that noise allows him to rape her. So we started playing with the idea of that and then Atticus had a piece of music that creeps in as he slowly approaches her and tells her to unzip his zipper. Throughout this whole scene, you hear this floor polisher cleaning away in the background. Ironically, it turned out that the music had the same pitch as the annoying sound of the floor polisher and they were able to keep it going."

Only in a Fincher movie.

This article is related to: Sound and Score, Interviews , David Fincher, Girl with Dragon Tattoo, Oscars, Awards

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.