A version of this story about Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and “Mank” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Director David Fincher has said that “Mank” was meant to look and feel as if it were found on the shelf of a studio vault where it had sat unnoticed since the 1940s — so when a song comes on the radio in the film about “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, it figures that the tune might be a number straight from that era.
But that’s not the case with “(If Only You Could) Save Me,” a big-band ballad with a sultry vocal by Adryon de León, which was written not by a mid-20th-century tunesmith but by Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor and his regular soundtrack collaborator Atticus Ross.
The decision to let Reznor and Ross write the music that would be heard coming from radios and bandstands in the movie came, Reznor said, because Fincher was so happy with the period-style score they were writing, which ranged from Bernard Hermann-style orchestral passages to what Reznor called “big-band, hustle-bustle type music.”
“Our camp and his camp knew we were in good shape, and we felt like there was an abundance of ideas,” he said. “There were three or four or five incidences where they would have licensed a song, and Fincher said, ‘What if you guys just did all that stuff, too?'” He laughed. “I wrote the word down, because I didn’t know it – diegetic music, source music, things playing on the radio.”
“Save Me” plays on the radio during a scene in which a drunken Mank has made a fool of himself and passed out on the bed, a predicament echoed in lines like “I did it all my way / Now what am I to do?” “I wrote a set of lyrics with Mank as the inspiration,” Reznor said, “but it felt a little on the nose if you were just listening to it. It would have been a little too obvious — but knowing that just a short segment was going to play, I thought it might be cool for the astute watcher or repeat viewer to tune into those lyrics and realize, ‘Oh, that’s about Mank.'”
The song also underwent adjustments with the input of the famously exacting Fincher. “It wasn’t a question of the piece not being right, it was a question of the details,” Ross said. The original arrangement, Reznor added, used a male vocalist singing in a high register, like the Ink Spots vocal group of the era, but they tinkered with it, changing it to a female vocalist and then speeding up the track.
“It was a lot of David tuning into it and honing into it,” he said. “There was a lot of revising to get to where it wound up, in a good way.”
When Reznor and Ross began to work on “Mank,” they were also finishing music for the Pixar movie “Soul” and the HBO miniseries “Watchmen” – but collaborating with Fincher, Reznor said, is “always a priority.”
The director, he added, never micromanages them. “He’ll never say, ‘Just do it like this,’ but if it’s not what it’s he wants, he won’t settle for that. Working with him, you end up feeling a great sense of trust because he’s thought this through. That’s not to say that he’s not open to accidents and other things, but it’s not a free-for-all.
“When you compare that to how Atticus and I work on Nine Inch Nails, where we’re in charge of everything, there’s a freedom that comes from being able to just work on this thing we have to do, and trusting that he’s thinking about it at a level higher than we are.”