Fight Club Sound Designer Reflects on Film's 10th Anniversary

Ren Klyce breaks the first and second rule of Fight Club by talking about it.

by | November 15, 2009 | Comments

Ren Klyce may not be a household name to most, but for those who are keen on sound design, he’s the kind of chap that you might mention alongside Ben Burtt, the legendary creator of the Star Wars soundscapes. Working with David Fincher (almost exclusively) since 1995’s Se7en, he has created some of the most memorably unnerving soundscapes ever put to film. One of which was, of course, 1999’s iconic Fight Club. With the film’s 10-year anniversary a special edition is being released on Blu-ray and DVD, with extras devoted entirely to the sometimes shockingly graphic sounds that underpinned what is still, for many, a confronting film. For others, of course, it’s a modern day masterpiece. We spoke with Ren on the Fox Studios Lot in Los Angeles and he gave us the low down on what inspires him in movies, and just what went into the creation of those bone-shattering fight sequences. If you’re a vegetarian, or of a squeamish disposition, a warning — some of the upcoming descriptions may be disturbing!

RT: First up — from someone who really knows — what are the best sound-designed movies of all time?

Some of my favourite films are from the ’70s. Films like The Conversation are right up there at the top of the list. It’s about a sound man. It’s a Francis Ford Coppola film. The sound was by Walter Murch, who’s an incredible talent, and a huge inspiration to all of us in the sound world. As well, of course, there’s the other films he did with Coppola — The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. THX-1138 was another great film for sound. The Black Stallion, another great film for sound. Those are at the top of the list.

There’s a story about the rating of Fight Club that the sound mix was altered or, at least, not quite as ‘rich’ when presented to the ratings board, so that the visceral fight scenes didn’t quite have the same impact they later did — just because of the sound design. Is this actually true?

Well, David Fincher did do the movie the way he wanted to in the end, but I think a lot of people were afraid of the film, for numerous reasons. I think it really touches on a nerve, and I think that’s why we’re talking about it 10 years later, because it really touches a nerve in society. But the short answer is ‘yes’. We were particularly worried about the Angel Face’s (Jared Leto) fight in particular being a little too violent. Ultimately it was David’s decision to make it a little less visceral, which, believe it or not, is what we have now. One of the things I would do, which he hated, was whenever there was something visual, like blood, I would put in the sound of the blood. And he would say to me. “You know what — that’s too much”. It was always what he wanted, but there was one screening, certainly, where we turned it down a little bit.

When you create a sound like those punches, you’re not actually taking the sounds of people getting punched. Did you create these yourselves, or did you use a ‘punch’ library?

We recorded all original sounds for the film, and we did actually start by recording punching each other. Some of those things are in there because there’s a good sound that the chest cavity makes when you punch it [hits himself in the chest] — it’s a thwack like a drum. Then we added chickens, and John and Helda from Foley came up with the great idea of stuffing chickens with things that would make great sounds. Either they would just crunch the chickens by themselves, and the bones would go ‘crunch’, or they would put things like walnuts inside and be crunching them, or covering them with a wet piece of chamois and then whacking them with a stick, and playing with where the microphone would be and so forth.

We took that and then we layered on top of that. We went to Skywalker Sound and they had this fantastic basement — where, in addition to kicking bottles and cans and spitting and doing the rest of the sounds that we made in the basement, we went to the butcher shop and got some big slabs of meat and punched them. I still have the tape of Andre, who was punching the meat saying “I just have to stop, I’m done”.

We built a whole library of that, and I took all the elements and layered them and stacked them and so forth and that’s how we created the sounds in the film.

Was there a particular sound in a particular film that really struck you to the point where you thought, ‘Damn, I wish I had done that’?

I started listening very early to sound in film, even before I realised that’s what I wanted to do. I was always very excited about it. I remember it was in American Graffiti and they sneak off in the middle of the night and they start talking about a murderer that’s lurking around and in the mix, which is predominantly just dialogue and early ’50s music; all of a sudden you hear an owl and then a heartbeat — and I remember thinking ‘Oh, someone’s adding a heartbeat’.

Now, everyone’s adding heartbeats to movies, it’s one of those things that when it becomes popular, it’s almost a cliche. At the time though, it was very inspiring.

So, is it now about adding those sounds to a film that people don’t notice, until it’s too late?

Yeah. I think sound is a craft that’s not supposed to be noticed, which is what’s so unusual about this Fight Club Blu-ray — that we have an entire section devoted to sound. It’s not supposed to draw attention to itself, it’s supposed to support David Fincher’s directing, Chuck Palahniuk’s writing, the acting and so forth. It’s a supporting character. But because the film has struck such a nerve, I think people want to know more about what went into it, find out the secrets. People seem interested.

The 10th Anniversary edition of Fight Club is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.

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