Collider’s own Steve Weintraub recently got the chance to sit down with legendary multi-hyphenate Kirk Thatcher to discuss his prolific career working in numerous roles throughout the industry. The Emmy-winning writer/director/actor/producer/effects whiz is now known for everything from Muppets Tonight to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and, more recently, Werewolf By Night, but during the interview, he also elaborated on his roots rising up through Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). It was there that Thatcher would blossom and meet a friend who would help him kick off his career – David Fincher.
Before he even started at ILM, Thatcher describes his fascination with Star Wars that would one day lead him to the studio. At 15, he’d heard the hype surrounding the revolutionary sci-fi film and made sure he was there on opening day to see it unfold. “So I kind of knew it was coming out, and I went and saw opening day at Man’s Chinese, the first screening, the 12-noon screening at Man’s Chinese, completely blown away and just became a huge Star Wars fan instantly.,” he told Weintraub. Bought the books, including the Star Wars sketchbook by Joe Johnston.” His love for the films would almost immediately lead him to an important industry connection. “So maybe within three months of that opening, my mom came home from church on a Sunday afternoon and said, “Hey, I just met a gal at church, a really nice lady, whose son worked on Star Wars.” Her son was Johnston, then a concept artist and special effects technician for Star Wars: A New Hope.
The salvage yard at M. Maselli & Sons, in Petaluma, California, is made up of six acres of angle irons, block pulleys, doorplates, digging tools, motors, fencing, tubing, reels, spools, and rusted machinery. To the untrained eye, the place is a testament to the enduring power of American detritus, but to Foley artists—craftspeople who create custom sound effects for film, television, and video games—it’s a trove of potential props. On a recent morning, Shelley Roden and John Roesch, Foley artists who work at Skywalker Sound, the postproduction audio division of Lucasfilm, stood in the parking lot, considering the sonic properties of an enormous industrial hopper. “I’m looking for a resonator, and I need more ka-chunkers,” Roden, who is blond and in her late forties, said. A lazy Susan was also on the checklist—something to produce a smooth, swivelling sound. Roesch, a puffer-clad sexagenarian with white hair, had brought his truck, in the event of a large haul. The pair was joined by Scott Curtis, their Foley mixer, a bearded fiftysomething. Curtis was in the market for a squeaky hinge. “There was a door at the Paramount stage that had the best creak,” he said. “The funny thing was, the cleaning crew discovered this hinge squeak, and they lubricated the squeak—the hinge. It was never the same.”
Petaluma is a historically agricultural town, and that afternoon was the thirty-ninth annual Butter and Egg Days Parade; the air smelled of lavender and barbecued meat. Inside the yard, Curtis immediately gravitated toward a pile of what looked like millstones, or sanding wheels. He began rotating one against another, producing a gritty, high-pitched ring, like an elementary-school fire alarm. “The texture is great,” Roden said. She suggested that one of the wheels could be used as a sweetener—a sound that is subtly layered over another sound, to add dimension—for a high-tech roll-up door, or perhaps one made of stone. “It’s kinda chimey,” she said, wavering. “It has potential.” A few yards away, Curtis had moved on to a shelf of metal filing-cabinet drawers, freckled with rust. “We have so many metal boxes,” Roden said, and walked away.
“It’s kinda the squeak I was looking for,” Curtis said softly.
“Hey, guys, remember the ‘Black Panther’ area?” Roden called out. “Wanna explore?” She led the group past a rack of hanging chains, also rusted; Curtis lightly palmed a few in sequence, producing the pleasant rings of a tintinnabulum. Roden pointed to the spot where she had found a curved crowbar to create the sound of Vibranium—a fictional rare metal unique to the Marvel universe—before zeroing in on a rack of thimbles, clamps, nuts, bolts, and washers. The trio began knocking and tapping hardware together, producing a series of chimes, tinks, and clunks. Roesch, who calls himself an “audile”—someone who processes information in a primarily auditory manner, rather than in a visual or a material one—had unearthed a sceptre-like industrial tool with a moving part, and was rapidly sliding it back and forth. “Robot,” he said.
The bulk of the sound in film is typically added in postproduction. “I always say there’s sound effects, like footsteps, and then there’s music,” the director David Lynch, whose films are famous for their inventive, evocative sound design, said. “And then there’s sound effects that are like music. . . . They conjure a feeling.” Traditionally, “hard effects” cover ambient noises such as traffic or rain, or the more mechanical, combustive sounds of explosions and gunfire; they are usually pulled from libraries, or electronically produced. Foley effects are custom to a film, and are synchronized to characters’ movements. They might include the sound of someone walking across a room, rolling over in bed, stirring a pot, typing, fighting, dancing, eating, falling, or kissing. The line between the two kinds of effect is thin: Foley artists record the sound of a hand twisting a doorknob, but not the sound of the mechanism turning within. Foley is subtle but suggestive, capturing offstage bedsprings, or the shuffle of a clumsy intruder. In the past hundred years, technology has changed the process of recording, editing, and engineering sounds, but the techniques of Foley have remained stubbornly analog. Behind any given Foley effect, no matter how complex, are one or two people contorting their bodies in a soundproof room.
Foley artists have historically worked in pairs. (Certain sounds are so complex that they require the labor of four hands.) Roden and Roesch are two of the masters in their field. David Fincher, the director of movies including “The Social Network,” “Gone Girl,” and “Mank,” told me that Foley is “a very strange calling,” and “a dark art” foundational to filmmaking. “You’re trying to make beautiful sounds that make their point once and get the hell out of Dodge,” Fincher said. “The people who do it really, really well are few and far between.”
It’s easy to see why David Fincher chose “Bad Travelling” as his first foray into directing animation. He made his feature debut with the ill-fated “Alien 3,” after all, and the premise of this third-season episode of “Love, Death + Robots” is a bit like setting the plight of the Nostromo on the high seas: A giant, slimy crab devours the crew of a shark-hunting vessel, with only the cunning navigator surviving to battle the beast. (It also makes up for Fincher’s aborted take on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” at Disney.)
Fincher also likens “Bad Travelling” to “Ten Little Indians” meets “Deadliest Catch,” with the ship’s navigator, Torrin (Troy Baker), contending with mutiny, betrayal, and a starving Thanapod crustacean that bizarrely communicates through ventriloquism.
“You don’t necessarily want to see them come to unnatural ends,” Fincher said about the crew in the production notes. “The idea was not to make them despicable, but self-serving. That’s the thing I always loved about Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto in ‘Alien’….”
When Oscar and Emmy winner Alberto Mielgo was invited to pitch a story for the latest volume of the 11-time Emmy-winning series Love, Death + Robots, the Spanish director, artist, and animator decided to use a folkloric lens to examine the lengths to which some people will go to obtain what they cannot have. The resulting short, “Jibaro,” centers the battle of a deaf knight desperate to slay a golden siren and claim her as a trophy. The mythic creature grows increasingly frustrated, failing to understand why her opponent is immune to the powers of her song.
“It was inspired by those videos on National Geographic where there is an alligator fighting a jaguar for food,” Mielgo says. “It’s a crazy, toxic relationship between two characters, two predators, who both want and need each other.”
The unconventional and breathtaking episode is among nine new shorts included in the third volume of Love, Death + Robots. When executive producers Tim Miller and David Fincher first dreamed up the concept for Love, Death + Robots, they had a clear creative objective: “Let’s make a sandbox where anything’s possible,” explains Fincher, the Oscar-nominated director best known for live-action films like Mank, as well as the TV series MINDHUNTER. Fincher makes his animated directorial debut with the Volume 3 short “Bad Travelling,” a motion-capture masterpiece following a crew of degenerate sailors contending with a giant crustacean who boards their ship with an appetite for destruction. “We’re just telling stories. I think that the best of it works on a childlike level — and a naughty teenager level. As an adult looking at it, I appreciate that.”
James Vanderbilt wrote the screenplay for 2007’s Zodiac on spec — meaning he wasn’t commissioned to write it. So he began cutting it down before he sent it out to studios.
“I was just like, ‘This script is too fucking long. No one is going to read it.’ And I think the original script they sent out was 150 pages. It’s the thing you shouldn’t do, is write a 150-page script,” Vanderbilt tells MovieMaker about the film, released 15 years ago today.
Even when David Fincher agreed to direct the project, Vanderbilt was still concerned about its length. But much to his surprise, scenes were often added in development, not removed.
“In the spec, I had written the whole sequence with Brian Cox, and the morning show where Zodiac calls in, and then I cut it before sending the script out,” Vanderbilt says.
“And then one day Fincher was like, ‘You know, Zodiac might have called this morning show?’
“I was like, ‘Oh, I wrote it.’”
Fincher, who had spent months doing his own research on Zodiac, was impressed.
“You did?” he replied.
So Vanderbilt sent him the previously-cut 15 minute sequence.
“And he goes, ‘Well, this has got to go back in,’” Vanderbilt says. “And so it just kind of kept growing.”
Eventually Fincher sat Vanderbilt down and told him to “stop worrying about the length. I’m going to just make everyone talk very fast,” Vanderbilt says.
True to his word, “if you watch the movie, it is very bip, bip, bip, bip — everyone is talking very fast,” he adds.
Directors who have worked with Jeff Cronenweth, ASC observe that he is quiet, centered, and possesses a very dry sense of humor. Working in an eclectic mix of genres and styles, he quickly zeroes in on central concepts, often exceeding expectations with the results. His career as a feature cinematographer began auspiciously with David Fincher’s eye-popping Fight Club (AC Nov. ’99), and his filmography since then includes The Social Network (AC Oct. ’10), Gone Girl (AC Nov. ’14), One Hour Photo (AC Aug. ’02) and the Amazon miniseries Tales From the Loop (AC April ’20). Cronenweth has also shot stylistically bold, groundbreaking music videos for David Bowie, Taylor Swift, Janet Jackson, Nine Inch Nails and many other top artists.
Jeff with his father, Jordan Cronenweth, ASC.
It wouldn’t be at all hyperbolic to say Cronenweth was born into filmmaking. His great-grandfather owned and operated a photographic-equipment store in Wilkinsburg, Pa.; his grandfather Edward worked as a portrait photographer for Hollywood studios during the peak of that unique specialty, earning an Academy Award for his work; his grandmother Rosita was a Busby Berkeley dancer; and his father, renowned ASC member Jordan Cronenweth, served as director of photography on Blade Runner (AC July ’82), Peggy Sue Got Married (AC April ’87), Altered States (AC March ’81), Gardens of Stone (AC May ’87), and many classic music videos for leading artists of the 1980s and ’90s.
Taking this lineage a step further, Jeff Cronenweth has also collaborated with his brother Tim, a successful commercial director, on more than 500 spots.
“A storyteller doesn’t want to tell the same story over and over, and I don’t want to, either. I always want to find something new and challenging to work on.” — Jeff Cronenweth, ASC
David Fincher and David Prior’s anthology essay series “Voir” is only six episodes, but fully half of those came from Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou. Their skill with the form comes as no surprise to fans of their YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting,” which almost served as a proof of concept for a show like “Voir” — and that millions of people would be interested in videos exploring just how the grammar of filmmaking impacts its meaning. When done well, video essays combine the thrill of knowing a secret and the joy of learning more about a long-held passion. Zhou and Ramos spoke to IndieWire about how the process of creating that joyful learning shifted and expanded when working on “Voir.”
“YouTube was very constricting because of things like copyright and DMC,” Ramos said. “The license that Netflix and [David Fincher] gave us, it was very, ‘Oh, we can do anything and everything!’ And [that] was, I don’t want to say daunting, but —”
For nearly two decades, Hollywood had been trying to make a movie of Zodiac, and for nearly two decades, it had failed. In 2003, producer Brad Fischer, and screenwriter Jamie Vanderbilt attempted the undoable, and set their sights on the one filmmaker they felt unequalled for the helm: director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club). Fincher’s eye for detail, probing mind, and unrelenting quest for answers made him ideal. His personal connection to the case made him perfect.
Author Robert Graysmith, director David Fincher, producer Brad Fischer, and screenwriter James Vanderbilt: “The Untouchables” (Photo: Margot Graysmith)
From Hollywood boardrooms to remote fog-shrouded crime scenes, they battle a huge script that refuses to be beaten, a case that refuses to be solved, and a running time and budget that threaten their film. Follow as they track down missing witnesses, gather the original investigators, visit the original crime scenes, discover boxes of Zodiac case files from an attic, unearth new clues, a videotape of the prime suspect’s police interrogation, and a surviving victim who doesn’t want to be found. To keep Fincher on board, and get their film greenlit, it will take cold leads, private eyes, new evidence, and most of all, perseverance.
About The Author
Robert Graysmith in 2012. Photo: Russell Yip / The Chronicle
Robert Graysmith (Facebook) is an author and illustrator. He was the political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle when the letters and cryptograms from the infamous Zodiac killer began arriving to the paper. He was present when they were opened in the morning editorial meetings, and has been investigating & writing ever since. He lives in San Francisco where he continues to write and illustrate. He is best known for his books “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked”.
“Zodiac in Costume at Lake Berryessa,” by former Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith. Surviving victim Bryan Hartnell personally described the costume in detail to Graysmith, after his, and Cecilia Shepherd’s, encounter with the Zodiac on Sept. 27, 1969. Photo: Robert Graysmith
Robert Graysmith, political cartoonist for The San Francisco Chronicle, in 1977. Photo: Gary Fong / The Chronicle
Robert Graysmith wrote the definitive Zodiac Killer book. He breaks decade-long silence to tell us about his upcoming projects
For a fairly famous guy, author Robert Graysmith doesn’t get out much. He hasn’t been heard from in public for about a decade, and he rarely leaves his San Francisco home.
The 78-year-old Graysmith has been crafting manuscripts at such an astonishing pace, printing them out as he goes along, that they now stand in a 5-foot-high stack that breaks down into what he says will be 34 books, ranging from children’s tales and historical explorations to true crime and fictional legends. Most just need a few final touches and editing, he said.
These days, Graysmith is working with a new publisher he knows well: his 50-year-old son, Aaron Smith.
The first in this voluminous new string landed on online sites like Amazon at the end of August, the 383-page “Shooting Zodiac,” which documents the planning that went into making the movie “Zodiac.”
“It’s much more fun working with Aaron on these things, because he can put them out quickly,” Graysmith said. “I figured out you’re going to wait about three years to get a book done, and then you hand them the book, and they’re going to spend a lot of time and then they won’t do anything for another year or so. With Aaron, we can get the book edited and out there in a few months.”
Graysmith’s son — who uses the last name his dad used before he merged Gray and Smith — said he wasn’t really surprised when he realized how many pages his dad had in the hopper.
“Writing is pretty much all he does,” Smith said by phone from his home in Southern California, “and the illustrations.”
Graysmith said he started working on his engagingly told “Shooting Zodiac” before the movie came out, as he was being bowled over by the dedication director David Fincher, producer Brad Fischer and screenwriter Jamie Vanderbilt put into the project. They combed over the same material Graysmith had in his books “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked” to rebuild and advance his narrative around the only suspect ever named by police, Arthur Leigh Allen of Vallejo.
Watching them work was “a marvelous adventure,” Graysmith said.
The new book is as much about greenlighting the movie and hiring actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, who played Graysmith, as it is about how the three filmmakers did their research. It’s also probably the last thing Graysmith will write about the Zodiac, he and his son said.
In Season 2 of Neflix’s “Love, Death & Robots,” the adult animated anthology from executive producers David Fincher and Tim Miller (“Deadpool”) continued its embrace of survival and immortality in strange dystopian environments. However, there were eight shorts instead of 18 and a greater emphasis on philosophizing, with some directors stepping out of their comfort zones.
Indeed, the sci-fi anthology, produced by Blur Studio for Netflix, so impressed the TV Academy that it was awarded four juried prizes on Wednesday: Robert Valley, production designer (“Ice”); Patricio Betteo, background artist (“Ice”); Dan Gill, stop-motion animator (“All Through the House”); and Laurent Nicholas, character designer (“Automated Customer Service”).
“We tried to elevate the stories further and to give deeper explorations of some of these adult themes,” said supervising director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (“The Darkest Minds” and the “Kung Fu Panda”sequels). “So it was very much like a curating process to go from finding these amazing stories and these amazing authors [including Harlan Ellison and J.G. Ballard] and then matchmaking really interesting and talented directors to let them do something [different].”
Mank, director David Fincher’s much anticipated take on the behind-the-scenes drama that shaped the making of Citizen Kane, was released last November after a journey to get it made that began almost two decades ago.
Is there any reason to believe that a story about the making of a movie about the making of a movie is any less intriguing than that of its fabled subject?
In terms of finding classic locations in Los Angeles that have survived the moving hands of time, Fincher couldn’t have found a better guy for the job than LM William “Bill” Doyle/LMGI. L.A. is a classic example of a city in a near-constant state of reinvention, but despite the years, some amazing original sites still remain, and Doyle knows most of them.
“I’ve always loved reading about how cities develop,” Doyle says. “Understanding a city… How it was developed or why it was founded, how it was built and when it expanded… Knowing how these things happened can help you make sense of any city anywhere in the world when you’re looking for something specific.”