With his latest film The Social Network in cinemas this month, Trevor Hogg profiles the career of director David Fincher in the second of a three part feature... read part one here.
After the production turmoil associated with his directorial debut Alien 3 (1992), American moviemaker David Fincher had given up on the idea of a career in Hollywood; his attitude changed when he received a script composed by an employee of Tower Records in Los Angeles. “I didn’t like my time in New York, but it’s true that if I hadn’t lived there I wouldn’t have written Se7en ,” revealed Andrew Kevin Walker (Sleepy Hollow) who, despite being told by the assistant to writer-director David Koepp (Ghost Town) that unsolicited screenplays were not accepted, pitched his idea about a serial killer who commits his murders according to the seven deadly sins. Intrigued by the concept, Koepp’s assistant agreed to read the script which was subsequently given to New Line Cinema. The dark subject matter appealed to Fincher. “I'm always interested in movies that scar,” stated the director. “The thing I love about Jaws  is the fact that I've never gone swimming in the ocean again.”
“The way characters talk and how fleshed out they are are usually the reasons you say yes to a movie,” explained David Fincher. “The action set-pieces are the stuff you feel obligated to do in order to give them something to cut into their trailer. Se7en for me wasn't about decomposing bodies and jolts and scares. I liked the world and what they were talking about.” Adding to the gloomy atmosphere was the unrelenting rain. “We created a setting that reflects the moral decay of the people in it,” said production designer Arthur Max (Gladiator). ”Everything is falling apart and nothing is working properly.” New Line Cinema which was producing the $30 million psychological thriller found itself in conflict with Fincher and his leading man Brad Pitt (Twelve Monkeys) who refused to change the “down beat” ending. Initially the concerns of the movie studio turned out to well-founded especially at the test screenings where participants were told that Pitt and Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption) were in the picture. “They couldn't have been more offended,” groaned the director. “You couldn't molest the audience more than to promise Legends of the Fall  and Driving Miss Daisy  then to unleash this on them.”
Starring the acting talents of Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love), R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket), Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects), John Cassini (Alive), and Peter Crombie (Rising Sun), the film grossed $327 million worldwide. “You can do something that walks a line,” observed David Fincher, “and invariably, whatever that line is, it will be crossed by people who don't know any better and want to ape the success. People say, 'Wow, Se7en's about degradation, and it made some money.' I don't mean this as high-minded or artistic, but it does, I think, walk a fairly tasteful line.” Acknowledging his attraction to unsettling tales, Fincher stated, “I don't have the Tom Hanks [Apollo 13] fans. When you make the kind of movies I make, you get weird letters from people.” Se7en received a Best Editing nomination at the Oscars while the BAFTAs nominated it for Best Original Screenplay. The Empire Awards lauded the serial killer picture with Best Actor (Morgan Freeman) and Best Film.
With his reputation restored, David Fincher produced a psychological thriller featuring Michael Douglas (Wall Street), Sean Penn (Milk), Deborah Kara Unger (Crash), James Rebhorn (Far from Heaven), Peter Donat (Red Corner), Carroll Baker (Baby Doll), Anna Katarina (The Pink Panther), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine), and Charles Martinet (Sheer Passion). A mysterious birthday present causes investment banker (Douglas) to become entangled in an elaborate conspiracy. Describing The Game (1997), Fincher said that the character of Nicholas Van Orton (Douglas) is a “fashionable good-looking Scrooge, lured into a Mission: Impossible  situation with a steroid shot in the thigh from The Sting .” The movie is an intricately woven puzzle. “As a director, film is about how you dole out the information so that the audience stays with you when they're supposed to stay with you, behind you when they're supposed to stay behind you, and ahead of you when they're supposed to be ahead of you.” There was no attempt to ground the convoluted tale in reality. “You can’t look at The Game and go, ‘I was there.’”
“I think a movie set's a fascist dictatorship,” remarked David Fincher who has a reputation for being a controlling perfectionist, “you have to go in and know what it is you want to do because you have to tell 90 people what it is you want to do and it has to be convincing.” The director did not outright dismiss creative suggestions from Oscar-winning performers Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. “I try to give actors a lot of opportunities to contribute. The first three or four takes, do what's in your gut, and then let's start honing it in.” The main character of The Game follows a general cinematic principle. “Most of the drama in movies is the person who refuses to give up, or the person who refuses to turn away, and what happens, and then the glory that comes from that.” Contemplating the theme of his third picture, Fincher said, “The purpose of The Game is to take your greatest fear, put it this close to your face and say, ‘There, you’re still alive. It’s all right.’” Commenting on the $50 million Hollywood production which earned $109 million worldwide, Desson Howe wrote in the Washington Post, “It’s formulaic, yet edgy. It’s predictable, yet full of surprises. How far you get through this tall tale of a thriller before you give up and howl is a matter of personal taste.” Film critic Mick LaSalle stated in his San Francisco Chronicle movie review, “At times The Game is frustrating to watch, but that’s just a measure of how well Fincher succeeds in putting us in his hero’s shoes.”
Adapting Fight Club (1999), a book by author Chuck Palanuik was next on the cinematic agenda for the Denver born filmmaker. A traveling automobile company employee (Edward Norton) who suffers from insomnia becomes addicted to attending various support groups where he pretends to be a victim; he decides to form his own club involving underground bare-knuckle fighting. “It's a movie about people who hit themselves,” stated David Fincher. “They're looking for ways to feel again. There is a malaise, frustration and sadness the movie has at its core.” Questioned about the brutal nature of the tale, the director responded, “I always saw the violence in this movie as a metaphor for drug use.” Fincher added, “You have a responsibility for the way you make the audience feel and I want them to feel uncomfortable.” Unlike his previous experience with 20th Century-Fox over Alien 3, the studio executives supported the director. “I think they [the Fox brass] fell in love with it, warts and all, in the dailies. A lot of people get back on their heels about this movie and feel assaulted. But I think if you take that assault over twenty weeks of shooting, then you have a better chance of people warming to it.”
Responding to the accusations that the picture encourages violent behaviour, David Fincher stated, “I don't know how you'd get out of bed if you had to worry about how two hours of controlling everything somebody sees and hears can be misconstrued.” Fincher remarked further, “If we could predict how people were going to behave, we wouldn't have Columbine. But to say that because we have Columbine then we have to be very careful about the ideas we put out there is inane - ludicrous.” Cast in the movie production which cost $63 million to make are Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter (A Room with a View), Meat Loaf (The Salton Sea), Zach Grenier (Talk Radio), Richmond Arquette (The Heist), and David Andrews (Fair Game). Gary Crowdus of Cineaste wrote, “While Fight Club had numerous critical champions, the film’s critical attackers were far more vocal, a negative chorus which became hysterical about what they felt to be excessive graphic scenes of fisticuffs.” Fight Club grossed $101 million worldwide; it received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Effects Editing and was awarded Best British Actress (Helena Bonham Carter) at the Empire Awards.
The Hire (2001 to 2002) is a series of eight BMW internet car ads co-produced by David Fincher featuring the directorial work of John Frankenheimer (Ronin), Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Kar Wai Wong (In the Mood for Love), Guy Richie (Snatch), Alejandro Gonzálex Iñárritu (Babel), John Woo (Face/Off), Joe Carnaham (Smokin’ Aces), and Tony Scott (Man on Fire). Amongst the actors featured in the ten minute commercials are Clive Owen (Children of Men), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), Madonna (Desperately Seeking Susan), Stellan Skarsgård (Thor), Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus), Danny Trejo (Machete), Adriana Lima, and Gary Oldman (The Fifth Element).
A home invasion served as the basis for Panic Room (2002), the follow-up effort for David Fincher. “It's about a woman who buys a New York Brownstone with a panic room,” explained the director about the story scripted by David Koepp. “It's like a safe room in a house. Rich people would sometimes build these secret rooms in their homes. So these guys break in and the woman takes her kid and hides in the panic room. But the guys don't leave. What they're looking for is in the panic room. So she and the girl are trapped inside the room.” The contained thriller was a welcome break from his previous picture. “After Fight Club [which had nearly four hundred scenes and almost two hundred locations], the idea of doing an entire story inside one house appealed to me.”
When an Academy Award-winning actress left the project because of a knee injury; cast in her place was fellow Oscar-winner Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs). “I don't know if I see myself really as an action hero, but I like doing physical movies and I like doing movies where the writing is very lean,” stated Foster. “You have somebody who absolutely doesn't know who she is, and through the course of the drama, learns that she does have all the answers, and that she if had listened to her instincts initially instead of being talked into this bad idea for all the wrong reasons, the bad things might not have happened.” Playing Meg’s daughter Sarah Altman is Kristen Stewart (Twilight), “Everyone always says, ‘Kristen got Panic Room because she looks like Jodie Foster,’” revealed the actress, “But it was actually Nicole Kidman [The Interpreter] who was supposed to play my mother.”
Stewart was impressed by the main movie set. “Everything in the house in Panic Room worked.” The house was not only built to accommodate the performers. “The whole place, a three-story apartment,” stated David Fincher, “was all built on stage and we had cameras that could go literally anywhere. They could move and follow the actors from the third floor to the first.” The cinematography became a point of contention for many critics of the film. “As much as people thought Panic Room was a chance to fly a camera around and show off, that was an extension of our philosophy about how the story should be told and not like, ‘I'd really like to rent this piece of equipment.’ When somebody says, ‘You don't want to make this movie — it all takes place in one house,’ those are fighting words.” Actors Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam (Sling Blade), Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream), Patrick Bauchau (Ray), Ann Magnuson (Chasing Tchaikovsky), Ian Buchanan (Double Exposure), and Paul Simon (Bedazzled) perform in the $48 million picture which earned $196 million worldwide. The Online Film Critics Society Awards nominated the thriller for Best Editing, while Kristen Stewart contended for Best Young Actress in a Motion Picture at the Young Artist Awards.
Assessing his approach to filmmaking, David Fincher concluded that he was over relying on detailed storyboarding and pre-visualization. “It just felt wrong, like I didn’t get the most out of the actors, because I was so rigid in my thinking,” admitted the director. “I was impatiently waiting for everybody to get where I’d already been a year and a half ago. And I’ve been trying to nip that in the bud. I felt like I needed to be more attentive to watching the actors.”
Returning to the serial killer genre, Fincher made use of a documentary style in a movie about a notorious murderer who preyed upon the community of his childhood.
Continue to part three.
For more on the director be sure to visit The Works and Genius of David Fincher.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.