Killer Talent: A David Fincher Profile (Part 3)

With his latest film The Social Network in cinemas this month, Trevor Hogg profiles the career of director David Fincher in the third of a three part feature… read parts one and two.

Zodiac“When it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be involved in Black Dahlia [2006],” stated director David Fincher, “I didn’t go, ‘All right, find me another obsession tale.’ I wasn’t looking to make another serial-killer movie. But when I read Zodiac [2007], I just thought I’d hate to see this and not have been involved.” Based on the book by former San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith, the movie centres around the police and the author (Jake Gyllenhaal) trying to unravel the identity of the multiple murderer who during the late 1960s and early 1970s sent taunting letters and ciphers to newspapers. “Growing up in [the Bay Area's] Marin [County] in this time, there were a lot of questions that had never been answered for me,” remarked the filmmaker, “like, ‘Whatever happened to [the Zodiac case]? How did that end up?’ It disappeared off the front page, and then it was off page four, and then it was in the metro section, and then it was gone. There was no real sense of, ‘Did they ever get close?’ I opened [the script] going, ‘Uh-oh, I don’t know.’ And then halfway in, I was like, ‘This is pretty interesting.’” Fincher believes a major reason the case remains unsolved is because of public apathy. “We were interested in it until it got too boring. People were outraged that this guy hadn’t been brought to justice until they [the 49ers, an American football team] drafted Joe Montana and nobody in San Francisco cared anymore.”

“I did want it to be emotional, not just facts like Court TV. But I wasn’t interested in spending time to tell the back story of any of these characters,” explained David Fincher. “I just wanted to know what they did in regards to the case.” Actor Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me) plays San Francisco Detective Dave Toschi who along with his partner Detective Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) led the police investigation. “Dave was somebody who was not afraid of the camera, and so there was just a lot of material available on what he looked like and how he sounded,” said Ruffalo. “It was such an enormous part of his life – his career, his life, his family, everything was caught up in it. He was being groomed to be Chief of Police. He was on the rise. To have it go down the way it did, in such an ignoble way, I don’t think you recover.” Gone are flashy camera movements which were featured prominently in Panic Room (2002). “[David Fincher] said he wanted to do a piece that was in the vein of All The President’s Men [1976], that had been all about acting.” The filmmaker wanted to make sure there were no unnecessary distractions. “How do we remind people at all times that what they’re seeing is true?” asked Fincher. “We decided, rightly or wrongly, to present it in the simplest conceivable way. The actors would walk into a room with a Styrofoam cup, deliver their four pages of dialogue, and that would be it. We were going to make the information king and the movie would live or die by the believability of the performances.”

Zodiac“I remember vividly the day he [Zodiac] called [attorney] Melvin Belli on live TV during the Jim Dunbar show,’ recalled the director. “I was in the second grade and I remember my dad taking the day off from work after that. I don’t think we ever found out it was a hoax—a guy calling from a mental institution—but I do remember people talking about it that day.” Contemplating the motives of the serial killer who haunted his childhood, David Fincher remarked, “The thing that’s fascinating for me about Zodiac is I believe his compulsion and his addiction were not ultimately about maiming people or murdering them, it became about communicating with the San Francisco Chronicle and that became far more gratifying and far more seductive than what he started out doing.” Fincher sought to achieve authenticity when retelling the true life story. “We wanted the murder sequences to feel like you were there. When we asked Mike Mageau and Bryan Hartnell [the Zodiac’s two surviving victims, who served as consultants on the film] about it, they both said it came out of nowhere and happened very, very quickly.” The filmmaker added, “There are terrible fallouts from these murders, and it didn’t seem right to turn it into a video game and put the audience in the stalker’s head.”

“One of the things the movie is talking about is, ‘What is closure?’” said David Fincher of the picture which ended up with a runtime of two hours and forty-five minutes. “We screened the movie many times. We tried to make the movie as short as we could. But we also made promises to people that we were going to tell their story and they would not be turned into plot devices—Nameless Victim No. 1.” The cast in the $65 million production are actors Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin), Brian Cox (Manhunter), John Carroll Lynch (Shutter Island), Dermont Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding), Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry), Elias Koteas (Shooter), and Candy Clark (Blue Thunder). Reacting to the film, about the “ultimate boogeyman”, earning $85 million worldwide, David Fincher remarked, “I guess people just don’t like irresolution. But, that’s what I thought was interesting about it.” At the Cannes Film Festival the mystery-thriller contended for the Palme d’Or while screenwriter James Vanderbilt (Basic) received a Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Online Film Critics Society Awards nominated the non-fiction movie for Best Director, Best Editing, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay; it also received nominations from the Empire Awards for Best Director, Best Film, and Best Thriller.

The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonDavid Fincher’s seventh cinematic endeavor The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) is an adaptation of a fictional short story by Scott F. Fitzgerald about a man who ages backwards. “Obviously David [Fincher] is different than Michael Mann [The Insider] or Steven Spielberg [Munich],” observed screenwriter Eric Roth. “Everybody has a process and each of them tries to get the best work from you and you try to get the best ideas from them.” Producer Kathleen Kennedy (War of the Worlds) thought Roth was the perfect choice to craft the script for the $150 million production. “Eric was the ideal person to fully realize the potential of such a large-scale but deeply personal story,” stated Kennedy. “In Forrest Gump [1994], he revealed intimate portraits against the backdrop of epic stories, and a gift for richly observed detail.” Reflecting on the picture which awarded him with an Oscar, Eric Roth remarked, “Not to disparage Forrest Gump, but I feel this to be more mature writing. Some of it is much more personal because both my parents died while I was writing this, so there were obviously personalized things about love and life and death.” Roth gave an example, “I remember, I asked my mom, ‘Are you afraid?’ and she said, ‘I’m curious.’ And I think that’s almost the first line of the movie.”

On the creative challenge of developing the cinematic personas portrayed by Brad Pitt (Burn After Reading), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth), Julia Ormond (Smilla’s Sense of Snow), Elias Koteas, Taraji P. Henson (Hurricane Season), Earl Maddox (Little Chenier), Jacob Tolano (Guy in the Trunk), Donna DuPlantier (The Roe Effect), Jason Flemyng (Clash of the Titans), David Jensen (The Mist), Ed Metzger (Dog Day Afternoon) and Joeanna Sayler (Trust Me), the screenwriter stated, “Whether you like them or not you have to give them some reality, some history, some psychological traits that would be accurate for that personality.” The biggest complication was in the depiction of the title character over the various stages of his life. “There was some talk for a while of having four or five actors playing Benjamin at different ages, but I had faith that David could figure it out.” Playing the role of Button is an actor working on his third project with David Fincher. “For Brad Pitt, it’s harder acting than other roles that are so huge, because to be quiet is the hardest thing.” Eric Roth recalled a conversation with an Oscar-winning performer. “I remember Bob DeNiro telling me that the hardest thing to do as an actor is to listen. He said most actors are planning what to say next, and if you watch really good actors, they’re listening.” Pitt laments the lack of respect the elderly receive from the younger members of society. “I wouldn’t say our culture leans toward respecting the wisdom of age and those who’ve been around a lot. It’s Beavis and Butt-head, ‘You’re old!’”

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button“I remember Tom Hanks [Castaway] said, ‘Gee, your movies are always about loneliness,’” stated Eric Roth. “And I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t think the movie is necessarily about loneliness. It’s more about what comforts you.” Brad Pitt believes, “It’s a tragedy in the sense that any love involves loss, and that’s the risk you take.” Reflecting on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher commented, “I like to think of it as being about the dents that we make on each other.” Julia Ormond was intrigued by project because of the involvement of Fincher. “I love the choices that he made with it,” admired Ormond. “There’s a moment in it when Brad is leaving Cate, or when Benjamin is leaving Daisy, and he’s stealing out at night, and looks at her in the bed. And she’s looking right back at him, and nothing is said.” Eric Roth was concerned that the celebrity status of the leading man would serve as a distraction. “We had test screenings early on and test groups only talked about Benjamin,” remembered the screenwriter. “We realized, they’re not talking about Brad Pitt… because they got lost in the character.”

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button earned $334 million worldwide and won Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects while contending for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Picture, Best Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Supporting Actress (Taraji P. Henson) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth and Robin Swicord). At the BAFTAs the epic fantasy tale won Best Makeup, Best Production Design, Best Special Visual Effects along with receiving nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Editing Best Film, Best Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Music, Best Adapted Screenplay. The Golden Globes nominated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for Best Director, Best Picture – Drama, Best Original Score, Best Actor (Brad Pitt), and Best Screenplay. David Fincher was honoured with a nomination by the Directors Guild of America. The film was nominated at the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role (Taraji P. Henson), and Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role (Brad Pitt). At the Young Artist Awards, Madisen Beaty competed for Best Young Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture.

The Social Network“The fascinating thing about Facebook is that it was created by a group of nerds who were a bit anti-social when it came to meeting girls on the campus,” stated Emmy-winner Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men), who wrote the screenplay for The Social Network (2010). Sorkin believes the story has dramatic quality that lends itself to the big screen. “This is not a film about the internet and the new technologies but a film about loyalty, ambition, friendship, power, money, jealousy and betrayal. These are universal themes. It’s a story that could have been written by Shakespeare or Aeschylus. The film is structured with several versions of reality depending on the perspective of the narrator. David Fincher is a visionary director who knew how to make my script fantastic in terms of style.” Fincher was intrigued by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg portrayed in the picture by Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland). “What did it feel like for someone like him to be 17 to 21 and have all these venture capitalists tapping him on the shoulder and saying, ‘Come over here.’? If success accelerates the process of you becoming who you really are, how does that work when success happens so rapidly? How we feel about Zuckerberg is not how I see the story. The way I see drama, the context is the story.”

Facebook spokesman Larry Yu is less than pleased with the project. “It’s a sign of Facebook’s impact that we’re the subject of a movie — even one that’s fiction,” remarked Yu. “What matters more to us is staying focused on what we’re building to continue to offer a useful, innovative service that makes it easy for people to connect and share.” Asked to react to the Hollywood production, Mark Zuckerberg responded, “The real story of Facebook is just that we’ve worked so hard for all this time… we just sat at our computers for six years and coded.” Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder who left in 2007 to join the Obama presidential campaign, supports Zuckerberg’s opinion. “It’s crazy because all of a sudden Mark becomes this person who created Facebook to get girls or to gain power,” stated Hughes. “That’s not what was going on. It was a little more boring and quotidian than that.” Cathy Anderson, the CEO of the San Diego Film Commission is not a big fan of Hollywood depictions of the computer industry. “Technology is a backdrop for many movies,” explained Anderson, “but producers often opt for fictionalized companies so they can take artistic liberties and make their stories more entertaining with sex and violence. Documentaries lend themselves more to real companies, like Super Size Me [about McDonald’s] and Michael Moore’s work.” Jonathan Salem Baskin, the author of Branding Only Works on Cattle remains skeptical about the social impact of the picture. “If Michael Moore can’t blow up a company [General Motors in Roger & Me] or industry [health care, in Sicko] in documentaries,” stated Baskin, “what can a biopic, slightly imagined, on Zuckerberg, do? Few, if any, of [Facebook's] customers will care. No one will stop using Facebook. Privacy [the revelation that consumer companies had access to user’s personal information] can hurt, but a movie? Please. It can only help them.”

The Social Network“There is almost a fantasy aspect of these college kids in a dorm room [helping create] a billion-dollar company,” said Ben Mezrich, who wrote The Accidental Billionaires, the book on which the movie is based. “It’s the American myth. [Zuckerberg] is an anti-hero, which Americans love. But he is so much more: a socially odd guy who sweats, is arrogant, confident, brilliant. Facebook is him showing the world what he can do.” Producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men) maintains that the controversial scene with two young women offering lines of cocaine from their naked breasts to Napster co-founder Sean Parker will remain in the picture. “We made exactly the movie we wanted to make,” declared Rudin. Despite allegations that the scene was made up, Parker did in fact leave Facebook after a cocaine-related arrest in 2005. Responding to accusations of creative embellishment, Fincher stated, “I’m not the one to talk about the need for ‘likable’ or ‘sympathetic’ characters.” Budgeted at $47 million, The Social Network, which is considered to be a serious contender for Best Picture at the 2011 Academy Awards, stars Rooney Mara (Youth in Revolt), Andrew Garfield (Never Let Me Go), Rashida Jones (I Love You, Man), Brenda Song (Boogie Town), Justin Timberlake (Black Snake Moan), Joseph Mazzello (The River Wild), Malese Jow (You’re So Cupid!), and Max Minghella (Bee Season).

The Millennium Trilogy is a series of novels penned by the late Stieg Larsson which revolves around the relationship between investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the eccentric computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. David Fincher has been given the task of producing the first installment, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011); making the project more difficult for him is the global popularity of the original Swedish version. “We’re going to really do these, in all their glory,” declared Amy Pascal, the co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment. “Otherwise why do them? They’re very R-rated movies. It’s the shock of what’s really going on underneath the surface of society. If you don’t actually make good on that, you haven’t told the story.” Cast in the lead roles are Daniel Craig (Defiance) and Rooney Mara; other actors include Stellan Skarsgård (King Arthur) and Robin Wright (Unbreakable). Mara faces a tough acting challenge as many film critics believe that Salander has already been definitively portrayed by Noomi Rapace (Daisy Diamond). Broached on whether he will direct the remaining two films, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, David Fincher replied, “There are no plans for them right now. You have to make one that people want to see a sequel to [first].”

There is no shortage of potential projects on the production slate for the filmmaker. A couple of remakes being considered by the Denver native are The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975), Heavy Metal (1981), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). “[Ness] is so not a serial-killer movie,” stated Fincher of the story based on the graphic novel Torso. “It’s about the deconstruction of the myth of [Untouchables leader] Eliot Ness. It has way more to do with Citizen Kane [1941] than it has to do with Se7en [1995]. Ehren Kruger [Arlington Road] wrote a script that’s pretty great.” Other graphic novel adaptations that the director has in mind are the plague-infested Black Hole and the hired gun The Killer. “It’s that thing we always love from contract-killer movies: the existential assassin,” enthused David Fincher who has also been linked to Rendezvous with Rama. “It’s a project I’ve always loved,” admitted the moviemaker of the science fiction tale written by Arthur C. Clarke. “It’s probably technologically within striking distance right now. That was always the thing: You couldn’t afford to build these things as sets. It’s just too huge.” Two scripts composed by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) have also captured the attention of the director; the biopic Pawn Sacrifice about the unconventional chess genius Bobby Fischer and the culinary-themed Chef which Fincher describes as being a “celibate sex comedy.” Moving beyond the big screen to TV, David Fincher is looking at collaborating with Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron (Monster) to produce an HBO adaptation of the book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker.

“Editing David’s film is like putting together a Swiss watch,” revealed Angus Wall who was the film editor for Zodiac. “All the pieces are so beautifully machined. He’s incredibly specific. He never settles. And there’s a purity that shows in his work.” Counting Chinatown [1974] and All the President’s Men amongst his favourite movies, David Fincher stated, “Entertainment has to come hand in hand with a little bit of medicine. Some people go to the movies to be reminded that everything’s okay. I don’t make those kinds of movies. That, to me, is a lie. Everything’s not okay.” Pondering his cinematic catalogue of eight pictures, Fincher remarked, “You can either look at your career as the things that you’re going to leave behind… Or you can be realistic about the fact that you’re going to learn as you practice what you do.”

For more on the director be sure to visit The Works and Genius of David Fincher.

You can also check out the official webite for The Social Network and read the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin here.

Blending In: The Making of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

  • simoncolumb

    David Fincher is a legend – and THE SOCIAL NETWROK is incredible too! <br /><br />Though Ben Button was AWFUL!!!<br /><br />Simon<br />

  • Anonymous

    I love all of Fincher&#39;s films (even Alien 3) but his best may be the one yet he&#39;s yet to make: Rendezvous with Rama.

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