A David Fincher film is never finished. The word he uses is abandoned. On set and in the edit suite, he is a notorious perfectionist, devoted to the point of obsession, but when he’s ready to loosen his grip, he lets go for good. “Do the best you can, try to live it down” is his motto. Once they’re out in the world, he never watches his movies again.
Soon, he’ll be saying goodbye to Gone Girl, his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling murder mystery about the malevolence beneath the surface of a seemingly perfect marriage. The New York Film Festival is his last promotional chore, and as the movie will be shown three times, in three different screening rooms, he has to check them all out personally, to be certain that the image and the sound and quite possibly the seats are just so.
He says that’ll be it. That he’ll watch a few reels and leave it behind. But if you see a fifty-something man with a grey goatee and intense blue eyes creeping out of the cinema in Geelong or Bendigo after the lights go down when Gone Girl opens on Thursday, don’t be alarmed. He’s given a year of his life to this film. Why leave anything to chance?
Control is paramount to Fincher. Gone Girl is a good fit for him, in that it’s a thriller, and in Se7en, Panic Room and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, he’s shown that he’s very good at making those, but also because its budget of around $60 million is below the “pain threshold” at which studio executives are likely to focus group a movie to death.
He recently walked away from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (which was to have been shot in Australia) citing differences over casting for the $200 million remake. Although he hasn’t given up on projects of that scale – “If we could have made the movie for $15 million less we’d probably be making it, but we would have been tying our hands,” he says – the more corporate the culture, the less likely a studio is to leave him alone.
Sony wanted him to direct a Steve Jobs biopic, with a script by Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, but backed off, according to the Hollywood Reporter, due to Fincher’s “aggressive” demands for $10 million up front and control over the marketing.
“In my first movie, I didn’t run my own set,” Fincher says. “And it didn’t lead to a good end product.” He hates Alien 3 so much that he won’t even mention it by name. Ever since that chastening experience, he has insisted on absolute autonomy. “A movie set is a fascist dictatorship,” he once told Empire magazine.
His attention to detail is legendary, as is his reputation for demanding take after take. If a stuntman needs to be thrown down the stairs twelve times, so be it. One murder in Zodiac had to be staged sixty-five times before Fincher was satisfied. Fight Club star Helena Bonham Carter said that if the shot involved a camera move, she knew not to bother acting for the first dozen takes.
A master technician, Fincher could do most jobs on set himself. “I worked on other people’s movies and watched the director be manipulated into doing less than what he wanted to do, and I vowed never to be beholden to anyone else’s technical expertise,” he says. Despite this tendency to micro-manage, his crew is notably loyal. Gone Girl’s editor, Australian Kirk Baxter, has worked on Fincher’s last four films, production designer Donald Graham Burt on the last five, sound designer Ren Klyce on almost all of them.
Fincher grew up in Marin County, California. George Lucas lived down the street and shot his first feature, THX 1138, at Marin Civic Centre. The Godfather and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were also made nearby. When Fincher was seven, he saw an interview with George Roy Hill, the director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and realised that he wanted to be a film-maker.
His breakthrough gig was at Lucas’s visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic, making the third instalment in the Star Wars series, Return Of The Jedi. Fincher’s job was to shoot blue screen footage of AT-ST walkers – the imperial tank with chicken legs – for the Battle of Endor scene.
Lucas was an inspiration, but his career was a cautionary tale, as with each film, he became more of an executive, more of a celebrity, and then stopped directing altogether. Fincher preferred to learn his trade directing adverts and music videos, where he could experiment in anonymity. Madonna wants the video for Express Yourself to look like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Why not? It’s her million dollars.
Fincher’s showreel at Propaganda Films is full of stunning images, from roller-blading Coke thieves in a futuristic Japan to basketball player Charles Barkley as the star of a black and white, Busby Berkeley-style musical. In one clip for Chanel, a Fellini-esque director makes his lead actress repeat a line until he’s satisfied with the shot. The name of the perfume is L’Egoiste, but Fincher’s name is nowhere to be seen. “I work hard to fight against whatever my brand is,” he says.
This isn’t easily done. Fight Club’s flawlessly grimy aesthetic, every blood and coffee stain arranged with care, is still regarded as Fincher’s signature style, despite his determination not to repeat himself.
When it came out in 1999, the reviews were, mostly, horrified. In the Evening Standard, Alexander Walker described the film as “an inadmissible assault on personal decency” reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. It has since become a cult classic, and a regular presence on lists of the greatest movies of all time, often drawn up by Generation X critics who identify with Tyler Durden’s revolt against consumer society as they sift through huge piles of DVDs on their IKEA sofas.
At the start of Fincher’s next film, Panic Room, the camera travels out of the bedroom, through the banisters, down two floors, to the front door, into and out of the lock, over the kitchen counter, through the handle of a coffee pot and back up, all the way through the house, to the roof, apparently in one continuous motion. It’s a stunning, and stunningly ostentatious, shot.
I ask him if he’s a less flamboyant film-maker than he was a decade ago? “No. I’ve learned that complicated stories require things to be presented simpler,” he replies. “The purpose of the style in Panic Room was not one of ‘look, mom, no hands.’” Zodiac, Fincher’s superb police procedural about the hunt for a serial killer in 1970s California was generally reviewed as a “mature” film for eschewing visual flash.
He once made a distinction that he regrets, saying Fight Club was a film and Panic Room was a movie – the former a work of art for his own appreciation and the latter a pop cultural product. Gone Girl is definitely a movie, but like all his movies (and films) it is rich in detail, littered with visual clues that only Sherlock Holmes would spot first time.
Fincher takes pleasure in tricking his audience, but for the three million or so people that have read the book, the twists will be a rollercoaster they’ve ridden before. “I’m making a movie for its opening weekend. And I’m also making it for a Blu-Ray audience that is yet to be born,” he says. “I want it to be interesting on repeated viewings.”
Lately, he has been devoting more of his energies to television. He directed the first two episodes of Kevin Spacey’s political thriller House of Cards, and he’s currently working with Flynn on an adaptation of a British series, Utopia, about a graphic novel that predicts apocalyptic events. “I like television. It’s a very fulfilling kind of world-creation,” he says. “You don’t have as much money, but you have way more time to peel back layers of the characters involved in the narrative. In terms of behaviour, it’s a much richer petri dish.”
Between film and TV projects, he makes adverts, often using them as a testing ground for new techniques and equipment. His latest, for Gap, were shot in lustrous black and white with a Dragon Monochrome Sensor, in preparation for a show set in 1950s Los Angeles that he’s developing with noir author James Ellroy.
To make one of the ads, Fincher required his lead actor to run up a spiral staircase fifty times. While filming another, he asked for so many takes of a kiss that a rash formed on the actress’s cheek. The actor’s beard was shaved and replaced with softer, synthetic material, so that they could shoot a few more.
“It can be fun to throw a million dollars at thirty seconds, because you get to execute it to the Nth degree,” he says. Although it must be maddening for cast and crew, the shorts are gorgeous. They’re only adverts, but you can watch them again and again.