Screen Genius - Director Profile: David Fincher lyrics
A Profile of David Fincher By Nick Ferguson (aka Heisenferg) Biography Born in Denver, CO, Fincher moved down the street from George Lucas in St. Anselmo, CA when he was 2 years old. He started making amateur films when he was 8, and worked various jobs related to the industry throughout his adolescence. After spending time with Korty Films and Industrial Lights & Magic in 1983, he embarked on a solo career in 1984 when he joined Propaganda Films and directed a commercial for the American Cancer Society that drew serious attention. From here he started directing a series of successful music videos that afforded him the chance to direct his first feature length film, Alien 3. After clashing with the studio over production, budget, and script issues which led to the movie's critical and commercial failure, Fincher retreated back to commercials and music videos with no intentions of returning to movies. But he was lured back to the cinema when he read the script that became 1995's Se7en, and made sure that he would be able to make his movie this time.
Se7en's success was followed by the well-received but less memorable The Game, but it's what came next that truly cemented Fincher as one of the best in the business -- 1999's Fight Club. While responses and sales were initially lukewarm, time has been kind to it, as its performance as a DVD combined with improved reviews after its initial release have made it a cult classic and ingrained it in pop culture. After making what he described as “[basically] a B movie”, 2002's Panic Room, Fincher took 5 years off from making movies before releasing 2007's Zodiac, a moderate commercial but strong critical success. He finally garnered a Best Director Oscar nomination for 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and built off that with the smashing success that was The Social Network, he and Aaron Sorkin's depiction of the life of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Fincher followed this up with two critically and commercially successful novel adaptations, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, as well as his first real foray into television when he directed and executive produced Netflix's House of Cards. He is set to direct and write HBO's thriller Utopia and is considering directing the sequels to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Directorial Trademarks The “Mastermind” Character It's said that a director's personality often leaks into their work, and it certainly rings true for Fincher. Known for exercising absolute control over his projects once he signs on to it, this precision, relentlessness, and manipulation is abundantly present in his characters as well. These characters are the smartest in the movie, they dictate the entire course of the story, and we often don't learn who they are until the third act. Whether it be Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Zodiac's serial killers that send their hunters on a wild goose chase without having to show their faces, Gone Girl's “Amazing” Amy expertly manipulating the media to frame her husband for murder, or Frank Underwood outsmarting half of Washington on his way to the presidency, Fincher is clearly fascinated with the smartest guy (or girl) in the room. This even seeps into movies based on real lives, as The Social Network paints Mark Zuckerberg as less dangerous but just as conniving as his fictional villains.
But perhaps the best example of this comes in The Game. The CRS, without any exaggeration, controls every single aspect of the protagonist's life, leaving us entirely in the dark until the very end. And Fincher didn't even try to hide the parallels between the CRS and directing, revealing in DVD commentary that “this isn't a movie about real life. It's a movie about movies”. It's clear that post-Aliens Fincher has made it a point to make sure he was never pushed around again, so it's only fair that he lets his characters have as much fun. Discipline This could describe his filmmaking approach as a whole, but is being used here to encapsulate his sparse usage of closeups and distaste for shaky camera. These are crutches many directors can overuse to keep their audience engaged, but Fincher doesn't mind testing his audience's patience if it can lead to a bigger payoff and better experience. His reasoning behind only utilizing closeups when necessary is that shooting something up close should be an indicator that thing is important, but if you oversaturate the audience with closeups you start to lose that impact. That's why we're only treated to close-ups of important things like guns, faces of characters during pivotal moments, and mystery objects dominating the scene.
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As for his strong preference for tripods over handhelds, part of it is stylistic (every director has a way they prefer to shoot), but it also aligns with the cold, impersonal vibe of many of his movies. In Fincher's words: “I just love the idea of this omniscience. Like, the camera it just goes over here kinda perfectly, and then it goes over there kinda perfectly, and it doesn't have any personality to it. It's very much like what's happening was doomed to happen.” While quotes like that show why he's more attracted to twisted shit like Se7en than romcoms, it also shows how dedicated he is to his craft and how he feels it is his responsibility to make sure his camera work doesn't contradict anything the story has to say. Dark Colors Fincher often pairs black with another color in his movies (usually blue or yellow, if not both), but it always wins out against its partner. Even during daytime sequences, the light is often muted so that it appears it is only holding off the inevitable darkness rather than truly illuminating anything. But outside of the occasional scene where a character or thing is truly hidden in the shadows for narrative purposes, the dark never fully envelops the character or scene. There are countless dimly lit rooms in his work, but the characters are almost always clearly visible; you just have to work harder to find anything a face might be giving away. That the movies remain dark even when no one's hidden in the shadows sends a very clear and sinister message: Fincher films doesn't need to rely on a twist or secret to plunge them into darkness because the world's already dark enough as it is. Title Sequences These are a bit unusual amongst most major directors, but a staple of Fincher's work. Some, like Se7en and Dragon Tattoo's, directly relate to the narrative, whereas others like Fight Club's are only loosely related to it, but all of them help to “set the stage or to get people thinking in different terms than whatever they understood the movie to be going in”. The Quest For Information It's never about where you end up, it's about the journey. A perfect example of this is Zodiac. The movie is about a serial killer, but only a few minutes of its 2:42 runtime actually show any killing. The rest is dedicated to the doomed investigation of a serial killer we know never gets caught. And it doesn't require a deep reading to glean this information either; Fincher openly announced that he didn't care about the mystery in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a mystery thriller.
A quick rundown of some of his famous endings: Se7en: the detectives don't find John Doe until he turns himself in, and are then outsmarted by him; The Game: Nick should have killed his brother and himself because he couldn't figure out “the game”; Zodiac: a witness blindly tries to identify the killer who we know was never found; Dragon Tattoo: they catch the bad guy but it didn't really matter because Harriet was never actually kidnapped; The Social Network: the story of eccentric billionaire Mark Zuckerberg ends with Mark Zuckerberg being an eccentric billionaire instead of picking a pivotal event that shines new light on his life; Gone Girl: Nick and Amy end up together almost like nothing ever happened. These are all anticlimactic endings but still great movies because the journeys to get to there were so fascinating. Fincher loves withholding cathartic endings from his audience, and instead forces them to find the beauty in tedious processes and the relationships that are built and destroyed on the way towards these endings. A Demand for Excellence Like Kubrick and Chaplin before him, Fincher knows that no two words in the English language are more harmful than “good job”. His personal philosophy, sculpted by the debacle that was Aliens 3, is “take all of the responsibility, because basically when it gets right down to it, you are going to get all of the blame, so you might as well have made all of the decisions that led to people either liking it or disliking it”. This means shooting the opening scene to The Social Network 99 times, getting Brad Pitt to threaten to back out of Se7en when studios tried to change the ending, and requesting one piece of thread be removed from the Zodiac mask to get the perfect shot. It's led to plenty of articles calling him a control freak, but most of the actors who have worked with him have an appreciation for his process. Themes Isolation Whether it is brought about by age, arrogance, or obsession, the fact is that most of Fincher's leads operate on an island. Detective Somerset from Se7en dislikes the world he lives in, Nick from The Game and The Social Network's fictionalized Zuckerberg think they are too good for it, Zodiac's Robert Graysmith starts off as a loner and then drives his family away in his pursuit of Zodiac, Benjamin Button's condition separates him from the rest of the world, and Nick from Gone Girl has to become a shut-in when he is ostracized by the entire nation. Isolation is perhaps most apparent in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where Daniel Craig's Mikael operates in an isolated cabin for most of the movie and each member of the Vanger family lives in the same town but live in different houses and refuse to talk to one another. Anti-Commercialism This theme is only clearly present in one of his movies, but that movie is Fight Club, one of the most famous examples of anti-commercialism in cinematic history. Our narrator is only able to grow as a character once he burns down his IKEA-laden apartment, gave up all his earthly possessions, and moved into a house lacking electricity and filled with rusty water. Fincher even mocks the notion of product placement by sneaking shots of Starbucks cups into many shots in the movie.
But where Fincher's views on commercialism become clear is in, somewhat ironically, his commercials. He has no problem making commercials designed to help sell products, but refuses to make anything without substance that sells a false reality. In his words, I'm totally anti-commercialism. I would never do commercials where people hold the product by their head and tell you how great it is… It's all about inference. The Levis commercials I did weren't really about jeans, the Nike commercials weren't about shoes. The "Instant Karma" spot was some of the better stuff I got offered, and it was never about people going, "Buy this shoe, this shoe will change everything," because I think that's nonsense. Anybody looking outside themselves to make themselves whole is delusional and probably sick Frequent Collaborators Donald Graham Burt (5 Appearances) Burt was the production designer for Zodiac, Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. He won an Oscar for art direction for his work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and has been praised for his role in creating the menacing vibe of Nick and Amy's supposedly perfect suburban neighborhood in Gone Girl. Jeff Cronenweth (4 Appearances) Cronenweth served as Fincher's cinematographer for Fight Club, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. He received Academy Award nominations for his work on The Social Network and Dragon Tatoo. His work as DP has really helped to reinforce the dark vibe of Fincher's movies, as he frequently employs dim lighting in his movies. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (3 Appearances) The Nine Inch Nails frontman first teamed up with Ross on the soundtrack to 2010's The Social Network and were rewarded with an Academy Award for their efforts. Fincher was clearly impressed by their sound, as he has brought them back for every movie he's made since. Their chilling soundtrack helped set the tone for 2011's brooding The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and contributed to the constant sense of uncertainty in 2014's Gone Girl/ Brad Pitt (3 Appearances) Pitt was the star of the first movie Fincher ever got creative control of, and made sure that Fincher maintained creative control. When New Line Cinema tried to strongarm Fincher into changing the ending to something less depressing, Pitt threatened to withdraw from the movie. New Line was marketing the movie around Pitt, so they reluctantly agreed to keep it as is. Fincher must have appreciate this gesture, as he kept calling Pitt back despite his preference to bring a fresh cast to each new movie. Pitt played one of his most iconic roles as Tyler Durden in 1999's Fight Club, then became the only actor to star in 3 Fincher movies when he played the title character in 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Quotes People always ask why I don't make independent movies. I do make independent movies - I just make them at Sony and Paramount. The fact is, you don't know what directing is until the sun is setting and you've got to get five shots and you're only going to get two. I don't know what 'likable' is. I know people who are doting parents, who give to charity, drive Priuses, all those things, who are insufferable assholes... I like people who get shit done.