David Andrew Leo Fincher is an American film director and producer. Known for his psychological thrillers, his work has received multiple nominations in the Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards. Born in Denver, Colorado, Fincher developed a passion for filmmaking at an early age. 

My Favorite Directors: David Fincher

I grew up in a particularly weird place and time,” says David Fincher. He was raised in Marin County in San Francisco in the sixties and seventies, right as the area was being invaded by autonomy-seeking young filmmakers looking to flee Los Angeles. It wasn’t unusual for residents to catch a glimpse of George Lucas— “he was the rich neighbor up the street who’d bought the house and restored it impeccably ”—as well as big-studio directors such as Michael Ritchie and Philip Kaufman.

“None of the kids in my neighborhood wanted to be doctors or lawyers. They all wanted to be movie makers.” – David Fincher

So did Fincher, who began taking film classes as far back as elementary school—which was also right around the time he discovered an aversion to bureaucracy. And authority. And unquestioned rules of any kind.

Even at a very early age, I didn’t understand why I didn’t have any say in our curriculum. Because I just wanted to make movies, and I didn’t understand why they wanted me to learn all of this other shit. And I had parents who were very much about pushing authority. They didn’t want their kid to be taken advantage of.

In the early eighties, Fincher skipped college and went to work for the rich guy up the street, taking a job at the Lucas-owned Industrial Light & Magic — where he helped out on Return of the Jedi — before directing an incendiary commercial for the American Cancer Society featuring a lifelike puppet fetal puffing on a cigarette. Made for just a few thousand dollars, the ad was a black-humored homage to the spectral “Star Child” of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it brought on the first controversy of Fincher’s career: major networks refused to run the spot, while tobacco companies objected to its bluntness.

Fincher would go on to direct several more commercials, eventually entering the world of music videos, where he’d make some of the most rewind-worthy entries of the eighties and early nineties: Madonna’s epic Metropolis riff “Express Yourself”; George Michael’s luxurious “Freedom 90”; Aerosmith’s revenge noir “Janie’s Got a Gun.”

David Fincher’s Filmography:

YearFilmDistributor
1992Alien 320th Century Fox
1995SevenNew Line Cinema
1997The GamePolyGram Filmed Entertainment
1999Fight Club20th Century Fox
2002Panic RoomColumbia Pictures
2007ZodiacParamount / Warner Bros.
2008The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2010The Social NetworkSony Pictures Releasing
2011The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
2014Gone Girl20th Century Fox
2020MankNetflix

David Fincher’s Philosophy:

David Fincher hates being defined as an auteur. While many directors such as Tyler Perry, Quentin Tarantino, or Joss Whedon accept their celebrity status as part of their identity, Fincher does not want to be associated with a particular image or theme.

I don’t want to be a Winchell’s Donut. Even if my last name is ‘Winchell.’ I want to be able to make something like Zodiac. I mean, shouldn’t your movies, if they are truly personal, change the way you change?

David Fincher

Fincher clings to the old-fashioned belief that his films should do all the communicating:

I don’t in my heart believe that a director should do interviews just to sell the movie. I worry that it demystifies it too much. And, I mean, you can’t fix the movie by explaining to people the context in which you made it.

It’s not like they’re going to enjoy it more. If you’ve fucked up they’re still going to ask for their eight bucks back.

A director is like a quarterback. You get way too much credit when it works and way too much blame when it doesn’t.

For directors like Spike Lee or Kevin Smith, film is an odyssey of self-discovery and self-promotion. Fincher prefers self-effacement, but his need for absolute control compels him, begrudgingly, to take ownership of his work:

I have many, many friends who are vice-presidents and presidents of production at movie studios, and they never understand this very simple thing: My name’s going to be on it. Your name’s not on it. Your point of view view is as valid as any member of the audience. But it’s a different thing when your name’s on it, when you have to wear it for the rest of your life, when it’s on a DVD and it’s hung around your fucking neck. It’s your albatross.

Fincher accepts filmmaking as a Sisyphean task.

That’s the job. That’s what it is. Doing cool stuff like designing shots is 1 percent of your life. The other 99 percent is holding everything together while there’s total fucking chaos, maximizing the amount of hours that you have in order to get stuff, pulling shit out of your ass to fix things, being able to work on your toes.

He seeks the holy grail of the consummate shot but eventually surrenders to his own truism that “Films are not finished. They’re abandoned.

David Fincher | David fincher, Film quiz, David

Fincher’s notorious work ethic and attention to detail—his reputation as a reconstructed Stanley Kubrick demanding an ungodly number of takes—is reflected in this painstaking anecdote from the shooting of Panic Room:

I’m a movie director! I have to have meetings with a lot of people to convince them to give me even more money, and I have to be responsible for how that money gets spent. It’s my job to prioritize where time is spent because time is money. I don’t think I’m a control freak, but I have to be in control.

Here’s an example: Today on the schedule it says we have to go down to the kitchen and shoot this scene. And a set of knives that were there in an earlier scene aren’t there anymore, they’ve been stolen. Somebody Walked by the set and stole them. I have to be the person who says, “Okay, we’re not doing this right now. Go find some more knives. We’re going upstairs to shoot something else, we’ll come back to this later.” You think that should be an easy decision to make. But it isn’t, because then you have people who go (urgent whisper), “You don’t understand, the guy is here with the car and the car’s rented by the day and we’ll have to rent them some other time. Can’t you shoot the scene another way without the knives?” And I have to be the person who either goes, “Okay, we’ll do it another way without the knives,” or who says, “No. Fuck you. Don’t waste any more time talking about this. Get the knives; I wanna shoot the fucking scene with the knives.” I’m not in control of the knives getting stolen, but I’m responsible—I’m responsible for everything. Mainly I’m responsible for the haemorrhaging of money it takes to keep ninety-five people employed for six months to make a movie.

Fincher blanches at being pigeonholed as a taskmaster.

There are a lot of people who will tell you that I like to make things more complicated than they need to be, that I like to make things hard on myself, but those aren’t the people seeing the movie in their head before it’s filmed. They’re just looking at the trucking waybills.

on visual film making style —“I don’t like the idea of having a style, it seems scary. It’s so weird—what is it that makes your style? It’s the things that you fuck up as much as the things that you do well, so half your style is stupid mistakes that you consistently make.

Fincher may express an affinity for Alfred Hitchcock or Martin Scorsese, but he does not fawn over them like a J. J. Abrams. When he does reference Kubrick or Spielberg, it’s to define and clarify his own balanced approach to narrative range and depth:

I have a philosophy about the two extremes of filmmaking. The first is
the “Kubrick way,” where you’re at the end of an alley in which four guys are kicking the shit out of a wino. Hopefully, the audience members will know that such a scenario is morally wrong, even though it’s not presented as if the viewer is the one being beaten up; it’s more as if you’re witnessing an event. Inversely, there’s the “Spielberg way,” where you’re dropped into the middle of the action and you’re going to live the experience vicariously— not only through what’s happening, but through the emotional flow of what people are saying. It’s a much more involved style. I find myself attracted to both styles at different times, but mostly I’m interested in just presenting something and letting people decide for themselves what they want to look at.

I look for patterns in coverage, and for ways to place the camera to see what you need to see, from as far away as possible. I try to remain semi-detached; I want to present the material without becoming too involved. I’ll say to myself, “Am I getting too involved in the action? Am I presenting this to someone who’s uninitiated to these people, and doesn’t want to be in the middle of this argument? Maybe we should be doing over the-shoulders, as if the spectator is experiencing the scene after returning from the water cooler.” My [visual] from a more voyeuristic place.

Fincher may discount his marks of authorship, but his formal discipline and
dark worldview link all of his films from Alien 3 to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

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.

I don’t know how much movies should entertain. To me I’m always interested in movies that scar.

I’ve always been a fan of people who understand kind of everything; as a director it always seemed to me that you wanted to know so much about everything that was going on so people couldn’t bullshit you, so you could go, ‘Here’s what I want to do,’ and there couldn’t be some lazy fuck there going, ‘You can’t do that because you can’t hold focus on that.’ I wanted to be able to go, ‘That’s not true, give me a T56 on a 28mm lens and we’ll be able to hold plenty into focus.

Fincher lives up to his reputation as the uncompromising perfectionist, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is in charge of a $60 million blockbuster in perpetual development hell:

We all sat here and decided to make a china cup, a beautiful, delicate china cup. You can’t tell me we should have made a beer mug.

Fincher became another Orson Welles or Terry Gilliam, the put-upon artist who dared to put aesthetics ahead of prosthetics:

I had a spoiled existence before making that movie. When you direct a video, people give you the money and say, ‘Call us when you’re done.’ Movies aren’t like that. I think you’re always in over your head on your first movie, even if it’s a very small movie. All you can do is lick your wounds when it’s over.

You have a responsibility for the way you make the audience feel,
and I want them to feel uncomfortable.

David Fincher during Se7en

Fincher, like Hitchcock and Kubrick, sees actors as one element among many but he is also dependent on a star’s physiognomy to bring his images
to life:

I believe in casting people whose core—that essential personality you can’t beat out of them with a tire iron—has to work for the character.

Movies usually make a pact with the audience that says: We’re going to play it straight; what we show you is going to add up. But we don’t do that. In that respect, it’s about movies and how movies dole out information.

David Fincher during “The Game”

“This isn’t the sort of movie you just sit back and watch. This is a movie that’s downloaded in front of you. It doesn’t wait for you. If you don’t keep up, you’re lost. It’s like you’ve tripped and sprained your ankle. You have to tell the rest of the audience, ‘Go on. Go ahead without me!’

David Fincher about “Fight Club”.

There were people at the studio who said, ‘This is evil and nihilistic.’
And I said, ‘No, it’s not.’ Because it’s talking about frustration, about an
inability to find an answer. It’s about a guy struggling to make sense of
something, as opposed to a guy giving in to the fucked way things are. So
there were definitely people who didn’t get it.

David Fincher about “Fight Club”

I wanted the movie to take its toll on the audience, I wanted the audience
to feel like they went through it, like they went through the ringer with these guys, and I didn’t know how to do that because these guys didn’t run across rooftops and fall off fire escapes. In their quest to bring the Zodiac to justice they followed the trail of breadcrumbs as far as it would take them, and they kept pushing and kept pushing when there were crackpots coming out of the woodwork. I felt like I didn’t want to make one of those movies where you do montage/montage/montage and you get the idea that they went to the mat with this, that it took its toll—I wanted the audience to feel that. You know, in retrospect you look at it and say maybe audiences who are looking for entertainment on a Friday night don’t want that toll taken on them. I felt like anything less than that would be doing the story and people involved a disservice.

David Fincher about “Zodiac”
The Close-Up: David Fincher Talks Filmmaking

Zodiac introduced Fincher to the possibilities of digital filmmaking, which allowed him to bring The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to life without sacrificing Brad Pitt’s star presence:

When you look at a great cinema performance, you’re seeing somebody
who knows what the camera’s doing. They know where they are in the story and they dredge up something incredibly stylized to show what, at that moment, you need to hang on to in order to understand this person.
Often it’s not the most realistic expression of that moment. That’s why
we’re so fond of our favorite movie stars. They give us just enough to make us see ourselves in their shoes. That’s a whole different thing from acting. And it’s very odd when you talk about how you interface with a computer to achieve that. But it’s the beginning, not the end. Instead of saying, “Oh my god, the machines are taking over,” you have to look at Benjamin and say, “Without Brad Pitt, he doesn’t exist.”

In any love story the trick is how you keep them apart. One thing I really enjoyed about the script was that this is not codependent love. They are two fully realized people who choose for better or worse to be together. Nowhere is the choice of wanting to be there for the other person better illustrated than by her caring for him as he dies.

David Fincher about “The Curious case of Benjamin Button

I know the anger that comes when you just want to be allowed to do the things that you know you can do.

David Fincher about The Social Network

I saw this not as a blockbuster that appeals to everyone. I saw this as an
interesting, specific, pervy franchise. The only chance for something like
Dragon Tattoo to be made in all of its perversions is to do it big. I think
The Godfather is a pretty good fucking movie. You can start with a supermarket potboiler, but it doesn’t mean you can’t aim high.

David Fincher about “The Girl with Dragon Tattoo

You Better Be Fucking Serious: David Fincher on Directing.

References:

  1. “Best. Movie. Year. Ever. How 1999 blew up the Big Screen” by Brian Raftery.
  2. “David Finch Interviews” by Laurence F. Knapp.

2 Comments

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