First Encounters: David Fincher

David Fincher centers me. Like Radiohead says, “everything in its right place.” I couldn’t have told you this a week or so ago, but an artist I’m interviewing put it just so. Putting it in my own words does nothing to diminish or unsettle its power.

“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.” – David Fincher

As stated, I can and do watch David Fincher’s work for hours. An enthusiast for years, I became a convert with his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a superfluous and unnecessary production of the Hollywood rehash machine. Dragon Tattoo‘s subtlety and dramatic reinterpretation of the source material made it something worth investigating. I was taken by its stillness.

I’m not certain of when my first encounter was, but at some point I was aware of the music videos and commercials. Alien 3 played on weekend afternoon TV and I watched like it was some far away thing that I needed to get ahold of. Years later, on a friend’s couch, I watched the extended cut on DVD, and it seemed much more like Fincher than the original theatrical release — hold gotten.

“There were a lot of enormously talented people working on [Alien 3]. It’s just a movie starts from a unified concept, and once you’ve unified the concept it becomes very easy to see the things you’re not going to spend money on. And if a movie is constantly in flux because you’re having to please this vice-president or that vice-president of production…I think a movie set’s a fascist dictatorship — 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. Otherwise, when they start to question it, the horse can easily run away with you and it’s bigger than you are. So that was a movie where the time was not taken upfront to say, ‘This is what we’re doing, and all of this is what we’re not doing.’ So as we were shooting, a lot of people — I suppose in an effort to make it ‘better’ or ‘more commercial’ or more like the other ones they liked as opposed to the one that you liked — took to being extremely helpful, so that this could be more James Cameron than James Cameron. And of course you’re sitting there going, ‘Guys, remember I don’t have any guns. I don’t have any tripod guns or flamethrowers or any of that shit!’ If a movie gets off on a wrong foot, when you’ve never done it before you assume everyone is going to be there to help you right the ship, but really you’re beholden to a lot of banana republics. I worked on it for two years, got fired off it three times and I had to fight for every single thing. No one hated Alien 3 more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me. It was a baptism by fire. I was very naive. For a number of years, I’d been around the kind of people who financed movies and the kind of people who are there to make the deals for movies. But I’d always had this naive idea that everybody wants to make movies as good as they can be, which is stupid. I thought, ‘Well, surely you don’t want to have the Twentieth Century-Fox logo over a shitty movie.’ And they were like, ‘Well, as long as it opens.’ They didn’t care.” – David Fincher

In the car, I read reviews for the Game and Fight Club because it was from the director of Se7en even though I hadn’t seen Se7en. It’s reputation preceded it. He was just there, around the corner. And the quality of his efforts stuck out to me. I needed to figure out why he seemed culturally significant.

The first work of Fincher’s I saw in theaters was Panic Room. Fincher dismissed it as popcorn filmmaking (he dismisses most of his work one way or another — like Soderbergh, who compares his achievements and efforts to those of Che Guevara), but I was in awe of the image and the connection forged with cinematic history (especially Hitchcock via Howard Shore’s music). I found the compressed narrative satisfying. Panic Room wasn’t trying to be high art; it was trying to be a run and grab heist film. But Fincher could not shoot fast and leave. Panic Room was massive, more than what was necessary, and memorable.

“Everything seems really simple on paper until you take a camera out of the box. Then ninety people are offering up solutions to the problems those pages create. You’re trying to make something very clear in this maelstrom of activity, with all this anxiety about how much money is being spent. I don’t think you can ever make it the way you have it in your head.” – David Fincher

Some years separate his first few films, and there is a big break between Panic Room and Zodiac. In between, Fincher found digital. He still takes as much time as necessary to craft his work, but there is a definite pick-up with digital production. Since Panic, I’ve seen all his work in the theater first with the exception of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m especially keen to remember the weekend Zodiac came out. I walked through feet of snow with my wife to get to the small moviehouse down the street. The next day, in an equally old movie house, after breaking through what covered the car, I went back a second time. The old movie palace was right for that film, but the theater as a whole is right for Fincher.


“Part of my testiness is that I feel I make fifty compromises a day. When people come to me to say ‘Why can’t you compromise?’ I’m like: ‘What are you talking about? The fact that we’re having this conversation means that we’ve compromised.'” – David Fincher

Despite all this love and ever-increasing respect for the quality of his work, the birth of my daughter last summer brought Fincher into my life like never before. My wife and I adjusted to what this new being meant to our life. We stayed up at night even if it was not necessary. Everything was new and we wanted to be sure.

David Fincher’s voice — calm, eloquent, and intelligent — had a soothing quality that settled my daughter. If one of his commentaries was entertaining me when she woke, she would calm back down. The same could not be said for any other commentary track or the sound of TV in general, so I watched his movies over and over. I grew attached to his work and have not been able to shake it.

“I went to a place called the Berkeley Film Institute for a summer program with a grade-school friend of mine, and we just thought it was a joke. It was very impressionist, very Berkeley. There were all these people who were there to communicate and change the world, to do all these lofty things — and then they made these really shitty, stupid little movies. And we were kind of like, ‘I’m not here for this, I’m just here to pull cable.’ We were the youngest people there and we ended up being the grips and electrics on everybody else’s movies, and it was pretty good those six or seven weeks, we got to shoot Panaflex cameras and make a married print — it was in black and white, and you made these little cheeseball movies, but at least you were making ‘something.’ It was kind of like film school in that way, but those who can’t do, teach, and those who couldn’t teach, taught there. They tried, they just didn’t want to get dirty with it, they didn’t want to get in up to their necks. It was all very patrician.” – David Fincher

For a long time, Fincher’s been a dark, creepy director. He made two definitive serial killer films and then decided to take on the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But his narrative rhythm and approach keeps evolving.

In the intro to the Curious Case of Benjamin Button documentary, Fincher discusses the death of his father right before the film’s production. “I remember the experience of being there when he breathed his last breath. It was incredibly profound. When you lose someone who helped form you in lots of ways, who is your ‘true north,’ you lose the barometer of your life. You’re no longer trying to please someone, or you’re no longer reacting against something. In many ways, you’re truly alone.” I liked Button when I first saw it, an achievement whose reach exceeded its grasp. After learning about Fincher’s father and watching the film as unprecedentedly autobiographical, I grew attached to it beyond itself.

It’s something that can happen when something’s personal. This past summer may not have been my first encounter with David Fincher’s work, but his work continues to open me to new possibilities.

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