David Fincher: The Ultimate Guide to His Films and Directing Style
1999 was a watershed year for people in my generation, as it no doubt was for other generations as well. On the eve of the new millennium, we were caught in a place between excitement and apprehension.
The 21st century loomed large with promises of technological and sociological innovations, yet we were beset by decidedly 20th century baggage, like an adultery scandal in the White House or the nebulous threat of Y2K.
This potent atmosphere naturally created its fair share of zeitgeist pop culture work, but no works had more of an impact on the public that year than The Wachowski Brothers’ THE MATRIX and David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB. I was only in middle school at the time, but FIGHT CLUB in particular captivated my friends and I with the palpable substance behind its visceral style.
As a kid already consumed by a runaway love for movies, FIGHT CLUB was one of the earliest instances in which I was acutely aware of a director’s distinct voice. As such, the films of director David Fincher were among the first that I sought out as a means to study film as an art form and a product of a singular creative entity.
His easily identifiable aesthetic influenced me heavily during those early days, and despite having taken cues from a much larger world of film artists as I’ve grown, Fincher’s unique worldview still shapes my own in a fundamental way.
David Fincher was essentially the first mainstream feature director to emerge from the world of music videos. Ever the technological pioneer, David Fincher innovated several ideas about the nascent music video format that are still in use today. This spirit of innovation and a positive shooting experience on the set of 2007’s ZODIAC eventually led to him becoming a key proponent of digital filmmaking before its widespread adoption.
A student of Stanley Kubrick’s disciplined perfectionism and Ridley Scott’s imaginative world-building, David Fincher established his own voice with a cold, clinical aesthetic that finds relevancy in our increasing dependency and complicated relationship with technology.
David Fincher was born in 1962, in Denver, Colorado. His father, Howard, worked as the bureau chief for LIFE Magazine and his mother, Claire Mae, worked in drug addition facilities as a mental health nurse.
David Fincher spent most of his formative years in northern California’s Marin County (a setting he’d explore in his features THE GAME (1997) and ZODIAC), as well as the small town of Ashland, Oregon. Inspired by George Ray Hill’s BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), an 8 year-old David Fincher started to make little movies of his own using his family’s 8mm film camera.
Having grown up in a time when film schools were well established, David Fincher—rather interestingly—opted against them in favor of going directly into the workforce under Korty Films and Industrial Light and Magic (where we would work on 1983’s RETURN OF THE JEDI).
It was David Fincher’s time at ILM specifically that would shape his fundamental understanding of and appreciation for visual effects, and his incorporation of ILM’s techniques into his music videos no doubt led to his breakout as a director.
AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY: “SMOKING FETUS” (1984)
At the age of 22, David Fincher directed his very first professional work, an anti-smoking ad for the American Cancer Society called“SMOKING FETUS”. Anti-smoking ads are infamous for being shocking and transgressive as a means to literally scare people out of lighting up.
“SMOKING FETUS” was the spot that undoubtedly started it all by featuring a fetus in utero, taking a long drag from a cigarette. The crude puppetry of the fetus is horrifying and nightmarish—an unholy image that delivers a brilliant whallop.
David Fincher has often been called a modern-day Kubrick because of his visual precision and notoriety for demanding obscene numbers of takes—a comparison made all the more salient when given that both men shared a thematic fascination with man’s relationship (and conflict with) technology.
David Fincher’s modeling of his aesthetic after Kubrick’s can be seen even in his earliest of works. Shot against a black background, the fetus floating in space resembles the Star Child of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). “SMOKING FETUS” brought David Fincher to the attention of Propoganda Films, who subsequently signed him on in earnest, effectively launching his career.
RICK SPRINGFIELD: “DANCE THIS WORLD AWAY” (1984)
Due to the strength of “SMOKING FETUS”, 80’s rock superstar Rick Springfield enlisted David Fincher to direct his 1984 concert film, THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM. The responsibility also entailed the shooting of four pre-filmed music videos to incorporate into the live show.
“DANCE THIS WORLD AWAY” features three vignettes: a man dancing amongst the ruins of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a happy-go-lucky TV show for kids, and a ballroom filled with socialites oblivious to the nuclear missile launching from underneath the dance floor. The piece establishes several traits that David Fincher would incorporate into his mature aesthetic like stylized, theatrical lighting, an inspired use of visual effects and elaborate production design.
RICK SPRINGFIELD: “CELEBRATE YOUTH” (1984)
“CELEBRATE YOUTH” is presented in stark black and white, punctuated by bright pops of color like the red of Springfield’s bandana or the indigo of a child’s sneakers. This conceit further points to David Fincher’s familiarity with special effects, as such a look requires the shooting of the original footage in color and isolating specific elements in post production.
The look predates a similar conceit used by Frank Miller’s SIN CITY (both the 2005 film and the comic it was based upon), so it’s reasonable to assume that David Fincher’s video very well could have served as an influence for Miller. “CELEBRATE YOUTH” also highlights David Fincher’s inspired sense of camera movement, utilizing cranes and dollies to add energy and flair to the proceeds.
RICK SPRINGFIELD: “BOP TIL YOU DROP” (1984)
“BOP TIL YOU DROP” tells David Fincher’s first narrative story in the form of a slave revolt inside of a futuristic METROPOLIS-style dystopia. This is Fincher’s earliest instance of world-building, using elaborate creature and set design, confident camera movements and theatrical lighting (as well as lots of special visual effects) to tell an archetypal story of revolution.
RICK SPRINGFIELD: “STATE OF THE HEART”(1984)
Rounding out David Fincher’s quartet of Rick Springfield videos is “STATE OF THE HEART”, which compared to the others, is relatively sedate and low-key in its execution. While the piece takes place inside of a single room, David Fincher still brings a sense of inspired production design in the form of a cool, metallic color palette. Indeed, “STATE OF THE HEART” is the first instance within Fincher’s filmography of the cool, steely color palette that would later become his signature.
THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM (1984)
All of the aforementioned music videos, while capable of acting as standalone pieces, were produced for eventual incorporation into Rick Springfield’s larger concert film, THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM.
With his first feature-length work, David Fincher more or less follows the established format of concert films—performance, audience cutaways, wide shots that give us the full scope of the theatrics, etc. He makes heavy use of a crane to achieve his shots, partly out of necessity since he can’t exactly be on-stage, yet it still shows a remarkable degree of confidence in moving the camera on David Fincher’s part.
And while it probably wasn’t Fincher’s idea or decision, THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM contains a pretty blatant Kubrick nod in the form of a guitarist wearing Malcolm McDowell’s iconic outfit from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971).
The concert film format doesn’t allow much room for David Fincher to exercise his personal artistic voice, but he does manage to add a few stylistic flourishes in the form of visual effects that were added in after the live filming.
He adds a CGI blimp hovering over the stage, as well as fireballs that erupt from various places throughout the stadium (several audience cutaways appear blatantly staged to accommodate the inclusion of these effects).
Despite being something of a time capsule for ridiculous 80’s hair rock, it’s a high quality romp through Springfield’s discography that briskly clips along its brief 70 minute running time without ever really sagging.
Fincher’s involvement with THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM wasn’t going to net him any opportunities to transition into features, but it did generate a significant amount of buzz for him in the music video and commercial world, where he’d spend the better part of a decade as one of the medium’s most sought-after directors.
The success of THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM (1984), director David Fincher’s feature-length concert film for Rick Springfield, led to a very prolific period of music video assignments for the burgeoning auteur. In three short years, David Fincher established himself as a top music video director, held in high regard and higher demand by the biggest pop artists of the era. It was the golden age of music videos, and Fincher was the tastemaker at the forefront developing it into a legitimate art form.
THE MOTELS: “SHAME” (1985)
In his early professional career, Fincher’s most visible influence is the work of brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, two feature directors who were quite en vogue at the time due to blockbuster, high-fashion work like BLADE RUNNER (1982) and THE HUNGER (1983). Tony in particular was a key aesthetic influence, with David Fincher borrowing the English director’s love for theatrical lighting and the noir-ish slat shadows cast by venetian blinds.
For The Motels’ “SHAME”, Fincher makes heavy use of this look in his vignette of a woman stuck in a motel room who dreams of a glamorous life outside her window. Because computer-generated imagery was still in its infancy at the time, Fincher’s penchant for using special effects in his music video work is limited mostly to compositing effects, like the motion billboard and the fake sky behind it.
THE MOTELS: “SHOCK” (1985)
David Fincher’s second video for the Motels features lead singer Martha Davis as she’s chased by an unseen presence in a dark, empty house late at night. The concept allows Fincher to create an imaginative lighting and production design scheme.“SHOCK” also makes lurid use of Fincher’s preferred cold color palette, while a Steadicam rig allows David Fincher to chase Martha around the house like a gliding, ominous force. This subjective POV conceit echoes a similar shot that David Fincher would incorporate into his first feature, 1992’s ALIEN 3, whereby we assume the point of view of a xenomorph as it chases its victims down a tunnel. The piece also feature some low-key effects via a dramatic, stormy sky.
THE OUTFIELD: “ALL THE LOVE IN THE WORLD” (1986)
By 1986, David Fincher’s music video aesthetics were pretty well-established: cold color palettes, theatrical lighting schemes commonly utilizing venetian blinds, and visual effects. While The Outfield’s “ALL THE LOVE IN THE WORLD” was shot on film, David Fincher embraces the trappings of the nascent video format by incorporating tape static and a surveillance-style van.
THE OUTFIELD: “EVERY TIME YOU CRY” (1986)
David Fincher’s second video for The Outfield in 1986, “EVERY TIME YOU CRY”, is a concert performance piece a la THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM. Like the latter’s incorporation of rudimentary visual effects, here Fincher uses the technology to replace the sky with a cosmic light show and add in a dramatic moonrise.
HOWARD HEWETT: “STAY” (1986)
In “STAY”, a piece for Howard Hewett, David Fincher makes use of another of Tony Scott’s aesthetic fascinations—billowing curtains. He projects impressionistic silhouettes onto said curtains, giving his cold color palette some visual punch.
JERMAINE STEWART: “WE DON’T HAVE TO TAKE OUR CLOTHES OFF” (1986)
While Jermaine Stewart’s “WE DON’T HAVE TO TAKE OUR CLOTHES OFF” is a relatively conventional music video, David Fincher’s direction of it is anything but. The core aesthetic conceit of the piece is the playful exploration of aspect ratio boundaries. David Fincher conceives of the black bars at the top and bottom of your screen as arbitrary lines in physical space, so when the camera moves to the side, those lines skew appropriately in proportion to your perspective. He takes the idea a step further by superimposing performance elements shot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio over the main 2.35:1 anamorphic footage, giving the effect of visuals that transcend the constraints and the edges of their frame.
You can watch the video here.
STABILIZERS: “ONE SIMPLE THING” (1986)
David Fincher’s video for Stabilizers’ “ONE SIMPLE THING” is notable in that it marks the beginning of a phase that would become one of David Fincher’s aesthetic trademarks: grit and grunge. Shot in black and white in smoky, industrial/urban environs, “ONE SIMPLE THING” eschews the gloss and glamor of Fincher’s previous work and establishes a style that he would build upon over the next several decades.
WIRE TRAIN: “SHE COMES ON” (1987)
The video for Wire Train’s “SHE COMES ON” begins a long run of grainy black and white videos by David Fincher. “SHE COMES ON”, seemingly shot in a staccato, stuttered motion effect, takes place in a dark, sweaty music venue. Interestingly, the video seems to anticipate the aesthetics of the grunge music genre popularized by early 90’s acts like Nirvana or Pearl Jam.
WIRE TRAIN: “SHOULD SHE CRY” (1987)
While technically shot in color, Wire Train’s “SHOULD SHE CRY” leans heavily into a brownish sepia tone. David Fincher finds another instance to project silhouettes onto the background, while the stripped down lighting and practical bulbs used for artful effect also anticipates the un-glossy iconography of grunge.
EDDIE MONEY: “ENDLESS NIGHTS” (1987)
The video for Eddie Money’s “ENDLESS NIGHTS” again finds David Fincher working with grungy, grainy black and white photography in a smoky urban setting, creating a distinct noir vibe with evocative lighting.
PATTY SMYTH: “DOWNTOWN TRAIN” (1987)
Patty Smyth’s “DOWNTOWN TRAIN” features gritty black and white photography that highlights Smyth’s punk persona as she performs on a smoky, industrial subway station set.
BOURGEOIS TAGG: “I DON’T MIND AT ALL” (1987)
“I DON’T MIND AT ALL”, a video for Bourgeois Tagg, sees a return to the glossy pop look for David Fincher. Surprisingly, there’s little to no camera movement here. Instead, Fincher relies on a visual effects conceit using clear prisms that reveal and refract the performers as they drift through the frame and the empty set contained within it.
LOVERBOY: “NOTORIOUS” (1987)
David Fincher’s high demand as a director was due to his slick, high-fashion aesthetic, and Loverboy’s “NOTORIOUS” is one of his best examples of the look. He treats the rowdy streets of Hollywood at night as one big fashion runway show, with the Loverboy band members acting as eager observers while “the talent” strut their stuff down the concrete boulevard. In an inspired moment, David Fincher even uses a helicopter as the source of a spotlight that shines on a model.
LOVERBOY: “LOVE WILL RISE AGAIN” (1987)
David Fincher’s second video for Loverboy, “LOVE WILL RISE AGAIN” is a concert performance piece like THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM, only more stylized. It’s got all the hallmarks of a Fincher video: dynamic camera, cold color palette and theatrical lighting, but isn’t terribly memorable on its own merits.
THE HOOTERS: “JOHNNY B” (1987)
Cool color palette? Check. Billowing curtains? Double check.
MARK KNOPFLER: “STORYBOOK STORY” (1987)
“STORYBOOK STORY”, as performed by Mark Knopfler, was created as a promotional tie-in video for THE PRINCESS BRIDE’s release. It’s a fairly unremarkable video, so I’ll just mention Fincher’s compositing of black and white performance footage against color clips from THE PRINCESS BRIDE (and I definitely won’t mention that Knopfler’s John Waters mustache is super creepy and the 80’s were a hell of a drug).
COLIN HAY: “CAN I HOLD YOU” (1987)
Filmed in black and white, Fincher’s video for Colin Hay’s “CAN I HOLD YOU” is by-the-book, with its straightforwardness only challenged when Fincher projects video onto taxicab windows.
THE OUTFIELD: “NO SURRENDER” (1987)
Fincher’s third video for The Outfield again blends his affectation for grainy black and white photography with his high-fashion pop work.
FOREIGNER: “SAY YOU WILL” (1987)
Fincher’s video for Foreigner’s track “SAY YOU WILL” incorporates black and white photography along with a series of impressionistic close-ups, culminating in the compositing of images onto the pupil of a woman’s eye.
MARTHA DAVIS: “DON’T TELL ME THE TIME” (1987)
In 1987, Martha Davis, lead singer for The Motels, released her own solo record. Having worked with The Motels previously, David Fincher was enlisted to shoot the video for a track named “DON’T TELL ME THE TIME”. Unlike his work for The Motels, Fincher’s video for Martha possesses some of the grunge that marks his other works from the period.
The piece is notable for another peculiar aspect of David Fincher’s music video work, which is his tendency to show the artifice of the production. For instance, the end of “DON’T TELL ME THE TIME” dollies out from Martha to reveal the whole crew hiding behind the boundaries of the set. Because music videos were such a new art form, its early directors had a lot of freedom to develop its visual language.
Conceits like casually (almost dismissively) revealing the “man behind the curtain”, so to speak, allowed music videos to assert themselves as an entirely new form of entertainment, one where experimentation could occur freely, and regularly.
JOHNNY HATES JAZZ: “HEART OF GOLD” (1987)
David Fincher’s video for Johnny Hates Jazz’s “HEART OF GOLD” re-uses his clear prism idea from the Bourgeois Tagg video, but this time he allows the prisms to roam outside the boundaries of the aspect ratio (a further exploration of boundaries and delineations.
STING: “ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK” (1988)
The black and white video for Sting’s “ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK” is gritty, but also very sophisticated and distinguished, like a well-read businessman. Fincher’s stripped-down photography suggests an air of documentary, while his appreciation for design is seen in several shots that dwell on Manhattan’s iconic architecture.
RY COODER: “GET RHYTHM” (1988)
With his video for Ry Cooder’s “GET RHYTHM”, David Fincher works for the first time with a Hollywood star in Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton plays the manager of a failing Cuban music club on a hot, sweaty day.
With the help of Ry Cooder and their tex-mex cover of Johnny Cash’s classic song, Stanton is able to fill up his club with happy dancers. The black and white photography and stylized lighting lend themselves well to the sweaty setting.
“GET RHYTHM” is a particularly interesting project in regards to Fincher’s career development. While it didn’t do anything notable on its own merit, it would be the first instance of David Fincher’s world crossing with that of the ALIEN franchise: Stanton starred in Ridley Scott’s original ALIEN film in 1979, whereas Fincher himself would go on to direct the series’ third installment in 1992.
JODY WATLEY: “MOST OF ALL” (1988)
High contrast black and white. Billowing curtains. David Fincher.
STEVE WINWOOD: “ROLL WITH IT” (1988)
Another hot and sweaty monotone piece, but this time in sepia.
PAULA ABDUL: “JUST THE WAY THAT YOU LOVE ME (2nd VERSION)” (1988)
In 1998, Fincher directed a series of four music videos for superstar Paul Abdul. His video for “JUST THE WAY THAT YOU LOVE ME” was actually the second video produced for the track (not sure why exactly), and sees Fincher return to the high-fashion pop look that made his name. The piece has a distinct 80’s sense of sex appeal, fetishizing the luxury items of the rich and glamorous—especially tech items like computers, TVs, cars, and CD’s.
PAULA ABDUL: “STRAIGHT UP” (1988)
The most stylized of Fincher’s videos for Abdul, “STRAIGHT UP” is filmed in a high-contrast black and white, with Abdul performing high energy dance moves in front of a black and white split cyc (think the poster for Brian DePalma’sSCARFACE). I remember seeing this video on TV when I was little, and the track itself was a huge hit, so I can only imagine this must be one of Fincher’s most well-known videos.
PAULA ABDUL: “COLD HEARTED” (1988)
“COLD HEARTED” takes on the conceit of Abdul and her gang of dancers performing a routine for some label executives. Taking place in a raw, unfinished New York City rehearsal space, Fincher juxtaposes the resulting grungy, industrial look with the classical architecture of the surrounding space. He also juxtaposes the sensuality of the dancer’s exposed skin against the hard metal of the scaffolding on which they’re dancing. It’s a very well done, minimalistic piece that also incorporates a little narrative introduction, which suggests that Fincher is expressing a desire to expand his oeuvre into features and other forms of conventional storytelling.
PAULA ABDUL: “FOREVER YOUR GIRL” (1988)
The last of Fincher’s 1988 Abdul videos, “FOREVER YOUR GIRL” mixes gritty, handheld black and white, documentary-style behind the scenes footage with slick, polished, high-fashion color photography. Again, Fincher chooses to show us the artifice of the production process within the finished piece, this time on a much more involved scale.
While Fincher was still half a decade away from making his first feature, his pioneering sense of innovation during these early years fueled a meteoric rise in the music video sector, placing him squarely at the forefront of an important new art form that still bears his mark to this day.
COMMERICALS & MUSIC VIDEO (1988-1990)
Throughout the 80’s, David Fincher became a director in high demand thanks to his stunning music videos. As he crossed over into the world of commercials, his imaginative style and technical mastery began to command the attention of studio executives, who desired to see his visceral aesthetic to features. During the late 80’s and early 90’s, Fincher churned out some of his most memorable music video work and worked with some of the biggest stars around.
(Video starts at 01:19)
YM MAGAZINE “HER WORLD” (1988)
While his “SMOKING FETUS” spot for the American Cancer Society in 1984 was his first commercial, Fincher’s “HER WORLD”, a spot commissioned by Young Miss Magazine, kicked off his commercial directing career in earnest. The spot stars a young, pre-fame Angelina Jolie walking towards us, clutching a copy of YM Magazine as several cars painted with the words “sex, “love”, “work”, “family”, and others zip and crash around her in a ballet of violence. Even when working in the branding-conscious world of advertising, Fincher is able to retain his trademark aesthetic (indeed, you don’t hire someone like Fincher if you want a friendly, cuddly vibe). His characteristic cold color palette is accentuated by stark lighting and slick streets. An eye for stylized violence that would give 1999’s FIGHT CLUB its power can be glimpsed here through the jarring collisions of the cars.
COLT 45: “IMAGINATION” (1988)
Fincher’s spot for Colt 45, titled “IMAGINATION”, stars Billy Dee Williams and bears the director’s distinct mark: smoky, industrial environs, a cold color palette, and artful silhouettes.
NENEH CHERRY: “HEART” (1989)
By the end of the 80’s, Fincher had cemented the idea of “grunge glam” as his trademark aesthetic. By this, I mean the heavy use of smoky, atmospheric production design combined with soft, diffused highlights and a striking battle between blue and orange color tones. His video for Neneh Cherry’s “HEART” is a prime example of this.
GYPSY KINGS: “BAMBOLEO” (1989)
Fincher’s video for Gypsy Kings’ “BAMBOLEO” places the band members in silhouette against bold, color-blocked backgrounds (think an early version of Apple’s iconic iPod campaigns in the mid-00’s). By virtue of its core conceit, “BAMBOLEO” might just quality as Fincher’s most colorful music video.
ROY ORBISON: “SHE’S A MYSTERY TO ME” (1989)
In the video for Roy Orbison’s “SHE’S A MYSTERY TO ME”, Fincher shows us the artifacts of romance—rose petals on the bed, lipstick stains on sheets, etc— with the bright red color shared between them standing out against the relatively neutral background. Fincher’s camera is in constant motion, often framing these artifacts against billowing curtains as a nod to key influence Tony Scott’s visual aesthetic.
DON HENLEY: “THE END OF INNOCENCE (1989)
With Don Henley’s “THE END OF INNOCENCE”, Fincher paints a rustic, black and white portrait of rusted-out, small town Americana as his camera travels through several low-key vignettes. It’s an evocative, considered piece that stands out amongst Fincher’s frenetic body of work precisely because of its restraint.
MADONNA: “EXPRESS YOURSELF” (1989)
In 1989, Fincher embarked on a trilogy of videos for pop superstar Madonna. “EXPRESS YOURSELF” is considered to be Fincher’s mainstream breakout, as his elaborate, METROPOLIS-style dystopian cityscape earned him the attention of studio executives. The piece features chiseled, hard men toiling away in the city’s dank, industrial underbelly. High above them, Madonna lives a life of glamor amongst the rich elite. Like any class-based romance, one of these workers and Madonna are bound for a collision course. “EXPRESS YOURSELF” is one of the clearest early examples of Fincher’s style, with its evocative use of the color blue and the smoky mood created by a noir-style lighting approach.
MADONNA: “OH FATHER” (1989)
Madonna’s “OH FATHER” is shot in high contrast black and white, featuring Madonna in a variety of snowy, gothic vignettes. The soft, diffused highlights lend an air of glamor and polish, while looming silhouettes projected onto the side of buildings allows for an expressionistic chiaroscuro. One of the highlights of the video is the spooky image of graveyard statues standing stone-still while singing along.
MADONNA: “VOGUE” (1989)
The video for Madonna’s “VOGUE” is also shot in black and white, and takes on a distinct haute couture attitude to reflect the song’s subject matter. Another one of Fincher’s best-known videos, “VOGUE” combines striking choreography with dynamic camerawork for a final result that is far better than Madonna really deserves. (yeah, I went there).
AEROSMITH: “JANIE’S GOT A GUN” (1989)
Capitalizing off the momentum from working with one of pop’s biggest personalities, Fincher worked with Aerosmith on a video for their hit single “JANIE’S GOT A GUN”. The piece is classic Fincher: smoky industrial environs, diffused highlights, silhouettes, dynamic camera movement and a cold color palette.
BILLY IDOL: “CRADLE OF LOVE” (1990)
Something about Fincher’s style is well-suited towards the iconography of culture. This can be attributed to his fascination with characters on the fringes of society, an exploration that gives his work a distinct hard edge. We saw it in Patty Smyth’s “DOWNTOWN TRAIN”, and continue to see it today (look at his depiction of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO’s Lisbeth Salander). Naturally, an artist liked Billy Idol (who drapes himself in the dressing of punk culture) will bring out inspired work from Fincher. 1990 saw them collaborate on two videos together. “CRADLE OF LOVE” is fairly glossy and high-fashion like much of Fincher’s other work from this period, featuring the return of diffused highlights and even venetian blinds (a visual/lighting trope borrowed from Tony Scott). Fincher is also able to incorporate some great visual effects in the form of the Andy Warhol-style paintings hung in the apartment set, which come to life as Warhol appears in them and performs the song.
BILLY IDOL: “LA WOMAN” (1990)
Fincher’s second video for Billy Idol, “LA WOMAN”, opens with a plane flying over the Hollywood sign—a visual that I’m pretty sure fellow Propoganda Films director Michael Bay outright stole for his 1995 feature BAD BOYS. “LA WOMAN” is a grand piece, with expansive, imaginative sets and aerial helicopter footage of downtown LA giving off a large sense of scale. The piece plays like a punk-rock combo of Tony and Ridley Scott’s aesthetics, with the nightclub’s architecture emulating BLADE RUNNER’s look (right down to the iconic architectural tiles inspired by LA’s Ennis House that we see in Deckard’s apartment), and the billowing curtains and goth stylings imitating the nuveau vampire vibe of THE HUNGER (1983). Fincher bathes his video in vibrant blue and orange tones, which battle for supremacy like a clash between good and evil.
GEORGE MICHAEL: “FREEDOM ‘90” (1990)
The video for George Michael’s “FREEDOM ‘90” is quite notable within Fincher’s body of work because it’s the first confirmed instance that I could find of his collaboration with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who would shoot several of Fincher’s features. It’s entirely possible (and likely) that Cronenweth shot any (or all) of Fincher’s work previous to “FREEDOM”, but this was the first instance I could find of the two names attached to the same project in my research. George Michael is one of the biggest musicians to publicly affirm his homosexuality, so it’s no surprise that “FREEDOM ‘90” has become something of an anthem for the LBGTQ community. In the music video, this is reflected in an inspired way: female supermodels lip sync over male vocals. It’s a subtle way to highlight themes of gender identity and expression. Fincher’s approach juxtaposes steamy sensuality against cold stone and classical architecture, in addition to his usual additions (blue color palette, diffused highlights, silhouettes). Fincher’s fascination with tech is also incorporated with the appearance of lasers and compact discs.
MICHAEL JACKSON: “WHO IS IT” (1990)
In terms of 90’s pop music, it doesn’t get bigger than Michael Jackson, the King of Pop himself. In the video for “WHO IS IT”, Fincher crafts a dynamic energy that features a battle between orange and blue color tones, billowing curtains, and high contrast lighting with diffused highlights.
Besides Jackson’s performance and the choreography, Fincher places a major focus on architecture and design, seen in the sets and locations featured throughout the piece. Various visual effects are also incorporated, like a haunting face that briefly emerges from several inanimate surfaces, blurring the lines between reality and dreamscape.
With a sizable amount of music video and commercial work under his belt, Fincher had established himself as a highly desirable director in firm command of his craft. However, that craft would soon be put to the test when Twentieth Century Fox gave him the opportunity to finally jump into feature filmmaking with ALIEN 3— an opportunity that would prove to be a baptism by fire.
Alien 3 (1992)
The runaway success of director James Cameron’s ALIENS sequel in 1986 turned the property into a major franchise for Twentieth Century Fox. Executives wanted to strike with a third ALIEN film while the iron was hot, but coming up with the right story proved tricky.
Adding to the threequel’s film’s development woes, a revolving door of writers and directors experienced immense frustration with a studio that was too meddlesome with its prized jewel of a franchise.
In a long search for an inexperienced, yet talented, director that they could control and micromanage, Fox settled on David Fincher—a rising star in the commercial and music video realm with a professed love for the ALIEN franchise and its founding director, Ridley Scott.
Fincher jumped at the offer to direct his first feature film, but in retrospect it was a naïve move that almost destroyed his career before it even began. His supreme confidence and bold vision clashed with the conservative executives, causing a long, miserable experience for the young director.
He eventually disowned ALIEN 3, abandoning it to flail and die at the box office. However, as Fincher has grown to become recognized as one of America’s major contemporary auteurs, his debut has undergone something of a reappraisal in the film community, with fans choosing to see the good in it instead of the bad.
More than twenty years after its release, ALIEN 3’s legacy to the medium is that it makes a hard case against the kind of filmmaking-by-committee that meddlesome studio executives still impose on gifted visionaries to this day.
ALIEN 3 picks up where ALIENS left off, with Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Hicks (Michael Biehn), and Newt (Carrie Henn) resting in cryosleep as their ship, The Sulaco, drifts peacefully through space.
However, in their hibernating state, they are unaware of the fact that an alien facehugger has stowed away onboard their craft. Its attempts to penetrate and impregnate our heroes leads to a fire on deck and the cryosleep chambers are jettisoned away in an escape pod that crash lands on nearby on Fiorina 161, a sulfurous industrial prison planet colloquially known as Fury.
Tragically, Hicks and Newt don’t survive the crash, but Ripley does when she’s discovered by a group of inmates and nursed back to health. Once restored, Ripley finds herself thrust into an all-male, religious extremist culture that hasn’t seen a woman in decades.
Ripley quickly toughens up to counter the sexual aggression of the inmates, but her problems multiply when its discovered that one of the alien xenomorphs has followed her to Fury 161 and is picking off the inmates one by one.
A distress signal is dispatched to a rescue ship, but Ripley and the inmates still have to contend with the xenomorph before help arrives, a task made all the more difficult by the lack of conventional weapons anywhere in the prison facility, as well as the discovery that Ripley is hosting the embryo of a new egg-laying Queen alien inside of her.
In her third performance as Ripley, Weaver yet again transforms the character via a radical evolution into a tough, resilient survivor. Her arc throughout the three films is compelling, and for all the controversies over the film’s storyline, Weaver deserves a lot of credit for never phoning it in when she very easily could have.
Hers is the only familiar face in this hellish new world, save for the mutilated visage of Lance Henriksen’s android Bishop (and his flesh-and-blood counterpart that appears towards the end of the film).
Among the fresh blood, so to speak, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance and Pete Postlethwaite stand out as the most compelling inmates on Fury 161. Dutton plays Dillon, a tough, righteous voice of spiritual authority that the other inmates can rally behind.
Dance plays Clemens, the sensitive, intellectual medical officer who helps Ripley acclimate to this harsh world and harbors a dark secret of his own. The late, great character actor Postlethwaite plays David, an observant prisoner with a high degree of intelligence.
David Fincher’s collaborations with director of photography Jeff Cronenweth in the music video realm led to Fincher hiring his father, the legendary Jordan Cronenweth, as ALIEN 3’s cinematographer. Best known for his work on Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 masterpiece, BLADE RUNNER (itself a huge influence on Fincher’s aesthetic), Cronenweth was being slowly consumed by Parkinsons Disease during filming.
The earliest of ALIEN 3’s several considerable production woes, Cronenweth’s condition deteriorated so quickly that cinematographer Alex Thomson had to step in and replace him only two weeks into the shoot. Despite this setback, ALIEN 3 is a visual stunner that firmly established David Fincher’s uncompromising style in the feature realm.
Fincher’s stark, grungy aesthetic translates well into the theatrical anamorphic aspect ratio format, with the smoky, industrial production design by Norman Reynolds giving Fincher plentiful opportunities to incorporate artful silhouettes and his signature cold, desaturated color palette (only David Fincher can make a palette that deals heavily in oranges and browns feel “cold”).
Fincher’s emphasis on architecture and world-building manifests in a subtle, surprising way—he chooses to shoot a great deal of the film in low angle shots that look up at the characters and expose the ceiling. This creates an air of helplessness that pervades the film, like we’re way over our heads and drowning in despair.
While this hopeless mood ultimately might have contributed to the film’s failure at the box office, it’s an inspired way for David Fincher to communicate a real, tangible world that draws us into it—most sets are built without a ceiling so a lighting grid can be easily installed overhead, but by showing the audience the existence of a ceiling, it subconsciously tells us we are in a place that exists in real life… and that the events of the film could very well happen to us.
Fincher and Thomson’s camerawork in ALIEN 3 is also worth noting. Fincher has always had a firm, visionary command of camera movement, and the considerable resources of studio backing allows him to indulge in sweeping, virtuoso moves that bring a fresh, terrifying energy to the film.
A particular highlight is a tunnel sequence towards the end of the film, where the xenomorph chases the inmates through a huge, twisting labyrinth. David Fincher uses a steadicam that assumes the POV of the Xenomorph as it rages through the tunnels, twisting and spinning at seemingly impossible angles to communicate the alien’s terrifying agility and speed.
The industrial, foreboding nature of Fincher’s visuals are echoed in composer Elliot Goldenthal’s atmospheric score. Instead of using traditional symphonic arrangements, Goldenthal blurs the line between music and sound effects by incorporating non-instruments and electronic machinations into an atonal blend of sounds.
In many ways, this approach proves to be even scarier than a conventional orchestral sound could conjure up. To reflect the medieval, religious nature of Fury 161’s inhabitants, Goldenthal also adapts haunting choral requiems that weave themselves into his tapestry of ominous sounds and tones.
ALIEN 3’s infamous production disasters are well documented, hopefully as a means to ensure that the film industry as a collective learns from the production’s mistakes. These woes began during the earliest stages of pre-production which saw the hiring and resigning of director Renny Harlin before Vincent Ward came onboard for a short period to realize his vision of a wooden cathedral planet populated by apocalyptic monks.
While a semblance of this conceit remains in the finished film, the script was changed radically several times before cameras started rolling, and even then the filmmakers didn’t have a finished version to work from. The ramifications of this were numerous, from actors being frustrated with constantly-changing character arcs, plot inconsistencies, and even $7 million being wasted on sets that were built and never used.
The process was particularly hard on David Fincher, who was constantly fighting a losing battle against incessant studio meddling that overruled his decisions and undermined his authority. Fed up with the lack of respect his vision was being given, the young director barely hung on long enough to wrap production, and walked off entirely when it came time for editing. The fact that he ever decided to make another feature film again after that ordeal is something of a miracle.
Despite constant challenges to his control of the film, Fincher’s hand is readily apparent in every frame of ALIEN 3. A science fiction film such as this is heavily reliant on special effects, a niche that David Fincher’s background at ILM makes him well suited for.
Computer-generated imagery was still in its infancy in 1992, so Fincher and company had to pull off ALIEN 3’s steam-punk vision of hell and the devil through a considered mix of miniatures, puppets, animatics and matte paintings. Some of the earliest CGI in film history is also seen here in the film, in the scene where the skull of the hot-lead-covered Xenomorph cracks under the sudden onset of cold water before exploding.
Fincher’s fascination with technology plays well into the ALIEN universe, where the complete absence of technology—and for that matter, weapons—is used as a compelling plot device to generate suspense and amplify the hopelessness of the characters’ scenario. In order to vanquish the monster, they ultimately have to resort to the oldest form of technology known to mankind: fire.
ALIEN 3 fared decently at the box office, mostly due to franchise recognition and the considerable fan base built up by the film’s two predecessors, but was mercilessly savaged by critics (as was to be expected).
Long considered the worst entry in the series until Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet gave David Fincher a run for his money with 1997’s ALIEN: EVOLUTION, ALIEN 3 has become something of a cult classic as Fincher’s profile has risen. Fans forgave the film of its transgressions because they knew Fincher’s vision had been hijacked and tampered with. They knew that somewhere out there, in the countless reels of film that were shot, David Fincher’s original vision was waiting to be given shape.
In 2003, Fox attempted to make amends by creating a new edit of the film, dubbed the Assembly Cut, for release in their Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set. Fincher refused to participate in the re-edit, understandably, so Fox had to go off his notes in restoring the auteur’s original vision.
The 2003 Assembly Cut differs markedly from the 1992 original, restoring entire character arcs and adding a good 50 minutes worth of footage back into the story. There’s several key changes in this new cut, like Ripley being discovered on the beach instead of her escape pod, the Xenomorph bursting out of an ox (and not a dog), and the removal of the newborn alien queen bursting out of Ripley’s chest as she falls to her death.
The end result is a much better version of the film, giving us greater insight to the characters and their actions. While it doesn’t quite make up for the studio’s stunning lack of respect for Fincher during the making of the film, it ultimately proved that their concerns that the untested young director didn’t know what he was doing were completely unfounded, and were the film’s ultimate undoing.
The experience of making ALIEN 3 would be enough for any director to quit filmmaking forever, but thankfully this wasn’t the end for David Fincher. He would go back to the music video and commercial sector to lick his wounds for a while, but his true feature breakout was just on the horizon.
COMMERICALS & MUSIC VIDEO (1992-1995)
The abject failure of ALIEN 3 was director David Fincher’s first high-profile disappointment. It nearly made him swear off filmmaking altogether and he publicly even threatened as much— but when the dust settled, Fincher was able to slip back into commercial and music video directing with ease. Working once again in his comfort sphere, David Fincher churned out some of his best promotional work between the years 1992 and 1995.
NIKE: “INSTANT KARMA” (1992)
1992 saw sports gear giant Nike commission Fincher for a trio of commercials. The most well-known of these is “INSTANT KARMA”, which mimics the energetic pace of music videos. David Fincher’s touch is immediately evident here, with his high-contrast look that incorporates key components of his style like silhouettes and a cold color scheme.
NIKE: “BARKLEY ON BROADWAY” (1992)
Nike’s “BARKELY ON BROADWAY” is shot in black and white, a curious choice for a high-profile spot like this. The central conceit of a theatrical stage show lends itself quite well to Fincher’s talent for imaginative production design and lighting. Like “INSTANT KARMA”, “BARKLEY ON BROADWAY” has taken on something of a cult status, especially because of Charles Barkley’s cheeky persona.
NIKE: “MAGAZINE WARS” (1992)
The third spot, “MAGAZINE WARS”, revolves around the conceit of sports magazine covers in a newsstand coming to life and causing a mess. The idea is heavily reliant on visual effects, which comes naturally to David Fincher. While it’s a brilliant idea, it’s one that’s most likely inspired by a similar scene in Gus Van Sant’s feature MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, which had come out only a year earlier.
NIKE: “BARKLEY OF SEVILLE” (1993)
In 1993, Fincher once again collaborated with NBA superstar Charles Barkley on another spot for Nike called “BARKLEY OF SEVILLE” that makes use of some potent old world imagery that David Fincher’s prime influence Stanley Kubrick used so excellently in 1975’s BARRY LYNDON (while also foreshadowing the eerie Illuminati imagery that Kubrick would depict inEYES WIDE SHUT six years later). The piece is textbook Fincher, featuring a dueling orange and blue color palette, theatrical lighting that highlights some excellent production design and casts artful silhouettes.
BUDWEISER: “GINGER OR MARIANNE” (1993)
Also in 1993, Fincher took on two spots for Budweiser beer. The first, “GINGER OR MARIANNE” features young adults playing pool and debating their preferences of old TV character crushes. The pool hall is lit in smoky, desaturated warm tones with high contrast, as per Fincher’s established aesthetic.
BUDWEISER: “CLASSIC ROCK” (1993)
The second Budweiser spot, “CLASSIC ROCK”, features a handful of middle-aged dudes golfing and arguing over their favorite acts. David Fincher utilizes the high contrast natural light on the scenic golf course, supplementing it with a subtle gliding camera as it follows the characters. The result is a pretty conventional, but no less well-crafted, piece of advertising.
CHANEL: “THE DIRECTOR” (1993)
(starts at 3:54)
Fincher’s spot for Chanel, called “THE DIRECTOR”, is an excellent example of his “grunge-glam” aesthetic. The piece makes evocative use of its cold, blue color palette and smoky, European urban setting, with the director’s high contrast lighting bouncing off the wet streets and old-world architecture. Fincher’s fondness for revealing the artifice of the shooting process is incorporated into the narrative, as his opening vignette is revealed to be the shoot for a large movie, with the titular director being shown mostly in abstract, silhouette form.
(starts at 3:54)
COCA-COLA: “BLADE ROLLER” (1993)
Fincher’s filmography owes a lot to the work of Ridley Scott and his brother, Tony Scott. Ridley’s influence in particular is deeply felt in the fundamental building blocks of David Fincher’s aesthetic, and Fincher’s “BLADE ROLLER” spot for Coca-Cola seems to be directly lifted from Ridley’s visionary sci-fi masterpiece BLADE RUNNER (1982).
We see a dystopian city of the future, characterized by neon lights and Asian architecture, bathed in perpetual smoke and soaked through to the bone. Fincher’s signature high contrast, cold look plays directly into the BLADE RUNNER style, which the young director builds upon by adding his own flourishes like artful silhouettes and a high-energy camera that screams through the cityscape.“BLADE ROLLER” is one of David Fincher’s most well-known commercials, and easily one of his best.
AT&T: “YOU WILL” CAMPAIGN (1993)
It’s not uncommon for advertisers to create entire campaigns with multiple spots centered around a singular idea. In 1993, AT&T wanted to communicate how their technologies were going to be at the forefront of the digital revolution, which would have long-term ramifications for how we live our lives and connect with others.
To convey this message, AT&T hired Fincher—a director well known for his fascination with technology—for their “YOU WILL” campaign. The campaign is a series of seven spots that actually predict many of the things that are commonplace today, albeit in a laughably clunky, primitive form that was the 90’s version of “hi-tech”.
The spots show us various vignettes of people connecting with others through AT&T’s theoretical future tech: GPS navigation, doctors looking at injuries over video-link, video phone calls, sending faxes over tablets, and more. Fincher’s high contrast, cold palette serves him well with this campaign, further enhancing the appeal of this promising technology that aims to transform our lives.
Looking back at these spots over twenty years, it’s easy to laugh at the clunky tech on display, but it’s remarkable how much of it they actually got right.
MADONNA: “BAD GIRL” (1993)
David Fincher’s output during this period of his career was heavily weighted with commercials, but he did make a few music videos, one of which was another collaboration with pop diva Madonna for her track “BAD GIRL”.
The video incorporates some Hollywood talent in the form of Christopher Walken who plays a silent, watchful guardian angel of sorts and supporting character stalwart Jim Rebhorn, who would later appear in Fincher’s THE GAME four years later.
The look of“BAD GIRL” is similar to Fincher’s previous collaborations with Madonna, featuring high contrast lighting, diffused highlights and a smoky, cold color palette. The video is very cinematic, no doubt owing to a large budget afforded by the combined clout of Madonna and David Fincher (as well as Walken’s goofy dancing, seen briefly towards the middle).
LEVI’S: “KEEP IT LOOSE” (1993)
The first of several spots that Fincher would take on for jeans-maker Levi’s, “KEEP IT LOOSE” features the director’s iconic blue color palette as a static background, with a variety of actors composited into the scene dancing wildly and expressing themselves in their hilariously baggy 90’s jeans.
LEVI’S: “REASON 259: RIVETS” (1994)
1994 saw several more Levi’s spots put on Fincher’s plate, with “REASON 259: RIVETS” being the standout. The piece features the cold, blue high contrast look David Fincher is known for, along with a premise centering around tech—in this instance, a machine that is able to punch a single jeans rivet into someone’s nose as a decorative stud. The spot as it exists online currently can’t be embedded, but you can watch it here.
LEVI’S: “THE RESTAURANT” (1994)
Fincher’s next Levi’s spot, “THE RESTAURANT”, riffs off the climactic scene of Mike Nichols’ THE GRADUATE (1967) with a young man pounding at a glass window to get the attention of his love interest, who is currently out with another male suitor. Like several of David Fincher’s other works, his treatment of color pits the orange of the warm restaurant interior with the cold blue exterior. Diffused highlights and high contrast lighting complete the look for yet another classic Fincher commercial.
(starts at 6:48)
LEVI’S: “501 JEANS” (1994)
(starts at 7:19)
Fincher’s last spot for Levi’s done in 1994 doesn’t have an official title that I’m aware of, although it focuses specifically on their 501 style of jeans. David Fincher turns the piece into a counterculture anthem, creating several vignettes of young people rebelling against corporate suit culture (a theme he’d explore again—quite viscerally—in 1999’s FIGHT CLUB).
Fincher’s interest in architecture is also apparent in the spot’s closing shot, which features Los Angeles’ iconic US Bank Tower, at the time unfinished and under construction.
(starts at 7:19)
NIKE: “THE REFEREE” campaign (1994)
Another of Fincher’s most infamous commercial campaigns was for Nike, called “THE REFEREE”. The series features Dennis Hopper as an unhinged NFL referee, who excitedly obsesses over football to the camera in various places.
NFL game footage is intercut to match the visceral energy of Hopper’s ranting and raving, with David Fincher’s high contrast, cold color palette further accentuating his mania. The campaign even boasts that holy grail of commercials—A Super Bowl spot—which riffs on the famous opening sequence of PATTON (1970).
The spots have a small cult following, and while most are still publicly available, a few are extremely hard to find and don’t seem to exist anywhere on the internet.
THE ROLLING STONES: “LOVE IS STRONG” (1994)
Fincher’s video for The Rolling Stones’ “LOVE IS STRONG” is shot in high contrast black and white, featuring grungy bohemian types in a smoky, urban setting.
The video shows off Fincher’s natural talent for visual effects, as he composites his actors as giants against various NYC landmarks, using the dwarfed city below them as their own personal playground. It’s a pretty simple concept, but extremely well-executed and staged—a credit to Fincher’s meticulousness.
HONDA: “DEL SOL” (1995)
David Fincher’s final spot during this period was for Honda, which parodied the style of James Bond as a secret agent tries to outrace a particularly aggressive helicopter that is pursuing him.
With the dynamic camerawork and plentiful helicopter POV aerials, the spot is less James Bond than it is Michael Bay. It also doesn’t really look like Fincher’s handiwork, what with a heavy orange and black color scheme instead of his trademark cold palette.
After the disaster that was ALIEN 3’s production, Fincher publicly stated that he would rather die of cancer than ever make another feature. However, his success in returning to the medium that made him famous served as a refreshing boost of confidence, recharging him to make another run at movies once again and give him the proper launchpad for takeoff.
In the mid-90’s, a script by newcomer Andrew Kevin Walker called SE7EN (a stylization of “seven”) was making the rounds and generating excitement all over town. Readers and creative executives alike hailed its bold, original storyline and that ending.
That audacious, coup-de-grace ending that nobody saw coming. That ending that could possibly never be put into the finished film and thus had to be rewritten and castrated into oblivion for fear that its inclusion could break cinema itself. Indulgent hyperbole aside, it was the ending that cajoled a young David Fincher back into the director’s seat that he had so publicly sworn off after a catastrophic experience with his debut, ALIEN 3 (1992).
While David Fincher didn’t have enough clout on his own to drop mandates that the original ending would remain as written, his stars (Hollywood heavyweights) Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman did, and they used that clout to back up this untested auteur. As such, Fincher was in an enviable position to infuse this hauntingly original story—free from the baggage of franchise—with his unflinching style and uncompromising vision.
SE7EN takes place in an unnamed, crumbling metropolis of perpetual precipitation and endless blight—an oppressive environment where hope goes to die. Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman), a longtime member of the city’s police force, is in his last week of retirement, with a young, headstrong detective named Mills (Brad Pitt) arriving in town to take his place.
On their first day together, they are called to a murder scene where an obese man has been forced to literally eat himself to death.
Initially assuming it to be another one of the city’s routine murders—business as usual—, a similar scene at a lawyer’s office the next day (where the victim was forced to carve up his own body and the word “greed” is painted on the floor in his blood) prompts a second look at the fat man’s murder scene (where Somerset finds “gluttony” written in grease behind the fridge).
This discovery prompts the detectives to realize that they are in the midst of a killing spree perpetrated by a psychopath who carries out his murders in accordance with the seven deadly sins and leaves behind grisly scenes that taunt and challenge his pursuers. With the days passing and the bodies piling up, Somerset and Mills must race against time to deduce the killer’s identity and stop him before his grand plan reaches its shocking and grisly conclusion.
Morgan Freeman is pitch perfect as the insightful, bookish Detective Somerset—a man haunted by the mistakes of his past and the city that threatens to consume him. His presence lends a great deal of gravitas and authority to the film, grounding the outlandish story developments in reason and logic and making them all the more scarier because of their realism.
Brad Pitt’s performance as the hotheaded, impatient Detective Mills is interesting in that the performance itself tends to be wooden at times but we as the audience are still pulled into his swirling emotional whirlpool.
Perhaps it’s only because Pitt has become such a sublimely subtle actor in the twenty years since that his forcefulness in SE7EN reads now as a younger man struggling with inherent talent but an unpolished craft. Mills’ impatience and stubbornness is well set-up throughout the film—when assigned a handful of heavy philosophical books by Somerset, he opts instead to read the Cliff Notes versions.
Because he takes shortcuts and is quick to action without necessarily thinking things through, he’s in a prime position to be manipulated by Spacey’s John Doe and play into his twisted, murderous scheme.
Speaking of John Doe, Kevin Spacey absolutely murders it as SE7EN’s creepy, calculating killer (puns!). Spacey imbues this psychopath with a degree of intelligence and brilliance that one doesn’t necessarily expect in their garden-variety serial killer.
For Doe, his life’s work IS his life—he has no job or relationships to speak of, only a single-minded focus to complete his grand plan and etch himself permanently into the criminal history books. As evidenced by Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS series, Spacey is at his best under Fincher’s direction, and their first collaboration together in SE7EN results in the actor’s most mesmerizing performance in a career stuffed with them.
While the potency of SE7EN’s story hinges on this trifecta of brilliant performers, Fincher doesn’t skimp in the supporting department either. He enlists Gwyneth Paltrow (who coincidentally was dating Pitt at the time) to play Pitt’s supportive, sweet wife, Tracy.
Paltrow has something of a bland reputation of an actress, but collaborating with auteurs like David Fincher, James Gray, or Paul Thomas Anderson bring out the very best in her and remind us why she’s an excellent actress.
Paltrow takes what could easily be the standard non-confrontational, supporting house wife stock character and infuses it with a creeping pathos and dread— grappling with moral conflict over bringing a child into the dark, overbearing world that Fincher has created on-screen.
In another nod to director Stanly Kubrick’s profound influence on Fincher, FULL METAL JACKET’s (1987) fire-and-brimstone drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey shows up here as Somerset’s weary precinct captain. Additionally, John C McGinley shows up against-type as a militaristically macho SWAT commander, as does Mark Boone Junior as a shady, scruffy informant to Somerset.
To accomplish his stark, pitch-black vision, Fincher enlists the eye of cinematographer Darius Khondji, who is able to translate David Fincher’s signature aesthetic (high contrast lighting, cold color palette, silhouettes and deep wells of shadow) onto the 35mm film image.
The film is presented in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, but in watching some of the film’s supplemental features (and with no other evidence to go on), I’m convinced that Fincher and Khondji didn’t actually shoot anamorphic.
It appears the 2.35:1 aspect ratio was achieved via a matte in post-production, which plays into Fincher’s reputation as a visual perfectionist who uses digital technology to exert control over the image down to the smallest detail. This control extends to the camera movement, which uses cranes and dollies for measured effect, echoing John Doe’s precise, predetermined nature.
In fact, the only time that Fincher goes handheld is during the foot-chase sequence in Doe’s apartment complex and the finale in the desert, both of which are the only moments in the film that the balance of control is tipped out of any one person’s favor, leaving only chaos to determine what happens next.
While SE7EN was filmed in downtown Los Angeles, David Fincher intended for it to stand in for an unnamed East Coast city, which he successfully achieved via a mix of careful location selection and production designer Arthur Max’s vision of oppressive decay.
A never-ending, torrential downpour of rain amplifies Fincher’s signature grunge aesthetic, although its presence was initially less about thematics and more about creating continuity with Pitt’s scenes (who had to film all of his part first before leaving to work on Terry Gilliam’s 12 MONKEYS).
Howard Shore crafts an ominous score that utilizes a particular brassy sound evocative of old-school noir cinema, but its’ in Fincher’s source cue selection that SE7EN’s music really stands out.
He uses a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” for the opening credits, foreshadowing David Fincher’s later collaborations with NIN frontman Trent Reznor on the scores for THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011).
Other standout cues include a Marvin Gaye track playing in the Mills apartment, and—in another nod to Kubrick—classical arrangements that waft through the cavernous library Somerset conducts his research in.
It’s also worth highlighting SE7EN as Fincher’s first collaboration with Ren Klyce, who would go on create the visceral, evocative soundscapes of Fincher’s subsequent films.
Overall, SE7EN is a supreme technical achievement on all fronts— a fact realized by the studio (New Line Cinema), who then mounted an aggressive awards campaign on the film’s behalf. Only Richard Francis-Bruce’s crisp editing was nominated at the Academy Awards, with neither David Fincher nor his stellar cast getting a nod.
Despite the cast turning in great, truly original performances, it’s apparent that Fincher’s emphasis on the visuals and the technical aspects of the production came at the expense of devoting as much energy and attention to the performances as he probably should have.
The result is a visually groundbreaking film with slightly wooden performances, despite the cast’s best efforts and a first-rate narrative.
An oft-mentioned aspect of SE7EN is its haunting opening credits sequence, designed by Kyle Cooper. The sequence acts as a preview of John Doe’s meticulous psychosis, with jittery text trying to literally crawl away from the disturbing images that we’re shown in quick, rapid succession.
Shot separately from the main shoot after the original scripted opening credits sequence was trashed, the piece both pulls us into this sick, twisted world and prepares us for what comes next. The sequence was shot by late, great cinematographer Harris Savides—who would go on to lens Fincher’s THE GAME (1997) and ZODIAC (2007)—and edited by Angus Wall, who has since become one of David Fincher’s key editors.
Fincher, more so than a great deal of his contemporaries, uses the opening credits of his features to set the mood and the tone of his story in a highly creative and stimulating style. His incorporation of the technique began in earnest with SE7EN, but the practice hails back to the work of Alfred Hitchchock, who pioneered the idea of opening credits as part of the storytelling and not just an arbitrary device to let the audience know who did what.
SE7EN is one of the earliest instances in Fincher’s feature filmography in which his aesthetic coalesces into something immediately identifiable—no small feat for a man at bat for only the second time. The film places a subtle, yet strong emphasis on architecture—specifically, an early twentieth-century kind of civic architecture seen in noir films and old New York buildings (a mix of classical and art deco).
There’s a distinct claustrophobic feeling to the city David Fincher is portraying, which is reinforced by his framing of several shots from a low angle looking up at the ceiling (implying that the walls are closing in around our characters).
Fincher’s fascination with technology is also reflected in a mix of cutting-edge forensic tools and outdated computer systems that are used by the protagonists to find their man. Lastly, a strong air of nihilism marks Fincher’s filmography, with the incorporation of its philosophy giving SE7EN its pitch-black resonance.
Several story elements, like the moral ambiguity of Detective Mills, the rapid decay of the city aided and abetted by uncaring bureaucrats, and the darkly attractive nature of John Doe’s crimes cause a severe existential crisis for our protagonists.
SE7EN was a huge hit upon its release, and put David Fincher on the map in a way that ALIEN 3 never did (or could have done)—precisely because it was an original property in which Fincher could assert himself, free from the excessive studio needling that plagued top-dollar franchises back then (and still today).
This freedom resulted in one of the most shocking thrillers in recent memory, jolting audiences from apathy and re-energizing a fear response that had been dulled by the onslaught of uninspired slasher films during the 80’s.
SE7EN, along with Fincher’s other zeitgeist-y film FIGHT CLUB (1999), is frequently cited as one of the best pictures of the 90’s, perfectly capturing the existential, grungy essence of the decade. Above all, SE7EN is a gift—for David Fincher, another chance to prove himself after the failure of ALIEN 3, and for us, a groundbreaking new voice in the cinematic conversation.
That, my friends, is what was in the box.
COMMERICALS AND MUSIC VIDEO (1996)
The proper film debut that should have come in 1992 finally arrived three years later when director David Fincher unleashed SE7EN upon an unsuspecting world. As he prepped his follow-up feature, 1997’s THE GAME, he found himself with very little time to indulge in the commercial and music video-making aspect of his career.
In the intervening year of 1996, Fincher did manage to create two works in each realm. While fairly memorable in their own right, these two short works aren’t much in the way of a substantial challenge for David Fincher, but serve rather as a way to keep his skills sharp in the time between features.
THE WALLFLOWERS: “6TH AVENUE HEARTBREAK”
Fincher’s video for The Wallflowers’ track “6TH AVENUE HEARTBREAK” takes an interesting tack in that it is presented as a series of still photos that progress in such a rapid motion that it gives off a crude illusion of movement.
The photos were taken in gorgeous black and white, and are framed against a white background that’s had some grungy elements like scruff and scrapes applied to it, giving it a texture that’s reminiscent of the opening credits of SE7EN.
The conceit is another riff on the “moving prism” aesthetic that Fincher previously applied in his music videos for Bourgeois Tagg and Johnny Hates Jazz, but it’s also indicative of David Fincher’s playfulness when it comes to what constitutes the boundaries of a given frame.
LEVI’S: “THE CHASE”
Fincher’s commercial for Levi’s called “THE CHASE” is a fairly conventional ad in the vein of high-energy advertising that was rampant in the 90’s.
His signature dueling blue and orange color scheme makes a comeback, along with high contrast lighting and a grungy/industrial vibe. Notably, the spot credits Angus Wall as the editor, who would go on to become a key editor in Fincher’s later feature work.
THE GAME (1997)
Director David Fincher had built up quite a career for himself in the commercial and music video realm through his association with Propaganda Films. After the breakout success of his feature SE7EN (1995), Fincher was able to leverage this newfound clout into a collaboration with Propaganda for his third feature, a suspenseful puzzle thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock called THE GAME (1997).
THE GAME’s origins are interesting in and of itself, with Fincher actually being attached to direct the script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris as his return to features after his abysmal experience onALIEN 3 (1992). The sudden availability of SE7EN star Brad Pitt forced the production of that film to go first and delayed THE GAME by several years.
Ultimately, this proved to be a good thing, as SE7EN’s runaway success set THE GAME up for similar success with a built-in audience hungry for the visionary director’s next work.
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker who lives by himself in a huge mansion outside of San Francisco. His solitary existence keeps him at an emotional distance to those around him, a result of some deep emotional scarring that stemmed from his father’s suicide during childhood.
On a particularly fateful birthday (having reached the age his father was when he killed himself), Nick’s brother Conrad (Sean Penn) shows up with an unusual present: the opportunity to participate in a live-action game, organized by an enigmatic entertainment company called Consumer Recreation Services.
Nick ventures over to the CRS offices to indulge his curiosity, but after a rigorous mental and physical evaluation, he’s ultimately deemed unfit to take part in the game.
So imagine his surprise when he arrives home that night to find a clown mannequin in his driveway (placed in the same position that his father was found after jumping off the mansion’s roof), and the nightly news anchor interrupts his television broadcast to address Nick personally and announce the beginning of his “Game”.
Trying to ascertain just what exactly is going on, Nick follows a series of perplexing and macabre clues, eventually encountering a waitress named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) who may or may not be a part of this Game.
As his life is manipulated to increasingly dangerous degrees, Nick loses control of his orderly lifestyle and begins to question CRS’ true intentions for him—- is this really just a game, or is it an elaborate con designed to drain his considerable fortune and rub him out in the process?
With THE GAME, Fincher has constructed an intricate puzzle for the audience to solve, wisely placing the narrative firmly within Nick’s perspective so that we’re taken along for his wild ride. Because the story is so dependent on shocking twists and turns, subsequent re-watchings can’t replicate the exhilarating experience of seeing it for the first time.
However, Fincher does a great job of peppering clues throughout that are so subtle I didn’t even notice them until my fourth time around, such as Unger’s character being on the periphery of the first restaurant scene without so much as a close-up or wide shot of her face to announce her presence.
Likewise, Nick’s first visit to CRS contains a strange interaction wherein the receptionist appears to give an order to the Vice President of Engineering (played by recently-diseased character actor James Rebhorn)—- why would a receptionist be telling a VP what to do?
These are only two subtle clues in a story that’s absolutely stuffed with them, which makes for something new to find with each re-watching.
Douglas turns in a fine performance as a cold, lizard-like Scrooge archetype. Nicolas Van Orton plays like a subdued, less flamboyant version of WALL STREET’s Gordon Gekko, which works because the distant, calculating aristocrat archetype is one that Douglas can pull off better than anyone.
David Fincher’s casting of Douglas also adds reinforcement to the idea of Fincher as Stanley Kubrick’s heir apparent (Douglas’ father, Kirk Douglas, was also a famous film star who headlined Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY (1957) and SPARTACUS (1960).
As the cold, cynical waitress Christine, Deborah Kara Unger is a great foil to Douglas’ character, as well as an inspired female part that resists becoming a conventional “love interest” trope. Her ability to mask her feelings and intentions is crucial to the success of THE GAME, leaving Douglas and the audience constantly trying to figure out where her loyalties lay.
Sean Penn’s role as younger brother Conrad is smaller than his usual performances, but he is no less memorable as a disheveled, mischievous agent of chaos. The late character actor James Rebhorn may have never held the spotlight in his own right, but every one of his performances was never anything less than solid, as can be seen in his performance as the disorganized, CRS VP of Engineering Jim Feingold. Rebhorn’s talents get a chance to truly shine in THE GAME, becoming the human face of the ominous CRS entity and, by extension, the film’s de facto antagonist.
David Fincher also throws in some small cameos in the form of fellow Propaganda director Spike Jonze as a medic towards the conclusion and SE7EN’s Mark Boone Junior as a private investigator tailing Nick.
THE GAME is also Fincher’s first collaboration with the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides in the feature world (they had previously shot a number of commercials together). The anamorphic 35mm film frame is awash in steely blues and teals, accentuated by high contrast lighting that signifies David Fincher’s signature touch. Flashback sequences filmed on 8mm provide a dreamlike nostalgia that appropriately dances along the line of sentimentality and melancholy.
Savides is well-suited to translate Fincher’s vision to screen, ably creating a push-and-pull dichotomy between the sleek polish of Nick’s old money world and the slick CRS offices and the seedy grunge of the back alleyways and slums that Nick’s Game takes him to.
The film is essentially about Nick’s loss of control, which juxtaposes his confused flailing against deliberate, observational compositions and precise dolly movements as a way to echo CRS’ forceful herding of Nick along a predetermined path.
This visual precision is highly reminiscent of Kubrick’s work, and very well may be what it would have looked like if Kubrick had ever decided to make an Alfred Hitchchock thriller. Another nod to Kubrick can see in the video slideshow that Nick watches as part of his initial evaluation, which in and of itself highly resembles its infamous counterpart in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971).
SE7EN’s Howard Shore returns to create the score for THE GAME, crafting an intriguing, brassy sound to reflect the propulsive mystery and peppered with a tinge of melancholy piano that hints at Nick’s inability to move past his father’s death.
David Fincher’s stellar ear for needle drops also results in the incorporation of the White Rabbits’ iconic “Somebody To Love” as a psychedelic taunting mechanism in the scene where Nick arrives at his mansion to find it’s been vandalized with black light graffiti.
All of these elements are tied together by Ren Klyce’s sound design into an evocative sonic landscape that draws us further into the puzzle.
Fincher’s music video work often explored the boundaries of the film frame, transgressing arbitrary lines to see what was being hidden from view. Most of the time, this meant that the artifice of the production process (crew, set facades, equipment, etc.) was made known to the viewer.
THE GAME is an appropriate avenue to explore this idea in feature form because the story concerns itself with what happens when Nick is essentially placed inside of his own movie. This plays out in the form of any close inspection of a given object or development by Nick reveals its inherent fakery and connection to filmmaking.
Christine’s apartment is revealed as a fake set via various set dressing techniques Nick stumbles upon. The hail of gunfire directed at Nick and Christine by masked gunmen is comprised of harmless blanks. Nick’s iconic plunge from the top of a San Francisco skyscraper is cushioned by a giant stunt airbag.
The game Nick has been thrust into is an elaborate, deliberate manipulation of actors and events designed to take him on a film-like character arc and transformation.
To this effect, architecture (another of David Fincher’s thematic fascinations) plays a huge role in the proceedings. Fincher’s locations and sets are always architecturally impressive, and THE GAME doesn’t disappoint in the classical style seen in Nick’s mansion and San Francisco’s financial district, as well as the sleek modernity of CRS’ futuristic offices.
David Fincher often frames his subjects from a low angle in order to show the ceilings—this accomplishes the dual effect of establishing the realism of the space as well as conveying a subtle sense of claustrophobia (a sensation very important to THE GAME’s tension).
Production designer Jeffrey Beecroft makes great use of lines as a way to direct your eye (especially in the CRS headquarters set). These lines subtly point Nick (and by extension, us) in the right direction to go despite the orchestrated chaos around him.
Fincher is able to find several instances within the story to indulge in other fascinations. THE GAME uses technology to striking ends in advancing the plot, like the television magically talking to Nick in his own home, or the hidden video camera lodged inside the clown mannequin’s eye.
A distinct punk aesthetic runs through Fincher’s filmography, with the most literal examples being found in FIGHT CLUB (1999) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011), but even in a cold-Scrooge-turned-good tale such as THE GAME, David Fincher is able to incorporate elements of punk culture in a natural way (the aforementioned mansion break-in and black light graffiti vandalism sequence).
And finally, Fincher’s approach to the story is informed by a nihilistic sensibility, in that Nick is inherently a cynical, selfish person, along with the prominent theme of suicide and the ultimate revelation of the film’s events as orchestrated manipulations and inherently false.
THE GAME was a modest hit upon its release, bolstered by a compelling story and strong performances that were, in this author’s opinion, much better than those seen in SE7EN. By achieving a balance between engrossing performances and superb technical mastery, Fincher shows off huge growth as a director with THE GAME.
Ultimately, the film itself was somewhat lost in the sea of late 90’s releases, and for the longest time it languished on a bare-bones catalog DVD with a neglected transfer. Thankfully, THE GAME has undergone something of a cultural reappraisal with the release of The Criterion Collection’s outstanding Blu Ray transfer.
Now, THE GAME is often referenced among film circles in the same breath as his best work, and is fondly remembered as one of the best films of the 1990’s (alongside SE7EN and FIGHT CLUB). For David Fincher, THE GAME cemented his reputation as a great director with hard edge and reliable commercial appeal.
FIGHT CLUB (1999)
1999’s FIGHT CLUB was the first David Fincher film I ever saw, and it became a watershed moment for me in that it was absolutely unlike any movie I had ever seen. Granted, I was only in middle school at the time and hadn’t quite discovered the world of film at large beyond what was available in the multiplex.
FIGHT CLUB was one of the earliest experiences that turned me on to the idea of a director having a distinct style, a stamp he could punch onto the film that claimed it as his own. My own experience with FIGHT CLUB was easily dwarfed by the larger reaction to the film, which has since become something of an anthem for Generation X—a bottling up of the 90’s zeitgeist that fermented into a potent countercultural brew.
Coming off the modest success of 1997’s THE GAME, director David Fincher was in the process of looking for a follow-up project when he was sent “Fight Club”, a novel by the groundbreaking author (and Portland son) Chuck Palahniuk.
A self-avowed non-reader, David Fincher nonetheless blazed through the novel, and by the time he had put the book down he knew it was going to be his next project. There was just one problem—the book had been optioned and was in development at Twentieth Century Fox, his sworn enemies.
Their incessant meddling and subterfuge during the production of Fincher’s ALIEN 3(1992) made for a miserable shooting experience, ultimately ruined the film, and nearly caused Fincher to swear off feature filmmaking forever.
This time, however, he would be ready. He was now a director in high demand, having gained significant clout from the success of SE7EN (1995), and he used said clout to successfully pitch his vision of FIGHT CLUB to Laura Ziskin and the other executives at Fox.
The studio had learned the error of its ways and was eager to mend relations with the maverick director, so they allowed him a huge amount of leeway in realizing his vision. Armed with the luxury of not having to bend to the whims of nervous studio executives, David Fincher was able to fashion a pitch-black comedy about masculinity in crisis and the battle between modern commercialism and our primal, animalistic natures.
The novel takes place in Wilmington, Delaware (home to the headquarters of several major credit card companies), but Fincher sets his adaptation in an unnamed city, mostly because of legal clearance reasons (which would have been a nightmare considering how much FIGHT CLUB disparages major corporations and institutions).
Our protagonist is the unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton), an insomniac office drone obsessed with Swedish furniture and support groups for serious, terminal diseases he doesn’t have. He finds in these support groups an emotional release and a cure for his insomnia, achieving a stasis that props him up while pushing down the nagging feeling that he’s wasting his life away.
His world is up-ended by the arrival of the acidic Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a fellow support group freeloader that confounds his perceived progress at all turns.
Constant travel because of his job as a recall analyst for a major car manufacturer provides some relief, and it is on one particular flight home that he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), whose effortless cool is unlike anything the Narrator has found in his so-called “single-serving” flight companions. Upon returning home, he finds his apartment has blown up due to mysterious circumstances. With nowhere else to turn, the Narrator calls up Tyler on a whim, who offers him a place at his ramshackle squatter mansion on the industrial fringes of town.
As the two men bond, they discover a cathartic release from an unexpected source: fighting. They channel this release into the founding of an underground brawling organization called Fight Club, where similarly culturally disenfranchised men can get together and unleash their primal side in bareknuckle grappling matches.
Soon, the duo’s entire outlook on life and masculinity changes, with the Narrator in particular taking charge of his own destiny and liberating himself from his perceived shackles at work.
In Fight Club, they have tapped into something very primal within the male psyche—a psyche subdued in the wake of rampant commercialism, feminism, and political correctness, just itching to be unleashed.
Fight Club grows larger than Tyler or The Narrator had ever hoped or expected, with satellite chapters popping up in other cities and the purpose of the secretive club evolving to include acts of domestic terrorism and anarchy.
When The Narrator finds himself losing control of the monster that they’ve created, he comes into mortal conflict with Tyler, who has gone off the deep end in his attempts to fundamentally and radically change the world.
Norton brings a droll, dry sense of humor to his performance as the Narrator, a medicated and sedate man who must “wake up”. In what is one of his most memorable roles, Norton ably projects the perverse, profoundly morbid thoughts of his character with sardonic wit and a sickly physicality. This frail, scrawny physicality is all the more remarkable considering Norton had just come off the production of Tony Kaye’s AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998), where made him bulk up with a considerable amount of muscle.
In his second collaboration with David Fincher after their successful team-up in SE7EN, Brad Pitt also turns in a career highlight performance as Tyler Durden, a soap salesman and anarchist with a weaponized masculinity and radical, seductive worldview that he is fully committed to living out.
His character’s name and persona have entered our pop culture lexicon as the personification of the unleashed, masculine id and the grungy, counter-commercial mentalities that defined the 1990’s.
Helena Bonham Carter counters the overbearing masculinity of David Fincher’s vision while oddly complementing it as Marla Singer, the very definition of a hot mess. Marla is a cold, cynical woman dressed up in black, Goth affectations.
Her aggressive feminine presence is an appropriate counterbalance to Tyler Durden’s roaring machismo, as well as serves to highlight the film’s homoerotic undertones. Meat Loaf, a popular musician in his own right, plays Bob—a huge, blubbering mess with “bitch tits” and a cuddly demeanor, while Jared Leto bleaches his hair to the point of anonymity in his role as a prominent acolyte of Durden’s (and thorn in the side of The Narrator).
To achieve FIGHT CLUB’s oppressively grungy look, David Fincher enlists the eye of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, the son of legendary DP Jordan Cronenweth (who had previously worked with Fincher on ALIEN 3). The younger Cronenweth would go on to lens several of Fincher’s later works due to the strength of their first collaboration on FIGHT CLUB.
The film is shot on Super 35mm and presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, but it wasn’t shot anamorphic—it was instead shot with spherical lenses in order to help convey the gritty tone Fincher intended. Indeed, FIGHT CLUB is easily David Fincher’s grungiest work to date—the image is coated in a thick layer of grime and sludge that’s representative of the toxic philosophies espoused by its antihero subjects.
The foundation of FIGHT CLUB’s distinct look is built with Fincher’s aesthetic signature: high contrast lighting (with lots of practical lights incorporated into the framing), and a cold, sickly green/teal color tint. David Fincher and Cronenweth further expanded on this by employing a combination of contrast-stretching, underexposing, and re-silvering during the printing process in order to achieve a dirty, decaying look.
The production of FIGHT CLUB also generated some of the earliest public reports of Fincher’s proclivity for shooting obscene numbers of takes—a technique also employed by David Fincher’s cinematic forebear, Stanley Kubrick.
Both men employed the technique as a way to exert control over their actors’ performances and wear them down to a place of naturalistic “non-acting”. While this earns the ire of many a performer, it also earn as much respect for a director willing to sit through the tedium of dozens upon dozens of takes in order to really mold a performance in the editing room.
In a career full of visually dynamic films, FIGHT CLUB is easily the most volatile and kinetic of them all. Fincher employs a number of visual tricks to help convey a sense of surrealist reality: speed-ramping, playing with the scale of objects (i.e, presenting the contents of a garbage can as if we were flying through the Grand Canyon), and Norton’s Narrator breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly (a technique he’d later use to infamous effect in Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS series).
Production designer Alex McDowell supplements David Fincher’s grimy vision with imaginative, dungeon-like sets in which to house this unleashed sense of masculinity, all while countering the sterile, color-less environments of the Narrator’s office and apartment.
Interestingly enough, the Narrator’s apartment is based almost exactly off of Fincher’s first apartment in (soul-suckingly bland) Westwood, an apartment he claims that he had always wanted to blow up.
THE GAME’s James Haygood returns to sew all these elements together into a breathtaking edit with manic pacing and psychotic energy, creating something of an apex of the particular sort of music-video-style editing that emerged in 90’s feature films.
FIGHT CLUB might just be the farthest thing (commercially-speaking) from a conventional Hollywood film, so it stands to reason that a conventional Hollywood score would be ill-fitting at best, and disastrously incompatible at worst. This mean that Howard Shore, who had scored David Fincher’s previous two features, had to go.
Really, ANY conventional film composer had to go in favor of something entirely new. In his selection of electronic trip-hop duo The Dust Brothers, Fincher received a groundbreaking score, comprised almost entirely of drum loops and “found” sounds. I have almost every note from that score memorized—I used to listen to the soundtrack CD almost every day during high school as I did my homework.
And then, of course, there’s The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”: a rock song that will live in infamy because of its inclusion inFIGHT CLUB’s face-melting finale. Sound and picture are now inextricably linked in our collective consciousness— I defy you to find someone whose perception of that particular song has not been forever colored by the image of skyscrapers imploding on themselves and toppling to the ground.
The music of FIGHT CLUB is further heightened by the contributions of David Fincher’s regular sound designer Ren Klyce, who was awarded with an Oscar nomination for his work on the film.
A main reason that Fincher responded so strongly to his initial reading of Palahniuk’s novel is that it possessed several themes that David Fincher was fascinated by and liked to explore in his films.
On a philosophical level, the story contains strong ties to nihilism with Tyler Durden’s enthusiastic rejection and destruction of institutions and value systems, and the subsequent de-humanization that stems from Fight Club’s evolved mission objective (which extrapolates nihilistic virtues to their extreme).
The novel’s overarching screed against commercialism also appealed to Fincher, who gleefully recognized the inherent irony in a director of commercials making a film about consumerism as the ultimate evil. David Fincher plays up this irony throughout the film by including lots of blatant product placement (there’s apparently a Starbucks cup present in every single scene).
This countercultural cry against commercialism and corporate appeasement is inherently punk, which is yet another aesthetic that Fincher has made potent use of throughout his career.
With FIGHT CLUB, David Fincher also finds ample opportunity to indulge in his own personal fascinations. His background at ILM and subsequent familiarity with visual effects results in an approach that relies heavily on cutting-edge FX.
This can be seen in the strangest sex sequence in cinematic history, which borrows the “bullet-time” photography technique from THE MATRIX (1999) to turn Pitt and Carter into enormous copulating monuments that blend and morph into one single mass of biology.
The idea of stitching numerous still photographs to convey movement (where the traditional use of a motion picture camera would have been impractical or impossible) also allows Fincher to rocket through time and space, such as in the scene where we scream from the top of a skyscraper down to find a van packed with explosives in the basement garage.
Architecture also plays in important role, with Durden’s decrepit (yet organic) house on Paper Street resembling the grand old Victorian houses in LA’s Angelino Heights juxtaposed against the faceless, monolithic city skyscrapers that are destroyed in the film’s climax.
Here, as in his earlier features, David Fincher tends to frame his subjects from a low angle looking up—this is done as a way to establish the realism of his sets and locations while imbuing the subjects themselves with an exaggerated sense of power and authority.
FIGHT CLUB also contains Fincher’s most well-known opening credits sequence: a dizzying roller-coaster ride through the Narrator’s brain.
Beginning with the firing of impulses in the fear center, the camera pulls back at breakneck speed, with our scale changing organically until we emerge from a pore on Norton’s sweat-slicked forehead and slide down the polished nickel of the gun barrel lodged in his mouth. It’s an incredibly arresting way to start a film, and prepares us for the wild ride ahead.
Finally, FIGHT CLUB allows David Fincher to really play with the boundaries of his frame and reveal the inherent artifice of the film’s making. This conceit is best illustrated in two scenes. The first is the “cigarette burns” projection-room scene where the Narrator reveals Tyler’s fondness for splicing single frames of hardcore pornography into children’s films by explaining the projection process to the audience in layman’s terms.
This scene is present in the novel, but Fincher’s approach of it is further informed by his own experience working as a movie projectionist at the age of 16, where he had a co-worker who collected random snippets of a given film’s most lurid moments into a secret envelope.
The second scene in question is Tyler’s infamous “you are not your fucking khakis” monologue to camera, whereby his intensity causes the film he is recorded onto to literally wobble and expose the film strip’s sprocket holes. The effect is that of the film literally disintegrating before our eyes—the story has gone off the rails and now we’re helpless to do anything but just go along for the ride.
David Fincher’s terrible experience with the studio on ALIEN 3 directly contributed to FIGHT CLUB being as groundbreaking and shocking as it was. When studio executives (most notably Laura Ziskin) inevitably bristled at the sight of David Fincher’s bold, uncompromising vision in all its glory, their attempts to tone it down were blown up in their faces by a director who had already been burned by their tactics once before and was one step ahead of their game.
A great example of this is Ziskin asking David Fincher to change a controversial line (Marla Singer telling Tyler Durden that she wants to have his abortion), which David Fincher responded to by agreeing to change the line under the condition that it couldn’t be changed any further after that. Ziskin quickly agreed, because how could anything be worse than that?
Imagine her outrage, then, when Fincher came back with Marla’s line changed to “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school” and she couldn’t do anything to change it back. Once David Fincher knew how to play his meddlesome executives to his benefit, he became truly unstoppable.
FIGHT CLUB made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and its worldwide theatrical run was met with polarized reviews and box office disappointment. Quite simply, audiences were not ready for Fincher’s abrasive vision.
However, it was one of the first films to benefit from the DVD home video format, where it spread like wildfire amongst eager young cinephiles until it became a bona fide cult hit. It probably couldn’t have been any other way— FIGHT CLUB was made to re-watch over and over again, to pore over all the little details and easter eggs that David Fincher and company peppered throughout to clue us into the true nature of Tyler Durden’s existence.
FIGHT CLUB’s release also had real-world implications in the formation of actual underground fight clubs all across the country. In mining the dramatic potential of a fictional masculinity crisis, FIGHT CLUB tapped into a very real one that was fueled by a noxious brew of feminism, political correct-ness, the new millennium, metrosexuality and frat-boy culture (a subgroup that glorified the carnage and violence while ironically failing to recognize the film’s very palpable homoerotic undertones and thus assuming them into their own lifestyle).
Fifteen years removed from FIGHT CLUB’s release, the film stands as the apex of the cynical pop culture mentality of the 1990’s, as well as a defining thesis statement for a cutting-edge filmmaker with razor-sharp relevancy
If you want more inside info on the making of Fight Club, take a listen to the IFH Interview with FC screenwriter Jim Uhls.
A PERFECT CIRCLE: “JUDITH” (2000)
After the release of 1999’s FIGHT CLUB, director David Fincher’s feature career was well established. In theory, he had earned the privilege of never having to return to commercial and music video work again, but unlike a lot of filmmakers who followed this path, Fincher didn’t see features as the be-all-end-all of his career.
So in 2000, before pre-production on his 2002 follow-up feature PANIC ROOM got off the ground, David Fincher was able to squeeze in a music video for “JUDITH”, the hit single from post-grunge rock band A Perfect Circle.
“JUDITH” is incredibly grainy and grimy, in accordance with Fincher’s aesthetic during this period. He incorporates a “jumpy film” conceit that mimics the nervous, manic energy of FIGHT CLUB. Visually, the piece is well within David Fincher’s wheelhouse— what with its high contrast lighting, cold brown color palette and artful silhouettes— but what really distinguishes “JUDITH” as a Fincher work is its exploration of the artifice of filmmaking.
David Fincher loves to play with the boundaries of his frame, and here he exposes the weaknesses of film as a recording medium. This is achieved most likely via CGI and post-production effects work that mimics the look of degrading film: light leaks, scratches, fluctuating contrast, and the drift that occurs when the projected film can’t quite line up evenly along the perimeter of each individual frame.
“JUDITH” is a pretty pedestrian video for an unmemorable song, with its sole value being Fincher’s continued exploration of aesthetic fascinations. He wouldn’t return again to the world of music videos for another five years, but that’s okay—his feature work in the interim would be more than enough.
PANIC ROOM (2000)
The expansive, sprawling nature of FIGHT CLUB’s story meant that director David Fincher spent a great deal of the film’s production in a van traveling to and from the film’s four hundred locations. Naturally, he wished to downscale his efforts with his next project and find a story that took place in a single location.
He found it in a screenplay by David Koepp called PANIC ROOM, inspired by true stories of small, impenetrable fortresses that New York City’s wealthy elite were building for themselves inside their homes. Because the story lent itself so well to an overtly Hitchockian style of execution and form, David Fincher approached PANIC ROOM (2002) as an exercise in pure genre, refusing to “elevate” the material with the infusion of potent allegory and subtextual thematics like he had done with FIGHT CLUB or SE7EN (1995).
The film is expertly constructed in a way that only Fincher could have envisioned, with top-notch filmmaking on par with any of his best work. However, PANIC ROOMwas somewhat lost in the noise of 2002’s other releases, and thus doesn’t enjoy the same cherished status of David Fincher’s higher-profile work (despite the argument that it should).
Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is a recently divorced single mom, looking for a new home in Manhattan for her and her young daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart). They are shown a beautiful, expansive brownstone complete with cathedral ceilings, original crown molding, and a panic room—a hidden concrete room outfitted with survival and communications tech and designed as a refuge in the event of a home invasion.
Despite Meg’s misgivings that the property is simply too much house for the two of them, she buys it anyway. As Meg and Sarah sleep during their first night in the house, three burglars—Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forest Whitaker), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) break inside.
Meg and Sarah are awakened by the commotion, and instinctually barricade themselves in the panic room. Any assurance of safety soon vanishes when Meg realizes that she never hooked up the panic room’s dedicated phone line, along with the revelation that what the burglars are after—millions of dollars in US bonds—is hidden in a floor safe underneath their feet.
What ensues is a suspenseful, contained thriller that would make Hitchcock green with envy as Meg and Sarah fend off this trio of unpredictable male intruders who will stop at nothing to get what they want.
Jodie Foster is compelling as lead heroine Meg Altman, a fiercely maternal woman whose initial mild-mannered-ness gives way to a resourceful, cunning bravery. Interestingly, Foster replaced original actress Nicole Kidman, who had to leave the production due to the aggravation of an earlier injury (she still has a voice cameo as Meg’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend).
Despite the short notice, Foster exhibited enormous dedication to the role by giving up her chair on the Cannes Film Festival Jury as well as working through the pregnancy of her second child. Kristen Stewart, who was only eleven at the time of filming, turns in a great performance as Sarah, Meg’s punk-y daughter with a cynical attitude and intelligence beyond her years.
Stewart provides a nice balance to Meg’s refined femininity with a rough, tomboyish and androgynous quality (something which Foster had herself at Stewart’s age). In making the character of Sarah a diabetic, Stewart is able to become an active participant in the suspense and engage us on a personal, visceral level.
The three burglars prove just as compelling as our female protagonists due to a complex combination of values and virtues that causes conflict between them. The most accessible of the three is Forest Whitaker as Burnam, a professional builder of panic rooms and a sensitive, honorable man who projects a warm, authoritative presence.
This complex physicality is essential to the success of the role, and Fincher’s choice of Whitaker, who he previously knew not as an actor but as a fellow director at Propaganda Films, is an inspired one. Burnham is compelled not by greed but by obligation to his family, meaning that while he’s misguided in his attempts to right his wrongs, he’s not beyond saving.
His antithesis is Raoul, a mysterious, volatile man who quickly asserts himself as the group’s dangerous wild card. Raoul is played by Dwight Yoakam, a country singer turned actor who injects a great deal of menace to the proceedings.
Jared Leto, who previously appeared in David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB in a small role, benefits from the expanded screen presence that the character of Junior affords him. Junior is the self-designated leader of the operation, but he quickly finds control of the situation slipping from his grasp as the night unfolds.
Leto finds an inspired angle into what would otherwise be the stock hotheaded, impatient villain archetype by turning Junior into a trust-fund kid who’s ill-advised attempts at giving himself some edge (take those atrocious dreadlocks, for instance) only lead to the hardened criminals he’s trying to impress taking him less seriously.
PANIC ROOM, like all of Fincher’s pre-ZODIAC (2007) feature work, was filmed in the Super 35mm film format. While shot open-matte in the full-frame Academy aspect ratio, the finished film is presented on the widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio so that David Fincher had total freedom to compose the frame as he saw fit. He did it this way, as opposed to shooting in the anamorphic aspect ratio, because he apparently hates the limited lens choices and shallow depth of field that plagues the anamorphic process.
Fincher hired Darius Khondji, who had previously shot SE7EN, but Khondji left the production two weeks into the shoot due to creative differences with David Fincher’s meticulously planned and extensively pre-visualized approach (which stifled any on-set spontaneity). Cinematography duties were then passed on to Conrad W. Hall (not to be confused with his father, the legendary Conrad Hall who shot ROAD TO PERDITION (2002) and COOL HAND LUKE (1967)).
Hall Junior proves adept at replicating Fincher’s signature aesthetic via a high-contrast lighting scheme and a cold color palette whereby traditionally warm incandescent bulbs glow a pale yellow and the harsh fluorescents of the panic room take on a blue/teal cast. Fincher’s mise-en-scene is dotted with practical lights, creating an underexposed, moody image that is bolstered by a “no light” approach—meaning that David Fincher and Hall sought as much darkness as they could get away with, primarily using the extremely soft light afforded by kino-flo rigs.
A highlight of PANIC ROOM’s look is a constant, fluid, and precise camera that glides and floats through the house, as if unfettered by the limitations of human operation. This technique is achieved through the combination of the Technocrane and CGI that stitches multiple shots into one, seamless move.
The best example of this in the film is the virtuoso long take that occurs as the burglars break into the house. We first see them arrive, and swoop through the house as they try various entry points, all the while taking the time to show us Meg and Sarah asleep and unaware of the impending danger.
This shot would have been impossible to achieve before the rise of digital effects, a revolution that Fincher helped usher in due to his familiarity with the process from his days at ILM.
Because of his natural grasp on digital filmmaking tech, he is able to turn this incredibly complicated shot into a “thesis” money shot that condenses his entire visual approach to the film into a single moment while effortlessly establishing the geography of the house and orienting us for what’s to come.
As I mentioned before, the extensive location shoots and setups required by FIGHT CLUB resulted in Fincher desiring a singular, contained scenario for his next project. In developing PANIC ROOM, he realized he wanted to create the entire house as a studio set (a la Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954) so that he could exert complete control.
Toward that end, he hired SE7EN’s production designer, Arthur Max, to construct the full-featured house inside a large soundstage as one continuous structure whose walls could be flown out to accommodate a camera gliding through the set.
Max’s work here is nothing less than masterful, as nary a seam of the complicated construction exposes itself throughout the entire film. The same could be said of the fluid edit by Fincher’s regular editor James Haygood, working in collaboration with Angus Wall.
Wall had previously edited bits and pieces of David Fincher’s commercial work, as well as the opening credits to SE7EN, but PANIC ROOM is Wall’s first feature editing job for David Fincher, and his success here has to led to continued employment in Fincher’s later features.
After a brief hiatus taken during the production of FIGHT CLUB, composer Howard Shore returns to David Fincher’s fold with a brassy, old-school score that oozes intrigue and foreboding.
During this time, Shore was consumed with scoring duties for Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, so PANIC ROOM was an assignment taken on precisely because of its low musical demands.
As it turns out, Shore’s work in PANIC ROOM is generally regarded as some of his best and most brooding. The score is complemented by a superb sound mix by David Fincher’s regular sound designer, Ren Klyce.
When done right, genre is a potent conduit for complex ideas and allegory with real-world implications. PANIC ROOM is essentially about two women fending off three male home invaders, but it is also about much more: the surveillance state, income equality, the switching of the parent-child dynamic…. the list goes on.
A visionary director like David Fincher is able to take a seemingly generic home invasion thriller and turn it into an exploration of themes and ideas. For instance, PANIC ROOMaffords Fincher the opportunity to indulge in his love for architecture, letting him essentially design and build an entire house from scratch.
The type of architecture that the house employs is also telling, adopting the handsome wood and crown molding of traditional brownstone houses found on the East Coast.
Architecture also serves an important narrative purpose, with the story incorporating building guts like air vents and telephone lines as dramatic hinging points that obstruct our heroes’ progress and build suspense.
Again, David Fincher employs low angle compositions to reveal the set ceiling in a bid to communicate the location’s “real-ness” as well as instill a sense of claustrophobia.
Fincher’s fascination with tech is woven directly into the storyline, which allows him to explore the dramatic potential of a concrete room with a laser-activated door and surveillance cameras/monitors.
The twist, however, is that despite all this cutting-edge technology (circa 2002, provided), both the protagonists and the antagonists have to resort to lo-fi means to advance their cause. Another aesthetic conceit that David Fincher had been playing with during this period is the idea of micro-sized objects sized up to a macro scale.
In FIGHT CLUB, this could be seen with the shot of the camera pulling back out of a trashcan, its contents seemingly as large as planets.
Fincher echoes this conceit in PANIC ROOM via zooming in on crumbling concrete until it’s as big as a mountain, diving through the gas hose as the burglars pump propane gas into the panic room, and jumping inside the glass enclosure of a flashlight to see a close up of the bulb spark on and off.
David Fincher ties this visual idea in with another signature of his films—imaginative opening credits sequences. With PANIC ROOM, he places his collaborators’ names against the steel and glass canyons of New York City, as if the letters themselves were as big as skyscrapers and had always been a part of their respective structures.
As interesting of an idea it is, I’m not sure the large scope that these credits imply fully gels with a movie that’s so self-contained and insular. And finally, the punk/nihilistic flair that hangs over David Fincher’s filmography has a small presence in Kristen Stewart’s androgynous punk stylings, as well as the appearance of The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious on one of her t-shirts.
Fincher’s desire to exert total control of the shoot via meticulous set-building and extensive computer pre-visualization ended up working against him, making for a long, strenuous shoot bogged down by technical difficulties and slow advancement.
However, the effort was worth it—PANIC ROOM became a box office hit upon its release, receiving generally positive reviews. As a lean, mean thriller, PANIC ROOM is incredibly exhilarating and well-made; perhaps even one of the best home invasion films ever made.
More importantly, PANIC ROOM would be the last feature that David Fincher ever shot on celluloid film (as of this writing). The 2000’s would bring the swift rise of digital filmmaking, a technology that Fincher—as a noted perfectionist and control-freak—would swiftly embrace.
PANIC ROOM closes the book on the first phase of David Fincher’s feature career (marked by gritty, subversive fare shot on film), heralding the arrival of a new phase that would solidify Fincher’s legacy amongst our most prestigious filmmakers
COMMERICALS & MUSIC VIDEO (2002-2007)
After the release of director David Fincher’s fifth feature, PANIC ROOM (2002), he took a five-year hiatus from feature work. However, this doesn’t mean he was lounging poolside with margaritas for half a decade.
He was hard at work in other arenas: prepping a sprawling film adaptation of the infamous San Francisco Zodiac murders during the 70’s, as well as taking on select commercial and music video work. During this five-year period, David Fincher created some of his highest profile (and most controversial) short-form work.
Fincher’s 2002 spot for Adidas, called “MECHANICAL LEGS” is a great little bit of advertising done in the classic David Fincher visual style: high contrast lighting, steely color palette and a constantly-moving camera.
The entire piece is a digital creation, featuring a pair of disembodied robot legs exhibiting superhuman agility and speed as they test out a new pair of Adidas sneakers. Fincher’s flair for visual effects and dynamic compositions really makes the spot effective and, more importantly, memorable.
COCA-COLA: “THE ARQUETTES” (2003)
I remember this particular ad, Coca-Cola’s “THE ARQUETTES” when it came out, as it received a lot of airplay based on the popularity of the titular couple following Courtney’s successful run on FRIENDS as well as their combined appearances in Wes Craven’s SCREAM films.
Of course, I had no idea David Fincher was behind the spot when I first saw it, but having grown accustomed to his aesthetic, I can easily spot it now. It’s evident in the desaturated warm tones that favor slightly colder yellows instead of typical oranges, as well as the high contrast lighting. The spot’s tagline, “True Love”, is poetically tragic now after the couple’s divorce in 2011.
XELEBRI: “BEAUTY FOR SALE” (2004)
In 2004, Fincher was commissioned by Xelebri to realize a stunning concept in the spot for “BEAUTY FOR SALE”. The piece takes place in a futuristic world, filled with the imaginative production design and world-building Fincher is known for, and bolstered by the visually arresting conceit of normal people wearing supermodel bodies as costumes (achieved through clever CGI and other visual effects). A cold color palette and high contrast lighting wraps everything up into a neat little David Fincher package.
HEINEKEN: “BEER RUN” (2005)
Fincher’s spot for Heineken called “BEER RUN” is also a commercial that I remember quite well from its initial run, primarily due to the fact that it was a big, lavish Super Bowl ad. The piece stars Fincher’s regular feature collaborator Brad Pitt as himself, adventurously trekking out into the urban night for a case of Heineken while avoiding the hordes of paparazzi.
Visually, a green/yellow color cast is applied over the image which accentuates the high contrast lighting and evokes not only the color branding of Heineken itself, but David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB (1999). Dynamic camera movement and the inclusion of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” over the soundtrack further point to Fincher’s confident vision.
NINE INCH NAILS: “ONLY” (2005)
Fincher’s only music video during this period was created for Nine Inch Nails’ single “ONLY”. Fincher had already been associated with NIN frontman Trent Reznor due to the inclusion of a remix of Reznor’s “Closer” in the opening credits toSE7EN (1995), but this is the first instance of the two men working together directly. This is notable because Reznor would go on to become a regular composer for David Fincher, beginning with 2010’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK and continuing to the present day.
Interestingly, the video is presented in the square 4:3 aspect ratio, but the look is classic Fincher: high contrast lighting, a steely/sterile grey color palette and a constantly-moving camera that gives the simple concept a dose of electric energy.
The concept serves Fincher’s fascination for tech, with a Mac laptop acting as the centerpiece to this 21st century orchestra. CGI is used to inspired effect in incorporating sound waves on the surface of coffee, as well as conveying Reznor’s face and performance via those needle-art slabs that were popular during the era.
MOTOROLA: “PEBL” (2006)
In 2006, David Fincher reteamed with his cinematographer on THE GAME (1997), the late Harris Savides, to shoot a commercial for Motorola called “PEBL”. The spot tracks the long, slow erosion of a rock until it becomes so smooth that is adopts the form factor of Motorola’s Pebl mobile phone.
Fincher uses CGI in the form of meteors, craters, and weather to portray eons of time in only sixty seconds. This spot was filmed with digital cameras, and is credited with giving Fincher and Savides to adopt the format for the production of their next feature collaboration, 2007’s ZODIAC.
ORVILLE REDENBACHERS: “REANIMATED” (2007)
A commercial recently started airing that digitally recreates the late Audrey Hepburn, and understandably caused a lot of furor. There’s a huge ethical debate about using CGI advancements to bring long-dead celebrities back to life, a debate that more or less began in 2007 when David Fincher and Orville Redenbachers had the audacity to bring Orville himself back from the dead to hawk some popcorn.
I understand advancing the technology so that it can be used for necessary purposes (i.e, finishing the performance of an actor who died during production like Paul Walker), but the final effect is never truly convincing. It’s mildly upsetting at best, and pants-shitting horrifying at worst.
Here, Fincher’s familiarity with effects works against him, with his excitement at bringing dear old Orville back from the dead perhaps blinding him to the resulting “uncanny valley” effect. “REANIMATED”is easily one of Fincher’s most controversial videos, and for good reason.
LEXUS: “POLLEN” (2007)
Another spot that’s heavily-reliant on CGI, Lexus’ “POLLEN” is set inside of a greenhouse that was created entirely in the digital realm. Here, David Fincher is able to exact total control over his image and dial in a high contrast, steely color palette that highlights the car’s streamlined design.
The main takeaway from this period of Fincher’s career is his experimentation with digital cameras and acquisition would result in his overall confidence in the format and its future. Once he shot the majority of ZODIAC on digital, his film days were basically over.
His early adoption transformed him into the poster boy for the cinematic potential of the nascent digital format on a large, blockbuster scale.
I’ve written before in my essays on Paul Thomas Anderson and The Coen Brothers about how 2007 was a watershed year in modern cinema. That specific year saw the release of three films that are widely considered to be the best films of the decade, the apex of efforts by specialty studio shingles like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent.
Mid-level divisions like these flourished during the Aughts, with studios putting up considerable financial backing into artistic efforts by bold voices in an attempt to capture the lucrative windfall that came with awards season prestige.
It was a great time to be a cinephile, but it was also ultimately an unsustainable bubble—a bubble that would violently pop the following year when these shingles shuttered their doors and studios turned their attention to blockbuster properties and mega-franchises (ugh) like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As an eager student in film school, 2007 was a very formative year for me personally. It was the year that Anderson’s THERE WILL Be BLOOD and The Coens’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN were released, but those films are not the focus of this article. This particular essay concerns the third film in the trifecta, David Fincher’s masterful ZODIAC.
When the film was released, I was already a David Fincher acolyte and had been awaiting his return to the big screen five years after PANIC ROOM. As I took in my first screening of ZODIAC on that warm, Boston spring afternoon, I became acutely aware that I was watching a contender for the best film of the decade.
ZODIAC’s journey to the screen was a long, arduous one—much like the real-life investigation itself. The breakthrough came when writer James Vanderbilt based his take off of Robert Graysmith’s book of the same name.
From Graysmith’s template, Vanderbilt fashioned a huge tome of a screenplay that was then sent to director David Fincher—helmer of the serial-killer-genre-defining SE7EN (1995)—basically out of respect.
Fully expecting Fincher to pass, Vanderbilt and the project’s producers were quite surprised to learn of the director’s interest and connection to the material— but Fincher himself wasn’t surprised in the least. He remembered his childhood in the Bay Area, where Zodiac’s unfolding reign of terror was the subject of adults’ hushed whispers and his own captivated imagination.
In an oblique way, ZODIAC is an autobiographical and sentimental film for David Fincher—a paean to an older, more idyllic San Francisco whose innocence was shattered by the Zodiac murders and ultimately lost to the negative economic byproducts of rampant gentrification.
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ZODIAC spans three decades of San Francisco history, beginning in 1969 and ending in 1991. The focusing prism of this portrait is the sense of paranoia and panic that enveloped the city during the reign of terror perpetrated by a mysterious serial killer known only as The Zodiac. Simply murdering people at random is a scary enough prospect to shake any city to its foundations, but Zodiac’s command of the media via chilling correspondence sent to newspaper editors and TV stations allowed him to disseminate his message and strike mortal fear into the heart of the entire state of California.
At the San Francisco Chronicle, crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) takes up the Zodiac beat and finds an unlikely ally and partner in plucky cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose familiarity with pictorial language and messages aids in the endeavor to decode the Zodiac’s cryptic hieroglyphics.
Meanwhile, Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is breathlessly canvassing the populace and questioning hundreds upon hundreds of suspects in an effort to crack the Zodiac case, only to find frustration and confusion at every turn.
As the months turn to years, Zodiac’s body count continues to rise—until one day, it stops entirely. Time passes, nobody hears from the Zodiac for several years and the city moves on (including the increasingly alcoholic Avery).
That is, with the exception of Graysmith and Toschi, whose nagging obsession continues to consume them whole. With each passing year, their prospects of solving the case drastically decreases, which only amplifies their urgency in bringing The Zodiac to justice before he slips away entirely.
What sets ZODIAC apart from other serial-killer thrillers of its ilk is its dogged attention to detail. Fincher and Vanderbilt built their story using only the facts—eyewitness testimony, authentic police documentation and forensics evidence.
For instance, the film doesn’t depict any murder sequence in which there weren’t any survivors to provide accurate details about what went down. Another differentiating aspect about the film is the passage of time as a major theme, conveyed not only via on-screen “x months/years later” subtitles but also with inspired vignettes like a changing cityscape and music radio montages over a black screen.
ZODIAC’s focus lies in the maddening contradiction of factual accounts that stymied real-life investigators and led to missed clues and dead-end leads. The true identity of The Zodiac was never solved, and the film goes to painstaking lengths to show us exactly why that was the outcome.
ZODIAC attempts to deconstruct the larger-than-life myth of its namesake, but it also can’t help exaggerating him in our own cultural consciousness as the serial killer who got away—a modern boogeyman like Jason or Freddy that transcends the constraints of time and could pop up again at any time to resume his bloody campaign.
ZODIAC centers itself around a triptych of leads in Gyllenhaal, Downey and Ruffalo. The author of the film’s source text, Robert Graysmith, is depicted by Gyllenhaal as a goody-two-shoes boy scout and single father who throws himself into a downward spiral of obsession.
His sweet-natured pluckiness is the antithesis of the hard-boiled, cynical detective archetype we’ve come to expect from these types of films. Downey, per usual, steals every scene he’s in as the flamboyant, acid-witted Paul Avery. Ruffalo more than holds his own as the detail-oriented police inspector in a bowtie, David Toschi (whose actions during the Zodiac case inspired the character of Dirty Harry).
These three unconventional leads ooze period authenticity and help to immerse the audience into the story for the entirety of its marathon three hour running time.
By this point, Fincher had built up such an esteemed reputation for himself that he could probably cast any actor he desired. With ZODIAC’s supporting cast, Fincher has assembled a, unexpected and truly eclectic mix of fine character actors. John Carroll Lynch plays Arthur Lee Allen, the prime suspect in Toschi and Graysmith’s investigation.
Lynch assumes an inherently creepy demeanor that, at the same time, is not overtly threatening. Lynch understands that he has a huge obligation in playing Allen responsibly, since the storyline effectively convicts him as the Zodiac killer posthumously (when it may very well be not true at all).
When the Zodiac killer is seen on-screen, you’ll notice that it’s not Lynch playing the role. David Fincher wisely uses a different actor for each on-screen Zodiac appearance as a way to further cloud the killer’s true identity and abstain from implicating Allen further than the storyline already does. Additionally, this echoes actual survivor testimonies, which were riddle with conflicting and mismatching appearance descriptions.
Indie queen Chloe Sevigny plays the nerdy, meek character of Melanie. As the years pass in the film, she becomes Graysmith’s second wife and grows increasingly alienated by his obsession. She possesses a quiet strength that’s never overbearing and never indulgent.
Brian Cox plays San Francisco television personality Melvin Belli as something of a dandy and honored member of the literati. His depiction of a well-known local celebrity oozes confidence and gravitas. Elias Koteas plays Sergeant Mulanax, an embattled Vallejo police chief, while Dermot Mulroney plays Toschi’s own chief, Captain Marty Lee.
PT Anderson company regular Phillip Baker Hall appears as Sherwood Morrill, an esteemed handwriting analyst whose expertise is thrown into question as he succumbs to an escalating alcohol problem. Comedian Adam Goldberg appears in a small role as Duffy Jennings, Avery’s sarcastic replacement at The Chronicle, and eagle-eyed Fincher fanatics will also spot the presence of Zach Grenier, who played Edward Norton’s boss in FIGHT CLUB (1999).
ZODIAC is a very important film within Fincher’s filmography in that it marks a drastic shift in his style, ushering in a second act of creative reinvigoration fueled by the rise of digital filmmaking cameras and tools that could match celluloid pixel for crystal.
Fincher’s early adoption became a tastemaker’s vote of confidence in a fledgling technology and substantially bolstered the rate of adoption by other filmmakers.
Having shot several of his previous commercials on digital with THE GAME’s cinematographer Harris Savides, David Fincher was confident enough that digital cameras could meet the rigorous demands of his vision for ZODIAC and subsequently enlisted Savides’ experience as insurance towards that end.
Shooting on the Thomson Viper Filmstream camera in 1080p and presenting in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, Fincher is able to successfully replicate his signature aesthetic while substantially building on it with the new tools afforded to him by digital.
Because of digital’s extraordinary low-light sensitivity, Fincher and Savides confidently underexpose their image with high contrast, shadowy lighting—many times using just the available practical lights, which resulted in moody, cavernous interior sequences and bright, idyllic exteriors. Fincher also is able to create something of a mundane, workaday look that stays within his established color space of yellow warm tones and blue/teal cold casts.
The procedural, methodical nature of the story is echoed in the observational, objective camera movement and editing. David Fincher’s dolly and technocrane work is deliberate and precise, as is every cut by Angus Wall in his first solo editing gig for Fincher having co-edited several of his previous features.
Wall’s work was certainly cut out for him, judging by Fincher’s well-documented insistence on doing as many takes as required in order to get the performance he wanted (it’s not uncommon in a David Fincher film for the number of takes to reach into the 50’s or 60’s).
To my eyes, ZODIAC is quite simply one of the most realistic and authentic-looking period films I’ve ever seen, owing credit to Donald Graham Burt’s meticulous production design. Burt and Fincher aren’t after a stylized, exaggerated vintage look like PT Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), but rather a lived-in, well-worn, and low-key aesthetic.
Absolutely nothing feels out of place or time. Fincher’s borderline-obsessive attention to historical detail extended as far as flying in trees via helicopter in one instance to make the Lake Berryessa locale look just as it did at the time.
Practical solutions like this were augmented by clever, well-hidden CGI and digital matte paintings that never call attention to themselves. Funnily enough for a film so predicated upon its historical authenticity, David Fincher also acknowledges a surprising amount of artistic license taken with the film’s story— compiling composites of characters and re-imagining real-life events in a bid for a streamlined, clean narrative.
In developing the film, Fincher initially didn’t want to use a traditional score, instead preferring to incorporate a rich tapestry of popular period songs, radio commercials, and other audio recordings.
Toward that end, he used several different styles of music to reflect the changing decades, such as jazz, R&B and psychedelic folk rock like Donavan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, which takes on a pitch-black foreboding feel when it plays over the film’s brilliantly-staged opening murder sequence.
Once the film was well into its editing, Fincher’s regular sound designer Ren Klyce suggested that the film could really use some score during key moments.
David Fincher agreed, and reached out to David Shire—the composer of Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), a film that served as ZODIAC’s tonal influence.
Shire’s score is spare, utilizing mainly piano chords to create a brooding suite of cues that echoes the oblique danger and consuming obsession that the story deals in.
The story of ZODIAC is perfectly suited to Fincher’s particular thematic fascinations. Architecture plays a big role, with Fincher depicting San Francisco as a city in transition. He shows cranes on the skyline, holes in the ground waiting to be filled, and most famously, an impressionistic timelapse of the TransAmerica tower’s construction.
This approach extends to his interiors, specifically the Chronicle offices, which slowly transform over the years from a beige bullpen of clacking typewriters and cathedral ceilings to a brighter workspace with low-slung tile ceilings and fluorescent light fixtures (as seen in the well-composed low angle shots that pepper the film).
Nihilism— another key recurring theme throughout David Fincher’s work— pervades the storyline and the actions of its characters. Because they’re unable to solve the mystery and tie things up with a neat Hollywood ending, they either fall into an existential crisis about all their wasted efforts, or they simply lose interest and move on.
Fincher’s exploration of film’s inherent artifice is present here in very meta stylings: film canisters and their contents become promising leads and clues, and the characters get to watch movies about themselves on the screen (Fincher makes a big show of Toschi attending the Dirty Harry premiere). ZODIAC’s unique tone and subtext is perfectly indicative of David Fincher’s sensibilities as an artist, and frankly, it’s impossible to imagine this story as made by someone else.
ZODIAC bowed at the Cannes Film Festival to great views, its praise echoed by a cabal of prominent critics stateside. They hailed it as a masterpiece and Fincher’s first truly mature work as a filmmaker—the implication being that the maverick director was ready to join the Oscar pantheon of Great Filmmakers.
The critics’ high praise hasn’t eroded since either; it consistently ranks as one of the best films of the decade, if certainly not the most underrated. I wish the same could be said of the box office take of its original theatrical run, which was so poor that it only made back its budget when worldwide grosses were accounted for.
Thankfully, the release of Fincher’s director’s cut on home video managed to bring the film a great deal of respect and attention. As a reflection of David Fincher’s strict adherence to facts and eyewitness testimony in making the case for Arthur Lee Allen as the Zodiac, the long-dormant case was actually re-opened by Bay Area authorities for further investigation. When the pieces are put all together, the evidence clearly points to ZODIAC as Fincher’s grandest achievement yet.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008)
With some films, there’s an intense connection that you can’t fully explain. It resonates deep inside of you, in that cloud of unconsciousness. At the risk of sounding a little hippy-dippy, director David Fincher’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008) is one such film for me. It feels like a life that I’ve already lived before, despite the fact that I’ve never been to the South and I was born too late in the twentieth century to remember most of it.
Yet, there’s something about the film’s eroded-paint interiors in particular that reminds me of a distinct time in my life, a time when I was re-discovering my hometown of Portland, Oregon with new eyes during summer breaks from college.
I only realized it after my most recent viewing, but the film also sublimely foreshadows major developments in my own life: The treasured tugboat upon which Benjamin Button spends a great deal of his early adult years is named The Chelsea (coincidentally the name of my fiancée), and the love of his life is an elegant dancer (again, the soon-to-be Mrs.).
I can’t make it through the film without tearing up a little bit (or a lot), especially during the last montage where David Fincher shows us the smiling faces from Button’s life as Button himself opines in voiceover about how relationships are life’s biggest treasure. The scene utterly slays me. Every. Single. Time.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is based off the F. Scott Fitzgerald book of the same name, published in 1922. A film adaptation had been in development since the 1970’s, associated with a wide variety of big-time Hollywood names like Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Jack Nicholson.
Due to the storyline of a man aging in reverse, which would require 5 different actors playing Button at various stages of his life, the idea never picked up much steam. A leading role split up between five men wouldn’t appeal to any one movie star, and the studio couldn’t justify the required budget with unknowns. After a while, most executives considered it to simply be one of those great screenplays that never got made.
By the early 2000’s, executives began to realize that CGI technology had caught up with the demand for a single actor to portray Button throughout the ages. They brought FORREST GUMP scribe Eric Roth aboard to try his hand at a new draft, but the project really began generating momentum when Fincher, fresh off his success with 2002’s PANIC ROOM, became involved.
Working with Spielberg’s producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall (in addition to his own regular producer, Cean Chaffin), he developed the film simultaneously with his 2007 feature ZODIAC, which ended up going before cameras first. David Fincher’s creative steerage was instrumental in securing the participation of Brad Pitt, and with the decision to forsake the novel’s original Baltimore setting in favor of New Orleans and its generous post-Katrina tax incentives, the project was finally given the greenlight after decades of development.
Within Fincher’s filmography, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is just that—a curious case. It’s his most honored film, and certainly his most emotionally resonant and powerful. However, the film is not well-liked amongst the film community at large, let alone his devoted fanbase. It is commonly accused of maudlin sentiments, which at the time of its release were at odds with a cynical American mentality wrought by terrorism and an unpopular war abroad.
However, as the long march of time strips the film of the context of its release, its fundamental integrity increasingly reveals itself. Like its sister project ZODIAC, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON makes a strong case for one of the best films of its decade.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is bookended with a framing narrative that concerns an elderly woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lying on her deathbed in a hospital while Hurricane Katrina approaches. She implores her daughter to read her a series of journal entries she’s saved in a box, all of them written by a mysterious man known only as Benjamin Button.
His story begins on the eve of World War 1’s end in New Orleans, where a baby is born with quite the defect: severely wrinkled skin and a frail condition that’s consistent with an old man at the end of his life.
The baby’s mother dies during labor, and the father, wealthy button manufacturer Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), flees with the baby in horror, abandoning him on the back steps of a nursing home. The home’s caretaker, a fiercely maternal soul named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) discovers the baby and takes him in as her own, giving him the name of Benjamin.
The child confounds all expectations as he continues growing up into an elderly-looking little boy, appearing better and healthier every day. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) fits right in with the residents of the creaky old nursing home, and they become something of an extended family around him. One day, Benjamin meets a precocious little girl named Daisy, who sense just how different he is, and they begin a lifelong friendship.
As the years give way to decades, Benjamin continues to age in reverse, becoming more youthful and virile as he sets out into the world on a grand adventure that places him against the backdrop of the 20th’s century historical moments.
He becomes a master sailor, battles Nazi submarines in open waters, and even experiences a secret love affair with an old married woman (Tilda Swinton) in Russia. When Benjamin returns home from his adventures, he finds Daisy has grown into a beautiful young woman as well as a successful ballet dancer in New York.
Their attraction towards each other alternates erratically, never overlapping until Daisy’s career is cut short after getting hit by a taxi in Paris. Middle age sets in, and as Daisy becomes acutely aware of her mortality, she and Benjamin finally give in to each other and start a grand romance.
When Daisy announces she’s pregnant, Benjamin becomes withdrawn emotionally—he’s reluctant about becoming a father because as the child grows, he’ll only get younger still and, as he puts it, “(she) can’t raise the both of us”.
As Benjamin’s singularly unique life plays out, the film reveals itself to ultimately be about the heartbreak of age and time. It plays like a melancholic yearning for youth, while at the same praises the experience of life and living it to the fullest with the time you have.
Brad Pitt’s third collaboration with David Fincher is also his most sophisticated. As Benjamin Button, Pitt needs to be able to convey a complex life through all its various stages and differing attitudes. The main through-line of Pitt’s performance is that of a curious innocent, who soaks in everything around him with wide-eyed glee because he was never supposed to live long enough to see it anyway. The majority of Pitt’s performance is augmented by CGI, but his characterization is consistent and his physicality is believable across the spectrum of age. Simply put, Pitt’s performance is a career-best that takes advantage of his off-kilter leading man sensibilities.
Blanchett’s Daisy is an inspired counterpart as a complex character who is both tender and cold, idealistic and practical. Like Pitt, Blanchett must convey the full spectrum of womanhood with her performance, and does so entirely convincingly (with a little help from CGI “youth-inizing” techniques and conventional makeup prosthetics).
Tilda Swinton plays Liz Abbott, Benjamin’s mistress and lover during his short residency in a grand, old Russian hotel. Swinton, like Blanchett, is capable of playing a wide variety of age ranges, and here performs beautifully as an older, sophisticated and worldly woman who introduces Benjamin to the world of caviar and secret love affairs.
As Benjamin’s adopted mother Queenie, Taraji P. Henson is a revelation. She projects a strong, resilient dignity that allows her to essentially run the show at the old folks home Benjamin lives in. Mahershala Ali, better known for his role in Fincher’sHOUSE OF CARDS series, works for the first with the director here as Tizzy, Queenie’s lover and a distinguished, mild-mannered father figure to Benjamin.
Jason Flemyng plays Benjamin’s real father, Thomas Button, as a man besieged by melancholy over how his life has turned out. He’s a rich man, but all of the money in the world couldn’t have prevented his current situation, so he keeps Benjamin at an emotional distance until its time to pass his legacy and wealth on.
And last but not least, Elias Koteas— in his second consecutive performance for Fincher following ZODIAC—plays Monsieur Gateau, a blind clockmaker. Consumed by grief after losing his son to the Great War, Gateau constructs a clock that hangs in the New Orleans train station and runs backwards—thus paralleling Benjamin Button’s own life.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON furthers David Fincher’s foray into the digital realm. Working with a new visual collaborator in cinematographer Claudio Miranda, Fincher once again utilizes the Viper Filmstream camera to establish an all-digital workflow. Indeed, not a single frame of the film was ever printed to film before the striking of release prints.
Acquisition, editing and mastering was done entirely with bits and pixels— ones and zeroes. Presented in David Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the film is easily the director’s warmest-looking picture to date. The frame is tinged with a slight layer of sepia, while the warm tones veer towards the yellow part of the color spectrum and a cold blue/teal cast defines the current-day Katrina sequences.
The incorporation of practical lights into the frame creates a high contrast lighting scheme while making for moody, intimate interiors that evoke the old world feel of New Orleans.
Fincher’s color palette deals mainly in earth tones, which makes the presence of red (see Daisy’s dress during their first romantic date) all the more striking when it finally appears.
Red in general seldom makes an appearance in David Fincher’s work (except for blood, of course), a phenomenon that can be chalked up to Fincher’s self-avowed aversion to the color as it appears on film due to its distracting nature. However, with Daisy’s dress in particular, the costume designers were able to convince Fincher that the distraction served a legitimate story purpose.
For a director well known for his dynamic sense of camera movement, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a surprisingly sedate affair.
While certain key moments are punctuated with dolly or Technocrane movements, for the most part David Fincher is content to let the frame stay static and allow the performances to take center stage. This approach is bolstered by returning production designer Donald Graham Burt’s exceptional period reconstructions (themselves augmented with CGI and digital matte paintings).
Fincher’s regular editor Angus Wall stitches everything together in a deliberate, meaningful fashion that eschews flash in favor of truth and emotion. Kirk Baxter joins Wall, and would go on to become part of Fincher’s core editing team himself.
For the film’s music, David Fincher collaborates with Alexandre Desplat, who creates an elegiac, nostalgic score that sounds lush and romantic. Desplat’s work stands in stark contrast to the moody, foreboding scores that Howard Shore or David Shire created for Fincher’s earlier films.
Fincher supplements Desplat’s whimsical suite of cues with several historical needledrops that fill out the period: southern ragtime, R&B crooner hits like The Platters’ “My Prayer”, and even The Beatles’ “Twist And Shout”. Above all of these, the incorporation of Scott Joplin’s Bethena waltz stands out as the most powerful and cutting of cues (in my mind, at least). The song is as Old Time Dixie as it comes, but it’s a nostalgic little tune that resonates with me on a very strange level.
I can’t hear it without tearing up a little, and I can’t figure out why besides the obvious beauty of the song. The best way I can describe it as if it’s some remnant from a previous life that only my unconscious soul recognizes—which is an odd thing to say coming from a guy who doesn’t believe in reincarnation.
For a lot of people, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON doesn’t feel like a David Fincher film, mainly because of its overall optimistic and sentimental tone that stands at stark odds with the rest of his emotionally cold, nihilistic filmography. However, the film is right in line with the trajectory of Fincher’s other thematic explorations.
While the passage of time is a key theme specific to the film’s story, it builds upon the foundation that Fincher established in ZODIAC (a story that also took place over the course of several decades). The old world New Orleans setting allows for lots of Victorian/classical architecture in the form of ornate southern mansions and municipal buildings that, as the years tick by, give way to a distinct midcentury modern feel (see the duplex where Benjamin and Daisy’s daughter is born).
And finally, despite being shot on digital, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON plays with the artificial constructs of the film medium. Flashback sequences, like the blind clockmaker scenes and a man getting struck by lightning seven times are treated to look like old silent pictures from the Edison era—jittery frames, contrast fluctuations, and heavy scratches, etc.
These filters, applied in post-production, serve to differentiate the flashbacks from the sumptuously-shot main story, but they also clue in to a curious phenomenon that has risen out of the industry’s quick shift into digital filmmaking: the treating of digital footage to look like film, which is akin to a vegetarian trying to make a soy patty taste just like the chicken he refuses to eat in the first place.
To my memory, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is one of the earliest instances of applying filmic artifacts onto a digitally “pure” image, along with Robert Rodriguez’s PLANET TERROR in 2006.
It’s a commonly held tenet that age softens even the hardest of personalities. The production of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON saw David Fincher enter middle age and come to grips with his own mortality after the death of his father. As such, the film stands as a testament of an artist looking back on life and softening his edge without sacrificing who he is.
The film’s release in 2008 was met with modest commercial success and polarized reviews, with some deriding it as aFORREST GUMP knockoff while an equally vocal contingent hailed it as a technical triumph and a masterpiece of storytelling.
Fincher had his first real brush with the Oscars after the film’s release, with his direction receiving a nomination in addition to a nomination for Best Picture amongst a slew of actual Oscar wins for its groundbreaking visual effects work in seamlessly mapping a CG face onto a live-action body performance.
The cherry on top of the film’s success was its induction into the hallowed Criterion Collection, which—while met with scorn by Criterion fanboys for its perceived maudlin mawkishness— earned Fincher his place in the pantheon of important auteurs. It is an admittedly easy film to dismiss for cynical reasons, but THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON holds many treasures for those who choose to embrace it.
Like its unique protagonist, the film will persist through the ages precisely because of its poignant insights into the meaning of our fragile, fleeting existence on this earth.
COMMERICALS & MUSIC VIDEO (2008-2010)
The release of 2008’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON found director David Fincher without a follow-up project immediately in the pipeline. His search for new material would eventually lead him to Aaron Sorkin and 2010’s masterful THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but due to the fact that the story wasn’t nearly as development-intensive as his previous film, Fincher was able to squeeze in a few commercials. His most notable work from this brief period consisted of multiple spots done for Nike and Apple, both giants in their respective fields.
NIKE: “SPEED CHAIN” (2008)
One of several spots that Fincher created for Nike in 2008, “SPEED CHAIN” is simply masterful in concept and execution. It depicts the evolution of speed, starting with a snake coming out of the water, morphing into a man, a leopard, a car, and finally a speeding bullet train. The piece is presented in David Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 aspect ratio, as well as his signature cold color palette and dynamic camera movements that are augmented by CGI.
NIKE: “FATE: LEAVE NOTHING” (2008)
“FATE: LEAVE NOTHING” is yet another exceptional piece of advertising, set to a trip-hop remix of Ennio Morricone’s score for THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966) as two young boys grow and develop essential football skills like agility and strength. It all culminates in a key confrontation between the two on the field as they collide with explosive force. Alongside the ever-present visual signatures, the piece is indicative of a major fascination of Fincher’s from this period in his career—the passage of time.
NIKE: “OLYMPICS FILMSTRIP” (2008)
Fincher’s third spot for Nike, “OLYMPICS FILMSTRIP” is heavy on the post-production, framing Olympians in film frames as the strips themselves run and twist through the frame. Shot by THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON’s cinematographer Claudio Miranda in David Fincher’s characteristic steely color palette, the piece also falls in nicely with Fincher’s continued exploration of the film frame’s boundaries and the mechanics of film itself as an artificial imaging medium.
The spot doesn’t appear to be available for embed.
STAND UP 2 CANCER: “PSA” (2008)
Stand Up 2 Cancer’s “PSA” spot features several vignettes in which celebrities (and scores of regular people too) stand up and face the camera—an admittedly literal concept. Several of Fincher’s previous feature collaborators make an appearance here: Tilda Swinton, Morgan Freeman, Elle Fanning, and Jodie Foster. Others, like Susan Sarandon, Keanu Reeves, Casey Affleck, and Tobey Maguire also pop up.
SOFTBANK: “INTERNET MACHINE” (2008)
David Fincher’s “INTERNET MACHINE” is a spot for a foreign cell phone company that, to my knowledge, never aired stateside. It’s a strange piece, and so dark that we almost can’t see what’s going on at all. Cast in a heavy, David Fincher-esque green color tint, Brad Pitt walks down the street and casually talking on his phone— all while CGI cars are blown away by apocalyptic winds behind him.
APPLE: “IPHONE 3G” (2009)
In 2009, Fincher did two spots for Apple’s iPhone line of products. The first, “IPHONE 3G” teases the secrecy that usually surrounds the release of a new iPhone by depicting the complicated security process of accessing the prototype stored within Apple’s laboratories.
The sleek, high contrast and steely look is characteristic of Fincher, but fits in quite sublimely with Apple’s own branding. The colorless set is full of various security tech and looks like something out of a Stanley Kubrick movie, which is fitting for a director whose work is profoundly influenced by him.
APPLE: “BREAK IN” (2009)
“BREAK IN” advertises the imminent release of the 3G’s successor, the iPhone 3GS. This spot echoes the look of “IPHONE 3G” with a similar steely color palette and Kubrick-style set piece, but this time around David Fincher has a little more fun with the storyline and technology on display.
LEXUS: “CUSTOM CAR” (2009)
“CUSTOM CAR”, done for Lexus, is simple in concept and execution, featuring Fincher’s steely, cold, urban aesthetic and fascination with mankind’s relationship to technology—seen here via the convenience of custom car settings that help identify ownership in the absence of visual differentiation.
The piece isn’t available to embed as far as I can tell.
NIKE: “TRAIL OF DESTRUCTION” (2009)
Fincher’s 2009 spot for Nike, “TRAIL OF DESTRUCTION” is incredibly artful in its high contrast, black and white approach. It might be one of the most expressionistic depictions of football I’ve ever seen.
David Fincher’s characteristic use of CGI as a storytelling tool (not just for visual flash) can be seen at the end, where the football player/protagonist retires to the locker room and exhibits a lizard-like skin pattern of scales.
NIKE: “GAMEBREAKERS” (2010)
“GAMEBREAKERS” is all computer-generated, and as such it hasn’t aged as well. It looks more like an old videogame, but perhaps that was the intent. Fincher once again works with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who shot live-action face elements that were then mapped onto CG bodies. The idea is similar to the tech employed for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, but reversed and applied to a dynamic action sequence.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)
Facebook is easily the biggest, most transformative development of the early twenty-first century. It completely revolutionized how we communicate with each other, how we keep in touch with old friends and family, and even how we use the Internet on a fundamental level. It single-handedly ushered in the era of “Web 2.0” that experts spent most of the 90’s predicting and theorizing about.
The fact that Facebook was born in the dorm room of some Harvard kid meant we had entered a brave, new digital age. We were now in a world that benefitted the young and the savvy, the likes of who didn’t wait to “pay their dues” or obtain a blessing from the old guard before going about casually changing the world.
At the end of the day, however, Facebook is a tool. A product. A collection of ones and zeroes organized just so and projected onto our monitors. So, when it was announced that THE WEST WING creator Aaron Sorkin had written a screenplay based off “The Accidental Billionaires”, Ben Mezrich’s book on Facebook’s turbulent founding, the question on everyone’s minds (as well as the film’s own marketing materials) was: “how could they ever make a movie out of Facebook?”
As Mezrich’s book revealed (and Sorkin’s screenplay built upon), the inside story of Facebook’s genesis was fraught with a level of drama, intrigue, and betrayal normally reserved for Shakespeare.
Sorkin’s script, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, was a high-profile project from day one. It attracted the efforts of top producers like Scott Rudin, in addition to well-known personalities like Kevin Spacey, who signed on to executive produce the film. Directing duties were eventually handed to David Fincher—- the right decision, given that literally nobody else could’ve made this film as masterfully as he has done here.
When THE SOCIAL NETWORK debuted in October of 2010, it enjoyed very healthy box office receipts, mostly due to the name recognition of Facebook as well as a collective curiosity about its eccentric founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Others—like me—simply came to worship at the altar of David Fincher, subject matter be damned.
Because life is unfair, THE SOCIAL NETWORK came close to Oscar glory but was ultimately robbed by some movie about a cussing monarch or whatever that nobody will remember in ten years. There’s a strong case to be made that THE SOCIAL NETWORK is the best film in Fincher’s entire body of work, but that’s a hard case to argue considering the strength of the rest of his filmography.
One thing is for certain: we hadn’t even completed the first year of the Teens before David Fincher had given us a strong contender for the best film of the new decade. THE SOCIAL NETWORK uses Zuckerberg’s deposition hearings as framing devices, allowing for the bulk to story to occur as flashback while the “present-day” sequences orient us in time and space and help keep us on the same page as the characters.
We see Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) under fire from two fronts—Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) are suing him because they believe Facebook was an original idea of theirs that Zuckerberg stole, while Zuckerberg’s former best friend and Facebook CFO is suing him because he cheated him out of millions of dollars that were rightfully his. Fincher then transports us to Cambridge, Massachusetts during the mid-2000’s where Zuckerberg was an undergrad at Harvard.
When his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) dumps him for being a cold, cynical little twerp, Zuckerberg goes home and creates Facemash—a website that compares randomly-generated portraits of female students. The ensuing traffic crashes Harvard’s computer network and gains him a large degree of notoriety among the student body as well as disciplinary action from Harvard’s board.
Word of his antics reach the Winklevoss twins (henceforth known as the Winklevii), who hire him to realize their idea of a Harvard-exclusive social networking site called Harvard Connect while dangling the vague possibility of an invitation to their prestigious Final Club in front of him like a carrot.
But in bouncing their idea off of his friend Saverin, Zuckerberg realizes he has a much better one, disregarding his commission to build Facebook with Saverin instead. The popularity of Facebook explodes around the campus, turning Zuckerberg and Saverin into local celebrities. It’s not long until the site expands its user base to other Ivy League schools as well as Stanford, located right in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Understandably, the Winklevii finds themselves humiliated and infuriated by Zuckerberg’s deceit, and so begin building a nasty lawsuit against him.
Having left Boston for the warmer climes of Palo Alto for the summer, Zuckerberg and Saverin hustle to find more capital for their successful little business, eventually starting a partnership with Napster founder Sean Parker, who helps set them up with meetings with big-time investors as well as some primo office space.
As Facebook is launched into the stratosphere, Zuckerberg finds himself accumulating enemies faster than friends. Much is made in the film about the inherent irony of the creator behind the world’s most successful social networking endeavor losing all of his friends in the process.
This idea is most potent in the major conflict between Zuckerberg and a scorned, exiled Saverin who rages back with venomous litigation after he’s deceived out of hundreds of millions of dollars in potential earnings.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK would live or die on the strengths of its performances, a notion that the technically-minded Fincher recognized and applied to his strategy by putting an unusual amount of focus (for him) on the performances.
Beginning with a generous three weeks of rehearsal time prior to the shoot, and following through with consistently demanding obscene numbers of takes (the opening scene had 99 takes alone), David Fincher led his cast into delivering searing, career-best performances.
The lion’s share of the attention and the film’s only acting nomination at the Oscars went to Jesse Eisenberg’s pitch-perfect performance as Mark Zuckerberg, or rather, the fictional version of the real-life Facebook founder that Sorkin had created. Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as a cold genius with sarcastic, antisocial tendencies. He is regularly absent from the present—his mind is elsewhere, preoccupied by his duties back at the office.
At the same time, he can be calculating and ruthless when he needs to be. As Eduardo Saverin—the initial investor and embattled ex-CFO of Facebook—Andrew Garfield delivers a breakout performance. Decent, passionate, and perhaps a little squirrely, Saverin is Zuckerberg’s closest friend and confidant; a brother. But their relationship is a Cain and Abel story, and because of his blind trust that Zuckerberg will do the right thing and look out for him, he inevitably assumes the Abel position.
Pop icon Justin Timberlake— in a performance that legitimized his status as a capable actor— plays Sean Parker, the creator of Napster and Silicon Valley’s de facto “bad boy”. Timberlake easily channels a flashy, cocky, and flamboyant physicality that’s at once both undeniably attractive to Zuckerberg and duplicitously sleazy to Saverin.
Fincher’s casting of Timberlake is quite playful, and he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pointing out the irony of a pop star playing a man who single-handedly transformed (some might say ruined) his industry.
Fincher’s eclectic supporting players serve as rock-solid satellites that orbit around the film’s three titanic leads. David Fincher’s series of collaborations with the Mara clan begins here with the casting of Rooney Mara as Erica Albright, Zuckerberg’s ex girlfriend. She’s patient and honest, but in a no-bullshit kind of way that’s not afraid to tell people off and put them in their place.
Mara’s character is presented as a major driving force behind Zuckerberg’s actions, with their breakup becoming the inciting event that drives him to create Facemash in the first place. Mara turns in a spectacular low-profile performance that would lead to high-profile roles in other films, not the least of which was as the lead in Fincher’s next project, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011).
Rashida Jones, better known for her work on PARKS & REC, plays the admittedly thankless role of Marilyn Delpy, an insightful young lawyer in Zuckerberg’s deposition. Her knack for comedy is well documented in her larger body of work, but in THE SOCIAL NETWORK she shows off a fantastic serious side that is consistently realistic.
Armie Hammer’s dual performance as the Winklevoss twins was yet another of the film’s many breakouts. Hammer’s portrayal of the film’s primary set of antagonists required the dashing young actor to not only change his physicality between Tyler and Cameron by mere degrees, but also to undergo the arduous process of motion-capturing his face for its later digital compositing onto the body of actor Josh Pence.
Pence, it should be noted, is the great hero of the piece, as he valiantly forfeited his own performance in service to Fincher’s vision. And last but not least, Joseph Mazzello turns up in his highest-profile role since 1993’s JURASSIC PARK as the anxious, nerdy Dustin Moskovitz— Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard and one of Facebook’s founding fathers.
As I’ve grown older and more entrenched in Los Angeles’ film community, I’ve found that my connections to major studio films have become increasingly personal, and my degrees of separation from the prominent directors and actors I admire decreasing exponentially. THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a personal flashpoint then, in that a lot of my friends and acquaintances are a part of the film.
I suppose this is due to the story’s dependence on talent in their early twenties, as well as just being associated with the larger Los Angeles film community at the right time. For instance, my co-producer on my 2012 feature HERE BUILD YOUR HOMES, Josh Woolf, worked on the film as a production assistant and was there during the filming of the aerial title shot with Zuckerberg running across Harvard Square (a shot we’ll address in detail later).
Additionally, an actor friend of mine who I shot a short film with in January 2014, Toby Meuli, plays one of the more-prominent Harvard students during the Facemash sequence. A member of my group of friends from University of Oregon makes a brief appearance during a Final Club party sequence in which he chugs from a bottle of liquor and hands it off to Andew Garfield standing behind him.
I even went to a party in Los Feliz in 2010 that was thrown by the young woman with a pixie cut who was featured prominently during the opening frat party sequence. And finally, Mike Bash—a very close friend of mine—was cast in a great scene that followed the Bill Gates seminar. He was originally the guy who didn’t know that it was actually Bill Gates who was speaking. The scene was initially shot in Boston, but his role was cut when David Fincher eventually decided that he didn’t like how he directed the scene.
Rather than live with what he had, David Fincher reshot the scene in LA with new actors. Naturally, Bash was pretty despondent over his exclusion from the finished product, despite my assurances that he achieved a dream that eludes the grand majority of aspiring (and successful) actors: receiving direction from David Fucking Fincher.
David Fincher’s foray into digital filmmaking soldiers on in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but this time he swaps out the Viper Filmstream camera with its maximum resolution of 1080 pixels for the glorious 4k visuals of the Red One camera.
His FIGHT CLUB cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, returns to shoot THE SOCIAL NETWORK in Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 aspect ratio, ultimately bagging a Cinematography Oscar nomination for his trouble. Fincher and Cronenweth convey an overall cold tone without relying on the obvious blue side of the color spectrum. Warmer shots are dialed in to a yellow hue, with a prominent green cast coating several shots.
David Fincher’s visual signature is immediately apparent, once again utilizing high contrast lighting and practical lamps that make for dark, cavernous interiors. In shooting the film, Fincher and Cronenweth pursued a simple, unadorned look. Combined with the digital format’s increased sensitivity to light, most lighting setups were reportedly completed in twenty minutes or less.
The camerawork is sedate and observational, containing none of the flashiness of its kindred tonal spirit, FIGHT CLUB. When the camera does move, the name of the game is precision—meaning calculated dolly moves or the motion-controlled perfection of the Technocrane. There’s only one handheld shot in the entire film, when Timberlake’s Parker drunkenly approaches a bedroom door at a house party to find police on the other side.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK marks production designer Donald Graham Burt’s third consecutive collaboration with Fincher—and third consecutive period piece. Thankfully, reconstructing the mid-2000’s isn’t as arduous a process as recreating the 70’s or large swaths of the twentieth century.
The major challenge on Burt’s part was replicating a well-known campus like Harvard in an authentic manner when the school refused to let the production film on their grounds. Shots filmed at Johns Hopkins University, as well as various locations in Los Angeles are unified in time and space by David Fincher’s editing team of Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter.
The director’s adoption of digital techniques extends well into the post-production realm, with any promise of the technology’s ability to make editing easier going right out the window because of Fincher’s preferred shooting style.
Fincher had routinely used two cameras for each setup, effectively doubling his coverage, in addition to regularly demanding dozens upon dozens of takes until he was satisfied. At the end of it all, Wall and Baxter were left with over 268 hours of raw digital footage to sift through—a momentous task made all the more complicated by David Fincher’s tendency to mix and match elements from various takes right down to individual syllables of audio to achieve the cadence of performance he desired.
The new tools that digital filmmaking affords have certainly unleashed Fincher’s control-freak tendencies, but when that same obsession results in his strongest work to date and Oscar wins for his editing team, it can hardly be called a bad thing.
One of the most immediate and striking aspects of THE SOCIAL NETWORK is its unconventional musical score, written by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor in his first scoring job after a series of casual collaborations with Fincher (SE7EN’s opening credits and the music video for Reznor’s “ONLY”).
Partnering with Atticus Ross, Reznor has managed to create an entirely electronic sound that not only evokes his own artistic aesthetic, but also complements the film’s tone perfectly. Reznor’s Oscar-winning suite of cues is quite spooky, incorporating a haunting droning sound that unifies all the disparate elements. It almost sounds like someone dancing upon a razor’s edge.
The now-iconic main theme uses melancholy piano plunks that recall nostalgia and childhood, slowly getting softer and lost to audio buzz and droning as Zuckerberg strays from innocence. Another standout is a rearrangement of the Edvard Grieg’s classical masterpiece “In The Hall Of The Mountain King” that appears during the Henley Regatta rowing sequence, which sounds as through it were filtered through the manic, electric prism of Wendy Carlos (Stanley Kubrick’s composer for THE SHINING (1980).
Fincher’s go-to sound guy Ren Klyce layers everything into a coherent audio mix that would net him his own Oscar nomination. Klyce and David Fincher’s approach to the sonic palette of THE SOCIAL NETWORK is quite interesting, in that they don’t shy away from mixing in loud music and ambience during crowded scenes like the opening tavern sequence or the midpoint nightclub sequence.
The dialogue is almost lost amongst the loud din of activity, becoming a counterintuitive strategy to invest the audience and signal to them that they’ll really have to listen over the next two hours. Despite being a primarily talky film, the experience of watching THE SOCIAL NETWORK is anything but passive.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK takes all of Fincher’s core thematic fascinations and bottles them up into a singular experience. The director’s opening credits are always inspired, and THE SOCIAL NETWORK is no different (despite being relatively low-key).
Echoing Zuckerberg the character’s composed, plodding nature, David Fincher shows us Eisenberg running robotically through the Harvard campus late at night, which not only establishes the setting well, but also introduces us to the lead character’s relentless forward focus. Treating the text to disappear like it might on a computer screen and laying Reznor’s haunting theme over the whole thing are additional little touches that complete the package.
The title shot in this sequence, where we see Zuckerbeg run through Harvard Square from an overhead, aerial vantage point, also shows off Fincher’s inspired use of digital technology in subtle ways. The shot was achieved by placing three Red One cameras next to each other on top of a building and looking down at the action below.
This setup later allowed Fincher to stitch all three shots into one super-wide panorama of the scene that he could then pan through virtually in order to follow Zuckerberg. It’s insane. It’s genius.
Mankind’s relationship to technology has always been a major staple of David Fincher’s films, a thematic fascination influenced by his forebear Stanley Kubrick. In THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Fincher’s career-exploration of this theme comes to a head as the story’s main engine. The saga of Mark Zuckerberg is inherently about computers, the Internet, our complicated interactions with it, and its effect on our physical-world relationships.
Whereas Kubrick painted technology as dehumanizing and something to be feared, Fincher sees it as something to embrace—- something that distinctly enhances humanity and differentiates one person from the other. In David Fincher’s work, the human element tends to coalesce around the nihilistic punk subculture.
Our protagonist is inherently nihilistic and narcissistic, willing to burn whatever bridge he needs to advance his own personal cause, despite his actions not being fueled by money or power. The story hits on Fincher’s punk fascinations with Zuckerberg’s rebelliousness and devil-may-care attitude, in addition to the overt imagery of antisocial computer hackers and the inclusion of The Ramones’ “California Uber Alles”.
Finally, Fincher’s emphasis on architecture helps to evoke a sense of time and place, mixing in the old-world Harvard brownstones with the sleek modernism of the Facebook offices and deposition rooms that echoes the film’s subtext of the old guard stubbornly giving way to a new order.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK is easily David Fincher’s best-received film. When it was released, it scored high marks both in performance and critical reviews, going on to earn several Oscar nominations and even taking home gold statues for some of the big categories like Editing (Wall & Baxter) and Adapted Screenplay (Sorkin).
Ultimately, Fincher himself lost out on its deserved Best Director and Best Picture awards to THE KING’S SPEECH, but anybody could tell you which of the two films will be remembered in the decades to come. THE SOCIAL NETWORK again finds Fincher operating at the top of his game —a position he’s held since SE7EN even though he only broke through into true prestige with 2007’s ZODIAC.
It may not be an entirely accurate reflection of its true-life subject, but THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a pitch-perfect reflection of what Zuckerberg left in his wake: a society that would never be the same, fundamentally changed by a radical new prism of communication.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)
The late 2000’s was a golden era for young adult fiction in both the novel and film mediums. Just look at the runaway success of the TWILIGHT series or THE HUNGER GAMES—books or films. Doesn’t matter, because they both are equally prominent within their respective mediums. Despite your personal stance on these properties (trust me, I want them gone and buried just as much as you), you can’t deny their impact on pop culture.
During this time, another book series and subsequent set movie adaptations captivated an admittedly older set—Stieg Larsson’s MILLENNIUM trilogy. Named after the muckracking news magazine that central character Mikael Blomvkist works for, the books (and movies) comprise three titles: “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl Who Played With Fire”, and “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest”. In 2009, the first of the Swedish film adaptations came out based on “Dragon Tattoo”, featuring newcomer Noomi Rapace in a star-making turn as the series’ cyper-punk heroine, Lisbeth Salander.
As the Swedish film trilogy proved successful both at home and abroad, it was inevitable that the major US studios would remake the property for American audiences. The task fell to Sony Pictures, who set up THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO with super-producer Scott Rudin overseeing a screenplay by esteemed writer Steve Zaillian.
Rudin’s natural choice for a director was David Fincher, who he had previously worked on the very successful THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) with. Fincher was drawn to the story of two mismatched misfits trying to solve a decades old murder, despite his misgivings that he had become the go-to guy for serial killer films after the success of SE7EN (1995) and ZODIAC (2007).
The tipping point came in Fincher’s realization that he would be at the helm of one of the rarest projects in mainstream studio filmmaking: a hard R-rated franchise. As expected, David Fincher delivered a top-notch film with Oscar-caliber performances and effortless style. For whatever reason, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO didn’t connect with audiences, and its lackluster box office performance probably aborted any further plans for completing the trilogy.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is structured differently than most other thrillers, in that it eschews the traditional three-act design in favor of five acts. This might be perhaps why the film floundered in the United States, where audiences have been subliminally conditioned to accept the ebb and flow of three acts as acceptable narrative form.
The film’s first half tells a two-pronged story, with one thread following Mikael Blomvkist (Daniel Craig)—a disgraced journalist who has recently lost a high-profile lawsuit against wealthy industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. After taking some time off from his co-editor gig at news magazine Millennium, he is approached by Henrick Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a rival of Wennestrom’s and a wealthy industrialist in his own right. Vanger brings Blomvkist to his sprawling estate in rural Hedestat under the auspices of authoring a book of his memoirs.
However, the true purpose of Blomvkist’s employment is much more compelling—to try and solve the decades-old case of Henrick’s granddaughter Harriet, who went missing in the 1960’s and is presumed killed.
Blomvkist takes up residence in a guest cottage on the property and dutifully begins poring over the family records and taking testimony from the various relatives, some of who have shady ties to the Nazi Party in their pasts.
Meanwhile in Stockholm, a young computer expert named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) grapples with the fallout of her foster father’s debilitating stroke. She’s forced to meet with state bureaucrats for evaluation of her mental faculties and state of preparedness for life on her own.
Her case worker—a portly, morally-bankrupt man named Yils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen)—forces her to perform fellatio on him in exchange for rent money, his abuse eventually culminating in Salander’s brutal rape.
However, he doesn’t expect Salander’s ruthlessness and resolve, made readily apparent when she returns the favor and rapes him right back.
Blomvkist requests the help of a research assistant, and in an ironic twist, is paired with Salander—- the very person who performed the background check on him prior to Vanger’s offer of employment.
They make for an unlikely, yet inspired pairing—both professionally as well as sexually. Together, they set about cracking the case, only to discover their suspect is much closer—and much deadlier—than they could’ve imagined.
James Bond himself headlines David Fincher’s pitch-black tale, but it’s a testament to Daniel Craig’s ability that we never are actually reminded of his secret agent exploits throughout the near-three-hour running time.
Craig has been able to avoid the sort of typecasting that doomed others like Mark Hamill or Pierce Brosnan before him, simply because he refuses to let his roles define him. As disgraced journalist Mikael Blomvkist, he projects a slightly disheveled appearance (despite still being an ace fucking dresser). It may not be the most memorable role of his career but he turns in a solid, faultless performance regardless.
The true spotlight goes to Rooney Mara’s cold, antisocial hacker punk, Lisbeth Salander. Mara underwent a radical transformation for the role, even so far as getting real piercings, tattoos, dye jobs, even having her eyebrows bleached.
Considering her previous collaboration with David Fincher was as the squeaky-clean girl-next-door Erica Albright in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Mara’s appearance in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is gut-level arresting.
The depth of Mara’s talent is evident in her unflinching confrontation with the most brutal aspects of her character arc. By giving herself over to the role entirely, she’s able to take a character that was already so well-defined by Rapace in the Swedish versions and make it completely into her own. Her Best Actress nomination at the Oscars was very much deserved.
Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, and Robin Wright round out Fincher’s compelling cast. Plummer is convincing as Henrick Vanger, depicting the retired industrialist as a good-natured yet haunted old man, as well as a bit of a dandy.
Skarsgard’s Martin Vanger is the current CEO of the family business, and his distinguished-gentleman persona cleverly hides his psychopathic, murderous inclinations. Wright plays Erika Berger, Blomvkist’s co-editor at Millennium and his on-again, off-again lover. Wright is by her nature an intelligent and savvy woman, as evidenced not just here but in her subsequent collaboration with Fincher in HOUSE OF CARDS as Kevin Spacey’s Lady MacBeth-ian spouse.
In keeping with David Fincher’s affinity for digital filmmaking technology, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO takes advantage of the Red Epic digital cameras, the next generation of the type that THE SOCIAL NETWORK was shot on.
The film is presented in Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 aspect ratio, but again it is not true anamorphic. Besides being a reflection of David Fincher’s general distaste for the limitations of anamorphic lenses, the shooting of the image in full-frame and the later addition of a widescreen matte in postproduction is a testament to Fincher’s need for control.
This method allows him to compose the frame exactly as he wants, and the Red Epic’s ability to capture 5000 lines of resolution allows him an even greater degree of precision in zooming in on certain details, blowing up the image, or re-composing the shot without any loss in picture quality.
This technology also affords better image stabilization without any of the warping artifacts that plague the process.
Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth returns for his third collaboration with Fincher, having replaced original director of photography Fredrik Backar eight weeks into the shoot for reasons unknown.
Despite his initial position as a replacement DP, Cronenweth makes the picture his own, with his efforts rewarded by another Oscar nomination. David Fincher’s signature aesthetic is very appropriate for the wintery subject matter, his steely color palette of blues, greens and teals evoking the stark Swedish landscape— even warmer tones are dialed back to a cold yellow in Fincher’s hands.
The high contrast visuals are augmented by realistically placed practical lights that suggest cavernous interiors. Fincher’s sedate camera eschews flash in favor of locked-off, strong compositions and observant, calculated dolly work. When the camera moves, it really stands out in an affecting way.
Nowhere in the film is this more evident than in the shot where Craig’s Blomvkist is in the car approaching Vanger’s extravagant mansion for the first time. Presented from the forward-travelling POV of the car itself, the mansion grows larger in the center of frame— the symmetrical framing conceit suggesting ominous perfection.
The fact that the camera is stabilized makes for a smooth foreboding shot that takes any sort of human element out of the equation and replaces it with a fundamentally uneasy feeling. In the commentary for the film, David Fincher cites a favorite book from childhood, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”—the sequence in which Harker approaches Dracula’s Castle serving as inspiration for his approach to this particular shot.
The connection is certainly not lost on this writer. Like several key shots in Fincher’s larger filmography, the Vanger Estate Approach (as I like to call it) would become a tastemaker shot that has not only been copied in his successive project HOUSE OF CARDS, but in subsequent pop culture works by other artists as well.
Production designer Donald Graham Burt returns for his fourth Fincher film, artfully creating an authentic sense of place in the Swedish locations while showing off his impeccable taste and eye for detail.
Editing team Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter are key collaborators within David Fincher’s filmography, and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO would become their second consecutive Oscar win for editing under the director’s eye.
Their work for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO really utilizes the advantages that digital filmmaking has to offer in realizing David Fincher’s vision and creating a tone that’s moody but yet unlike conventional missing-person thrillers.
Angus and Wall establish a patient, plodding pace that draws the audience deeper into the mystery before they’re even aware of it, echoing Blomvkist’s own growing obsession with the case.
Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and his music partner Atticus Ross reprise their scoring duties, giving the musical palette of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO an appropriately electronic and cold, wintery feeling.
Primarily achieved via a recurring motif of atonal bells and ambient soundscapes, the score is also supplemented by a throbbing, heartbeat-like percussion that echoes Salander’s simmering anger as well as the encroaching danger at hand.
One of Reznor’s masterstrokes is his reworking of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” for the opening credits and trailer, featuring vocals by Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O. Given a new coat of industrial electronic grunge, the rearrangement instantly conveys the tone and style of the film.
Fincher’s needledrops are few and far between in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, but one sourced music track stands out because of the sheer audaciousness of its inclusion. In the scene where Skarsgard’s Martin Vanger tortures Blomvkist in anticipation of butchering his prey, he fires up the basement’s stereo system and plays, of all songs, Enya’s Orinoco Flow.
I remember the moment getting a huge laugh in the theatre, and rightfully so—the song is just so cheesy and stereotypically Nordic that it acts as a great counterpoint to the sheer darkness of the scene’s events.
The laughter instead becomes a nervous sort of chuckle, the kind we employ to hide a certain kind of fundamental unease and anxiety. Fincher’s go-to sound guy Ren Klyce was nominated for another Oscar with his standout mix, taking this noxious brew of sounds and turning it into a razor-sharp sonic landscape that complements David Fincher’s visuals perfectly.
On its face, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO doesn’t seem like it would call for a substantial amount of computer-generated visual effects. Fincher’s background in VFX results in the incorporation of a surprisingly large quantity of effects shots.
Almost every exterior shot during the Vanger sequences has some degree of digital manipulation applied to it in the way of subtle matte paintings, scenery extensions and weather elements that blend together seamlessly in conveying Fincher’s moody vision and desire for total control over his visuals.
His affinity for imaginative opening title sequences continues here, in what is arguably his most imaginative effort to date. Set to the aforementioned “Immigrant Song” cover, the sequence plays like a dark nightmare version of those iconic James Bond title sequence, depicting key moments from the film in abstract, archetypical form as a thick black ooze splashes around violently. The choice to incorporate a black on black color scheme is undeniably stylish.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO sees David Fincher at the peak of his punk and technological aesthetic explorations. While not Fincher’s creation, the character of Lisbeth Salander fits in quite comfortably within his larger body of work—the culmination of a long flirtation with punk culture.
She is most certainly the product of the cyberpunk mentality, which values not only rebelliousness but technological proficiency as well. Unlike other depictions of this subculture in mass media, it’s easy to see that Fincher obviously respects it for what it is and aims to portray them in a realistic manner.
He builds upon the downplayed foundation he laid in THE SOCIAL NETWORK here by refusing to generate fake interfaces for Salander to use. He shows Salander actively Googling things, looking up people on Wikipedia, etc—he doesn’t shy away from showing corporate logos and interfaces as they appear in real life.
While a lot of people have a problem with blatant product placement, I can respect a director who doesn’t go out of his way to hide (or aggressively feature for that matter) brands and logos when depicting a realistic world. After all, we live in a world awash with corporate branding, so why pretend it doesn’t exist?
David Fincher’s body of work is defined by a distinctly nihilistic attitude towards story and character, even though I don’t believe he’s nihilistic himself. With THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO in particular, these sentiments are a prominent part of the storytelling.
These protagonists are morally flawed people who aren’t afraid of doing bad things to get ahead. They’re mostly atheists, and they don’t care whether you like them or not. The themes of abuse that run through the narrative also reflect this overarching mentality, playing out in the form of authority figures exerting their influence and selfish desires over the women that depend on them.
We see this reflected both on the bureaucratic level with Salander’s lecherous case worker, as well as on the familial level in Harriet Vanger’s repeated rape and abuse at the hands of her brother and father.
Architecture plays a subtle, yet evocative role in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. One of the core themes of the story is the clash between new Sweden (Salander’s weapons-grade sexual ambiguity and technical proficiency) and old Sweden (the Vanger family’s moneyed lifestyle and sprawling compound).
This clash is echoed in the architecture that Fincher chooses to present. The Vanger estate consists of classical Victorian stylings and rustic cottages; compare that to the harsh lines and modern trappings Martin Vanger’s minimalist cliffside residence (all clean lines and floor-to-ceiling glass), as well as the whole of Stockholm—very much the model of a modern European city. In showing us this duality of place and time, Fincher is able to draw a line that also points us directly to the narrative’s major emphasis on the duality of man.
Despite THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO’s impeccable pedigree and unimpeachable quality, it was a modest disappointment at the box office. It opened at a disadvantage, placing third on its debut weekend and never rising above it during the rest of its run.
There were, of course, the inevitable comparisons to the original series of film adaptations, with purists preferring them over David Fincher’s “remake”.
Having seen Fincher’s version before I ever touched the originals, I quickly found that I couldn’t get through the first few minutes of the Swedish opening installment—Fincher’s execution, to me, was so much more superior in every way that it made the originals look like cheap TV movies of the week.
Unfortunately, we will probably never get to see what David Fincher would have done with the remaining two entries in the series, as the poor box office performance of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO most likely put the kibosh on further installments.
But, as I’ve come to discover again and again since I’ve started this essay series project, time has a way of revealing the true quality of a given work. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is only three years old as of this writing, but the groundswell of appreciation is already growing—hailing the film as the most underrated in Fincher’s filmography and an effort on par with his best work.
HALO 4 “SCANNED” TRAILER (2012)
In 2012, the long-awaited, highly anticipated HALO 4 was released for the Xbox 360. During the buildup to the release, the game-makers enlisted director David Fincher to craft an unconventionally long commercial/teaser trailer.
Titled“SCANNED”, the piece takes on the POV of Master Chief, showing us flashbacks from his life as he was selected for the Master Chief program, surgically enhanced, and let loose into the galaxy to protect Earth. The flashbacks are triumphant in nature, which only underscores the severity of the situation when we cut to the present and reveal Master Chief in captivity, facing off against what appears to be a greater threat than he’s ever encountered.
“SCANNED” is a combination of live-action and all-CG elements, evoking the slick commercial work of David Fincher’s earlier advertising career as well as reiterating his confident grasp on visual effects. The high contrast, cold/blue color palette is one of the piece’s few Fincher signatures, in addition to the focus on the futurist technology required to make Master Chief in the first place. At two minutes long, “SCANNED” is a supersized spot and must have been incredibly expensive. Considering that both the HALO video game series and Fincher have huge fan bases between them, it’s a bit surprising to see that their collaboration here wasn’t hyped more than it was.
There’s not a lot of growth to see on David Fincher’s part here, other than the observation that his long, successful commercial career has made him the go-to director for only the highest-profile spots and campaigns.
HOUSE OF CARDS “CHAPTER 1 & 2” (2013)
Director David Fincher has long been a tastemaker when it comes to commercial American media. His two pilot episodes for Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS, released in 2013, are simply the latest in a long string of works that have influenced how movies are made, how commercials are engineered, and how music videos have evolved.
Due to HOUSE OF CARDS’ runaway success, he has played a crucial part in making the all-episodes-at-once model the indisputable future of serialized entertainment and reinforcing the notion that we’re living in a new golden age of television.
HOUSE OF CARDS had originally been a successful television series in the United Kingdom, so of course it had to be re-adapted for American audiences, who presumably have no patience for British parliamentary politics.
On principle, I think this is a terrible practice that discourages us from learning about other cultures based off the assumption that we’re too lazy to read subtitles. But like Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) before it, once in a while the practice can create an inspired new spin on existing work that distinctly enhances its legacy within the collective consciousness.
HOUSE OF CARDS’ origins stretch back to 2008, when David Fincher’s agent approached the director with the idea while he was finishing up THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. Fincher was interested in the idea, and enlisted hisBENJAMIN BUTTON writer Eric Roth to help him executive produce and develop the series.
After shopping it around to various cable networks around town, they found an unexpected home in streaming movie delivery service Netflix, who was in the first stages of building a block of original programming in order to compete with the likes of HBO and Showtime while bolstering their customer base. Along with LILYHAMMER and the revived ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, HOUSE OF CARDS formed part of the first wave of this original programming, which took advantage of Netflix customers’ binge-watching habits by releasing all episodes at once instead of parsing them out over the space of several weeks.
It was (and still is) a groundbreaking way to consume television, and despite the naysayers, the strategy worked brilliantly. Funnily enough, the reunion between Fincher and SE7EN (1995) star Kevin Spacey didn’t occur out of their natural friendship, but because Netflix found in its performance statistics a substantial overlap between customers who had an affinity for David Fincher and Spacey, respectively.
As such, executives at Netflix were able to deduce and mathematically reinforce the conclusion that another collaboration between both men would generate their biggest audience. This also gave them the confidence to commit to two full seasons from the outset instead of adhering to traditional television’s tired-and-true practice of producing a pilot before ordering a full series.
Admittedly, the use of metrics and numbers instead of gut instinct might be a cynical way to approach programming, but in HOUSE OF CARDS’ case, the idea really paid off. Under Fincher’s expert guidance, Spacey has delivered the best performance of his career and HOUSE OF CARDS has emerged as one of the best serialized dramas around, rivaling the likes of such heavyweights as MAD MEN, THE WIRE, and BREAKING BAD.
Fincher directed the first two episodes in the series, which takes place during the inauguration of fictional President Garrett Walker. Walker wouldn’t even be taking the oath of office if it weren’t for the substantial canvassing done by House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in exchange for the coveted position of Secretary of State.
After taking office, however, Walker has a change of heart and reneges on his promise. Underwood shows grace and discipline in accepting the President Elect’s decision, but immediately begins scheming how to manipulate his way to the top. He’s simultaneously challenged and reinforced by his wife Claire (Robin Wright), the CEO of a prominent nonprofit and a strong-willed leader in her own right.
On the President’s first day in office, Underwood targets the new nominee for Secretary of State, Michael Kern, via an education reform bill— which is revealed to be radically left-leaning and unacceptable to the public’s interests.
Underwood leaks the bill to the press through Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), whose story on the matter lands on the Herald’s front page and prompts the education reform chairman to step aside and designate Frank himself to head up the authorship of a new bill.
It isn’t long until Underwood manages to unseat Kern by exploiting his handicaps via hardline questions from the press, subsequently installing a pawn of his own as the new candidate. Over the course of the first season, Underwood’s machinations and orchestrations will whisk him up into the upper echelons of power and within a heartbeat of the highest office in the land.
Kevin Spacey has always been a well-respected actor, but his performance as Frank Underwood reminds us of his unparalleled level of talent. Underwood is an unconventional narrator, straddling a line between an omniscient and personal point of view.
A southern gentleman from South Carolina first, a Democrat second, and currently the House Majority Whip (a temporary position, to be sure), Underwood is a ruthlessly calculating and manipulative politician—but at the same time he’s endlessly charismatic and armed with an endless supply of euphemisms and folksy proverbs.
Although Spacey and David Fincher haven’t worked together on this close a scale since 1995, it seems they’re able to slip right into the proceedings with a great degree of confidence and comfort.
Robin Wright, also on her second collaboration with Fincher after THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, plays Underwood’s wife, Claire. Every bit as strong and calculating as her husband, the character of Claire adds a distinctly Shakespearean air to the story by channeling the insidiously supportive archetype of Lady Macbeth.
The CEO of a successful nonprofit firm, Claire pulls her weight around the Underwood household and becomes Frank’s rock during difficult times. Wright does a great job of making Claire inherently likeable and relatable, despite her outwardly cold characterization.
With HOUSE OF CARDS, the Mara family has established something of a dynasty in their collaborations with Fincher. After Rooney’s career-making performances in THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, older sister Kate proves every bit her equal as Zoe Barnes, a wet-around-the-ears journalist for the Washington Herald. Plucky, street smart and ambitious, Barnes is able to use her intelligence as a tool of empowerment just as well as her sex.
Corey Stoll and Mahershala Ali, as Peter Russo and Remy Denton respectively, prove to be revelations that stick out amidst the clutter of David Fincher’s supporting cast. Stoll’s Russo is a politician from East Pennsylvania who has problems with alcohol and drug abuse. He’s severely disorganized and impulsive, despite his promising intelligence and ambition.
Ali’s Denton is almost the exact opposite—super focused, disciplined, and exceedingly principled. Denton is a high-powered lawyer who serves as a great foil to Underwood’s scheming. Ali’s performance also benefits due having worked with Fincher on THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON.
Like all of Fincher’s late-career work, HOUSE OF CARDS is shot entirely digitally, taking advantage of the Red Epic’s pure, clean image to convey the series’ sterile, almost-surgical tone. Instead of hiring a cinematographer he’s worked with before, David Fincher enlists the eye of Eigil Bryld, who ably replicates the director’s signature aesthetic.
The cold, steely color palette has been desaturated to a pallid monotone in its treatment of blues, teals, and greys. Warm tones, like practical lights that serve to create a soft, cavernous luminance in interior chambers, are dialed into the yellow side of the color spectrum.
The aesthetic deviates from Fincher’s style, however, in opting for a much shallower focus—even in wide shots. Curiously, the aspect ratio seems to be fluid from format to format. When streamed on Netflix, HOUSE OF CARDS is presented in 1.85:1, but watching it on Blu Ray, the image appears to be cropped to Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 aspect ratio, making for an inherently more-cinematic experience.
HOUSE OF CARDS plays like an old-school potboiler/espionage thriller, featuring shadowy compositions and strategic placement of subjects in his frame that are reminiscent of classic cloak-and-dagger cinema.
The camera work is sedate, employing subtle dolly work when need be. The effect is a patient, plodding pace that echoes Underwood’s unrelenting focus and forward-driven ambition. Perhaps the most effective visual motif is the inspired breaking of the fourth wall, when Spacey pulls out of the scene at hand to monologue directly to camera (which makes the audience complicit in his nefarious plot).
Spacey delivers these sidebar moments with a deliciously dry wit, enriching what might otherwise be a stale story of everyday politics and injecting it with the weight of Shakespearean drama. The foundation of this technique can be seen in 1999’s FIGHT CLUB, where David Fincher had Edward Norton address the audience directly in a few select sequences. HOUSE OF CARDS fully commits to this idea, doing away with conventional voiceover entirely.
While it’s been used in endless parodies since the series’ release, the very fact that the technique is commonly joked about points to its fundamental power.
Another visual conceit that has been copied by other pop culture works like NONSTOP (2014) is the superimposition of text message conversations over the action, rather than cutting to an insert shot of the message displayed on the cell phone’s screen.
Considering that characters have been texting each other in movies for almost ten years now, I’m frankly surprised it took us this long for the on-screen subtitle conceit to enter into the common cinematic language. It’s an inspired way to dramatize pedestrian, everyday exchanges that act as the modern-day equivalent of coded messages in cloak-and-dagger stories.
Behind the camera, Fincher retains most of his regular department heads save for one new face. Donald Graham Burt returns as Production Designer, creating authentic replicas of the hallowed halls and chambers of Washington DC. Kirk Baxter, who normally edits Fincher’s features with Angus Wall, goes solo in HOUSE OF CARDS and weaves everything together in a minimalist, yet effective fashion.
The ever-dependable Ren Klyce returns as Sound Designer, giving an overly-talkie drama some much-needed sonic embellishment. The only new face in the mix is Jeff Beal, who composes the series’ music. Beal’s theme for HOUSE OF CARDS is instantly iconic, fueled by an electronic pulse that bolsters traditional orchestral strings and horns— echoing the romantic statues of fallen heroes that dot the DC landscape with a patriotic, mournful sound.
The series doesn’t rely on much in the way of needledrops, so David Fincher’s inclusion of two pre-recorded tracks is worth noting. The first episode features an inaugural ball where we hear Dmiti Shostakovich’s “Second Waltz”, which cinephiles should recognize as the main theme to Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999).
Additionally, the second episode features Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” when Russo goes to visit a conspiracy theorist in rural Massachusetts. While not exactly the most original choice of music, it’s appropriate enough.
For visionary directors like Fincher, television is tough because of the need to work within a strictly defined set of aesthetic boundaries. While this is changing and becoming a better stage for visually dynamic work every day, the basic rule of thumb is to direct the pilot in order to set the style in place and make the entire series conform around it.
In that regard, HOUSE OF CARDS as a series absolutely oozes Fincher’s influence, despite 24 of the (to-date) 26 episodes being helmed by different directors. This phenomenon can be ascribed to the fact that David Fincher’s episodes dovetail quite nicely with several themes and imagery he’s built his career on exploring.
Take the opening titles for instance—while they are usually part and parcel with the conventional television experience, Fincher makes them his own by showing time-lapse footage of Washington DC locales, suggesting the bustling scope of his stage while further exploring the passage of time as a thematic idea— also seen in earlier work like ZODIAC (2007) or THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON.
This theme is also reflected in Fincher’s depiction of DC’s iconic architecture. Like he did in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, his compositions and location selections when taken as a whole suggest a clash between the old Washington and the new.
Old DC, marked by classical, colonial structures like The White House and The Lincoln Memorial, face off against the growing tide of steel and glass towers, or the modern infrastructural design of subway stations. A key takeaway of HOUSE OF CARDS is that Washington DC, a city defined by its romantic memorials to the past, is increasingly modernizing into a world city of the future.
This transition is aided by mankind’s increasing dependence on— and complicated relationship with—technology; another core idea that David Fincher has grappled with throughout his career. HOUSE OF CARDS’ focusing prism is communication: cell phones, text messages, the Internet, Apple computers, CNN, etc.
The series goes to great lengths to depict how information is disseminated in the digital age, with government and the media forming a complex, symbiotic relationship.
In asking the audience to root for, essentially, the bad guy, HOUSE OF CARDS echoes the strong undercurrent of nihilism that marks Fincher’s stories. Underwood is less of a protagonist than he is an antihero.
Objectively, he’s a bad person who’s scheming to outright steal the Presidency to rule the world as he sees fit. In real life, we’d react to this sort of notion with outrage—just ask anyone who’s ever irrationally obsessed over a particular birth certificate of a certain standing President. However, we can’t help but root for Underwood to succeed, simply because he’s just so damn attractive and charismatic (on top of actually being, you know, a fully-fleshed out, relatable person with moral shades of grey and not a stock villain archetype).
HOUSE OF CARDS’ groundbreaking release was met with quite the warm reception. It was nominated for several Emmys (a big deal for a series that hadn’t been broadcast first on television), and launched Netflix into HBO’s orbit in terms of compelling original content.
For Fincher as a director, HOUSE OF CARDS served as a great comeback after the disappointment of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. The series, whose third season is scheduled to premiere in February 2015, is a confident, near-flawless exploration of man’s lust for power and our complicated governmental structure—and wouldn’t be nearly as successful without David Fincher’s guiding hand. My one regret with HOUSE OF CARDS is that he didn’t direct more episodes.
COMMERICALS & MUSIC VIDEO (2013-2014)
Director David Fincher barely had any time to notice the modestly-disappointing performance of 2011’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, what with the continuing development of several projects he was attached to make. It would be 3 years before he was back in cinemas with another feature, but the years between 2011-2014 were by no means a fallow period.
His sheer love for directing and for being on set couldn’t keep him away for long— and so in 2013 he returned to the arena that first made his name, armed with a new commercial and a new music video.
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: “SUIT & TIE” (2013)
You couldn’t go anywhere in the Summer of 2013 without hearing Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” on the airwaves. As Timberlake’s own bid for Michael Jackson’s pop throne, the song’s broad appeal couldn’t be denied.
The inevitable music video for the song couldn’t be trusted with just any filmmaker—it was too high-profile to go to anyone but the biggest directors in town. Most likely due to their successful collaboration in 2010’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Timberlake chose Fincher as the director for “SUIT & TIE”—their union begetting one of the better music videos in many, many years.
Fincher’s visual aesthetic proves quite adept at its translation into the world of high fashion and style. He uses black and white digital cinematography and a 2.40:1 aspect ratio to echo the polished, sleek vibe of Timberlake’s song.
While a lot of his earlier music videos were shot in black and white to achieve a sense of grit, David Fincher’s use of it here echoes the crispness of a black tuxedo against a white shirt.
There’s a great interplay between light and dark throughout the piece, both in the broad strokes like the dramatic silhouettes he gets from his high contrast lighting setups, as well as smaller touches like Timberlake’s white socks that peek out from between black pants and shoes (another homage to Michael Jackson).
Despite being primarily a for-hire vehicle for Timberlake and a selling tool for his single, “SUIT & TIE” manages to incorporate a few of Fincher’s long-held thematic fascinations.
Fincher’s exploration of our relationship with technology sees a brief occurrence here as Timberlake and Jay-Z utilize state of the art recording equipment in the studio, as well as employing iPads as part of the songwriting process.
David Fincher features Apple products in his work so much more prominently than other filmmakers that I’m beginning to think he has a secret product placement deal with them. Architecture also plays a subtle role in the video, seen in Timberlake’s slick, modern bachelor pad as well as the Art Deco stylings and graceful arches of the stage he performs on.
One strange thing I noticed, though: the size of the stage itself doesn’t match the venue it’s housed in. For example, when the camera looks towards Timberlake, the stage extends pretty deep behind him like it was the Hollywood Bowl.
But when we cut to the reverse angle and see the audience, the venue is revealed to be disproportionally shallow and intimate. If you were to draw out the geography onto a blueprint, you’d realize it was a very unbalanced auditorium. Most likely, these two shots were shot in separate locations and stitched together with editing.
As his first music video in several years, “SUIT & TIE” finds Fincher working at the top of his game in familiar territory. It’s easily one of his best music videos and will no doubt serve as a taste-making piece and influencer for many pop videos to come.
CALVIN KLEIN: “DOWNTOWN” (2013)
Later the same year, Fincher collaborated with his THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO star Rooney Mara in a spot for Calvin Klein perfume called “DOWNTOWN”. Also shot in digital black and white, the spot finds David Fincher and Mara eschewing the punk-y grunge of their previous collaboration in favor of an edgy, glamorous look.
Mara herself is depicted as a modern day Audrey Hepburn—being adored by the press as she attends junkets and does photo shoots—but is also seen engaging in daily urban life and riding the subway (while listening to her iPod, natch). Fincher’s love of architecture is seen in several setups, the most notable being a shot prominently featuring Mara framed against NYC’s George Washington Bridge. The whole piece is scored to a track by Karen O, a kindred spirit of Mara’s and Fincher’s who provided the vocals for Trent Reznor’s re-arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Overall,“DOWNTOWN” is a brilliantly executed and stylish spot that sells its product beautifully.
GAP: “DRESS NORMAL” CAMPAIGN (2014)
2014 marked director David Fincher’s return to cinema screens with his domestic thriller GONE GIRL, following a three year hiatus from feature filmmaking. It also saw the infamous provocateur release a series of four commercial spots for the blandest clothing label in the business: Gap.
In a transparent bid to regain some cultural relevancy, Gap released a campaign entitled “DRESS NORMAL”, a move that could be construed as the struggling brand capitalizing on their sudden popularity amongst the emergent “normcore” crowd– arguably one of the more idiotic non-trends in recent memory.
To his credit, Fincher achieves Gap’s goals brilliantly, creating four effortlessly cool and stylish pieces (despite what some of the more-cynical voices in the blogosphere might say). Titled “Golf”, “Stairs”, “Kiss”, and “Drive”, all are presented in stark shades of black and white, rendered crisply onto the digital frame.
Fincher eschews a sense of modernity for a jazzy mid-century vibe, with the old-fashioned production design and cinematography coming across as a particularly well-preserved lost film from the French New Wave. Each spot pairs together a couple (or groups) of beautiful urbanites living out the prime of their youth in generic urban environs.
David Fincher’s hand is most evident in the sleek, modern camerawork that belies the campaign’s timeless appeal. He employs a variety of ultra-smooth dolly and technocrane movements that effortlessly glide across his vignettes while hiding the true complexity of the moves themselves.
All in all, Fincher’s “DRESS NORMAL” spots are quite effective, injecting some much-needed style and sex appeal into Gap’s tired branding efforts.
GONE GIRL (2014)
Since the beginning of time, men and women have been at odds with each other. One of the grand ironies of the universe is that testosterone and estrogen act against each other despite needing to work in harmony in order to perpetuate the species.
We scoff at the term “battle of the sexes”, like it’s some absurdly epic war over territory or ideology, but the fact of the matter is that, no matter how hard we try to bridge the gap, men and women just aren’t built to fully comprehend each other like they would a member of their own sex.
Yet despite these fundamental differences of opinion and perspective, we continue coupling up and procreating in the name of love, family, and civilization. In this light, the institution of marriage can be seen as something of an armistice, or a treaty– an agreement by two combative parties to equally reciprocate affection, protection and support.
Naturally, when this treaty is violated in a high-profile way like, say, the murder or sudden disappearance of someone at the hands of his or her spouse, we can’t help but find ourselves captivated by the lurid headlines and ensuing media frenzy. Names like OJ Simpson, Robert Blake, or Scott Peterson loom large in our collective psyche as boogeymen symbolizing the ultimate marital transgression.
The treacherous world of domesticity serves as the setting of director David Fincher’s tenth feature film, GONE GIRL(2014). Adapted by author Gillian Flynn from her novel of the same name, the film marks David Fincher’s return to the big screen after a three year absence following the disappointing reception of 2011’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
In that time, he had refreshed his artistic energies with Netflix’s razor-sharp political thriller HOUSE OF CARDS (2013), with the serial’s warm reaction boosting his stock amongst the Hollywood elite.
Fincher’s oeuvre trades in nihilistic protagonists with black hearts and ruthless convictions, so naturally, the churning machinations and double crosses of Flynn’s book were an effortless match for his sensibilities.
Working with producers Joshua Donen, Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon, as well as his own producing partner Cean Chaffin, Fincher manages to infuse a nasty undercurrent of his trademark gallows humor into GONE GIRL, making for a highly enjoyable domestic thriller that stands to be included amongst his very best work.
GONE GIRL begins like any other normal day for Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck). But this day isn’t like any others– it’s the fifth anniversary of his wedding to wife Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a privileged New York socialite and the real-life inspiration for “Amazing Amy”, the main character in a series of successful children’s books authored by her parents.
He leaves home to check in on the bar he runs in the nearby town of North Carthage, Missouri, expressing his dread of the occasion to his twin sister Margot, who mixes drinks there. When he arrives back at the generic suburban McMansion he shares with Amy, he finds a grisly scene– overturned furniture, shattered glass, streaks of blood… and no Amy.
The police launch an investigation into Amy’s whereabouts, with her status as minor literary celebrity causing a disproportionate stir in the media. He’s taunted at every turn by deceitful talk show hosts and news anchors, as well as clues from Amy herself, left behind in the form of letters that are part of gift-finding game that’s become their anniversary tradition.
In her absence, the clues have taken on a more much foreboding aura– channeling similar vibes and imagery from David Fincher’s 1997 classic mystery THE GAME. The media’s increased scrutiny on Nick’s life and the history of his relationship with Amy drags his flaws as a husband out into the light, where they’re subsequently used against him to raise the possibility that he just might be responsible for her disappearance. But did he kill his wife? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t… but the truth will be more surprising than anyone could’ve expected.
Ben Affleck headlines the film as Nick Dunne, skewering his real-life image as a handsome leading man by bringing to the fore a natural douchebag quality we’ve always suspected he possessed. Dunne covers up his supreme narcissism and anger issues with a thin layer of charm, finding the perfect balance between a sympathetic protagonist who is way in over his head and a slick operator who thinks he’s got his game on lock.
Affleck proves inspired casting on Fincher’s part, and it’s nice to be reminded that besides being a great director in his own right, he’s still a great performer. As Amy Dunne, Rosamund Pike conjures up one of the most terrifying villainesses in screen history.
An icy, calculating sociopath, Amy will do anything and everything necessary to carry out the perfect plot against her husband– even if the physical harm she deals out is on herself. Pike’s skincrawling performance resulted in the film’s only Academy Award nomination, but it’s a well-deserved one that will be remembered for quite some time.
If the pairing of Affleck and Pike as GONE GIRL’s leads seems a bit odd or off-center, then Fincher’s supporting cast boast an even-more eclectic collection of characters. Neil Patrick Harris– Doogie Howser himself– plays Amy’s college sweetheart Desi Collins.
A rich pretty boy and pseudo-stalker with bottomless reserves of inherited funds, he’s so intent on dazzling Amy with his high-tech toys and spacious homes that he’s completely oblivious to her machinations against him. Primarily known for his comedic roles in TV and film, NPH makes a successful bid for more serious roles with a performance that’s every bit as twisted as the two leads.
Beating him in the stunt casting department, however, is maligned director Tyler Perry, whose films are often derided by critics as patronizing and shamelessly pandering despite their immense popularity amongst the African American population. The news of his involvement in GONE GIRL with met with gasps of disbelief and confusion by the blogosphere, but here’s the thing– Tyler Perry is great in this movie.
He effortlessly falls into the role of Tanner bolt, a high-powered celebrity lawyer from New York, soothing Nick with his seasoned expertise and wearing expensive designer suits so comfortably they might as well be sweatpants. He’s extremely convincing as a whip-smart, cunning attorney, never once hinting at the fact this is the same man who became rich and famous for wearing a fat suit under a mumu.
Emily Ratajkowski and Patrick Fugit are great as Nick’s jiggly co-ed mistress Andie and the no-nonsense Officer Gilpin, respectively, but GONE GIRL’s real revelation is character actress Kim Dickens.
Calling to mind a modern, more serious version of Frances McDormand’s folksy homicide investigator in FARGO (1996), Dickens’ Detective Boney is highly observant and sly– almost to a fault. The joy in watching Dickens’ performance is seeing her internal struggle against the growing realization that none of her prior experience or expertise could ever prepare her for Amy’s level of scheming.
GONE GIRL retains David Fincher’s signature look, thanks to the return of his regular cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. As a team, they’ve built their careers out of using new filmmaking technologies to fit their needs, and GONE GIRL isn’t one to break the tradition.
One of the earliest features to shoot on Red Cinema’s new Dragon sensor, GONE GIRL was captured full-frame at 6k resolution and then thrown into a 2.35:1-matted 4k timeline in post-production.
This allowed Fincher and his editing partner Kirk Baxter to re-compose their frames as they saw fit with razor-precision and minimal quality degradation. This circumstance also afforded the ability to employ better camera stabilization in a bid to perfect that impossibly-smooth sense of movement that Fincher prefers.
As one of the medium’s most vocal proponents of digital technology, David Fincher inherently understands the advantages of the format– an understanding that empowers him with the ability to make truly uncompromised work.
Appropriate to its subject matter, GONE GIRL is a very dark film. Fincher and Cronenweth use dark wells of shadow to convey a foreboding mood, while Fincher’s signature cold color palette renders Nick’s trials in bleak hues of blue, yellow, green, and grey.
Red, a color that David Fincher claims to find too distracting on film, rarely appears in GONE GIRL, save for when he specifically wants your attention on a small detail of the frame– like, say, a small blood splatter on the hood over the kitchen stove.
Despite the consistent gloom, the film does occasionally find short moments of warm, golden sunlight and deeply-saturated color. Fincher’s slow, creeping camerawork leers with omniscience, placing its characters at an emotional arm’s distance.
Knowing Fincher’s background as a commercial director, it’s not surprising to see GONE GIRL throw around nonchalant product placement for flyover-country conglomerations like Walmart, KFC and Dunkin Donuts.
Looking back over his other features, it’s clear that David Fincher has never been one to shy away from the presence of well-known brands in his frame– indeed, a large chunk of his bank account is there as a direct result of his interaction with brand names and logos.
Product placement is a controversial topic amongst filmmakers, with many seeing the intrusion of commerce as an almost-pornographic sacrilege towards art, but Fincher’s view seems to be that reality is simply saturated with corporate logos, branding, and advertisements, so why should a film striving for realism be any different?
In Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and his musical partner Atticus Ross, Fincher has found a kindred dark soul, and their third collaboration together after 2010’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO doesn’t surprise in its aim to bring something entirely unexpected to the proceedings.
Working from David Fincher’s brief that the music reside in the space between calm and dread, Reznor and Ross’s electronic score for GONE GIRL is characterized by soothing ambient tones interrupted by a pulsing staccato that conveys the razor-sharp undercurrents of malice that Amy so effortlessly hides behind her statuesque facade.
Outside of John Williams and Steven Spielberg, it’s hard to think of a composer/director partnership where each artist’s aesthetic is so perfectly suited towards the other. Reznor, Ross, and Fincher have cultivated a symbiotic relationship that, together with Fincher’s regular sound designer Ren Klyce and his consistently excellent and immersive soundscapes, elevates any project they undertake into a darkly sublime experience.
A nihilistic sentiment abounds in the style of GONE GIRL, falling quite effortlessly into David Fincher’s larger body of work. The same attention to detail and insight into the banal side of law enforcement (paperwork, legal red-tape, etc.) that marked 2007’s ZODIAC is present in GONE GIRL’s almost-clinical depiction of the day-to-day process of investigating such a luridly mysterious crime.
Two of David Fincher’s most consistent fascinations as a director– architecture and technology– play substantial roles in the drama, but never at the expense of story and character. The architecture that Fincher concerns himself with in GONE GIRL is the domestic structures in which we house our families, or to put it another way, the castles in which we shelter our charges.
However, as seen through the perspective of David Fincher’s particularly dark and ironic sense of humor, our suburban castles instead become prisons. The neutral tones of upper-middle-class domesticity that pervade Amy and Nick’s McMansion are almost oppressive in their blandness, while the structural elements on which they’re painted bear no characteristics of the values of those who inhabit them.
Fincher reinforces this idea by shooting from low angles to expose the ceiling, suggesting that the walls are figuratively closing in on his characters. Likewise, Desi Collins’ grandiose, rustic lakeside retreat is simply too spacious to ever feel constricting or claustrophobic, what with it’s cathedral-height vaulted ceilings and oversized windows letting in an abundance of sunlight.
However, Desi has rigged his well-appointed home with an overblown array of security cameras and other surveillance, effectively trapping Amy inside if she wishes to remain under the auspices of “missing, presumed dead”. And speaking of technology, David Fincher places a substantial focus on Nick’s distractions with video games, cell phones, oversized televisions and robot dogs.
This “boys with toys” mentality is quite appropriate to Fincher’s vision, as it is crucial to the authenticity of Amy’s convictions that Nick has fallen prey to that all-too-common suburban phenomenon of men turning to the stimulation afforded by electronics and gadgets after growing tired of their wives.
The dangers of growing complacent in your marriage– whereby we distract ourselves with screens instead of with each other– is a key message in GONE GIRL, and Fincher’s career-long exploration of mankind’s relationship to technology makes him a particularly suitable messenger.
Thanks in part to GONE GIRL’s high profile as a bestselling book as well as David Fincher’s own profile as a highly skilled artist with a fervent cult following, the film was a strong success at the box office. As of this writing, it actually holds the records for Fincher’s highest-grossing theatrical run in the United States.
Critical reviews were mostly positive, and while it received only one nomination for Pike’s performance at the 2015 Oscars, it’s generally regarded as one of the best films of the year. The tone and subject matter of GONE GIRL may not feel particularly new for Fincher (a notion that may have played into the film’s lack of Oscar nominations), but this well-trodden ground provides a solid platform for David Fincher to perfect what he already does best: delivering taut, stylish thrillers with razor-sharp edges.
Now firmly into middle age (52 as of this writing), Fincher could be forgiven for what so many other artists his age do: slowing down, mellowing out, looking backwards, worrying about legacy, etc. It’s pretty evident however that he has no intention of doing any of those things. While his next feature has yet to be announced, he’s deep in development on several projects running the gamut from theatrical to television.
Fincher’s skill set may have become more refined and sophisticated in its taste, but that doesn’t mean he’s gone soft on us. Indeed, he’s actually grown much sharper.
He’s cleaved off extraneous waste from his aesthetic, and in return he’s able to focus his energies to the point of laser precision. One only needs to look at GONE GIRL’s gut-churning sex/murder sequence to see that he hasn’t lost his unflinching eye for the macabre and his affinity for stunning his audience out of complacency.
He may be older, yes, but in many ways, he’s still that same young buck eager to shock the world with Gwyneth’s head in a box.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. You can donate to support the project at Patreon.
David Fincher’S FILMOGRAPHY
- Alien 3
- Fight Club
- The Game
- Panic Room
- Social Network
- Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
- Gone Girl
- The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
- Netflix’s House of Cards
WATCH THESE VIDEOS TO GO DEEPER INTO DAVID FINCHER’S WORK & STYLE
- Werner Herzog’s Filmmaking MasterClass
- Filmmaking Hacks: Filmmaking Master Course
- Directing Actors Film Workshop
- USC Film School’s ONLY Online Course: Directing the Actor
- Film Lighting MasterClass
- Recording Sound for Indie Film
- The Art of Micro-Budget Filmmaking
- Cinematography MasterClass
- Film Festival Hacks: Submit Like a Pro
- Self-Distributing Your Film Online
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