As awards season begins to roll out, BAFTA hosted director David Fincher for its Life in Pictures series tonight in London. The prestigious lineup of career interviews in the past has featured such talent as Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes and Tom Hanks.
Discussing a career on the big screen that has spanned nearly 25 years, Fincher waxed lyrical on his work past and present, engaging the industry audience — of whom many are not only BAFTA members but also Academy voters — with anecdotes ranging from his first film Alien 3 (1992) to his latest, Gone Girl, which opens October 3. The latter, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel that stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, already is eyeing a spot on this season’s awards trail.
Fincher was honest about his humble beginnings as a 15-year-old projectionist who already had determined that his future lay in directing films. “I was convinced at the age of 8 that this is what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. The future master director grew up in Marin County, “and my next-door neighbor was George Lucas. I was that close to movies being made. And then my parents took us out of there,” he said. He found a home in the theatrical arts, directing and lighting plays and projecting films late at night whilst being “the guy out there trying to get a shot of barns burning down as I learned how to use a camera.”
It was an anecdote that supported an answer Fincher later gave about how he balanced the technical with the artistic. He certainly had amassed experience with those technical skills, but his artistic method of expression was much about “getting the audience to pay f*cking attention,” Fincher said. “Movies are inherently fake; it’s rubbish, and it’s people playing dress-up. Silliness. But you’ve got to get the audience past the silliness of it. Whatever you can do to get the audience past it because there’s nothing faker than people hitting marks and saying lines. You’re just trying to overcome whatever that barrier is for entry.”
After spending his time up until then “committed to being on set and watching shit go down,” Fincher felt that he had a handle on procedures. He saw 1975’s The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud, and it set his path. “I never lacked for confidence, but 10 years ago, I tried to get the rights to [that] Max Ehrlich book,” Fincher revealed. “It was funny, because it suddenly occurred to me that this was the first movie I’d ever walked out of, going, ‘I could direct a movie better than that.’”
Of his breakthrough project, Se7en (1995), Fincher recalled his first encounter with the screenplay. “I read 30 pages of Se7en and I thought, ‘A f*cking old cop and a young cop? Oh Jesus.’ My agent said, ‘No, no, no, keep going.’ I got back to John Doe walking into the police station and giving himself up. I was holding the script — I knew how many pages were left — and I was going, ‘This is against the rules!’” When he enthused about the head-in-a-box reveal to his agent, he got a surprising reaction. “He said, ‘Oh my God, I sent you the wrong draft. That’s the first draft, but there’s like 11 drafts.’ I said, ‘No, this is the one.’”
He went to New Line and met with “a 19-year-old Mike De Luca, with his baseball cap on sideways, and I told him, ‘I want to make the first draft.’ He said, ‘Yeah, me too.’”
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Fincher was at his harshest talking about his experience on Alien 3, his debut feature. He thought it was an ideal project, but reality soon intervened. “I didn’t like the script,” he said, “but I loved [Ridley Scott’s] Alien and I respected [James Cameron’s] Aliens. Ridley’s Alien was a totally formative experience. I saw what he did with the world of that movie and was gobsmacked. I signed up, and went off to Pinewood to be sodomized ritualistically.”
He said there was “no one problem” with a $65M movie given to a “f*cked up, first-time filmmaker.” But his “crucial error” was a failure to employ his friends. “I listened to the people who were paying for the movie,” Fincher said, “and they said, ‘Work with people who have done this time and time again.’” It meant he didn’t rely on the confidants he’d come up with – like Ren Klyce, the sound designer who has had credit on every subsequent Fincher project. It will come as little surprise to aficionados of film history that Fincher announced he was fired off of Alien 3 twice, as his logic conflicted with his employers.
But Alien 3 was nothing compared to the conflict Fincher faced with Fight Club (1999), a movie produced by Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox, which nevertheless satirized capitalism and commercialization. “I don’t make movies in spite of the people who pay for them,” Fincher assured the audience. “I don’t fund my own films, and the people who do fund them aren’t tricked or drugged and kept in the cellar until we’re done shooting. We report to them on a daily basis and show them the dailies. Fight Club was a movie that half the financing fell out before we shot it. And Bill Mechanic, to his credit, said, ‘I’m making this movie.’ And Laura Ziskin, may she rest in peace, was there every step of the way, saying, ‘Go, it’s great.’ They knew what we were doing with it, and they said, ‘Okay okay, we’re ready to take some risks.’”
It was the marketing department that first took issue, Fincher revealed, backed by exit polls from audiences that identified Fight Club’s homoerotic overtones. But Fincher was unmoved. “People go to the movies to see things they haven’t seen before,” he deadpanned. “Call me a radical.”
The director discussed the rest of his work at length, but the conversation, well moderated by television critic Boyd Hilton, rounded back to topics Fincher was most frequently asked about. Among them: his insistence on multiple takes for actors. “Here’s my philosophy,” he began. “You spend $250,000 on a set, you’re putting on a soundstage that costs $5,000 a day, you put in $8,000 worth of lights, and you’re going to bring in $150,000 worth of crew. You’re going to bring in actors from all over the world, put them in hotels and they’re going to come there with the idea to get them out as soon as possible. That doesn’t make sense to me, because we watch movies to see behavior that we can relate to. If I fly you in from Iceland, I don’t want it to be, ‘Oh man, we tried.’ I want it to be about finding those little things, and oftentimes they’re mistakes.”
He named Edward Norton specifically. “He got hip to it. There’s a point in time when an actor says, ‘I’m sorry, can we start again?’ And usually they were great [in that moment]. Right before they pull the pin on the whole thing, they were great. … I’m going to give you your 25 bites at the apple, because if you’re smart, as an actor, you’ve worked out what you want to present to me.”
On his most awards-nominated project, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008), Fincher hesitated for the first time in two hours onstage. “From a VFX standpoint [at landing awards] we had a good shot because it was so complicated. But, I don’t know, I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but that [awards success] wasn’t it. If you ever think in those terms … I just…”
In front of an audience of voters for one of the awards season’s most prestigious prizes, it suggested a modesty so frequently lacking in heavily campaigned titles. BAFTA’s Life in Pictures event is worth noting – a few years ago, Ang Lee won a directing Oscar months after discussing his career in front of this crowd. Last year, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks both entertained Mayfair on the way to BAFTA nominations for Saving Mr Banks. Gone Girl world premieres at the New York Film Festival next week. Tonight’s event, which was attended by one of the movie’s stars, Rosamund Pike, and following much early buzz, was an important first step on the campaign trail.