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An Interview with David Fincher

[Director]
“The screenwriter has given you the greatest gift, which is he’s given you something that inspires somebody to make the right mistake.”

Things David Fincher enjoys about filmmaking:
Reading a good script
Casting
Rehearsal
Pre-production meetings

Things he hates about filmmaking:
Every single additional thing about it

by Mark Romanek
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with David Fincher

[Director]
“The screenwriter has given you the greatest gift, which is he’s given you something that inspires somebody to make the right mistake.”

Things David Fincher enjoys about filmmaking:
Reading a good script
Casting
Rehearsal
Pre-production meetings

Things he hates about filmmaking:
Every single additional thing about it

by Mark Romanek
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with David Fincher

Mark Romanek
39 Snaps

David Fincher’s film career began at the age of nineteen as an assistant cameraman at Industrial Light & Magic. In 1983, he relocated to Los Angeles to direct TV commercials and music videos. His commercial clients include Adidas, AT&T, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Pepsi, and Nike. David has directed music videos for various artists including Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, and A Perfect Circle. In 1987 he cofounded Propaganda Films with Dominic Sena, Greg Gold, and Nigel Dick, and has since become a motion-picture director with Panic Room, Fight Club, The Game, Se7en, Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button among his credits. His next film, The Social Network, is slated to be released this month.

Mark Romanek was born in Chicago. Romanek has directed numerous award-winning music videos for many artists including Fiona Apple, Beck, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Coldplay, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth. Romanek wrote and directed the feature film One Hour Photo starring Robin Williams. The film had its world premiere at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, and received the Prix du Public, Prix Premiere, and the Prix du Jury at the 2002 Deauville American Film Festival. His new film, Never Let Me Go, will be released this month.

Fincher and Romanek first met in 1990, when Romanek was signed to Satellite Films. Satellite was a “boutique” division of Propaganda Films, where Fincher was a director, and a music-video legend. The two directors spoke by phone for the Believer in early August 2010.

I. “YOU JUST NEVER KNOW IF IT’S GONNA FLY.”

MARK ROMANEK: Do you ever enjoy your own work?

DAVID FINCHER: Nope.

MR: You answered that very quickly.

DF: It’s an easy question to answer very quickly. No! But I enjoy your work, so I have a little solace.

MR: What part of your work do you enjoy?

DF: You know, I don’t want to sound glib, but I enjoy reading a script that you can see in your head, and then I enjoy the casting and I enjoy the rehearsal, and I enjoy all the meetings about what it should be, what it could be, what it might be. And then from that point on I hate every single thing about it.

MR: You don’t like editing?

DF: Well, let’s put it this way….

MR: I love editing.

DF: At least in editing you can’t make it any worse than the dailies. [Laughing]

MR: See, editing to me is one of the only parts that retains some of the magic that I remember feeling when I first started making movies in Super 8.

DF: Really?

MR: Yeah, I still get kind of a charge out of putting Shot A that was shot in September next to Shot B that was shot in February. And it makes a whole different third thing. I still find that really fun and magical, that part of it.

DF: It is, that’s true. That’s the magician part of it. You just never know if it’s gonna fly. It’s like, we’re going to cut from that look of the person looking over at the focus-puller to ask if their eyelash is coming off. We’re gonna put that right after the most poignant question that’s being asked of that character by the person next to them. And hope that people won’t realize that one piece of footage is shot for driving the car back to its start mark. [Laughing] I do like that. But it is so anxiety provoking.

MR: Really? I find it really meditative and peaceful after the chaos and crisis management and hell of shooting. It’s just putting little pieces of film together in a quiet little dark room. I actually go through all of it to get into that little room, because I enjoy it so much. They have to tear me out of there because I think it’s so fun. There’s no ambivalence for me about that. I really love that part.

DF: Yeah. I agree. It’s pretty cool. It seems very purely creative, too, without a lot of distractions. And you can keep reasonable hours, which is always nice. And usually the people who do that for a living are the calmest people in production, so by the time you get to editorial it’s like professional foot massage. The people are going to say, “No, no, no, no. We have ten weeks to figure this out. Don’t worry about it.” As opposed to “You have two hours to decide which of these four shots you absolutely have to have in this movie, because you are not going to get all of them.”

II. “THE WAY CALVIN KLEIN OWNS SEX, YOU OWN DARKNESS.”

MR: You and I have known each other for, like, nineteen or twenty years. But there are a lot of questions I would be interested to ask you that, for whatever reason, I’ve never asked you. Because it would seem kind of strange. It would be corny to ask you. But in this context I can ask you.

DF: OK. Well, then I’ll probably just take your line of thinking and ask you back. [Laughing]

MR: OK. So had you read the book The Accidental Billionaires before you read Aaron Sorkin’s script?

DF: No. I actually don’t think the book was delivered before the script. I remember hearing that the book was in galleys after I had said that I was interested in the movie. But I was smitten with Aaron Sorkin’s take on it, and I’d read the Rolling Stone article and I’d read a couple of other articles, which I’m a little too brain-dead to remember. But really, it started with Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal calling and saying, “We have something that you have to read this weekend, ’cause we are dying to make this and we want to know what you think.”

MR: So you read the script and liked it, and then what?

DF: Well, I was interested in sort of the John Hughes aspects of the story, you know, the teen-relationship kind of thing. But I was also interested in how it talked about modern business practices. Or maybe even standard business practices represented by Harvard in an information-age start-up, represented by Facebook. And just the notion that seventy-five years ago, if you wanted to make something that would be in every single household nationwide, you would’ve had to develop a factory or a workforce, a system by which you could make this thing. You would have to train people, and build spare parts for it, and build distribution outlets for it. You’d have to have done the Henry Ford model. But here’s this guy, not particularly being encouraged, kind of on the fringe of Harvard, developing this thing in his dorm room. I was interested in what it means to be able to go from a working prototype, something that you’re just talking about with your friends, and then three, four, five, six weeks later you’re on six hundred people’s desktops, and then six years later you’re on five hundred million people’s desktops. That to me was fascinating, that you have this three-hundred-year-old university as the backdrop to this thing that has moved so fast. Time is so accelerated in the foreground. And I like all the banter, and I like the notions of friendship and commingled dreams and aspirational teamwork, as well as the story about how that devolved. But I was really interested in the idea of the new business model, the notion that when you build something in today’s software world, it never really leaves the shelf. You’re building a relationship with a consumer base that is constantly giving you feedback as to how it could better work for them, so it’s like you never finish.

MR: So this phenomenon, this event, this person, these people, this episode was emblematic of, like, a big shift in how fortunes are made and how businesses are created.

DF: How business practices have to change. Now you have this technology that’s very fast and very facile, and you’re able to prototype in beta and create something. And it’s disseminated so quickly and it’s adopted so quickly, and as a service provider you have a relationship with hundreds of millions of people.

MR: So what you’re describing is this kind of sweeping macro-social thing. But from what I understand, the film is super engrossing on an emotional level. So what’s the…

DF: God, I hope so.

MR: …what’s the human element?

DF: Well, you have a tale you can relate to. In a weird way, it’s kind of like the early days of Propaganda Films. You can understand how these people, these creative, hardworking dreamers, all come under one roof and try to change the way people think. I certainly saw your work as emblematic of a generation of filmmakers that was trying to say, hey, music videos don’t have to be the redheaded stepchild of television commercials or films. They can be their own thing. If there had been a mission statement for Propaganda at that time, not to equate those two things, but it was the notion of all these kids in jeans with their laptops and their backpacks and their scooters, all coming to work at this place to tear a new asshole in this paradigm.

MR: I just thought of something, listening to you talk about this, which is that the notion of these tribes of people getting together is something that shows up in  your work a lot. And it never occurred to me until just now. But, you know, you’re talking about young men finding their tribe, basically.

DF: Yeah. Yeah.

MR: And certainly Fight Club is that. And the crew of Alien3 is a tribe of sorts. And the guys in Panic Room.

DF: Yeah.

MR: Let me ask you one more question. I think your films are the most beautifully crafted films, not just in contemporary times, but they’re some of the most beautifully crafted films ever made.

DF: Wow, dude. Please.

MR: No, but what is it that’s innately good to you about darkness? I love darkness. I love not lighting too much, and lighting with completely motivated light and everything. But in your films you’ve made darkness… you’ve kind of owned it now. The way Calvin Klein owns sex, you own darkness.

DF: [Laughing] And teenagers.

MR: So why is it so essential to you that things be so beautifully under-lit?

DF: I don’t know, man. That’s the way the world looks to me. Maybe I have glaucoma and I need to look into this.

MR: I think I’m about to answer the question for you.

DF: Yeah.

MR: I just think that everything’s been over-lit for ninety-five years. And that, in a way, the way you light your films is the way things should really look. We’ve just become conditioned to think that all that horrible over-lit stuff is somehow normal.

DF: I feel that way whenever I see somebody do a television spot for a movie that I did, and they make it all bright. Or on-set stills, I always feel like, wow, that just doesn’t look like human skin anymore, it doesn’t look like reflected light bouncing off a wall. I mean, I don’t have a mission statement for it, and I don’t want to be the kind of person who says this is what it should all look like. I just go, “Look, I know we could take another fifteen minutes and put a light in that corner, but it doesn’t seem necessary.”

MR: Well, there’s a nonchalance to not trying to show people everything, and grab people by the collar and say, look at this because it’s bright and poppy and you can see everything and it’s more graphic. What you’re doing is you’re making people lean forward and come to you. It’s like the lighting equivalent of whispering to get someone’s attention.

III. “IT TRULY IS ABOUT CREATING THE KIND OF PRESSURE THAT SQUEEZES THE BEST IDEAS TO THE TOP.”

DF: I want to talk about Never Let Me Go. It’s kind of an amazing thing, especially for somebody with standards as high as yours, that you found a book you loved, that there was a screenwriter you had immense respect for, and that it came your way at the time that it did. That’s kind of a happy story.

MR: Yeah. It was a happy experience. You know, you’re sent a lot of scripts, and they’re not any good, and what you’re doing is you’re holding out for something of quality, something you can sink your teeth into.

DF: Yeah. Something to fall in love with.

MR: Yeah. And falling in love can be a rare thing. I’m a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, so the chance to direct one of his books is a great opportunity. And in my opinion, there was no better film script or project of this type anywhere in the world. It was a bit of a no-brainer in that sense.

DF: Given the subject matter, though, it’s not as though there was going to be an enormous amount of money to spend. I mean, it was going to have to be very exquisitely and carefully done.

MR: Yeah, but you enter into every movie with trepidation that you’re not going to have the resources to pull it off. It’s terrifying. When you’re making a somewhat low-budget movie, there’s nothing worse than a brilliant idea that you don’t have time to deal with. Because you can’t leave it. You can’t keep driving up the road and leave it lying in the ditch. You’ve got to pick it up, and you’ve got to examine it. But you may not have time. And in a way, on a tighter budget, a great idea is more terrifying than something going wrong, because you know that it’s going to fuck you up. What’s terrifying about it is what makes it such a great job, though. Because every day is an incredible challenge that’s filled with all these surprises, good and bad, you know?

DF: Well, I’m always amazed at how you can have these very almost secret conversations with the writer about what you hope people will take away from the film. But you don’t want to overplay that, because you don’t want it to be preachy. So then you go and shoot, and you’re completely frazzled, and the generator breaks down, and everybody stands around for an hour, and you literally digest your colon, and are looking for some weapon to take your own life. By the time you cut the movie, you’ve given up on that thing you talked about, which would’ve been such a nice, interesting little filigree or frisson. And then one day you listen to somebody talking about the movie, and they talk about the thing that you were positive never made it into the movie. It’s such a weird thing when you go, I was sure that I cut it or that the actor rushed it or it didn’t get underlined enough….

MR: You’re dealing with the most tangible, kind of prosaic things in the world, like generators breaking down, and locations crapping out, and the weather not cooperating, and union rules, and the crane that didn’t show up. And yet, at the same time, you’re expected to weave some sort of magic with the most esoteric, indefinable intangibles.

DF: Performance art.

MR: The filigree and the frisson, as you said, and the nuance of things. And the things that are alchemical. Intuition. And it’s a very uncomfortable blend of those things, sometimes. Which also makes it a really fascinating job.

DF: Yeah. And a great art form.

MR: One of the things that I’ve come to realize, which is sort of a new age approach to film directing, is that you’ve got to get out of the way of it sometimes. The whole thing takes on a life. It has a flow to it, and if you think you’re going to channel that in any sort of concrete way you’re really fooling yourself. And I’m making a million mixed metaphors in this conversation, but waves come up, and they’re not your waves. They’re a natural force. And you go, how am I going to surf this wave? Am I going to stand up early? Am I going to try to ride through the curl of this? Am I just going to let this wave pass by? It’s like there’s all these other forces that you have to corral or avoid or embrace. It’s fascinating.

DF: It also, in a weird way, brings up this notion of authorship. The authorship of a moment as opposed to the authorship of a character arc, as opposed to the authorship of a perspective on how to best describe or dramatize something. And as autocratic as either of us is known to be, it truly is about creating the kind of pressure that squeezes the best ideas to the top. The Darwinism of creativity. So often you get into the close-ups, for example, and it’s odd that people aren’t getting exhausted, because they’re getting more and more conscious of the fact that the camera’s going to move in and be in a place where it’s going to be very unforgiving. And whereas you spent the whole morning shooting the masters and sort of finding the thing, now you’re marching in, in this concerted, militaristic fashion. And then you get to these moments, these odd little accidents, or turns of phrase, or people fuck up the dialogue, or they do something. And they rewrite the scene in this interesting, human way that you couldn’t force or plan or even probably articulate. You know, they find something in it. And I always find those moments to be really interesting. The author of the novel has no idea of what the situation that the carnival, the carnies, are going to be in when they’re trying to execute the screenplay. And the screenwriter has given you the greatest gift, which is he’s given you something that inspires somebody to make the right mistake. You can capture it in this kind of magic, and then all of a sudden it’s a by-product of five different disciplines and one superheated, super-collider, pressurized situation. Those are the moments where moviemaking is not like writing, and it’s not like the theater, and it’s not like performance art, and it’s not like sculpting. It’s truly its own discipline. There’s nothing else like it in those moments where you go, wow, here’s an intent that was probably never even thought of by the guy who wrote the book. And yet this person who may or may not have even read the source material has found this thing. That, for me, after the previsualization, is the most exciting part of the whole.

MR: Sometimes you find yourself naïvely yearning for a form of expression that’s infinitely logistically simpler. Like I wish I were a poet with a legal pad and number two pencil, and that all I needed was a quiet room and a legal pad and a number two pencil and I could do my creativity. But if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s the complexity and the wrangling of the complexity of making a film that we probably get off on. Even though it’s unbelievably stressful and taxing.

DF: Yeah. So many things can go wrong, and so many things do. And it’s not luck, you know. I mean, sometimes it’s luck or a percentage of it is luck, or a percentage of it is planning to get lucky. To create a situation where people could go, “OK, how about this? How about this?” One of the things that is so exhausting about making a movie is those moments when you get so excited by the stone soup, by what somebody else brought to the thing. And you go riff on that and you’re working that idea and you get home and you go, oh my god, my brain had to think of this in so many different directions at the same time. But those are the thrilling moments.

MR: I think what’s so exhausting about it also is that you’re taxing your brain and you’re taxing your body. And if you’re engaged with a certain type of script or story, you’re taxing your heart and your soul; you’re taxing your emotions at the same time. You hit the bed at the end of a fiveor six-day week and no words can describe the vibrating exhaustion of it.

DF: And also that thing that you have with a narrative, with a movie, where you go, I’m so tired I can’t possibly stay awake and I’m so buzzed that I can’t possibly sleep. I never found this on commercials or videos, as much as I was always afraid of failing or letting people down. It’s horrible. It’s like you have one day off and you can’t really fall into a deep sleep, ’cause you’re going, Wow, we just found this thing on Thursday and it affected what we did on Friday and now we have to change up ’cause I had thought Monday was gonna be real meat-andpotatoes shoe leather to get me from here to here, but now this new thing has been introduced and now I have to start to wonder what kind of topspin it puts on the third act and, you know….

MR: I always turn to drugs at that point.

DF: Exactly! There you go! Excedrin PM.

IV. “GIVE THE UNIVERSE SOME OF THE HEAVY LIFTING.”

MR: I have a question I wanted to ask you. I’ve only really made the two films. I kind of technically made three, but the first one I don’t think is a real movie, so I’ve only made, like, two real movies. And I don’t know how many movies you’ve made, but you made, like, a good nine or ten movies, right?

DF: Nope.

MR: How many movies have you made?

DF: Seven.

MR: Only seven?

DF: Yeah.

MR: Really? They’re so rich and bountiful that I felt… my question still totally pertains, which is what do you think you know better and do better now on the seventh or eighth movie than you did on the first and second movie? Like, how are you better at what you do?

DF: I would get a pretty stiff argument from Kenny Turan on this point, but I think I’m more relaxed. I’m more confident and trusting of those around me to want to make me look as good as I want to make them look good. I think initially, certainly after my first movie, I felt so much like I’d been hung out to dry, not so much by the English crew or the cast but certainly by the entire production part of it, that I kind of retreated. But I think that you get it. It feels to me like you kind of do this already. I think you’re a little bit more involving, or more open to a dialogue. I was talking to you about how many set-ups you were getting while you were shooting, and how you felt, and you were saying, there’s some stuff that I don’t like about this and I do like about this, but in conversations with this person or that person, I sort of felt like that was something that I could give in to. To not be so strident and belligerent about your vision—that’s a really hard thing. I think you’re lucky to get that on your second movie. You know, you don’t have to love all of your cocollaborators, but you do have to respect them. And when you do, when you realize that people bring stuff to the table that’s not necessarily your experience, but if you allow yourself to relate to it, it can enrich the buffet that you’re going to bring with you into the editing room. And it’s never what you thought it was going to be, anyway, you know what I mean? And I know you know that. It’s like, you have an idea in your head. You have the movie. You’ve cut it, you’ve scored it, and you know what it should be. And then you get there and you go, wait, when we were here to tech-scout this, there wasn’t a giant Winnebago parked over there, was there? And you have to kind of make do. OK, we’re going to pan left a little bit, go a little longer, we’ll bring in some bushes and let’s shoot through those. You’re kind of doing this thing to make it what it should have been. But you find that in a weird way, those are the things that make it what it is, and not like anything else.

MR: Yeah. If you pick a project that has a kind of a positive intention behind wanting to come into existence, and when the Winnebago is parked there and it wasn’t there on the scout, then maybe the shooting through the bushes is the coolest thing ever. That Winnebago helped you arrive at that. Those things are the waves that come, and sometimes you have to be open to these things. My feeling is that if something’s going wrong, just stop for a minute and ask yourself if it’s not the universe making a suggestion to think about it in a new way.

DF: And that’s the kind of maturity that you have going into your third movie that I didn’t really allow myself to have until I’d done four or five. Four or five movies in, even today, I find myself just now going, I think I know what this directing thing is. I think I’m starting to get an idea of how it comes together. Because for me, the process of every movie I’ve made has been so different.

MR: Well, the gestalt is different every time. Sometimes things come together really quickly, and everybody’s rooting for it. And sometimes it’s a slog. But I think what you kind of naturally found, that I probably didn’t start feeling till four or five years ago, is that sense of confidence. It’s just a sense of, it’s OK to give the universe some of the heavy lifting. Or you may have wanted to do something a certain way, and someone suggests a different way to do it. You go, it’s just as good this way, and if I let that person have their contribution it’s not going to torpedo something fundamental about the film thematically. It’s not going to torpedo the purpose of that beat in the script narratively. So there’s no reason not to do it that way. And it has the added bonus of making you think about it differently. And that person gets to feel like they’ve really made a contribution that’s their own, and there’s no better motivator for your crew to know that they’re really making it with you, not for you.

DF: Yeah, and not in a bullshit way. Not like, we gotta make them feel good about themselves. It’s when you can turn to somebody and say, Wow, awesome.

MR: That’s why they’re there. They want to make a contribution. And when you can embrace it fully, and there’s no reason not to, it’s great. It’s not a good idea to reject something simply because it’s not the kind of dress you had in your head, or the color of the couch you had in your head.

DF: No matter how much fun that might be.

MR: Right. [Laughs] The main thing is, you start to really learn what counts and what doesn’t, what’s really important and what isn’t. It takes a lot of films to start to figure that out.

DF: And it’s always good to start with a great book and a great screenwriter and to adapt it. And then to get into dialogue with them, to make the most beautiful bait for the most talented actors and actresses. And then and then you really don’t…

MR: You don’t have to do a lot.

DF: Then you get to get out of the way.

MR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because there’s something of value and quality that you’re getting out of the way of.

MR: We solved it. We split the atom.

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