David Fincher interview
By Nadine O’Regan
David Fincher sprints into a plush London hotel suite like a man racing to catch a flight. He falls into his chair in a heap, sticks out his hand apologetically and says with a charming grin that he’s extremely sorry to have kept me waiting.
Waiting is right: Fincher is an hour and a half late for our interview; he stepped out to have a brief lunch with producer Jonathan Glazer, and, rather amusingly, has caused all manner of scheduling ructions as a result.
For a while, his publicists in Soho have begun to resemble a Secret Service team tracking a felon. “David has left the restaurant,” says one publicist excitedly, phone jammed to her ear. “David is on his way,” another tells me reassuringly.
By the time Fincher arrives, about eight television and radio journalists are gathered in an adjoining suite, waiting patiently for their turn to interview Fincher. As the elaborate set-up around him indicates, Fincher — even by Hollywood standards — is big news. Although you might not know his name, any film fan would know his resume: Fight Club, Se7en, Panic Room, Zodiac, Fincher has built up a reputation over the years for creating pitch-black, subversive, sexily shot films that have become commercial and critical successes.
He has also directed music videos for Madonna (Vogue, Express Yourself), Sting (Englishman in New York), Aerosmith (Janie’s Got a Gun), George Michael (Freedom ’90) and Michael Jackson (Who is It?). Today, even despite being a little harried from his frankly bananas schedule, Fincher, sharp-eyed in a blue and white striped shirt, has that distinctive aura of power that comes with helming movies that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make.
His latest film is generating even more buzz than usual. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an extremely loose adaptation of the 1921 F Scott Fitzgerald story, starring Brad Pitt in the title role, has been nominated for 13 Oscars, including a Best Director nod for Fincher.
The film tells of the unusual, captivating love story that takes place between Daisy (an ethereal, compelling Cate Blanchett) and the bizarre character of Benjamin Button — a man who ages backwards — in the middle of the 20th century.
“It’s a movie about the dents that people make in each other, the scars they leave on one another as they move through life,” Fincher says.
Born in 1919, Button is a baby like no other: straight from the womb, he is hideously wrinkled, hairless, suffering from arthritis and apparently about to die from old age. His horrified father — a wealthy owner of a button factory — abandons him on the steps of a house in New Orleans, where he is recovered by Queenie (a wonderful Taraji P Henson) who takes him in and cares for him.
Growing up, Benjamin slowly becomes more youthful in his appearance. Although actors played the roles of the ageing Benjamin, the film’s extremely expensive CGI effects (the budget for the film was $150 million) contrived to put Brad Pitt’s face onto the actors’ bodies.
The effect of Brad Pitt the elderly baby is bizarre yet mesmerising. What assisted them greatly in the character’s creation, says Fincher, is how recognisable Pitt is to start with. “You can’t walk 50 feet in the civilised world and not see a picture of Brad Pitt,” Fincher says. “So we were starting with someone who, as a little old man, you could already recognise — and it helped.” Pitt and Fincher have a long association — Pitt starred in both Se7en and Fight Club — and, when Fincher had to fight hard to keep the original shocking ending of the thriller Se7en, Pitt stepped in and backed the director against the wishes of the industry behemoths.
“There are few people in my life that I trust as much as I trust him,” Fincher says simply, when asked about Pitt. “Being a movie star has been a burden and a responsibility to him until recently. But I think as a movie star [he seems] to have become comfortable with what that means.
“He has his family and all these other distractions that are more important to him now. This is his work now, not his life — his life is somewhere else. It put into the right context what we were doing 12 or 14 hours a day with Benjamin Button.”
Although the mood of the film is often extremely romantic, it wouldn’t be a Fincher movie without having a dark underbelly. The narrative is framed by an older Daisy dying in a hospital bed, gasping for breath as she tells her daughter the story of Benjamin.
“If this film was a song,” Fincher explains, “the melody over the top can be lovely and naïve or forlorn, but there’s this constant beat, a metronomic reminder of the inevitability of our passing.”
Fincher’s presentation of the elderly Daisy stems from his own experience of loss; his father, a journalist and screenplay writer, passed away five years ago. “I was lucky enough to be there and ready enough to be there when my Dad died,” he says. “I’ve been there when babies are born and I’ve been there when people die and they are incredibly powerful moments.”
Growing up in Marin County, California, the young David was brought by his Dad to see films like 2001 Space Odyssey and Dr Strangelove. “He had a more eclectic taste than me,” Fincher laughs. “I’m more mainstream. I probably in comparison look like Jeff Katzenberg [producer of Shrek and Kung-Fu Panda].”
Well, not quite. Though his schtick may be racier than that of your average art-house hero, Fincher has certainly created a unique gloom-buzz aesthetic: the director learned his trade through helming music videos and it shows in his attention to pace, his sophisticated visual style and his deep understanding of pop culture that bleeds through every film he directs.
While Se7en — the 1995 thriller which grossed $350 worldwide — featured a dead model who chose to die in agony at home rather than call for help and live mutilated, Fight Club, his 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, was an exploration of the male psyche at its most negative, frustrated and twisted.
Even in his music videos, Fincher has leaned towards the subversive: while he has directed lighter projects for the likes of Paula Abdul, his most recent videos were for revered industrial goth and alternative rock icons Nine Inch Nails (Only) and A Perfect Circle (Judith).
When I mention that to me he seems like the Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails frontman) of the film world, Fincher smiles and says he’ll take that as a big compliment.
Nonetheless, Fincher dislikes being asked about the darkness within his aesthetic. Questioned about it, he ducks away from the subject. But he has hinted in the past that his background might hold some clues as to his interests.
The town in which Fincher grew up is 35 minutes away from San Francisco and 45 minutes away from another city, Valejo, where many of the unsolved Zodiac killings took place in the 1970s.
In 2007, having done an enormous amount of research into the hunt for the Zodiac serial killer, Fincher made a film about the murders starring Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.
“Nobody who grew up in the area was unaffected by Zodiac,” Fincher says. “He was a cultural phenomenon — the first serial killer. He wrote letter after letter to the newspapers. He wrote way more letters than he killed people. He was a bogeyman, a force much greater than his killings would lead you to believe.”
Fincher’s quietly captivating film Zodiac is a subtle, powerful exploration of the story. But work on the film was not always easy. In a New York Times article, both Gyllenhaal and Downey Jr, while admiring Fincher, expressed some discomfort about Fincher’s style of working, which frequently involves pushing his actors through multiple takes of 70 shots and beyond.
Gyllenhaal said, “David knows what he wants, and he’s very clear about what he wants, and he’s very, very smart. But sometimes we’d do a lot of takes, and he’d turn, and he would say, because he had a computer there [the film was shot digitally], `Delete the last 10 takes.’ And as an actor that’s very hard to hear.”
Downey Jr, meanwhile, had more a comic exchange with the New York Times, which I repeat to Fincher. “I think I’m a perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags,” Downey Jr said.
Although the remark is clearly intended to be funny and affectionate, listening to it, Fincher’s smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
“That’s so witty,” he says, without humour. “I have a wonderful relationship with Robert. But you have a kid from Malibu, who has a very specific upbringing and so his idea of a gulag is probably a little. . .”
He pauses. “Let’s put it this way, if you come to work and you’re hungover and you don’t know what the scene is about and you haven’t learnt your lines, it’s going to be painful for you. But I’ll take the time to teach you what the scene’s about and I’ll take the time until you’ve remembered your lines. But I’m not going to cut a scene around someone’s weakness or being ill-prepared.”
Ouch. Downey Jr might be well advised to keep his mouth shut next time. “I take it very seriously when you take tens of millions of dollars from a company to go and make a movie,” Fincher continues. “My movies take a long time to shoot. But I don’t think movie studios have a problem with you shooting a lot of takes.
“The thing is, I don’t shoot a lot of coverage. When you have somebody who is shooting the point of views of characters you may not use — that’s disrespectful to the process. I shoot what I need and I shoot it so it can go together three or four different ways depending on where we might decide the scene will go.”
In an attempt to restore Fincher’s good humour, I ask him if, when he directs music videos, it’s more difficult to navigate around the egos of music stars — because, although he may be directing him, they’re often really the ones in charge. Fincher shakes his head.
“When you’re working with Madonna, Michael Jackson, they’re paying for it. They want it to be good.” Did Madonna never bristle when Fincher told her where to stand or what to do? “No, she was always great.”
Although Fincher returns to his relaxed, chatty state shortly afterwards, you get the impression that after this interview Downey Jr might be getting an irate phone call.
Successful as David Fincher is, there’s often a strong thread of negativity and self-criticism running through his words. At times, you get the impression of a man at war with his own impulses. Encyclopedic in his knowledge about film, you wonder if he wishes that he could direct the kinds of art-house films his father would have adored; if his pop culture roots and commercial leanings make him feel too superficial, too shallow — and if, at the same time, he rebels against this interpretation of him.
The critical and commercial failure of Fight Club when it was initially released still rankles with him. “We were very happy with it, but let’s just say it wasn’t warmly embraced when it first came out,” Fincher says. When I mention the retrospective praise (and massive DVD sales) the film won, Fincher shakes his head.
“I think critics were pretty firm in their belief that it was trash then, and it’s trash now.” I tell him I loved the film. “There’s a whole new generation of critics now,” Fincher concedes, and that seems like as positive as he’s going to get.
As the publicist makes a signal to wind up, it seems fitting to end the interview with a return to the question Fincher previously fought shy of — the question about what has made him so preoccupied with darker themes.
“Probably just a horrible upbringing,” he smiles, diverting attention from the subject again. He pauses. I pause. There is total silence. Finally, “Well?” I say. “I’m teasing,” he says. But is there any answer?
“I had an idyllic upbringing, so I don’t know,” Fincher says. “But those stories are always the most dramatic to me. And I think that everybody’s interested in death.”
Well, maybe not everybody — but certainly David Fincher.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is released in cinemas on Feb 6