David Fincher: The Man Behind the Method

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With Gone Girl finally hitting theaters this weekend, director David Fincher has been making the press rounds, something quite unlike of him to do. Then again, when you’re adapting Gillian Flynn’s bestseller, it’s hard to stay out of the limelight. Fincher usually tries to avoid over-exposure, but his directorial methods are very well known. His reputation precedes him, and with good reason. Whereas most directors settle for a few takes per scene, Fincher aims above and beyond, shooting as many takes as he needs. While this sounds obscene on the surface, I’d like to dig a little deeper into his process to show why he’s the hardest-working and the most misunderstood director in the business.

Gone Girl was well into production this time last year, and even then the press couldn’t steer away from the movie. The Southeast Missourian reported that Fincher utilized hundreds of extras, shooting 30-plus takes for a single scene. Other news outlets reported that the director was averaging 50 takes, a note that producer Cean Chaffin corroborated. Surprised? Well, he’s been doing this for a while.

In 2005, David Fincher made a significant decision that would forever alter his filmmaking aesthetic – he converted to digital, with Zodiac being the first in his filmography to be shot digitally. Though the film was set in the 70’s, Fincher used the Thompson Viper to chronicle a manhunt that spanned decades. Doesn’t make any sense, does it? To shoot a period film using modern technology. The aesthetic alone doesn’t match up to the material. But the digital medium allowed Fincher to achieve something that he believed couldn’t be done on film; perfection.

Digital wasn’t a shortcut by any means, but allowed the director to aim for perfection without the limitations of working with celluloid. With the new medium, Fincher didn’t have to change the film magazine every 10 minutes, meaning he didn’t have to worry about cutting either. He could run the camera for as long as he wanted. This enabled him to shoot upwards of 50 takes in some scenes, 70 in others. Now, this may sound like overkill, but he was simply taking advantage of the technology. And why not? It gave him a new way to dream.

Fincher recalls his frustrations in storyboarding and pre-visualizing Panic Room – the last movie he shot on film:

“It just felt wrong, like I didn’t get the most out of the actors, because I was so rigid in my thinking. I was kind of impatiently waiting for everybody to get where I’d already been a year and a half ago. And I’ve been trying to nip that in the bud. I felt like I needed to be more attentive to watching the actors.”

Watch the actors he did. Over and over and over again. Still, why so many takes? Here, he offers a detailed explanation of his philosophy:

“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 crew in. 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. We watch stories to see the most concise, most layered, most nuanced… If I fly you in from Iceland, I want to make sure we get it. I want it to be about finding those little things. Often times they’re mistakes… There’s a point in time whenever an actor says, “I’m sorry, I’m lost, can we start again…” they were great, right before they pull the pin on the whole thing, they were great.”

It’s clear that Fincher is not in it for acting with a capital ‘A’. He wants a world that’s lived in, where people aren’t acting or performing for the camera. Because Fincher has something bigger on his mind: he’s mining nuance. Actors like Brad Pitt and Rooney Mara are completely on board with his process, having worked with him on numerous occasions. But other actors weren’t quite as welcoming to the director’s methods.

Jake Gyllenhaal, coming off of Zodiac, recalls the difficulties of the film’s shoot:

“David knows what he wants, and he’s very clear about what he wants, and he’s very, very, very smart. But sometimes we’d do a lot of takes, and he’d turn and he would say, ‘Delete the last 10 takes.’ As an actor that’s very hard to hear.”

It’s worth noting that Gyllenhaal would go on to admit his own stubbornness, not fully acknowledging that filmmaking is first and foremost a director’s medium. Prior to Zodiac, he had just finished Jarhead, where he was given a much freer rein. Gyllenhaal reiterated his admiration for Mr. Fincher personally, noting that other members of the Zodiac cast had a far more rewarding experience, adding: “I wish I could’ve had the maturity to be like: ‘I know what he wants. He wants the best out of me.’”

And it’s the best that David Fincher gets. In nearly every film he’s directed, the lead performances were always singled-out. Brad Pitt was nominated for his work in Benjamin Button, as was Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. Most recently, Rooney Mara was given high praise for her fearless portrayal of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, earning her a Best Actress nomination. Yes, the actors deserve credit, but Fincher is a common denominator in all three instances. One could argue that it’s his multiple take method that allowed each of these actors to reach new artistic heights.

The Social Network in particular was THE film that earned David Fincher a notorious reputation in the film industry. In the film’s opening scene, where Mark Zuckerberg experiences the fallout of a relationship that could never be, Fincher shot a whopping 99 takes of that scene alone. Yes, you read that right. 99, as in 1 shy of 100. Since then, the media has had their fun with this, labeling him as “controlling” and “uncompromising.” The latter is flattering, but the former is wildly mistaken.

At this point, we can deduce that Fincher is quite demanding of both his cast and crew. But he has every right to be. Directors either get all the credit or all the blame when it comes to how movies are received by critics and audiences. So, when the entirety of a film’s success rests on your shoulders, why not lead the charge fully? And why not utilize the resources at hand while you have the time to use them? Once you really think about the man’s process, it’s not that hard to see the logic behind his method. But to call him controlling? Now THAT’S obscene.

William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, famously injured child-actor Linda Blair in a scene that required her to be yanked violently through a harness. He refused to give her a break until he got the shot that he wanted – a shot that captured her actual screams of pain. As a result, Blair suffers from chronic back pain even today. Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola also developed a bit of a reputation as a dictator. In shooting Apocalypse Now, he abused the labor force at his disposal, paying a single dollar to the Filipino workers for a day’s work that required the construction of elaborate sets. Sometimes, he had extras lying in the sun from 9am to 5pm because he wanted them to be ready to shoot at any given moment. Is Fincher controlling? To some degree. But compared to guys like Friedkin and Coppola, he’s relatively tame.

The media is apt to label Fincher as some kind of tyrant. Of course, it’s easy to use these labels since he’s a director. The media can present him any which way, but it’s far more useful to hear from the actors themselves. After all, they’re the ones who get put through the wringer.

Tyler Perry had nothing but love for the director:

“This man sees like no other person I’ve ever known. I think his own vision is hyper, so when he’s doing a take, he’s seeing everything on that screen all at once. It’s almost like some kind of alien. And until all those things line up, he’s not happy. But he is brilliant at getting the perfect shot. So once I realized that it’s not me or Ben Affleck —it could be a napkin turned the wrong way, he’s just looking at every little detail in the scene— so once I realized that, I was ready to go with it.”

Ben Affleck, too, was in firm agreement, adding that he learned more from David Fincher in a day than he did his entire life. Co-stars Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, and Carrie Coon returned the praise as well, citing him as an “actor’s director.” So for someone who’s been reported to test an actor’s patience, it’s astonishing to find that the actors who work with him are all in admiration.

Every director has their own method. That’s filmmaking. If there really were a perfect way to make movies, then every director would be doing the same thing. Fortunately, that’s not the world we live in. Every movie offers a different experience, both for the audience and the actors. We can go on judging David Fincher on the way he works, but I think his filmography speaks for itself. In that regard, we should consider ourselves lucky to even get a film from one of the best directors working today. David Fincher is 10 films in and is showing no signs of slowing down. Let’s just hope that the next 10 get here fast enough.

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