There’s perhaps no more anal retentive director working in Hollywood than David Fincher. That would be a criticism if he wasn’t so damn good at what he does. Fincher is fastidious in every way. His frames are exact. His camera glides along perfectly smooth, all its real-life imperfections stabilized through digital manipulation. He directs actors into giving specific, reserved performances that complement the story instead of dominating it. He’s infamous for doing dozens of takes per shot, sometimes doing more than a hundred takes to get things just right. If his films were hallways, they’d look like the corridors of the starship Enterprise. He’s also the king of the information thriller, exploring how people gather and rationalize information in our modern world, where truth is hard to parse out of the overwhelming volume of data available to us. David Fincher is a modern visionary, pushing forward digital filmmaking technology and opening up the formal and thematic possibilities of the commercial Hollywood film.
Fincher grew up in California down the street from George Lucas. He started making 8mm movies in his childhood before starting his career as a production assistant for Korty Films. Eventually Fincher got hired as an assistant cameraman and matte photographer for Industrial Light and Magic. While at ILM, Fincher worked on films like Return of the Jedi (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), before moving on to commercial directing. Eventually Fincher got a gig with Propaganda Films directing music videos, where he’d work for several years, directing videos for Rick Springfield, Sting, and Madonna, as well as other musicians.
Fincher made his feature debut with Alien 3 (1992), the third installment in the popular science fiction franchise starring Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. While the first two films in the franchise, Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986), are widely-celebrated genre films, Alien 3 is a severe disappointment. It unceremoniously dispatches several beloved characters in the first few minutes and fails to provide the sci-fi scares that had made the franchise such a hit. Where James Cameron’s Aliens went a different route from Ridley Scott’s original, focusing on the action and characters instead of rehashing the “haunted house in space” aspect that made Scott’s film so successful, Fincher’s film tries to replicate the same atmosphere as Alien. It goes back to having only one alien and focuses on Ripley at the detriment of the supporting cast.
Fincher claims that the film’s failure was largely dependent on the studio producers not trusting him with the project, tinkering with it constantly in order to assure profitability, but surely the film’s lacklustre script had a large amount to do with its failure as well. Fincher has never been coy about denouncing the film’s final cut. In fact, he has even gone as far as to say that no one hates the film as much as he does. Despite the film’s shortcomings, there is still promise hidden among the wreckage. The film’s visual style is clean and atmospheric, showing that Fincher understood how to create the look and feel of a film world, even if he failed to elevate the script into a coherent thriller. Alien 3 is undoubtedly one of the best looking bad movies ever made, showing that since his debut, Fincher has demonstrated a technical mastery.
Luckily, Fincher’s follow-up erased all the unease sowed by Alien 3 and demonstrated that he was a director to be reckoned with. In 1995 he released Seven (or Se7en), a thriller starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as two Chicago cops tracking down a serial killer who murders victims according to the seven deadly sins. The film is an atmospheric jackpot, and possibly the definitive serial killer film. Its Chicago is permanently rainsoaked. Its characters are always sleep deprived, exhausted husks walking the streets of a Chicago that looks akin to the dystopian Los Angeles of Blade Runner (1982). Seven is conventional, but it plays the conventions beautifully, especially mining the eventual reveal of John Doe, the film’s central villain. It’s a tense, exciting, moody, and above all, interesting film—a masterwork of a genre picture. It also sets the template for Fincher’s obsession with characters who gather information, relentlessly trying to sort out what the modern world means through the data they collect. In a sense, every Fincher film is a mystery, as the characters in his films are thrown into a world where they’re clutching at answers, trying to make sense of the information that comes at them from all directions, leading them astray or confusing their assumptions.
After Seven’s critical and commercial success, Fincher made The Game (1997), a twisty thriller starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn about an elaborate, conspiratorial real-life roleplaying game. In 1999, he adapted Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a satire about underground fighting rings and the aggressive masculinity they foster. Fight Club is a deeply misunderstood film, and as such, it’s a dangerous one. While the film is a satire of macho masculinity, many people misinterpret the film and take Tyler Durden’s (Brad Pitt) anti-consumerist messages at face value. They don’t question Durden’s assumptions or his agenda, instead allowing the macho energy of the experience to override their critical capacities. And Fight Club is an energetic film. Durden’s aggressive counter-cultural rants play to insecure men in the audience, insulting a culture that covets Ikea catalogues and encourages men to placate their emasculating bosses. Fincher uses quick cuts and constantly roaming cameras to create a momentum that adds to the adrenal rush of the aggressive imagery. However, Fincher is also smart enough to deconstruct the very ethos his characters celebrate.
Tyler Durden is a personification of the male id. He’s appealing, but he’s destructive and psychotic. He is a terrorist after all. Fincher wisely understands how self-loathing, misogynistic males are the target demographic for terrorist recruiters, as the recent ISIS crisis has aptly demonstrated. Beyond that, Durden is also a hypocrite, which Fincher constantly emphasizes. In one scene Edward Norton’s Narrator points out a Calvin Klein underwear ad to Tyler Durden, who bemoans the sexualized, feminized male model, saying, “Is that what a man looks like?” Fincher then cuts to a scene in the underground fight club where a shirtless Durden resembles nothing more than the underwear model he previously lambasted. Fight Club is full of such undercutting of Durden and his ethos, showing Fincher’s ability to make a film that appeals on a sensory level, and then makes you question the visceral rush it’s giving you. Fight Club was a dud on theatrical release but it has since established a massive cult following.
In 2002, Fincher released Panic Room, a limited location thriller starring Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart as a mother and daughter holed up in their security room during a home invasion. After that he made Zodiac (2007), a 1970s-set procedural thriller about the Zodiac Killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970s, and the newspaper cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) who tried to decode his ciphers and solve the mystery of who the killer actually was. Zodiac is possibly the most emblematic of Fincher’s films, the definitive look at his obsessions as a director and his filmmaking style. It has the obsessive protagonist sifting through the enormous amount of information the modern world offers him. It has the sleek visual aesthetic, utilizing wide angles and tracking shots, and emphasizes the metallic colours of the frame. It has the extensive cross-cutting that weaves together multiple plotlines and perspectives. Zodiac is essential viewing for anyone trying to understand how and why David Fincher makes movies. A year after Zodiac’s release, Fincher garnered his first Academy Award Best Director nomination with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), an adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man who ages backwards, played by Brad Pitt in the film.
In 2010 David Fincher again turned to a real-life subject, depicting Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook and the legal fallout that surrounded it. Dubbed “The Facebook Movie” in pre-release, The Social Network surprised everyone by becoming the definitive movie of the era, capturing the way people live in a world dominated by social media and image creation. It’s a perfect combination of director and subject matter. It’s also Fincher’s masterpiece. Many people credit The Social Network’s success to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, which provides the film with its crackling dialogue, but it’s Fincher’s direction that makes the film fascinating. Thematically, The Social Network taps into Fincher’s interests in information and image, in how the facts that people perceive may not be true, but that they inform the world surrounding them regardless of their veracity. The film is structured so as to reflect this conflux of conflicting information, focusing on Mark Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) legal depositions and the multiple narratives of how Facebook came to be.
Formally, The Social Network finds Fincher doubling down on his technical obsessions. Fincher was an early adopter of digital filmmaking. The Social Network wasn’t his first all-digital feature (that’d be Zodiac), but it was his first filmed on a commercial camera that would be available to the mass marketplace: a modified RED One. The film’s digital sheen is more refined than Zodiac’s, and the grainy cinematography is more appropriate to a film concerned with computer screens and the pixelation of digital imagery. The Social Network is also Fincher’s first collaboration with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who composed the film’s ambient, distortion-heavy score. Reznor and Ross are the ideal musicians to work with Fincher, perfectly complementing his visual aesthetic with their noninvasive soundtrack. Fincher uses Reznor and Ross’s score to carry the audience through the film’s many progressions and transitions, as he rarely lingers on any one moment for longer than a few beats.
If nothing else, The Social Network demonstrates Fincher’s terrific capacity to fill every frame with tension and energy. He’s able to electrify the most seemingly ordinary moments. The early compilation showing Mark Zuckerberg hacking the various facebooks of Harvard University and creating facemash.com is a great example of Fincher’s talents. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this scene could have been a dreadful bore, as the majority of the action onscreen is Zuckerberg hacking into low-security systems, copying images, and applying them into his own basic code. Visually, this is nothing more exciting than watching a person type on their computer. However, the way Fincher depicts the scene is thrilling. Instead of focusing on the minutia of coding, he shows how people react to Zuckerberg’s website. He cuts to young men in various dorms discovering facemash.com and their intrigue at the simple decision it offers: left or right, hot or not.
The scene is an example of constant escalation. Fincher’s early shots focus on the faces of Zuckerberg and his friends as they watch the site traffic pour in. As the scene progresses, and the site spreads like wildfire across Harvard, the shots widen out. Soon enough, we’re watching people through windows, witnessing them staring at their computers, enraptured, excited. The decision to intercut Zuckerberg working on the website and various people in dorm rooms discovering the website with a final club party is a masterstroke of commentary. It signals that what we’re seeing is a moment of important social change. The mating ritual has changed from bars and clubs and parties to people sitting in front of a screen, electrified by the possibility of the individual on the other end, even though all their reacting to is a digital image, a creation, of that other person.
The Social Network’s style and themes have greatly informed Fincher’s work since. In 2011 he adapted Stieg Larsson’s popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, improving on the popular Swedish film starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. Fincher elevates the themes of the novel, distilling its popular thriller aspects into a haunting tale exploring perceptions of self, on a national and personal scale. The film is a classic twisty thriller with a surprise villain, but it’s also a razor sharp look at how people hide in plain sight. It’s also an electrifying star-making turn for Rooney Mara, who plays Lisbeth Salander with such a fiery reserve, she instantly enters the pantheon of iconic performances. In 2013, Fincher directed the first two episodes of the Netflix series House of Cards, setting the series’ visual template of cool colour palettes and smooth, objective camera work.
In 2014, he again adapted a popular novel, this time adapting Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, about a woman who disappears on her wedding anniversary and the media witch hunt that sprouts up around her bumbling husband who’s believed to have murdered her. Gone Girl continues Fincher’s exploration of our modern society and how individuals project false versions of themselves to the world. It’s also a crackerjack good time, showing how screwed up modern relationships are and how lustily the media villainizes individuals for the sake of a story. As well, for such an overwhelmingly masculine director, Fincher begins to explore gender roles in Gone Girl (and a lesser extent, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), widening his story worlds to explore women as well as men. Even after two decades in the industry, Fincher is learning new tricks.
David Fincher uses the technology of today to explore the world of today. He doesn’t rely on classical storytelling structures or familiar thematic lessons. He depicts the personal relationships and identities of his characters, but he always extrapolates those personal characteristics onto society as a whole, showing how the world is formed through a series of individuals moving in lockstep. He is an uncanny observer of how we create our identities in the modern day, and how we gather and understand information in the world around us. He’s a perpetual innovator, pushing forward camera and editing technology, adapting techniques and tools that have yet to be proven in the commercial world. Fincher is restless, so despite his fussiness as a craftsman, there is nothing fussy about his films. He’s always looking forward, thematically and technically. David Fincher is the definition of a modern filmmaker.