David Fincher: The Complex Mind of 'Social Network's' Anti-Social Director
Three years later, Fincher tried to figure out commercials. His first was one of his most memorable. "A friend who was a truck driver and wanted to be a producer said, 'Give me an idea for the American Cancer Society.' So we sat down with some storyboard artists and said, 'Let's do this thing that's the Star Child from 2001.' "
Fincher's ad, showing a fetus smoking, only made him $7,000 but led to work on commercials and music videos, first for Rick Springfield, then, after Fincher moved to Los Angeles, for other artists.
And yet Fincher was unhappy. "I did videos that were progressively less and less expensive," he complains. "I ended up being signed by the music-video wing of a commercial production house and just didn't flourish and didn't have much fun. I got told by a lot of people that I was only good enough to play in the B- or C-leagues; I was never going to get the $1 million spots." His response? "I said, 'F--- it, let's start our own company.' "
In 1986, with Steve Golin, Sigurjon Sighvatsson and Dominic Sena, Fincher founded the management, advertising and production entity Propaganda Films, making commercials and videos for the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson and Nine Inch Nails. Almost overnight, their annual billings went from $2 million to $70 million. "It was the beginning of the explosion of video directors becoming commercial directors," Fincher recalls.
It was also the beginning of commercial directors turning to features, which crystallized for Fincher when he was given Alien 3.
The director's run-in with Fox was brutal. To this day, he hates to talk about it. Asked whether he has disowned the film, he says, "I never owned it," and it has clearly soured him on studios -- though he protests: "I like studios. I just don't like bureaucracies."
They didn't like him, either. Never the warm and fuzzy type, one insider says Fincher was demanding. "He is difficult with the marketing and distribution people, especially," one former colleague notes. "But that comes out of not suffering fools."
Asked about his manner -- a certainty that can border on the cocky -- Fincher hesitates. "You know, often times I think confidence can look like ... it looks like different things to different people," he says. "But I don't think of myself as difficult. We're expected to do stuff that's awesome; that means we're going to have to push each other."
Given this, it might surprise Fincher that so many of his collaborators speak well of him. Producer Arnold Kopelson marvels at "his knowledge of lenses, of every set-up. He's an extraordinary filmmaker."
Even Mechanic says Fincher's reputation is exaggerated. "There were lots of issues with the studio, back and forth as always with David," he notes of Fight Club. "So I asked him to breakfast a few weeks before shooting, and by the end of breakfast we'd agreed on procedures and he stayed 100% true to his word. There wasn't anything at all contentious in the process. It was one of the best I've ever had."
By that time, Fincher had redeemed himself with Seven (1993), which in many ways defined his work: dark, visually audacious, emotionally distant.
"I was the first person hired for the film," Morgan Freeman recalls, "and I remember him talking to me about the process he wanted to use to make the film dark. I was intrigued. He controls where the camera is, minutely; where the actors are, minutely; where the lights are, minutely. At the same time, he is very collaborative."
Fincher followed Seven with the Michael Douglas thriller The Game (1997); then, after Fight Club, he moved on to the Jodie Foster starrer Panic Room (2002) and Zodiac (2007), an adaptation of Robert Graysmith's books about the Bay Area killer who was active when Fincher grew up.
The film made only $33 million in North America but was one the best-reviewed pictures of the year. With it, Fincher solidified his reputation as a supremely talented filmmaker, if sometimes arrogant, whose work was defined by its brilliance and also coldness.
And so it came as a surprise to many Fincherfanatics (yes, there's a website of that very name) when he took on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Eric Roth's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's slender short story. What was a cool figure like Fincher doing on a warm love story like that?
"I don't buy this notion that emotion and sentimentality are the same," he argues. "You won't see me on Barbara Walters; Oprah, that's not who I am. I don't like sentimentality because I don't like movies that 'tell' me -- I want to engage in a movie that says, 'Here it is.' It's not a colder point of view; that's reductive. It's more adult."
More adult than the films Fincher loved in his youth, like Jaws and Star Wars? "I loved Luke Skywalker and I loved Darth Vader and I loved watching them work it out," he reflects. "But I also love Chinatown: I love the fact that Jake Gittes [Jack Nicholson] is somebody that people had nothing but contempt for."
Button earned 13 Academy Award nominations and raked in $127 million at the domestic box office. The film drew mixed reviews but reminded the industry that superstars like Brad Pitt -- who also appeared in Seven and Fight Club -- often delivered their best performance for Fincher. And yet its success was bittersweet, not because the film won only three Oscars but because it left him utterly, ineffably drained.
"It took six years to get that through the starting gate," he sighs. "It was just exhausting."