David Fincher: The Complex Mind of 'Social Network's' Anti-Social Director
The following article appears in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter on newsstands Thursday.
"I'm going to gut this place!"
David Fincher saunters through the fortress-like, 11,000-square-foot Hollywood studio he bought back in 2002 that's the closest thing he has to his own private fiefdom. It's as big as his talent, as vast as his imagination -- but it's still not quite right. "Maybe I'll rip down the walls and have everybody in one open space," he declares. "What do you think?"
He smiles slyly, tipping his goateed head to one side, almost daring you to disagree. It's early morning on New Year's Day and the director's latest film, The Social Network, is just embarking on a roller-coaster ride that will see it win the top critics awards, then lose at the all-important PGA, DGA and SAG -- mainly to rival The King's Speech. But Fincher is in a mood to provoke.
He points to a rifle placed strategically on a desk, "a reminder of the consequences," he quips, without stating for whom. Perhaps he means for the awards voters or for any studio executive who take him on -- though right now, few would dream of it.
A year and a half since he agreed to turn the improbable story of a billionaire computer nerd into one of the most original pictures in years, Fincher, 48 -- a large, authoritative man, coolly commanding even in jeans and a black sweatshirt -- has become a superstar, flooded with offers for projects like his upcoming The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It's an odd twist for a director who's kept a skeptical distance from Hollywood most of his life, and might have factored into his DGA loss.
Alone on this rare day off, except for an eager assistant who hurries to fetch us coffee, he guides me through his studio, past production rooms and sound booths and a tiny theater and into the art department, where images abound from Dragon Tattoo, the story of a bisexual hacker and the journalist she helps unravel a murder mystery.
There are pictures of his heroine's apartment, the isolated house where some of the action takes place and a dungeon that's pivotal to the climax. Photos of various actors line the walls, many in different shades of color, which Fincher and his team used to explore ways to render the period when the photos would have been taken.
There's also an aerial view of the island at the heart of the story, carefully charting each locale's relationship to the others. Fincher has immersed himself in every detail of its geography, just as he has Stieg Larsson's best-seller on which the film is based. He's a master of the meticulous -- famous for his obsessive research and endless takes, sometimes 50 or more per set-up; even so, he shrugs, "At best you get 60% of what you want."
Finally, we reach his spare, modern office, centered on a wooden desk as imposing as Fincher himself. Warming up -- as much as he ever allows himself -- he takes out an iPad and clicks on a photo he's planning to use for the Dragon poster. It shows actor Daniel Craig half-hidden behind co-star Rooney Mara, who's looking directly into the camera. Her hair is spiky, her face pierced with rings, her body covered in tattoos. It's black and white and beautiful, but there's no way in hell any studio will ever let Fincher use it, as he knows.
Because Mara is naked from the waist up.
"He is systematically anti-authoritarian," says Bill Mechanic, the former Fox chairman who greenlighted Fincher's controversial 1999 drama Fight Club. "He challenges authority, challenges decisions."
Fincher has been challenging them ever since growing up in Marin County, Calif.; ever since getting his big break making commercials at the ridiculous age of 21; ever since shooting his first film, Alien 3, when he fought the studio so hard he got fired three times.
Now he expresses just a modicum of regret. "You don't want to see people cut off their noses to spite their face," he says. "But I probably did on my first movie because I foolishly thought being this squeaky wheel was the only way to be heard." Fincher fought bitterly to make Aliens 3 his, while the studio wanted it to be just another cog in its release schedule. The result was a work neither side liked.
Fincher was 27 when he got the job, and his career was flaring like a rocket, but now it seemed poised to fizzle. The failure of Alien 3, made worse by inevitable comparisons to its Ridley Scott and James Cameron predecessors, must have hurt more than he lets on. Critics panned it and the film made a disastrous $55.5 million domestically -- quite a contrast to the success of Fincher videos such as Madonna's Express Yourself and Aerosmith's Janie's Got a Gun.
"He was very successful at a young age and had people try to take it away from him, and he knows what that feels like," his Social producer, Scott Rudin, says. But it still didn't make him toe the line. "He has an anarchist's mentality," the producer adds. "He likes to blow up systems."
Even when those systems benefit Fincher himself.
Time and again he refuses to do what's expected, declining interviews, even poking at the people who most support him. "I've been frustrated by what society wanted from me," he acknowledges, though he's hardly the confessional sort. "I flip through catalogs and don't see anybody who's like me. Flip through a J.C. Penney catalog and you go, 'None of these people hold any of my concerns.' "
But aren't they the very people who watch his movies? He shrugs, indifferent. "The comfort zone," he says, is when they love and hate his work in equal measure. He recalls attending the premiere of Martin Scorsese's 1982 release The King of Comedy and thinking, "This is fantastic -- to take an audience to a place where they feel genuine discomfort!"
Where Fincher's love of discomfort comes from is hard to gauge. The son of a Life magazine journalist and a mental-health nurse, it was his father who introduced him to film. "My dad loved movies," he says. "We used to drive into San Francisco and watch matinees." At age 7, he saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. "It was mind-altering. They're building full-scale trains and blowing them up. They're firing blanks at each other and riding on horseback and traveling to these locations -- and there's Katharine Ross! Who would want to do anything else?"
Six months later, Fincher's parents bought him a Super 8 camera and he started making his own films. It was liberating compared to his experiences at an alternative school, where "I was a disinterested student. I don't think I was trouble; I just never bought into the idea that you are supposed to behave this way because somebody is wearing a badge."
Life changed at 14 when Fincher's family, including his two sisters, relocated to Ashland, Ore. The teenager dreamed of returning to San Francisco and joining Industrial Light + Magic, the company created by his former neighbor, George Lucas.
"It was like, I'm getting further and further from the thing that I want to do," he recalls, thinking that if Lucas -- whom he never knew well, though they lived on the same street ("He was a very quiet guy") -- could make a career in the Bay Area, so could he.
After working as a local theater projectionist while at school -- where he fell for films like Klute, All the President's Men and Being There -- he volunteered at a TV station, got a job with an animation company, then at 19 joined ILM, where he served as an assistant cameraman and matte photographer.
His parents tolerated his refusal to go to college. But at ILM, while he discovered how brilliant others could be, he was also reminded that the establishment wasn't always right. "I thought, 'This is a bunch of guys in Wrangler jeans and plaid shirts who are scratching their asses and trying to figure this thing out,' " he notes. "It was horrifying and liberating at the same time. I realized I had fallen for this idea, because George Lucas has blessed these people with a place to blather around, that they were somehow uber-qualified. Really, it was just a bunch of people trying to figure something out."