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Punk. Prophet. Genius.

David Fincher
Frank W. Ockenfels 3

David Fincher, the iconoclastic helmer is anti-authority to his very core — just like the heroes of ‘The Social Network’ and his upcoming movie ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’ Will his refusal to toe the line hurt him?

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 percent 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.


“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.” — David Fincher

“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.”

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 percent 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.”

♦♦♦♦♦

The desire to avoid that exhaustion came into play with Social Network.

Initially developed as a project for writer Aaron Sorkin to direct, the screenplay was brought to Fincher by Rudin. “I was given it on a Friday, I read it on a Saturday and on Monday I was in a room with [Sony Pictures co-chairman] Amy Pascal,” he recalls.

After making sure Sorkin was willing to step aside, “I said, ‘I want to make the movie, but I don’t want to make it next spring. We have to be as close to ground zero with this phenomenon as we can. We have to be in Cambridge in the fall.’ ”

Sony agreed. Following the usual back and forth — the studio wanted to make the film for $25 million; Fincher insisted on $42 million — shooting began three months later. Unlike Zodiac, where Fincher and Sony had parted ways over casting, the studio accommodated the director’s wishes.

“I said, ‘You gotta have 20- to 25-year-old kids. You have to give me free rein to find the best people for these parts,’ ” he remembers. “Now, I said this on Zodiac and I got the list and it’s Russell Crowe
and Tom Cruise. This time, Amy wanted me to meet people in the Sony fold. I said, ‘Let’s cast it widely.’ They came back and said, ‘We get it. Go.’ ”

“Go” meant allowing Fincher to shoot Sorkin’s 162-page script uncut. After 68 days of filming in Boston and Los Angeles, when Sony saw his rough edit — missing only the Henley regatta sequence that would later be filmed to fit Trent Reznor’s prewritten music — “They didn’t ask for any changes,” he says.

The studio’s marketing executives were more resistant. “We had the one-sheet and we had to get that through,” Fincher notes. “[Key art designer] Neil Kellerhouse came to us with one that had the tagline, ‘Punk prophet genius billionaire thief.’ It was fantastic, but for about four months it was, ‘You can’t do that! We’re not going to get involved in a lawsuit!’ ”

Fincher smiles. “I wanted ‘Punk prophet genius billionaire Judas.’ ”

Now he’s back in the Sony saddle with Dragon Tattoo.

It’s two weeks after our first meeting, and we’re in a tiny trailer at Paramount, where Fincher is filming Dragon on six soundstages — even more than Button — and is huddled with his longtime companion and producer, Cean Chaffin. An initial offer to visit the set has been scuttled at the last minute, possibly because of Craig’s reluctance to be spotted with Rachel Weisz, though Fincher avoids the subject.

Despite getting a huge budget and precisely the actors he’s wanted, Fincher seems frazzled, dealing with an overheated studio where air conditioning has to pump in cold air to simulate the bitter Swedish winter — an ironic contrast to his Swedish shoot, where the actors had to pretend the sun was baking while temperatures stooped to 40 degrees.

“I’ve been shouting at everyone all morning,” Fincher grouses, only half-joking.

Chaffin glances over, concerned. They’ve worked together for 18 years and been a couple for 15, since Fincher split with his first wife following a brief marriage that left him with one daughter.

Meeting Chaffin casts Fincher in a whole new light. She’s as warm and open as he can seem chilly and remote. “We’re oil and water,” he jokes. But in fact, Chaffin reminds you of all the things it’s easy to overlook with Fincher: His complete rejection of the Hollywood trappings; his loyalty to those closest to him; his strong bond with family; his utter immersion in the work.

“Cean is very supportive of David,” Kopelson says. “She makes it possible for him to be totally enmeshed in his life of making movies.”

He’ll be enmeshed in Dragon quite a while longer. With a shoot that includes locations in Stockholm, Zurich and England, he still has 90 days of filming ahead. It’s a giant project that Fincher initially avoided when his Button producers, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, broached it.

“I had just been through five years pushing a rock,” he explains. “I sort of felt, ‘F---, I can’t see anybody wanting to make a movie of this scale about a tattooed, bisexual hacker in Stockholm.’ I can’t go tap-dancing again.”

He continued to resist even when Rudin obtained the rights. “I was skeptical because the book is huge and there are so many characters,” he says. “But what put it over the top was [Sony chairman] Michael Lynton and Amy’s insistence that they loved the idea of a franchise for adults. If you can’t do a piece like this as a franchise, there’s no chance of ever doing one.”

Not that it’s been easy. First, there was the issue of casting the lead, Social’s Mara. Then Fincher had trouble with his director of photography, replacing him with Jeff Cronenweth. And finally came the reality of filming in Sweden. “In the EU, you can’t shoot a 12-hour day,” he explains.

Between that, the weather and the actors’ complicated schedules, Fincher has had his hands full, though he’s thrilled with Mara. “We got her an apartment in Stockholm and she kind of disappeared,” he says. “She learned how to ride a motorcycle and got all of her piercings and tattoos. Also, I asked her to learn how to skateboard because you need to stand like a 13-year-old boy. I said, ‘I don’t want you to stand like a girl.’ ”

Insiders who’ve seen Steven Zaillian’s script say it focuses far more on her character, Lisbeth Salander, than the Swedish adaptation of the book. So Fincher desperately needs Mara to deliver — just as the studio needs him.

“There are degrees of wrong, but ultimately I’m responsible,” he says. “I’m either liberated or hamstrung by the material I’m trying to make. But if I’m hamstrung, it’s my f---ing fault.” He runs his hand through his hair, thinking. Even with that rifle back in his studio, should he ever need it, there are limits to what he can do.

“You’re in charge, but you’re not in control,” the famously controlling director says. “Anybody who thinks they are in control is nuts.”           

FINCHER’S GLOBAL BOXOFFICE

The Social Network, 2010: $213.6M
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008: $334M
Zodiac, 2007: $84.8M
Panic Room, 2002: $196.4M
Fight Club, 1999: $100.9M
The Game, 1997: $109.4M
Seven, 1995: $327.3M
Alien 3, 1992: $159.8M

Worldwide Total: $1.53B

 

Columbia Tristar Marketing Group
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Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection
Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection