Director Spotlight: David Fincher
by Barry Wurst
March 1, 2007
The dark prince of young, 90's-era directors with a strong ability for crafting grim morality tales, David Fincher, got his start by directing a handful of stunning, stand-out MTV music videos for Madonna and Paula Abdul. His skill at conveying beautiful landscapes and textured imagery got him the job of directing Alien 3 (1992), a position that had been rejected by many and passed around from Renny Harlin to Vincent Ward and into Fincher's lap.
February 28 - David Fincher
The idea was take a young, hungry, unproven but utterly promising filmmaker and allow him to give a distinctive take on the franchise. This was the successful approach that Fox was rewarded with in Ridley Scott and James Cameron, but Fincher was second-guessed and had difficulty and interference from the start. To be fair, the screenplay was half baked and the project had too many suits on board with their idea of what the film should be. The resulting film had a curious response - in America it opened big but fell fast and was not loved by many. In Europe it was considered the best of the three and, as it was received elsewhere, a tremendous worldwide hit. Fincher's depiction of despair, the looming threat of death and a purgatory-like existence make the film a must for completists. It has aged well with rediscovery, though, even with the film's considerable assets, Alien 3 is not a great film and was a stumbling block for Fincher.
Se7en (1995) was even darker (both thematically and visually) and faired poorly in test screenings (as did Pulp Fiction the previous year!). Yet, New Line Cinema sold the concept perfectly, with creepy trailers and the eerie movie posters conveying clearly what the title referred to. Audiences were hungry for more Brad Pitt (who was coming off the one-two punch of Interview with the Vampire and Legends of the Fall being back-to-back hits) and the film's pessimism (both in terms of story and imagery) made it stand out from other films. In fact, the film opened better than Showgirls, which was hugely hyped and unveiled on the same day. This is all concerning the commercial success of the film. As for Se7en itself, it rightly deserves its reputation as an engrossing, beautifully crafted and genuinely disturbing chair grabber. Pitt is first-rate, but the performances by Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow and (especially) Kevin Spacey are the film's most haunting. The wrenching final scene is just one of many that have stayed with audiences like reoccurring nightmares. The most impressive feat of Fincher's film: despite how gruesome the story is, he takes the Hitchcock route. You rarely see much of the horrific crimes, yet the film terrifies.
The Game (1997) followed two years later and was a much-hyped return for Fincher. Audiences had forgotten about Alien 3 and thought of The Game as his sophomore effort (the same way most audiences missed Hard Eight and believed Boogie Nights to be the debut film of P.T. Anderson). While not the box office success that Se7en was and (for some) a disappointing mild thriller compared to his previous film, The Game has the same atmosphere of dread and personal darkness. A modern Christmas Carol, with Michael Douglas as a wealthy Scrooge plagued by a entourage of danger that causes him to rediscover his humanity, the overtly moralistic, trick ending turned off some. While the plot frequently defies logic in favor of blatant surrealism (the TV scene is a perfect example), the film, which is as sad and suspenseful as you'd expect, is Fincher working at the top of his craft. His next film is even better.
Fox had a hard time deciding when to release Fight Club (1999) (it was originally a summer film) and an even harder time figuring out how to market it (they settled on the image of soap, of all things). The competition of other films (like Double Jeopardy, a runaway box office hit for Paramount), the mixed reviews it received and negative news reports that the film was irresponsible and gratuitously violent kept audiences away. The small majority who loved the film during its theatrical run were treated to a riveting, surprisingly funny and fiercely exciting satire. Fight Club gained a deserved cult following on video and DVD, but it was not loved during it's '99 theatrical run and even hardcore fans have varying takes on what exactly the point of the film is. Is it a harsh deconstruction of a fascist regime, or a how-to portrait of vigilante justice? Truly, the film supports both yay and nay arguments (sure, the film takes a moral stance, but how many fight clubs have resulted from this film making white man angst look hip?) The film remains a hot button film that creates discussion and debate. I'm a big fan but admit that the third act doesn't feel right and the climax feels like a film in search of an ending. What is undeniable is how extraordinarily well made the film is (the editing, score, cinematography, sound and art direction are fantastic and Fincher captures a tricky tone of dark humor and bleak intent). Brad Pitt gives a great performance, but he did a similar turn in 12 Monkeys - the real standout is Edward Norton (and, arguably, Meatloaf). Few films have the staying power of Fight Club, which is a favorite movie of many Gen-Y teens.
Panic Room (2002) was a troubled film, initially, with its star Nicole Kidman who was injured from working on Moulin Rouge! dropping out of the lead role. Instead of the film shutting down, Kidman took a voice cameo (a clever touch) and Jodie Foster, who hadn't done a film in four years, took over the part. Foster had originally been cast as Michael Douglas' sister in The Game, which was re-cast and reconstructed for Sean Penn, and Panic Room gave her a chance to come out of retirement and finally work with Fincher. It was a successful union in every sense of the word. David Koepp's screenplay, a high-tech re-working of Wait Until Dark, is a top-notch exercise in seat-grabbing tension and Fincher milks it for all it's worth. Foster gives one of her best, most layered performances and she's matched by everyone in the supporting cast (though special mention goes to Dwight Yoakam - nothing could prepare you for how good he is here). Fincher worked with some inventive digital effects to convey the film's nightmarish scenario and create a sense of place with acrobatic cinematography. While arguably Fincher's most accessible film and comparable to The Game in its top-flight presentation of a somewhat conventional thriller, Panic Room is easily one of his best films.
His latest, Zodiac (opening this weekend), will be met with great anticipation and skepticism (the release date's move from an Oscar ready fall release to March either means the studio wants to give it room to breathe or that it wants to dump an unworthy film). Fincher's films are greatly debated, rightly celebrated and offer his recognizable touch. His films are tough, rarely optimistic and capture human despair and dread at their most primal and can be devastating. Not something you'd expect from the director of Paula Abdul's "Forever Your Girl" video.