Interview: David Fincher Discusses Having Final Cut, Themes & More
by Alex Billington
December 23, 2011
To me, he is a legend. David Fincher, like Chris Nolan or Terrence Malick or the Wachowskis, is one of those incredibly talented (and fan favorite) but unreachable directors, not many people ever get to interview him. So when I got the opportunity to actually interview him in New York recently, mano-a-mano, it was one of those moments where my heart was already racing while replying "yes, I'll be there!" Our focus was obviously on Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, his new film based on Stieg Larsson's novel, now playing, but we also cover topics from having final cut, to themes that interest him in these stories and so much more.
Fincher has a reputation for not liking press, and being a bit crass occasionally. I put all of that aside when I went in to interview him, and it was one of the most incredible experiences I've had running this site. I was originally only supposed to have 10 minutes with him, but since I was his last interview of the day, we just kept talking and it ended up going 25 minutes long. Even that wasn't enough time to get into barely half of the questions I'd spent a long time coming up with, as he gave some very long answers. But sitting there and listening to him speak, even starting to pace around the room trying to answer a few times, it was like listening to and watching a true master speak about his art. So without further ado, let's get right into it…
What are the defining factors found in this project and this story, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that made you decide to direct it?
Fincher: With this movie [Dragon Tattoo] - do I need to make another serial killer movie the rest of my life? No. But I hadn't seen these two people [Mikael & Lisbeth]. I hadn't been asked to direct… A love story is too easy. A story of friendship and personal intimacy, sexual intimacy, they are…
Something you hadn't seen before? Or is it just the way…
Fincher: I've seen people take odd people from different sides of the street to team up to solve a murder mystery. I hadn't seen this one. I thought she, in conjunction with him, was a team that was unlike anything that I was prepared for. Then I saw the Swedish movie and I thought, "Interesting… The movie I have in my head is different." Talked to [screenwriter] Steve Zaillian, he was halfway through a script, and when he sent it to me, it was kind of what we had talked about, which was: "Let's bring them front and center. Is anybody really keeping track of the Vanger clan and who's in the drawing room with a pipe? Or is all of this something else? An excuse for something else?"
I think that the modernity, the thing that made it a new take on the locked room mystery, was not the foundation of socialism on the Third Reich war profiteering… That's perfectly good and that's perfectly understandable, but that's what [author] Stieg Larsson was about and what he was up in arms about. He certainly was talking about the dark black liquid underbelly of this other… Sweden is still - I still saw it on the list the other day of the top 10 countries for women to live in. It was number three or something. And yet, Larsson would say, and there are many, many reports that would say to you, there's a disproportionately high rate of rape in this country.
So all those thing were interesting to me, but that's all backdrop. I love Chinatown. I'm not really that interested in how water was brought to the San Fernando Valley, except in this case it's a very interesting sort of thematic way to hold this investigation together, and worthy of its place in the pantheon of movies. But the thing to me, ultimately, that was fascinating in the story was him [Mikael] and her [Lisbeth].
I have to ask, is it true that you have final cut at Columbia Pictures?
This is a rhetorical question, but would you have it any other way? You seem to be one of the only ones who has that nowadays.
Fincher: No, that's not true.
Well, at least with a major studio. At least with Columbia/Sony Pictures, right?
Fincher: No. I had it on Benjamin Button. I had it on Zodiac. I've had it since Panic Room.
To me, from what I've observed and from my standpoint, that makes for better films, right?
Fincher: Not always. I mean, look - I look back on stuff that I was… I can flip through channels and see on HBO a movie that I did years ago and I look at it and I go, "aww I coulda made that better. I could tell that story faster now." It's a hard thing. I don't know that final cut… it doesn't protect you from people saying to you, "You should look at this. You should really…" It's not always that polite. I don't think final cut protects you or insulates you from people's opinions. You've taken tens of millions of dollars to make a movie. It's somebody else's money. So you're going into it and you're hoping that if you can align this actor, and this actor, and this actor and get this chemistry between this, and make this work, and get to Sweden on time before it's suddenly 30 degrees below zero every day and the sun is only out for three hours - you have all those things that are going on. I don't know that final cut makes the movie better. Because when it gets right down to it, I didn't have final cut of Fight Club. And that's a movie that you would expect a movie studio to step in and go, "No, no, no, Mr. Fincher. Please."
And yet, you know, because [producer] Laura Ziskin, may she rest in peace, and Bill Mechanic were people of their word, and because all discussions were had upfront about, "Here's what we're trying to accomplish, and here's why it's seditious, and here's why it should be done at this kind of scale rather than at this lesser scale, and here are the…" You know, there's a great place in the pantheon of risk takers if you go with this. There were many, many things that people… there were concessions that were made. This idea that a director is only really a director if he's stomping his feet, crossing his arms, and holding his breath, it's bullshit.
I wrote this, actually, to [Sony executive] Michael Lynton at one point because we were disagreeing about something. I said to him, "I'm smart enough to know that these ideas are going to be attributed to me whether they're mine or not. If you come up with a good idea, I want to take credit for it." I believe that. I mean, I honestly believe if you show me something that I want take - I will fucking run with it. You know what I mean? I'm no dummy. What I don't want is those ideas that I know are not a reflection of any of the thinking that went into the making of this thing. I don't want that stuff reflected. I don't want it to reflect on me because it can be confusing. Look, nobody wanted to say "The Feel Bad Movie of Christmas". Everybody thought it was coy. There were people who wrote articles about the fact that it was coy, that it was silly.
I laughed. I did it as a joke initially. And when I saw it on the screen, I thought, "Well, we are counter-programming because this movie does have a lot of… it is sinister and it has a lot of sodomy." People are treated badly in this movie. That doesn't mean that it's not worth the journey because it's harrowing. And as I watched the trailer over and over again, I thought, "You know, it is the feel bad movie of Christmas." That's a great sort of expression of what we want to say about it. We want it to be… it ain't It's a Wonderful Life.
And, in the end, you know, there was a lot of resistance. And, in the end, to their credit, [Sony execs] Amy Pascal, Michael Lynton said, "Okay. You want to do that. We'll do that. We'll go there for you."
I've also heard that you are very controlling on the set in terms of making sure everything is perfect. Light in certain areas…
Fincher: I'm not controlling. I am…
Fincher: Yeah! That's my job. Light, to me, makes a mood. So the mood can either be an appropriate one or it can be an inappropriate one. Sometimes it's right to be inappropriate. Sometimes if you want to have a shocking murder take place, like in Zodiac, the fact that it happens at three o'clock in the afternoon on a bright, sunny September afternoon, that can be… that's what was shocking about the murder. That's what was shocking about what took place Lake Berryessa, is that it happened in broad daylight. And here were these people screaming for their lives and you go, "How is that possible?"
Well, I mean, it wasn't designed to be that, it just simply was that. And you could look at it and say, "Well, maybe it should take place at… maybe the sun should be setting and maybe it should be more idyllic. Maybe it should be big puffy clouds with a pink sunset…" But, to me, the thing that was kind of blatant, and raw, and scary about it was here they are and they're going, "What is that man all dressed in black for? What is he doing?"
As part of this question, is it harder at this point to have that much specificity on a set, or is it becoming easier? Even just from the press conference earlier, I learned that part of this film was shot in Los Angeles (all interiors) versus Sweden (all exteriors).
Fincher: No. In Sweden you can shoot eight hours a day; Los Angeles you can shoot 12 to 14 hours a day. You can get more done. On average, on a day of shooting, you waste about two hours unloading the truck and getting everybody caffeinated and getting them all on the same page and rehearsing and doing all that stuff. So if you've got a 14 hour shoot day, you've got 12 hours of shooting. If you have an eight hour shoot day, you have six hours of shooting. That's a big difference. Because there's two hours of grab-ass no matter what. That's just the reality of it.
So one of the reasons that it took so long to make this movie, the amount of days, was because we probably shot 60% of the movie in Sweden, and that 60% was at… it has different productivity values to it. Now, it's cheaper to shoot in Sweden because the crews are smaller and you don't have as much specialization. There are people who do multiple things. But if you can only shoot for eight hours… you gotta do that math.
I totally understand. I ask because I love the way you shoot and the way your films look. It's cinematic, but also real. I feel like that comes from how much care you put into every little detail. Has that, over your career, become something that is a challenge every time you make a movie, or has it become something you just do now then focus on performances instead?
Fincher: Well, look, I think originally… I mean, when you're 27 making a movie, it's a different thing than when you're 49 making a movie. When you're 27 and saying, "I really want the camera to be here," there's all kinds of people going, "Really? Don't you think it's a little too…" And now I say, "I want to put the camera here," and people go, "Let us get it there. If you will excuse us, we'll put it where you want it." So, obviously, that changes. But that is not to say that you don't… you can't stay sharp without friction. You need a certain amount of friction.
I don't believe in being the guy that everybody kowtows to. But I do believe in being able to say, "Here are the things that I hold important in this," and that people commit that to memory. I don't want to be in a position of having to have the same discussion about whatever it is time and time again. I feel like I go to a lot of trouble to elucidate why it is that I want things to be a certain, specific way. It's not out of whim. It's very much out of… Trent and Atticus and I discussed early on, "How do you make it sound cold? What sounds cold to you?" Bells. Okay, crystal. Something that sounds like snow. We want to get a sense of space. So that's reverb, that's echo. You need a kind of clarity of tone and you need to be able to create a spatial envelope for it. So there are all those things.
Now, you know, we argued back and forth over whether or not there would be the sort of plinky piano in the flashback stuff. Eventually, he's Trent fucking Reznor. [If] I'm talking to Stellan Skarsgard or Daniel Craig about who they think their character is, I defer to them. That's their responsibility. I have to figure out a way to fit them into it and I have to figure out a way to explain what my issues are if something is X, Y, or Z. I'll always shoot a take if an actor says, "I want to try this." Abso-fucking-lutely, man. I don't pay millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, to people to come in and be a hand puppet. You want them to author that. That's their thing. You hire really, really talented people… I want to treat them like I want to be treated, which is go where you want to go.
So it's not… "Final cut" is a little bit of a misnomer. Final cut doesn't mean that you are hermetically sealed away from people's disappointment or people feeling that the movie is too long, or people feeling that the story can't be better told a different way. Final cut just means that, at a certain point, you have the ability to end the discussion. You have the ability to say: "I understand. I see what you are saying. I don't think it is a better version of this. This is what I believe in. This is what I want to put my name on." And there's nothing that you can put in a contract that's going to make people like it when you do that. So you haven't really circumnavigated any of the interpersonal issues with it. You've simply just said, "Here's a contractual understanding of at what point this discussion ends."
And, you know, if it costs $100 million to make a movie, it's going to cost somewhere near that to open it worldwide. You want the people who gave you the money to make the movie be enthusiastic about the movie that they're going out into the world to sell. It doesn't make any sense to cut off your nose to spite your face. However, it then becomes your responsibility to say, "Here's why I think it's the best version of it. Here's why I think it's the best evocation of what I found in Sweden, and what I found with these characters, and what I found with these different actors. And this is why I think it's the best stringing together of all the mandolin picks that go into making up a movie."
The other thing I want to mention, it seems, at least with your last two films, that these are the only films I have seen in a long time, ever probably, that have realistic computer usage in them and real computer screens. So I guess my final question is - why?
Fincher: Why haven't you seen it before…?
Yeah! How are you getting this done? And why don't we see this elsewhere? It's one of those things, to me, I love—real hacks, real tabbing, everything.
Fincher: Because part of how the characters are being or how they are to be presented is about their mastery of this kind of communication. Mark Zuckerberg - it's very important that you see somebody that even though he's a punk in a dorm room in the middle of the night and he may be half drunk, there's a facility he has, a mastery that he has which is very important to who he is at his marrow. It's very important to what he accomplished, it's very important to what he's fighting so violently to protect. It's an extension of him.
You know, it's that great line in Broadcast News where Albert Brooks says, "I see it. I say it in here and it comes out there." You need to see this guy go [machine gun typing sound]… Doc Bailey, who unfortunately passed away years ago, was a visual effects guy. I've never seen anybody hit the keys as hard as this guy did. He would go through keyboards like two or three a year. It was almost like a punch. You were just watching this guy… You know, my dad typed really, really fast. He could probably type 120 to 130 words a minute. But this guy literally… It was like Bobby Fischer typing. I mean it was like - this is a machine.
I wanted to… in both of these cases, it was so important to me that Lisbeth be… how do you show somebody who is a fucking hacker? This interface has to be invisible. The thing that she changes, the way that she's able to move around and move through this world has to flow. It has to be somebody who you can see them changing the surroundings as quickly as they think. That was it.
We got into these discussions early on when we were talking about The Social Network: "Well, should we build all the stuff on videotape and play it back [on the screen]…" I was like, "Are you out of your mind? I can make the fucking thing green. Let them pantomime. Let them know what they're doing, the kinds of keys that they need to be hitting, because we're not going to see any of it very fast, but they need to be able to do this quickly, and then we're going to go over the shoulder and we're going to see that stuff flying around, and a second and a half, two seconds, three seconds later, boom." We don't want to make The Net.
That's what I'm saying! You haven't fallen into the tropes of… every other movie I see has some cheesy screen. You know, some wannabe YouTube with a different name. But this is the Mac OS X operating system as we know it. This is the internet, Google, everything.
Fincher: The whole idea is to dip like a teabag into this world. You want to be steeped in this world. Why make up stuff that doesn't need to be made up?
I feel exactly that way.
Fincher: Yeah, it's stupid. For me, it's like the 555 number. Literally makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time I see the 555 number.
Thank you to Sony/Columbia for arranging. And thank you to Mr. Fincher for allowing me to interview him. This will go down in my life as one of the most exciting opportunities I've ever had that I won't soon forget. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is playing in theaters now!