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David Jenkins

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David Fincher: ‘A lot of luck goes into making a movie’

The director reveals how he approached adapting Gillian Flynn’s psychological best-seller, ‘Gone Girl’.

David Fincher is a director who requires no real introduction. He’s thought of as a saviour of American neo-noir with the fastidiousness of Kubrick. With titles like Se7en, Zodiac, The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to his name, he’s created some of the most memorable and innovative – and not to mention, greatest – films of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

For his latest endeavour, he has taken on a(nother) literary behemoth (following his take on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), this time its Gillian Flynn brutal, perspective-switching kidnap saga, Gone Girl. Here, he talks about the challenges of bringing this film to the screen, but also on crude public perceptions of Hollywood and moviemaking.

LWLies: It’s hard to think of films in which the focus is equally divided between two characters. Was this a challenge in the case of Gone Girl?

Fincher: We had the two parallel stories in Dragon Tattoo, at least for the first hour. Which was weird, because the audience is then waiting for them to cross over. It’s like the Batman TV show, where you have the villain over here doing his thing, and Batman over here doing his. There’s usually the promise of intersection. But with this film, the dangling participle is – is she dead? And if she’s not dead, where is she? So that’s a slightly different thing, because I felt you had to be alongside him, wondering whether or not he’s a monster.

There’s a mid-point switch in the book. Does having a big event right in the central point of a narrative translate to cinematic storytelling and pacing?

In the movie it’s almost at the half-way point. But, yeah, everything is modulated. You try to modulate all the performances, you try to modulate all the rhythms of how you’re doling out information. You also keep in mind where the enjoyment is for this character thread, where’s the enjoyment for the audience in watching this relationship. And you do it all knowing that in three pages, the other shoe’s gonna drop. My hope is not to make the discussion about that switch. It’s not going to be marketed like Psycho. No-one admitted to the theatre after it has started.

A big cardboard standee version of yourself.

Turn off your cell phones!

Spoilers is a hot term at the moment. People are verbally thrashed for giving plots away.

And rightly so. I think that the bane of our existence when we’re making movies is… It’s like someone buying a VCR but having to see all the schematics. It’s not enough to say, we have a movie, here are the themes which it’ll be sort-of dealing with, here’s a taster of the tone. But the promise of the thing has to be imagined. More and more, people have some bizarre idea that they need to see exactly what happens in the movie and the five best jokes. I love to see movies without knowing anything about them.

Does this explain the enigmatic nature of the trailers you produce?

They’re supposed to be slippery. What did you know going into the book?

Nothing.

No-one knew anything going into the book and, somehow, they sold seven million of them. I think this story has been wind-tunnel tested. I think that’s ultimately why studios buy up hit books; because you know that a few million people have already enjoyed the ride.

Is it your job to figure out why people liked it?

I can’t figure out why other people like it. I know why I like it. I know the things that were interesting that kept coming up in conversations. And then also, to work on a script with the person who wrote the novel, that can be a gift. There can also be a lot of frustration. Or certainly it can be perceived that way. Will this person be able to see the forest for the trees? Or will they be so wed to how difficult it was to make this storyline work that they’re not willing to jettison certain elements when it doesn’t? I know that’s a commonly-held philosophy about novelists. But with Gillian, it couldn’t be further from the truth. She has – and David Koepp has it too – that love of where the audience is in the narrative. She was very good at taking things that were 13 chapters into the book and saying, well that could be in the introduction. She picked out the traits that needed to be dramatised, but didn’t necessarily put them in the same chronological order.

Had she written a draft before you came on board?

No, I got sent the book. I liked the book. They told me that Gillian was working on a draft and did I want to involve myself. I said, I see no reason to now she’s already working. Let’s see what she comes up with. My biggest issue was how she was going to handle the diary entries. If she can figure that out, she should take the thing home. That’s the biggest quandary, cinematically speaking. I read her first draft – it was long, but it was all there. She had jumped that hurdle, and so simply.

One of her reference points for the book was Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Was nastiness one of your tonal benchmarks?

Nastiness is subjective. I was interested in the material because I loved Gillian’s idea of narcissism, and narcissism in attraction. The idea that a person feels they’re deserving of a certain type of spouse, and the degree to which people will build a façade in order to ensnare another person whose own façade seems like it’s compatible. I liked how spouses find that, after three, four, five years, they get exhausted keeping up their end of the delusion. I liked that, but played out in front of this insane backdrop of the cable TV news cycle.

The story seems to double as a satire of hysterical rolling news coverage.

It’s an interesting thing, because you’re wondering how satirical you can be. You watch these shows and there’s nothing to make fun of. You have to play it straight. You can’t take that stuff and hyperbolise it enough because it just looks like what it is, which is screaming speculation. I like those elements. I like the idea of what’s going on behind the bedroom door, and how close scrutiny changes inter-personal dynamics. So, how do you act around your sister when you’ve just been accused of incest on television? Do you kiss ’em good night? What’s an inappropriately long hug? And the notion of normalcy and perception: The good wife, the good husband, the good neighbour, the good Christian. It’s obvious that Gillian is curious about what everyone else is up to, then she draws it through the ringer and stretches it out and lets you see it for all of its absurdity.

If you look at the comments on book websites, the fans have factionalised into Team Amy and Team Nick. Yet, I found that one of the story’s major strengths was that it comes down on neither side.

It sits on the fence looking down at both yards, aghast and agog.

Was balancing on that fence hard when you were making the film?

Most people don’t have to look too far to find that kind of example of a marriage. I dunno, maybe I’m too cynical? I never came down on either side. It wasn’t hard for me to see that they both have issues. Obviously there are certain interpersonal standards that are being played among this couple – there are things about her which he resents which are universal, and vice versa. There’s definitely a Rashomon sense of how things are remembered by certain characters. It’s the whole thing of, what’s the most reliable point of view? Who has the most to lose at any given juncture?

It’s an interesting role for Ben Affleck to play. I felt there was a lot of crossover with his character in Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder.

Hmm. Maybe. I’ve seen To The Wonder and… it’s different, but related. Yeah, it’s funny because I was walking off the sound stage one day and I overheard Rosamund [Pike] talking to Ben. She was saying, “what do you think David saw in my work that made him think of casting me for this role?” Ben said, “I dunno, I couldn’t tell you.” I walked over and said, “The question you should be asking is, what have I seen in Ben’s work that made me cast him.” He laughed. But it is. It’s not the kind of role that most leading men go looking for. Yes, I’d like for someone to take a steamroller and grind me in to paste veeery slowly.

Are you looking at other movies when casting?

Yes, but I’m also looking at “the person”. I hadn’t seen all of Rosamund’s work. I’d seen four or five things. The Bond movie, Jack Reacher. They always seemed to be two years apart. I was intrigued that, even after seeing four of five movies, I had no sense of her. She was sort-of opaque. In An Education, I even found myself not being aware of what her age was. That was an intriguing thing. Then I met her and she had the most important thing that Amy needed to have, which is that Rosamund was raised as an only child. You just feel it. It’s not that she’s not socialised, but that she’s an orchid. She has that sense. It’s not entitlement, but if you’ve spend your young life being around adults and not other kids, you carry yourself differently. Ben’s thing was that he had lived through this kind of “attention”. You can tell that he has made his peace with it. He has considerable charm. You can tell that he’s willing to trade on that. Oftentimes, that can lead to sticky things becoming stickier. And that was key – you have to have that to be Nick. He’s really bright as an actor. He was willing to demean himself.

In past interviews I’ve often read you talking about “putting the camera where it should be.”

By that I mean, where you think the story is. The most fun part of executive producing a TV show [House of Cards] was seeing everyone else’s dailies. It’s so weird because you’ve read the script, you’ve seen storyboards, if it’s a complicated sequence, you’ve listened to the read-through. Then the dailies come in and you’re like, “Really?! That side of the Oval Office is where you think that scene is?” It was interesting seeing stuff filter in. Stuff I would’ve never thought would be a quiet moment or a tossed-off moment at the end of the scene. A lot of cases, I’d be thinking why are we here, why are we looking at this thing in this way, and as the coverage progressed, you see what’s going on. He’s making the most out of this or that. Sometimes you have to wait for people to show you their hand and what they’re capable of and what they’re thinking. I feel that in this business you bet on horses not races. The greatest thing about doing House of Cards was telling all these directors that they have final cut. I’m gonna chime in, but I definitely know how to go fuck myself. If you give people that authority and respect, they’re going to work harder. It was an interesting lesson. I know that for me it’s really important to get the master just right. I’m a little more didactic about that first communication of an idea.

Did the process of working in TV change how you worked on Gone Girl?

No. I don’t think so. On House of Cards, we were told that we had to work fast and we couldn’t shoot 20 takes. And I did it anyway. It’s the only way I know how. The first three are rehearsals. Then you start making it more concise, weeding out the bad stuff. I don’t think I moved any faster. I took 100 days to shoot this movie. I think for me, House of Cards was fun for me having that company, all those faces, to go in and work with every day. Making Gone Girl, I was probably more attuned to finding a good ensemble. I was more interested in doing something with a group of eight or 10 really good actors as opposed to doing something with two or three. I enjoy the rehearsal part. Figuring out the tone.

Is it hard for you to say, this is the final movie, this is where we stop? Could you go on forever?

No. One could, but I don’t think I could. There will always be scenes which you think could be better. The weird thing is that, for the most part, the scenes you look at and think are going to be really hard, those are the scenes you spend all the time and money orchestrating. Then there’s always some little stupid scene that should go off without a hitch that you have to go back and reshoot it two, three times. Then you cut it. The hanging chads of movies.

Do you have a better idea of what those hanging chads will be now than you did, say, 10 years ago?

No, no. They’re always a surprise, because if they weren’t you’d be planning for them. It’s always like, how are we going to age a guy in reverse? That’s what all the money gets spent on. That part was easy. Then we’re left with, how you gonna work with 84-year-old extras? Oh my… I forgot, that’s going to be really hard. You never quite get it all the way you’d wanna.

Is filmmaking replicating an image you already have in your head?

No, no. Maybe it was initially, when you’re first trying to facilitate a shooting schedule or be involved in movies, or commercials. All you have to lean on is what you saw. As you get more comfortable, you realise that when you’re shooting and you’ve done 15 takes or something, they don’t have to be a refinement of the same idea. Often, we see directors working and we think that they’re taking something and they’re minutely tightening it. There are also times when you have to pull the pin and let the pressure off. So you say, now do a take like you’ve never met. Just as a palate cleanser. I think you should have a very specific idea of what it is that you want. All of us together trying to catch lighting in a bottle on a given day.

So a modulation of an image more than a refinement?

I’d say, you’ve written the music, all the orchestra’s there. But to only do what was written is maybe not to take advantage of a great first violin, or a great oboe player. There are times when you just want people to deliver information, and there are times when you want a solo.

I’m naive about the physical process of making movies.

Really?

I don’t think I’ve experienced that side of things in any meaningful way.

You have to if you’re going to write about film. The imperfection of it and the grab-ass problem solving douchbaggery of it is incredibly important in understanding what goes on. The movie business did this to itself. The reason why the movie business is so expensive is there’s this perception that everything is done perfectly. There’s this belief in infrastructure and training and the fact that everyone is so specialised. I remember, especially when I was working at Industrial Light and Magic, I was 19, the whole idea that what George Lucas had built this new NASA, this incredibly efficient system. And it wasn’t.

You have to realise how much luck goes into making a movie. For the most part, we don’t get to test movies any more, thanks to previews crashers. So it’s incredibly important if you’re writing about film to see how it gets made. Not to say that to write about sausage you need to see sausage being made, but I do think there’s this fucked up perception that everything is measured in advance and everyone knows what the outcome’s gonna be. That’s just not the case. It’s much more like tennis. You can win or lose a match based on a couple of serves or a couple of returns you miss, and in the same way, you can fuck a whole scene up.

A lot of what you’re doing as a director is mitigating against a disastrous outcome. It’s an interesting time to make movies, though. Talking about specialisation – the reason movies have gotten more expensive is because the perception is that everything we’re doing is very, very precious and has to be done perfectly. It’s not like you go and rent a car and the character drives a car. You have to rent a fleet of them in case one breaks. It’s a perceived importance. There’s this sense that it’s a military operation. And it is a military operation, and if you’ve ever seen a military operation you’d be shocked that anyone ever comes out alive. Ninety people working together cannot find their ass with a flashlight.

Did you see Soderbergh’s speech in San Francisco? He was lamenting the death of medium-sized movies.

They’re too risky. If you look at movies like… I guess, All the President’s Men was important enough and based on a big enough transgression. But take a movie like Klute – I don’t think that movie would be made today. I mean, The Godfather would have a hard time being made today. Even if you could put up the $75 million it would take to make that movie today, and you could guarantee that it would be one of the greatest movies of all time, people would still go, “$75 million? I dunno man, that’s a lot of bread…” There are realities to our business. The bottom has fallen out. Dramas that cost more than $20 million, you’re taking a big risk. I think Soderbergh was right. And it’s sad. I think the thing is to make movies cheaper. People are migrating to television to find characters that aren’t spandex-clad superheroes.

Have you ever had one of these mega blockbusters dangled in front of you?

I don’t think anyone would come to me with a money-is-no-object proposition. No, I was ready to go to Australia and make 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was going to be a big tentpole summer movie, but there was a lot of riptide to it. It was not just the hero’s journey.

Was it a case of, as they say, creative differences?

You get over $200 million… all motion picture companies have corporate culture and corporate anxieties. Once we got past the list of people we could cast as the different characters in the film, once we got past one or two names which made them very comfortable, making a movie at that price, it became this bizarre endeavour to find which three names you could rub together to make platinum.

Were you one of those names?

No, I’m talking about actors.

I know, but you’re a name.

I’m a certain kind of promise. I wanted Aronnax to be French, god forbid! It got to be a little too confusing to me. I had this argument with a studio executive one time where he said to me, “why is it that the actors always side with you and we’re paying them?” And I said, “I think it’s because, at some level, they know that my only real allegiance is to the movie.” And because that’s very clear and it never wavers, they may not agree with the image of the movie I have in my head, but they know that’s what I’m after. They’ve seen me for 100 days take the long way around. I think that when you’re trying to put together a handful of people to deliver all these facets of humanity and who work well together, it has to be in service of the narrative and not in service of the balance sheet. It became very hard to appease the anxieties of Disney’s corporate culture with the list of names that allowed everyone to sleep at night. I just wanted to make sure I had the skill-sets I could turn the movie over to. Not worrying about whether they’re big in Japan.

China appears to be the new big thing now.

That will be a big thing when dealing with movies as commodity. I think that movies are different things to different people. To me, they’re a really important part of cultural identity. They’re a great touchstone to who we were and what were on about at any given time. You look back to the cinema of the ’70s and ’80s and you see all different types of actors and palettes. It wasn’t so much about physical perfection. You had very odd leading men. It’s interesting how movies and culture reflect who we are. You’ll find that the movie business is paid for by those mega movies. The movie business is paid for by Big Macs. By movies as product. Movie studios use that term “product” all the time. Product? You mean you have a lot of stories? No, we have a lot of product. You have stories.

The term “content” is very popular in journalism.

The flowering of that term really happened in the aughts when a lot of people became involved in the web. I was involved in this company early on where were going to provide all this ambient “content” to all these different venues like malls and film sets and stuff. It’s fascinating to me that content almost means the opposite of what it’s intended to mean. It’s really about square-meters of distraction. There’s very little content in content any more. It used to be column inches, now it’s how many hours of the day can we steal your eye-balls.

Tags: David Fincher

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