Mind Theater

3 Decades of Fincher | Video Essay

May 16, 2022 Ayo Akingbade Episode 66
Mind Theater
3 Decades of Fincher | Video Essay
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Show Notes Transcript

Link to Video: https://youtu.be/rChKYG2j4t0

Exploring auterism and David Fincher's evolution of style from the 90s, to the 2000s, to the 2010s and now.

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Music by Blue Dot Sessions

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  1. The word “auteur” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to directors. And there’s a few names that come to mind. The Quentin Tarantinos, The Martin Scorseses, The Paul Thomas Andersons. These filmmakers, these artists, these authors as the name auteur suggests, hold a certain level of power and influence over nearly every aspect of their completed film. From the stylistic approach they take to direction, to the costume and set design of the lived in world, to the actors who get casted in their roles, to the beating heart of the script blueprint that’s as malleable and changing as the vision of the director is. In the same way we conceptualize that the author of a book as in complete control of their story, in so far as publishers or editors might curb that level of enthusiasm, the auteur of a film is one that maintains a stranglehold on the narrative and has a perceived relationship to the film that’s stronger than other other single individual involved in the film’s making. The film exists to be understood as a product of their vision. Now, whether this distinction is fair to the other screenwriters who they may have worked with, or the actors that brought the dynamic characters to life, or to the production company that funded the film in the first place is neither here nor there, but one things for certain is that when you go to see a “Christopher Nolan” flick for example you aren’t going to see it for the key grip or the gaffer or the best boy, you’re going to it for [clip]
  2. In short, auteur is kind of a loaded word. It points to an all consuming authority that comments on our inability to see a finished product as the sum of its parts. Instead we tend to see the broad strokes, the big faces, the loudest voice in the room. But, what about Fincher?
  3. [quick clip]
  4. You know him from cult classics like Fight Club, from brooding psychological thrillers like Gone Girl or Zodiac, from generational defining cultural objects like the social network. But more than the actual content of films you know him for his style. The same effort other blockbuster directors put into an explosion, or a chase sequence, or a “humorous line of dialogue”, looking at you marvel. Fincher infuses his genius into a simple pan, tracking shot, or dolley, an extreme closeup that can’t help but exude style. It’s incredibly cinematic.
  5. All this emphasis on style might beg the question, can one adequately use the word auteur to describe Fincher? A man who doesn’t write his scripts, seemingly gets tacked onto films during the middle of the production cycle, and is often more intrigued in adaptation than in bringing to life the original concepts and stories that his contemporaries seem content to pluck from their mind’s eye. Who cares, he’s so damn good. And he’s had a body of nearly 3 decades of work that showcases in many ways how he’s evolved outside of the word. As he’s aged his style has grown, like fine wine, remaining focused and poised in producing not just films but cultural genre defining touchstones, with an approach to visual storytelling that is unmistakable fincher. An approach that begins with the 90s and a little disappointment called Alien 3.
  6. [Pause] Well actually it starts a little earlier than that. Fincher cut his teeth on music videos and commercials after all. One of his earliest ventures was a production company Propaganda Films, which he co founded with producers Steve Golin, Nigel Dick, Dominic Sena, and uhhhh Mr. S. And it’s this production company, specializing in commercials and music videos that would attract the collective talent of other directors as well, from the likes of Michael Bay, To Spike Jonze, To Zack Snyder and more, serving as a launching off point for aspiring directors amd a place to hone their skills before moving onto feacher films. During his time their Fincher curated quite the resume, directing tv commercials for many companies including Levi’s, Nike, Pepsi, and Coca-COla, though he loathed doing them. It wasn’t until 1984 that he began to foray into music video direction, with plenty of well known stars benefiting from his early but professional eye for direction. Michael Jackson’s “Who is It”, Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a gun”, Billy idol’s “cradle of love”, Madonna’s “Express yourself” “Oh father” “vogue” and “bad girl” once again, quite an impressive resume. It wasn't until that 90s however that Fincher would have his breakthrough into feature film. 
  7. 90s
  8. With Alien 3 fincher would essentially make his first foray into the big leagues, brought on to replace Vincent Ward in the Sigourney Weaver starred sci-fi film..…that was ultimately mediocre. By many accounts it was a middling film with mixed perception [“alien 3 takes admirable risks with franchise mythology, but far too few pay off in a thinly scripted sequel whose stylistic visuals aren't enough to enliven a lack of genuine thrills] but not at the fault of fincher tho. Like many bloated franchise films that exist within the Hollywood pipeline, it was a film hampered by studio intervention and abandoned scripts. In an interview with the Guardian in 2009 Fincher stated that “No one hated it more than me; to this day no one hates it more than me” a resounding response from the now heralded director. It’s not every day that bad movies actually aid in getting your name out there but I think what production and distribution companies like Arnold Koelson and New Line Cinema saw in between the sci-fi nihilism and bad production of alien 3 was a director that just needed the right script to truly flourish. Fincher had other thoughts tho, at least initially after the disappointment that was Alien, leaving the movie scene to do more music videos before returning after reading Andrew Kevin Walker’s original screenplay for a neo-noir psychological crime thriller film, called SE7EN, another project originally meant for a different director, in this case Jeremiah Chechik. One of the aspects of the film he fought hard for was keeping the original ending, one that had been revised during Chechik’s time within the direction pipeline. New Line Cinema capitulated to Fincher’s demands and the rest is history.
  9. I think what we see in SE7EN is Fincher's first true appeal to style, the beginning to what we now see as his technical almost mechanical approach to filmmaking. Defined by motivated camera movement, perfectionist multi take nature, and an appeal to what we so often find thrilling. I think where sci-fi can be a tricky genre to get right, with writers and directors often finding themselves under the thumb of world building and suspense of disbelief, the thriller proved itself to be the most profound and natural vessel for Fincher’s approach to cinema. First there’s his motivated camera movement. Within seconds of watching a David Fincher directed film you can almost immediately tell it. Why is that? To  me it’s because the camera moves like another actor on set, it has its own agency, its own biases, biases that are intently concerned with mirroring character actions and movements. From the subtle bob of a head that would otherwise be in or out of frame, to a long tracking shot that movies with the very same confidence as the actors within the scene, every step is always in sync, in harmonious rhythm. In other words Perfect. His perfectionist nature has been noted before. His directorial process often involves cycling through take after take after take. It’s interesting to note how much Fincher hates this moniker of perfectionism however. [CLIP FROM MOVIE MAKER PODCAST(I think that perfectionism is a term that's thrown about mostly by people who are lazy. We’re not trying to do something perfect……you’re looking for stuff to be imperfect in exactly the right way” ] While Seven almost single handedly birthed this style, The Game and Fight Club (dual screen) worked to perfect it. I think what later half of Fincher’s work in the 90s showed was just how particularly great Fincher was at choosing narratives to match his work. Fincher, above being even a director at times is a behaviorist in his films intently concerned with depicting characters who are compelled to act in animalistic ways that hint to a complex psychology that exists beneath the surface. His stories are filled with characters that are mentally unhinged, or have their reality breaking at the seams, they’re stories that focus on character actions but also reactions, within the context of Fincher’s approach to framing his worlds around them. And like many great directors he accomplishes this framing through his camera. What the Narrator in Fight Club and Nicholas Van Orton in the Game have in common is their relationship to the world. Both are put through the ringer of dissecting and coming to grips with the superficiality inherent to both their worlds and both are uneasy as the prospect of having to unearth the truth to their realities while being studied and examined by the worlds they are concerned with breaking from. Existing behind a fincher camera can feel a lot like being underneath a microscope at times. Closed off from the rest of the world. Your actions and behaviors to be dissected and examined. It’s a camera that can be intimidating but also truth seeking.

2000s

  1. Fincher’s 2000s movies represent a weird era of experimentation for me. Not in terms of style which at this point was wholly solidified but in terms of his marriage between narrative and visual. Panic Room, Zodiac, and Curious Case all do it differently. A one room thriller, a sprawling serial killer biography, a weird ass movie about whatever's going on with brad pitt. [quick clip]
  2. In Panic Room we gain perspective on how Fincher’s style works well in limited space, most of the movie’s runtime spent in a single room in a single house and It’s within that room that Jodie Foster and the young Kirsten Stewart burst with thrilling intrigue. Aided by a fincher camera able to capture their fear, their peril, and their love. [quick] In Zodiac the most telling aspect of Fincher’s filmmaking is ability to work well with ensemble casts. The Downey Juniors,  Jake Glyenhalls, and the Mark Ruffalo’s fade into the background of their characters, as a quick aside I think Fincher’s work in ensembles is an underrated part of his genius.
  3. You can walk a fine line when it comes to enlisting the help of A-list actors to play specific characters. While recognizable faces put butts in the seats there can be a tendency to lose the character to the point you only see the actor. Think Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, and all of Dwayne the Rock Johnson’s cinematic appearances. 
  4. Back to Zodiac, the reason I love his approach to crafting ensembles in this case is because the story is more concerned with the nuances of it’s characters within the procedural thriller than it is with the grizzly details of the serial murders. We get the mood of the 70s and also the swagger. Critic Owen Gleiberman awarded the film an "A" grade, hailing the film as a "procedural thriller for the information age" that "spins your head in a new way, luring you into a vortex and then deeper still. In the Curious Case of Benjamin Button we begin to see Fincher’s taste for fantasy and romance. His ability to capture the weird, the irreverent, the nonsensical at times. And while this movie may not be considered highly within the pantheon that is fincher, I think it serves as an important transitional piece that showed just how far his directorial prowess was willing to go.
  5. In many ways the 2000s as a whole served to cement Fincher not just as a stylistic artist but a character driven one. And it’s his technical approach to directing that helped foster so many of these interesting character dynamics, drawing from a deep well of A-list actors and frequent collaborators to aid him.
  6. Every year saw Fincher mastering his directorial style, collaborating with actors who would go onto give powerful performances, and choosing stranger and stranger narratives to apply his dramatic vision towards. Still without committing a single word to a screenplay page. Still content to sit behind the camera. But as sharp as Fincher’s vision and eye were, you couldn’t help but feel that the emotional outcome of his films were so often heavily dictated by the script they were married to. Begging the question: what happens when genius direction meets world class screenwriting? Well in effect, you get the social network

2010s

  1. [Social Network Clip]
  2. The Social Network is a landmark film, and one of my favorites from fincher and I think it’s because it showcased how biopic can be thrilling, illuminating, and dangerous, especially when it comes to making our evil billionaire protagonists seem really cool.
  3. Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, a match made in heaven. What you find in sorkin scripts - in sorkin dialogue is its intense sense of rhythm and timing. It’s fast paced and quick, it often doesn’t give you room to breathe and when it does it’s jarring and powerful [insert clip]. Sorkin himself says then when writing his dialogue “what the words sound like is as important to me as what the words mean.” Dialogue for Sorkin exists as musical. He’s able to capture the jarring musicality of our social interactions. Overlapping dialogue that infuses scenes with intense kinetic energy. Characters on different trains of thoughts who invite hectic and real tension into his scenes. But regardless of how hectic and chaotic the scenes get, Sorkin is always in control, always specific and exacting, always precise in his approach to depicting character. A stylistic understanding that mirrors Fincher’s approach to directing. They are both perfectionists, to use the word that Fincher hates. Fincher uses framing and juxtaposition to create visual interest, Sorkin uses speed of delivery and overlapping voices to create auditorial interests. In many ways he’s the perfect writer for Fincher’s direction and it’s through marriages like this one that it starts to become prevalent why fincher prefers collaboration over the more single focused singular vision lens of his contemporaries.
  4. I think what Fincher’s most recent works have shown is that there’s beauty in being a director removed from their work. 
  5. His most recent two thrillers Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl were both adapted from novels, a practice Fincher doesn’t shy away from in regards to selecting projects he wants to direct, but they’re another level of the written work being removed from the director. Both of these scripts existed within the minds of producers or production assistants, got run through the pipeline to screenwriters and then had Fincher eventually attached to the project. 
  6. This removes the mystique that directors often have. There’s a loftiness that we subscribe to, a high pedestal we often put them on. They are completely and utterly in charge. Often the single name we utter when we think about a movie is the director and with that we apply the assumption that the movie is theirs. To learn that Fincher serves essentially as an equal cog in the machine as a writer, producer, actor, or below the line worker adds a touch of humanity to pieces that are otherwise cold, dark, dangerous, and thrilling….a level of humanity that Fincher is truly capable of 
  7. His most recent work Mank underscored this. The screenplay was written by his late father Jack who wrote it after retiring as he wanted to research behind the scenes of a classic movie he loved, the heralded citizen kane. Fincher originally wanted this movie to be his follow up to the game (1997) but his insistence on shooting in black and white in order to honor his father’s wishes led to the film being shelved for over 20 years before Netflix took a chance, the end result was a film that encompases the many aspects of Fincher’s filmmaking and the culmination of his years of directing. The star studded cast that sinks into their performances, the intimate camera that is profoundly concerned with character behavior and emotion, the collaboration of his direction with writing that speaks to him, in this case on a deeper emotional level than even us as audience members aren’t privy to. Through 3 decades of Fincher he did more than just make thrilling movies he transformed our definition of thrilling itself, and through that process crafted a visual language that aspiring directors and artists will study for decades more.
  8. So. Is he an auteur? Idk. You tell me.  
  9. Mind Theater is a solo effort produced and written by me, Ayo Akingbade. For updates on the show as well as my other content follow mindtheaterpod on twitter, ig, and tiktok. If you wanna show monetary support, the kofi link is in the show notes. Thanks for listening, I'll catch ya next time.