A-Z

The A-Z Guide to David Fincher

From Auteur Theory to Zodiac, we continue our celebration of the Mank filmmaker with an in-depth look at the man and his movies

The films of David Fincher are so often dark and nihilistic affairs – works primarily concerned with probing humanity at its most depraved; characters in constant battle with their demons, striving to make sense of the immoral and perverted.

Fincher's reputation as a perfectionist has made him into a intriguing figure in Hollywood, of course, which mean he's well-matched to a body of work connected by overarching themes of ego and obsession. With his latest, Mank, now in cinemas and streaming on Netflix, we continue our month-long celebration of the meticulous director with this tribute to the man and his preoccupations: an A-Z guide to one of the greatest of modern filmmakers…

 

A is for Auteur Theory

Popularised by Cahiers du cinéma and the filmmakers of the French New Wave, the scholarly theory that the director is the “author” of a film (and therefore it reflects their sole artistic vision) has generated debate among critics, audiences, and directors themselves for decades. Fincher himself rejects the concept of a director’s omnipotence, though he is often cited as one of the most distinctive and easily recognisable filmmakers of the twentieth century. Mank is Fincher’s boldest statement of intent, dissecting the Hollywood machine and suggesting no man is an island in Tinseltown; every film is the product of countless hours of toil, and just as many men and women working behind-the-scenes to bring each vision to life. Hannah Woodhead

 

B is for Brad Pitt

As far as actors are concerned, it’s Brad Pitt who stands as Fincher’s most frequent collaborator, having appeared in three features to date. The pair first worked together on Se7en, back in 1995 – and it was Pitt who was responsible for saving the film’s unforgettable and depressing ending, refusing to sign on unless its inclusion was guaranteed by the studio. The pair’s most famous collaboration is Fight Club, of course, with Pitt playing Tyler Durden – an undeniably toxic yet luminous character whose personality we're still grappling with all these years later. In 2009, he would agree to age backwards for the more Oscar bait-y Curious Case of Benjamin Button – critically, their least successful foray to date. It stands to reason they’ll work together again: the pair often host movie nights, where Pitt has expressed joy over hearing Fincher’s hilarious takedowns of their chosen films. To be a fly on that wall. Tom Barnard

 

C is for Citizen Kane

Routinely cited as the greatest film ever made, and one of Jack Fincher’s favourite movies, Orson Welles’ masterpiece about the rise and fall of a media tycoon was co-written (or solely written, if you believe Pauline Kael’s essay “Raising Kane”) by Herman J. Mankiewicz, the subject of David Fincher’s latest film, Mank. While Fincher might reject auteur theory, Welles did, at least to some extent, believe that the director was key to any film’s success: “A director has to function like a commander in the field in time of battle,” he told Playboy magazine in 1967. Welles passed away in 1985, and despite an acting and filmmaking career spanning five decades, Citizen Kane is undoubtedly his most famous work. HW

 

D is for Darkness

Fincher’s films are often defined by their preference for darkness. As Roger Ebert once put it, “Fincher likes a saturated palate and gravitates toward sombre colors and underlighted interiors.” Though his first feature, Alien 3, is an aesthetically dark picture, Fincher’s obsession with darkness didn't become “a thing” until 1995’s Se7en. When movie critics complained of not being able to see what was happening, the film’s infamous cinematographer Darius Khondji responded with a simple: “I know.” Fincher’s use of lighting doesn’t exactly strike one as being particularly “realistic” (it is perhaps more theatrical than it is cinematic), though his use of darkness has become trademark enough that it’s probably the element that most people tend to associate with his grungy body of work. TB

 

E is for Effects, Digital

Fincher isn’t the first filmmaker you tend to think of when you think “digital effects” – but that’s because he’s one of few modern filmmakers who makes a point to use them in a subtle way that most audience members aren’t likely to even notice. This approach, of course, is perfectly matched to a director defined by his meticulousness – an opportunity to fix anything that doesn't sit right after filming has wrapped. Occasionally, he’s leaned into more obvious special effect shots (see: certain scenes in Panic Room, or the entirety of Benjamin Button). Mostly, though, Fincher tinkers with his movie during post-production – enhancing the lighting, altering locations so they’re chronologically accurate, adding blood splatters, or literally transposing one actor's face onto another actor's face (that means you, Armie Hammer). In fact, there’s rarely a shot in a Fincher movie that hasn’t been digitally altered in some way. It's a testament to the director that you wouldn’t know it. TB

 

F is for Facebook

The shock and general outcry over the news that David Fincher would direct “the Facebook movie” is retroactively hilarious – especially considering just how well-matched to the material the filmmaker turned out to be. The Social Network is not only a brilliant evocation of a certain point in time when social media was about to explode in ways we could never have predicated, but a film that reasserts its sheer rewatchability with every subsequent viewing (proof, also, that Justin Timberlake really can act). Fincher’s real accomplishment here – though credit must be given to Aaron Sorkin’s razor-sharp script, which reframes the story of the founding of the website as a bitter courtroom drama – was to make a great movie, regardless of its connection to Facebook – a relentlessly slick, aesthetically beautiful meditation on friendship, ego, and the things we do to get noticed. Who could have predicted it as one of the best films of the 21st century – a film that, according to Quentin Tarantino, “blows the competition out of the water”? There’s proving the naysayers wrong – and then there’s this. TB

 

G is for Gliding

You instantly recognise a David Fincher film by the gliding camera that seems to move through hallways and rooms, and along streets, with a kind of omniscient detachment – a trademark that has done its bit to cement his reputation as a clinical and emotionally cold director. Indeed, there is something uniquely icy about the way Fincher’s camera manoeuvres around the sets of his movies, the unvarying smoothness like a perfect visual manifestation of his trademark perfectionism (he’s been known to notice minuscule bumps in his shots that are basically undetectable to the human eye). More recently, Fincher has taken to shooting in a far larger aspect ratio than he requires, so that he’s able to use the excess space to cut the shots to his exact specification and ensure their smoothness in post-production. You just know he lies awake at night worrying about this stuff. TB

 

H is for Howard Shore

As one of Hollywood's most successful film composers, Howard Shore's music has shown a particularly tendency towards the ominous and oppressive. His work with filmmakers like David Cronenberg (The Fly, Crash), Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) and David Fincher has highlighted his particular knack for emphasising the inherent dread in all these pictures. For Fincher, Shore composed the cynical scores for Se7en, The Game, and Panic Room – until regular composer duties fell to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It's quite remarkable, then, to learn that he's capable of producing melodies as lovely as the Hobbit theme from The Lord of the Rings. Now that's range. TB

 

I is for Industrial Light & Magic

Fincher got his start in the movie business working at George Lucas’ renowned special effects department, Industrial Light & Magic, where the groundbreaking special effects for movies such as The Empire Strikes Back were pioneered. Over the course of a three year stint, Fincher worked as a special effects artist on famous films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – more specifically as a matte painting artist. Still, the director claimed he entered the company “at the end of a golden age” and quickly realised he wanted out, prompting a shift to music videos where he hoped to hone his filmmaking talents. TB

 

J is for Jack Fincher

David’s father passed away in April 2003 aged 73, and was a huge influence on his son, shaping his interest and love of film. Jack was a journalist and author by trade, notably serving as the San Francisco Bureau Chief of Life magazine, but after he retired, his interest in screenwriting had more time to develop, which led to him writing a screenplay with his filmmaker son in mind. He once wrote a biopic based on the life of Howard Hughes, but it was folded into the project which became Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. Although he died before Fincher Jr. could realise his vision, Jack received sole screenwriting credit on Mank. HW

 

K is for Kirk Baxter and Jack Wall

A couple of unsung heroes (for how often do we give enough credit to the editors?), Kirk Baxter and Jack Wall have served as the editors for – count ‘em – five Fincher films to date, starting with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and ending with this year’s Mank (though Baxter took up solo editing duties for Gone Girl). Together, the duo received Academy Awards for Best Editing for their work on The Social Network and then again the following year for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. According to an interview with The Ringer, the pair have devised a particular method for working through the high number of takes that come with this hallowed territory, using Fincher’s preferred take – which he designates beforehand – as a benchmark to rate the others against – a system, he reveals, that “allowed him to sleep at night.” TB

 

L is for Lost

Whether it's the very literal mystery of Amy Dunne's disappearance in Gone Girl or the shifting morals of Harvard's nerd elite in The Social Network, loss in its myriad forms is a recurring theme in Fincher's work. It might be the slipping sense of self in Fight Club or the obsession Robert Graysmith develops with catching a killer in Zodiac – perhaps even Herman Mankiewicz being relegated to a footnote in Hollywood history – but one of the reasons Fincher is such a force of nature within modern cinema is how complete his body of work feels. Each film is distinct and separate, but together they form a beguiling canon about modern morality, and the sacrifices we make in pursuit of something bigger than us – be it love, power, or legacy. HW

 

M is for Music Videos

Every filmmaker has to start somewhere, and after stints as a non-union projectionist, a local news production assistant, busboy, dishwasher and fry cook, Fincher moved closer towards realising his dream. After co-founding production company Propaganda Pictures in 1986 with Steve Golin, Sigurjón Sighvatsson, Nigel Dick, Dominic Sena and Greg Gold, he settled into a career directing adverts (which he hated) and music videos. His greatest hits? Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun,” George Michael’s “Freedom!” ‘90 and the ones he filmed for sometime-paramour Madonna – “Express Yourself,” “Oh Father” and “Vogue.” Between 1984 and 1993, he was credited as director on 53 videos – an average of five a year. HW

 

N is for Netflix

Fincher’s partnership with the streaming giant began back in 2013 with House of Cards; the political thriller that really put Netflix’s original programming on the map, winning a raft of awards and positive reviews. Since then it’s proven a fruitful partnership; in 2016 Fincher returned with Mindhunter, building on themes already explored in Se7en and Zodiac to present a compelling portrait of the FBI’s psychological profiling unit in its infancy. His first theatrical project for Netflix is Mank, which he’s been waiting to make for over two decades – and he must be pretty happy with the working relationship, because in November 2020 he signed a four-year deal to work with Netflix. See also: Love, Death & Robots, the animated anthology Fincher exec-produced in 2019 – though the lacklustre reviews might put you off. HW

 

O is for Obsession

The tagline to Fincher’s Zodiac reads ‘There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer’ – speaking to the way that Paul Avery, Dave Toschi and Robert Graysmith’s lives are all irrevocably changed by their encounters with the eponymous serial murderer. Obsession is a recurring theme throughout Fincher’s work though, from John Doe’s compulsive murders in Se7en to the mystery Michael Douglas finds himself unravelling in The Game. Of course, then there’s The Social Network (obsession with money, success) and Gone Girl (obsession with obsession?) and maybe the most famous example, Fight Club – a film that inspired a God-like Fincher obsession in countless young men, who saw the film at face value and treated it as a manifesto rather than critique. HW

 

P is for Pulp

Named for the cheap paper on which they were produced, the “pulp” magazines of yesteryear were renowned for their lurid, exploitative, and sensational subject matter – something Fincher is all too familiar with in his own work. He’s no stranger to a little ultraviolence, from the likes of Panic Room and Se7en, and when it comes to adapting fiction, his choices skew toward the sort of can’t-put-down thrillers that get everyone talking. Fight Club, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl – all reimagined for the screen with suitable style and success. Then there’s the beleaguered detective; a recurring presence in Fincher’s work, whether it’s the duo of Somerset and Mills or Lisbeth Salander’s force-of-nature loner. His films might be typified by their slickness, but it’s impossible to ignore the pulpy underbelly of Fincher’s work. HW

 

Q is for Quarrels

Given Fincher’s reputation as somebody who won't suffer fools gladly, it’s no surprise to learn that he’s been involved in numerous fallouts with both movie executives and actors over the course of his career. Most of the films Fincher has worked on have involved some kind of high-profile dispute, be it on Alien 3 (deadlines), Se7en (the controversial ending) or Fight Club (the marketing). He’s renowned for taking his work very seriously – and refuses to pander to actors he feels aren’t doing the same or perceives to be wasting his time. Lee R. Ermey, clearly stung by his experience on Se7en, accused the director of “only wanting puppets.” The most famous actorly clash, perhaps, lies with Jake Gyllenhaal, who fell out with Fincher over the director’s punishing work ethic – more specifically, a scene in which he was asked to do more than 70 takes. A necessary artistic decision, or a punishment for a star who refused to get his head in the game? TB

 

R is for Retakes

There are few living directors with a reputation for “retakes” than this one. Reports have varied over the years, but it’s said that Fincher was doing around 50 takes for every scene during the shooting of Gone Girl (the average is around 20), while – according to star Amanda Seyfried – the director would frequently do more than a 100 on Mank. It’s not just the result of obsessive madness (well, maybe): Fincher has stated on a number of occasions that he hates seeing his actors “acting” and strives to remove the earnestness from their performances, citing the “17th take” as the point where that element seems to disappear. Rooney Mara was asked to do 99 takes for a single scene on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. We’ll never know whether it’s worth the effort – but Fincher’s relatively immaculate filmography and the myriad of Oscar nominations his actors have received kind of speak for themselves. Right? TB

 

S is for Serial Killers

A recurring theme in Fincher’s work, for better or worse, starting with Se7en and the unnerving modus operandi of John Doe, and continuing with his examination of one of San Francisco’s most notorious murderers in Zodiac. From there, Mindhunter and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – and even his work which doesn’t quite spotlight serial killers usually features at least one murder, Mank being the exception. Then there’s all the projects he didn’t get to make, including his Black Dahlia miniseries. Is David the sort of man who listens to true crime podcasts to get to sleep? We wouldn’t put it past him. HW

 

T is for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

When it was announced that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails would be scoring David Fincher’s The Social Network, plenty of people were a little confused by the choice – but the writing was on the wall as early as 1995, when an uncredited remix of “Closer” was used in the opening credits of Se7en. The duo would go on to win an Academy Award for their work on The Social Network, and score both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl for Fincher. They’ve forged a successful career in movie music since, with Mid90s, Patriot’s Day and Soul all calling on their talents, but their working relationship with Fincher endures – they provided the brass and strings-heavy music for Mank. HW

 

U is for Unrealised Projects

Where do we even begin with this one? Since the start of his career Fincher has been privy to more than a few instances of development hell, from his failed attempt to adapt Anthony Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential to his not-to-be versions of Mission Impossible III and the culinary drama that would later become Bradley Cooper’s Burnt. Fincher is quite candid about his failed ideas, but that doesn’t stop plenty of people hoping that his World War Z sequel or Strangers on a Train adaptation (with Gillian Flynn and Ben Affleck!) might eventually come to fruition – after all, Mank was over two decades in the making. HW

 

 

V is for Nicholas Van Orton

David Fincher was riding high after the success of Se7en, and took on a project that had developed from a spec script written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. The Game starred Michael Douglas and Sean Penn as The Van Orton brothers, whose lives have gone in spectacularly different directions since their father committed suicide on his 48th birthday. As Nicholas reaches the same age, Connie gifts him a voucher for a game that he promises will change his life. The Game is often considered one of Fincher’s less successful works, but still received positive reviews on release, and does feature one magnetic scene using Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Perhaps the most unnerving element of The Game is that it’s the only Fincher film which has a fairly happy ending. HW

 

W is for Walker, Andrew Kevin

Andrew Kevin Walker is best known as the writer of Se7en – which feels like as perfect match of screenwriter and filmmaker as is possible in the terrible business of Hollywood. After working a stint at Tower Records in New York, Walker later found success after moving to LA and selling his spec for Se7en after it fell into the hands of fellow screenwriter David Koepp. Though Walker is only credited with writing the script of Se7en as far as Fincher's output is concerned, he’s actually had a more fruitful career as Fincher’s go-to script doctor over the years, performing uncredited rewrites on Fight Club and The Game. He also penned the unused screenplay for the unmade sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – absolutely one of the most wished for unrealised projects of recent times. In a way, Walker should be considered as a crucial and important part of Fincher’s development as an artist; there’s a sense the filmmaker wouldn’t have gotten where he is, or found the same voice, without this frequent – and equally nihilistic – collaborator by his side in those early days. TB

 

X is for Xenomorph

Fincher kicked off his feature film career with this turbulent sequel in the Xenomorph-heavy franchise, a movie – to the bemusement of meddling executives – he once likened to “making an opera.” Alien 3 – bleak, isolated, set in a men’s prison – tends to divide fans, many of whom are unable to forgive the film’s decision to kill two of the franchise’s most beloved characters in its opening minutes. It’s certainly flawed, but it also works as a brilliant calling card for Fincher’s dark and clinical style. The gloomy aesthetic and nihilistic mood he tried out here would come to define his later work, though he ultimately agrees with the opposition (“To this day, nobody hates it more than me”). I’d say he’s being way too hard on himself. TB

 

Y is for Year of Living Dangerously, The

Fincher has found inspiration in a variety of film, while his recent venture, Mank, shows someone who is deeply in love with the history of filmmaking. Odd to note, then, that one of his favourite films is – the admittedly underrated! – 1983 Peter Weir thriller The Year of Living Dangerously, starring Mel Gibson and set in Indonesia during a turbulent political period. At first this might seem like a strange and obscure choice (Fincher has cited other favourites as Taxi Driver and Days of Heaven), but look closer and you'll  see why it appeals to a man of Fincher's makeup: Gibson plays Guy Hamilton, an obsessive investigate journalist who will stop at nothing to uncover the truth. Zodiac, eat your heart out. TB

 

Z is for Zodiac

2007 was an incredible year for cinema that also brought us There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, leading to one of the most fascinating awards seasons in recent memory. In a crowded field there wasn’t much room for an ensemble piece as dark and eerie as Zodiac, but plenty of Fincher fans cite it as his best work. Spanning two decades across California, the film charts the hunt for the “Zodiac Killer” by journalist Paul Avery, detective Dave Toschi, and cartoonist-turned-amatuer sleuth Robert Graysmith. It’s a chilling tale of obsession and loss set against the usually sunny skies of the Golden State, and the scene in which a young couple in a car are stalked while Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” plays in the background lives rent-free in my mind at all times. HW

Mank is now streaming on Netflix.

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