Pressure and Obsession in the Films of David Fincher

Piers McCarthy
February 2012 / November 15, 2018

This dissertation aims to show the recurring themes of pressure and obsession in the work of film director David Fincher. Looking specifically at Seven (David Fincher, New Line Cinema, 1995), Zodiac (David Fincher, Paramount Pictures, 2007) and The Social Network (David Fincher, Columbia Pictures, 2010), I will show the gradual change in style and subject matter while still highlighting the resonance of the two themes under analysis. Furthermore, it will be shown how obsession and pressure link to Fincher’s working method. I will be examining critical, journalistic and academic writings to assess the themes and Fincher’s directorial position. Whereas Seven has had a great deal written about it, Zodiac and The Social Network are more recent films and thus there is less literature on them. For this reason, study on both films should garner more original analysis.

The themes of pressure and obsession differ slightly in all three films, however, there is an overriding sense in each film that the workplace and environment has a pressurizing effect on the characters. What is more, pressure can at times define the notion of obsession. Obsession is mostly shown as a mutation of characters’ personal drive, or an extension of their duties for work. The two themes can at times separate themselves in terms of aesthetic and narrative presentation yet they are mainly one and the same; at times they can even be analyzed in the context of Fincher’s filmmaking practice.

Chapter one gives an overview of contemporary Hollywood, the role of the director, Fincher in relation to both of these, the two themes under analysis and deliberations on auteurist theory – this constitutes the literature review. The second chapter examines the impetus of investigative obsession, along with the presentation of morbidity and tension in Seven. Chapter three looks at the similarity in obsessive personalities along with suspense and drama in Zodiac. Chapter four focuses on The Social Network and obsession effecting status quo. The conclusion will draw on the comparisons and contrasts from chapters two to four. It will also give an overall account of how we may regard Fincher in contemporary Hollywood and in respect to auteur theory.

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Mindhunter: Not Your Typical FBI Crime Series

Steve Arnold, Production Designer
November 13, 2018
Perspective (Art Directors Guild)

While I was finishing the fourth season of House of Cards, David Fincher called me to say he was planning another series with Netflix and to ask if I would be interested in designing it. Of course I jumped at the chance, not knowing exactly what Mindhunter would be, but certain that with Fincher involved it would be a quality project. I soon found out that it was based on the John Douglas book of the same name and that it would be shooting in Pittsburgh, a city I knew quite well since I received my graduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University there, and where I got my start in the film business while still a student in the CMU theater department.

The series is somewhat different than many crime shows in that it’s not a who-done-it, or even how’d they do it, but more of a psychological exploration of why’d they do it.

2014-11-13. Perspective (Art Directors Guild) 02

Mindhunter is a period show set in the late 1970s, so I knew the choice of Pittsburgh as a location would simplify much of the exterior design work. Many rust belt cities like Pittsburgh were hit particularly hard by the collapse of the steel industry, and all the ancillary businesses that supported steel have suffered as well. The small towns that surround a city like Pittsburgh are often stuck in the past, sometimes for forty years or more. A lot of the exterior street sequences required were possible and looked appropriate with a minimal amount of redesign because there just hasn’t been an influx of business dollars to do architectural upgrades; there were very few modern structures to modify extensively or hide. This, and the fact that there is a wealth of great period dressing elements to be had at reasonable prices at the many local flea markets, estate sales and antique stores, made the task of recreating the period much more manageable.

One of the first things I remember David Fincher saying about the look of the series was that he did not want it to look like other films or series set in this same period where the style of the time is pushed so far that it becomes exaggeratedly over the top and starts to seem camp. The focus would be on the more mundane and ordinary look of American life in the late 1970s. I knew a lot of the characters were from the lower social strata, so there were few places for high style or the cutting edge fashion of the time. One big influence on the design was photographs from the time by people like Stephen Shore, particularly for our many on the road scenes in motel rooms.

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ADG Perspective
November-December 2018 Issue

How David Fincher’s ‘Dragon Tattoo’ Marked the End of the Big-Budget Adult Drama

Merrick Morton (Sony Pictures)

Adam Chitwood
November 7, 2018
Collider

When David Fincher was fielding accolades for his 2010 masterpiece The Social Network, he was already in the midst of filming his follow-up project. On the surface, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t a significant departure for Fincher. At the time, he was already well-versed in the arena of making dark dramas with an edge, be it The Game or Zodiac, and he clearly had plenty of experience telling stories about serial killers. The source material of Dragon Tattoo was massively popular, sure, but with that popularity came the opportunity to take hold of an even bigger budget, telling this dark tale about a pair of outsiders investigating a killer of women against an epic canvas. What Fincher (and the rest of us) couldn’t have known at the time, however, was that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would be one of the last of its kind, the dying breath of the big budget studio adult drama, as Hollywood would pivot to bigger, flashier, and more superhero-er films in the ensuing years. In hindsight, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a fossil from a bygone era.

The “American” adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was born in 2009, when producer Scott Rudin secured the rights to the book for Sony Pictures and fellow producers Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal. They set Oscar-winning Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian to work on the adaptation, and in March 2010—just as Fincher had completed principal photography on Sony’s The Social Network—the studio began courting the Se7en filmmaker to take the helm.

Fincher had actually been approached about Dragon Tattoo years earlier by Kathleen Kennedy, with whom he’d worked on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But he rejected the proposition without reading the book, assuming a movie about a bisexual hacker in Stockholm who helps a disgraced journalist uncover a dark secret would never get made. The Swedish film adaptation proved he was wrong, and when Pascal came calling a couple years later, she had an exciting proposition:

“As I finished Social Network, [Sony studio boss] Amy Pascal told me they’d just bought the rights to Dragon Tattoo,” says Fincher. “She said, ‘We believe that a movie franchise doesn’t necessarily have to be for 11-year-olds, that this material is most certainly not for 11-year-olds and that is why we are bringing it to you’.”

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In Conversation with Mindhunter’s Cameron Britton

Paula Courtney
November 3, 2018
Absolute Music Chat

Emmy-nominated actor Cameron Britton mesmerised us all with his portrayal of serial killer Ed Kemper, on hit Netflix show Mindhunter. In this interview we discussed everything from romance to his preparation for the role and working with director David Fincher, the real Ed Kemper and so much more.

[…]

PC: When you were sat in that room with Fincher, was it hard not to show your nervousness, what did you do to combat those feelings or were you not nervous?

CB: It was back and forth that I thought, ‘Oh I’m doing a terrible job, he’s going to fire me,’ and Jonathan would talk me down from the ledge. There were days when we had done 50 takes – let’s do 50 more, 70 more I don’t care, I’m having a blast, I’m just lost in the moment, because it’s not just the takes it’s how quickly we get back to the top of the scene. Often when someone says ‘Cut!’ you know you don’t actually get to start the scene again until 10 minutes later, with him it’s 15 seconds! We are back in it. I’d never done that in my life before and that in character, for that long for a whole day of, since you’ve been awake you’re in character. It just starts becoming this sort of spiritual experience where you kind of forget what you planned on doing, you’re surprising yourself, you’re going, ‘Oh oh God! I’ve never delivered it that way before! Where did that come from?’

PC: I was talking about that with Adam Zastrow and he said by the time you do the 50th take you feel like it’s going through the motions, you don’t have to think about it but by then you are delivering something that is more natural, or organic, and that is what Fincher is looking for: that very moment when you are not acting, you are being it, doing it, aren’t you?

CB: You are! And day one I thought, ‘Are they going to fire me? Am I going to get too tired to do this?’ And that is just not the case. I met a few people playing killers who were nervous – anyone who’s worked on Mindhunter and worked with Fincher – they all think, ‘Ah, they’re going to fire me!’ But when you are in there, man you just keep going. Being fired is the last thing you’re thinking about, you are just alive. It’s a hell of an experience and honestly is moving forward my career. I’ve been fortunate enough, because of my character, to get to do bigger projects now, like that’s sort of my standard. When I go to other projects now I go, ‘Okay, are they living up to what Mindhunter taught me and are they making good art?’ And if they are not then I sort of politely find a way to come off what’s going on.

PC: What about learning your lines: how easy is that for you? Obviously you had quite a bit of dialogue: how do you make it stick?

CB: There’s knowing all your lines, that’s fine and that comes really quickly, what really takes repetition is to do it enough so you don’t need to think about them. There just coming out and that is so necessary to me, if I’m just thinking about the line then I’m not living ‘in the moment’ and that’s just the kind of acting that I do. I need to have nothing happening to distract me. I just take every opportunity to be where I need to be ‘in the moment’ because I’m still working on it. If I don’t feel connected to the scene, or ‘the moment’, I can kind of panic and then you can sort of see me acting. Some actors, they are able to go, ‘Well I’m not connected right now but I can sort of fake my way through this,’ and that’s just part of life: if you have a job there’s some days you are just not feeling it even if it’s your favourite job in the world. I’m still working on that but no matter what, I have to know the lines backwards and forwards.

PC: With regards to David Fincher’s style of directing, is there any room for a bit of give? Do you feel you could suggest to him that perhaps you’d like to try something different or is it all very controlled by him or the other directors?

CB: With David there’s a line here, a line there, in this big, giant script where he says, ‘I want this to be arrogant,’ or, ‘I want this in a form of a question.’ And I think, when he says ‘arrogant’ there are many, many, many ways to do that so it’s up to you how you want that to be conveyed – the rest of the script is all yours. And maybe that’s just my experience. David puts you in: he guides you in the right direction. So if an actor strays too far this way or that way he’ll sort of put you back on track, but the point of all those is not to do anything you’ve prepped and just be truly alive ‘in the moment’. If you’re over-directing somebody then it won’t be that: then you’re just using all those takes to get this exact delivery or performance out of them, which is fine, but it’s not allowing… like he’s so trusting that inspiration will come; you know if he has too much vision for a moment he’s not allowing for a better vision to show up. If he’s saying it has to be this way then how do you know if something better wouldn’t have come along? He’s very trusting and it empowers you; you can tell [when] your director is letting you do your job. There’s been times he’s had to put me back on track: the hospital scene in the final episode when I stand up and turn around he let me go two or three takes where I just went ballistic. When we first started shooting that part I stood up like a maniac and then by the third he said, ‘I can’t think it up with the rest of that part of the scene. You can’t do that’. It needed Kemper to stay calm and collected but, in a way, I needed to go crazy for a second, I needed to really feel that wild, impulsive energy, that’s sort of Kemper though isn’t it: even when he’s calm you can feel his urge to hurt; he’s almost masking a lot of violence, no matter how mellow he looks.

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2018-11-03. Cameron Britton

Read the other Absolute Music Chat conversations with the Cast of Mindhunter (more to come):

In Conversation with Mindhunter’s Jonathan Groff
An Interview with Mindhunter’s Holt McCallany
In Conversation with Cotter Smith. Actor (MindhunterThe Americans)
Jack Erdie: Actor (MindhunterBanshee) & writer
In conversation with actor Adam Zastrow (Mindhunter, High & Mighty)
In Conversation With Alex Morf: Actor (MindhunterDaredevil)
In Conversation With Tobias Segal: Actor (MindhunterSneaky Pete)
Spotlight Interview. Chris Dettone: Actor (Mindhunter), Stuntman/Coordinator

Fincherphilia & Beyond

Cinephilia & Beyond - Logo

Just a small sample of all the precious filmic resources bestowed by Cinephilia & Beyond:

1993. Alien3 01

Alien3: “Take all of the responsibility, because you’re going to get all of the blame”

1995. Se7en

Se7en: A Rain-Drenched, Somber, Gut-Wrenching Thriller that Restored David Fincher’s Faith in Filmmaking

1995. The Game

Downwards Is the Only Way Forwards: Welcome to David Fincher’s The Game

1999. Fight Club

Fight Club: David Fincher’s Stylish Exploration of Modern-Day Man’s Estrangement and Disillusionment

2007. Zodiac

Fincher’s Zodiac As Easily One Of The Best Thrillers Of The Millennium So Far

1982. David Fincher at ILM

David Fincher’s Favorite Movies

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Zodiac

Steven Benedict
October 28, 2018

When a film breaks with tradition, it is often rejected by audiences. Which may be why Zodiac was not recognised as the groundbreaking masterpiece it is.

Listen to the podcast

More David Fincher related podcasts and video essays by Steven Benedict:

Se7en
Credits
Fight Club
The Social Network
House of Cards
Gone Girl

Other mentions

ALL CAPS, all the time: why are so many shows bombarding us with giant fonts?

From Killing Eve to Mindhunter and Narcos, there’s a trend in TV for colossal captions. It’s a confident style choice that nods to noir fiction.

Jack Seale
October 26, 2018
The Guardian

David Fincher’s work is full of fine details. You could conceivably watch his entire back catalogue without realising, for instance, that the camera tends to mimic the actors’ smallest movements. But during the editing process for his 2017 TV drama Mindhunter, he had an idea that nobody can have failed to notice. “I’m not sure which episode we were watching,” editor Tyler Nelson told the Art of the Cut website, “but he said, ‘Let’s fill the frame with a big location card.’”

Whenever Jonathan Groff’s behavioural psychologist Holden Ford visits a new town, we’re told which one it is in massive letters that take up the whole screen: welcome to (eg) BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS, and to a trend in TV and film for enormous location titles.

Mindhunter fans are split between loving its colossal captions and hating their overbearing presence, but they’ve caught on.

Fincher hasn’t just upped the stakes by making his location titles fill the entire screen, rather than merely a large proportion of it: the size of the text, combined with the chosen typeface (it’s Heroic Condensed, font fans) recalls tabloid newspaper headlines of the 1970s, when the show is set. It also evokes pulp/noir detective films from a few decades earlier.

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