Dismantling the Myth of David Fincher

On the cusp of the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social NetworkThe Ringer hereby dubs the next five days David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

He has a reputation as Hollywood’s ultimate control freak, a director obsessed with attaining perfection no matter how many takes it needs or whose feelings he hurts. Now, three decades of collaborators demystify what it’s really like to work with one of the most talented directors of his generation.

Eric Ducker
Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.
September 21, 2020
The Ringer

In the early 1990s, Michael Alan Kahn worked as David Fincher’s first assistant director. Kahn had already paid his dues on Joel Silver productions like Die Hard, Hudson Hawk, and the first two Lethal Weapon sequels—big-budget action flicks made by big personalities whose off-camera tantrums rivaled the on-screen explosions. Fincher was coming off the failure of Alien 3, a film that the director still hates and hates talking about. As Fincher entered his 30s, he had returned to making music videos and commercials, two worlds where he’d earned a reputation first as a prodigy and then as a master. “When I linked up with David I immediately recognized that it was a whole different level,” says Kahn.

Not only was Fincher’s work inventive and distinct, it was meticulously constructed. Kahn remembers a series of spots they made for Heineken. They had two days to film four tableaus of the bottle in different environments, including one on an airplane. “You’d start from scratch and [Fincher] would spend five hours and 57 minutes dressing the fuselage, dressing the background, moving the background around, putting the bottle right in place, finessing the light so it felt like you were in flight, the right amount of spritz on the bottle, the right amount of napkin,” says Kahn. “Every aspect of every aspect was considered and perfected. Then he would roll the camera for three minutes, and that was lunch and that one was done. It was an amazing thing to watch because you see a blank frame and then you see him paint, basically.”

But trying to realize the vision of one man—and a man as doggedly obsessive as David Fincher—could be a double-edged sword, especially when the director moved back to filmmaking. Shortly after production began on 1995’s Se7en, “I had one of those moments where I looked around and I appreciated where I was,” says Kahn. Fincher had often admitted to Kahn how badly he wanted another chance to make a movie. “I went up to Fincher and I said, ‘Look at this! Look! It’s here! We’re here! You did it! We’re shooting a movie! There’s Morgan Freeman. There Brad [Pitt]. There’s Kevin Spacey. … Isn’t this amazing? Isn’t this wonderful? This is what you wanted.’ And he looked at me as though I were from outer space and said, ‘No, it’s awful.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Why is it awful?’ And he said, and I mean sincerely, ‘Because now I have to get what’s in my head out of all you cretins.’” Early in his career, Fincher already knew that no matter how an entire film unspooled in his brain, actually turning it into a reality would require him to make an endless amount of compromises, most of which only he would perceive. But that hasn’t stopped him from fighting his way toward his version of a flawless end product.

Throughout Fincher’s 40-year career, from his time as a teenage production assistant in Marin County to his upcoming 11th feature, Mank, he’s established himself as one of his generation’s most talented, and most emulated, filmmakers. He’s also become notorious for his singular style of making films. He’s gained a reputation as a demanding director who is never satisfied and doesn’t suffer fools, and seems to have little interest in being likable. But of course the full story is more complicated. During interviews with more than a dozen cast and crew members—ranging from those who have worked with him consistently since his earliest days as a director, to those who were part of a single project—he was called “exacting,” “razor-sharp focused,” “intense,” “tough,” “extremely observant,” “very articulate,” and “relentless.” Some also admitted that “there are times he can be a dick,” that he was “difficult,” “condescending,” and “a bit of a bully.” But he was also described as “very self-depreciating,” “so witty,” “fucking hilarious,” “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” “very generous,” and “my dearest, dearest friend.”

Nobody says making a Fincher film is easy. Most say it’s worth it.

Read the full profile

The David Fincher Exit Survey

To kick off Fincher Week, contributors explain what they find so fascinating about the man behind ‘Fight Club,’ ‘The Social Network,’ and more

The Ringer Staff
September 21, 2020
The Ringer

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