Pressure and Obsession in the Films of David Fincher

Piers McCarthy
February 2012 / November 15, 2018
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2018. Piers McCarthy

Piers McCarthy is a film and literature graduate from the University of Warwick. He’s a huge Fincher fan, and a heist and con-man sub-genre buff. He works as a freelance film publicist, looking a range of releases. He has some aspirations to write screenplays, as well as further essays on his favourite type of films, so will hopefully start penning some soon. Twitter / LinkedIn


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.


Chapter 1: Literature Review

Chapter 2: Seven

Chapter 3: Zodiac

Chapter 4: The Social Network


Chapter 1: Literature Review

Directors born during the 1970’s – deemed “Generation X” – are, like their “movie brat” predecessors, constantly revising and challenging the medium of cinema. The mixture of blockbuster and cult releases has developed an interesting spectrum from the baby-boomer artists. David Fincher is one of these contemporary directors whose work includes a wide variety of indie and mainstream films; The Game (David Fincher, Polygram Filmed Entertainment, 1997) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008) being two examples. Often in the “X-ers’” filmography there is a prevalence of contemporary issues stated or symbolised within the narratives and/or aesthetics (for example, the growing media interest in sex shown in Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, Outlaw Productions, 1989) and the capitalist state of the nation in Fight Club (Fincher, 20th Century Fox, 1999) . For Fincher, it is the recurrence of themes of pressure and obsession, thematically and aesthetically presented. The three films under inspection are examples of these thematic concerns and carry significance in terms of the director’s maturation through Hollywood.

Fincher and his fellow Generation X directors are regularly associated with MTV; many of the directors worked for the channel and both are renowned for originality. Rarely do the directors mimic or indulge in superfluous pastiche in their work. On the contrary, there is a surplus of originality; Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, 1995) and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, Live Entertainment, 1992) both offered retro-inspired, yet fresh takes on the crime movie – as much as Fincher’s Seven did. The group of new-age filmmakers are often cited as independent, autonomous and estranged from the regularity of Hollywood production. In relation to these discussions, the question of authorship appears. I aim to show how discussions of Fincher as an auteur have developed through his continuing career and through auteurist aspects of his filmmaking. Furthermore, how knowledge of his working ethos and approach to projects becomes unveiled with every interview and scholarly analysis – the once rather elusive director garnering more analytical attention with each film (one case being the ever-changing evaluation of his own work through interviews: ‘Fincher once referred to directing as “collecting moments”. Now he refines that description to “collecting behaviour”’).[1] To do this, I will be looking at various sources that define the Hollywood that David Fincher is part of, that outline the themes under analysis, the style of his directing, his filmography thus far, and the literature that can help with understanding these films.

Within the last two decades, through all the political and social catastrophes, from the end of the Gulf War to the beginning of the Iraq war, the troubled administrations of Bush, Blair and Brown, the horrific terror attacks around the world and several cataclysmic natural disasters, fragility has overcome the Western world. Uncertainty and fear have inspired many great artists to write, paint and compose art that reflects these feelings – some of whom belong to the filmmakers of Generation X. The literature concerning Generation X’s Hollywood (late Eighties to today), such as Peter Hanson’s The Cinema of Generation X: A Critical Study of Films and Directors, provides an excellent review of what innovations the contemporary filmmakers have made, along with noting the growing importance of the director figure.

The films of David Fincher, Bryan Singer, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Darren Aronofsky (to name a few) all deal with sensitive issues of mortality, morality and innate behaviour; the apparent dread and interest of the late-20th to early 21st Century society illustrated clearly in many of their films. Their work tackles a range of topics and reflects the notion that there was an ‘upsurge of more-complex-than-usual Hollywood filmmaking… noted by numerous commentators’.[2] This is one way contemporary Hollywood is defined: filmmaking that explores the controversial and multifarious aspects of society, politics, and economics. The reason behind the Generation X directors’ ‘mixed messages’ is put straightforwardly by Peter Hanson: ‘Gen Xers grew up during one of the most tumultuous periods of American history, were inundated with popular culture to an unprecedented degree, suffered through social changes such as a rash of divorces, and then created a youth culture anchored in irony, apathy, and disenfranchisement’.[3] There is the argument that contemporary Hollywood/“New Hollywood” is concentrated on budget and profits – manufacturing movies with filmmakers such as Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer and Tony Scott. Nevertheless, studies show the balance within the system whereby ‘less obviously commercial or more challenging material is determined to a significant extent by the success of the mainstream blockbuster. A period of sustained success creates more scope for such indulgences’.[4] Geoff King’s study of New Hollywood is paramount in placing David Fincher in the realm of modern filmmaking. The example that box-office gross takes precedence over seemingly less-commercial films can be easily attributed to the director of both Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Hollywood is continually being written about – most studies providing a lucid overview of how it changes over time. In my study of David Fincher the books that look at the varying traits of Hollywood are very beneficial in defining the importance of Fincher’s thematic focuses. The two books that have proved most useful are Geoff King’s New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction and Stephan Littger’s The Director’s Cut: Picturing Hollywood in the 21st Century. The latter not only focuses on Fincher, it also provides a comprehensive investigation into the careers of many other directors – several of whom are part of the Generation X clique. Littger’s book contains numerous interviews conducted with filmmakers, his purpose being to show how ‘many of those [filmmakers] you find in here have only arrived on the lot over the course of the last five to ten years. They have brought along new approaches as part of an ongoing process that allows Hollywood to playfully interact with quickly changing realities while staying in touch with an audience that is literally as broad as the movie-going public’.[5] In reading the personal accounts of those working within the system in Littger’s book and cross-referencing with the analysis of the system in King’s, I am able to formulate a reading of Fincher’s progressive repute in New Hollywood. In New Hollywood Cinema, King writes of how the production-line essence of Hollywood filmmaking grows ever more noticeable with the system’s integration ‘within a broader media landscape ruled over by a small number of large media corporations’.[6] This is something that reflects the early career of David Fincher and a substantial focal point for Fight Club. Littger asks a series of questions to Fincher that delve into the director’s beginnings and his status in the business; aspects of which illustrate an obsession (Fincher’s own aspiration to achieve perfection and autonomy with his films) and a pressure (in terms of production difficulties). Applying the studies of Hollywood to Fincher is additionally aided by the analysis of genres (mostly the study of the detective noir thriller).

There is ample literature on the detective narrative, of which Seven and Zodiac can be categorised. As yet, there is very little scholarly writing that inspects the detective narrative of Zodiac; the majority of text is mostly in popular literature (magazine pieces and online articles). However, I have identified texts that will help with the analysis of Zodiac – those from the mass of detective/noir studies and from Mark Browning’s comparative analysis of Seven and Zodiac in his book on the director, David Fincher: Films that Scar. As this is a book published in 2010, there is only the mention of Fincher moving on to the project of The Social Network and therefore Browning has no capability of analysing the film; once more permitting popular literature, and related writing, as the basis of The Social Network’s analysis.

For examining the thematic presentation of obsession and pressure there are not only the genre-based literatures that support textual analysis but the accompanying books on film style. For example, Suspense, Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Exploration focus on the style and aesthetics of tension within a film. Without making explicit references to Fincher’s films (the book published only a year after Seven’s release), points like, ‘[t]he dramaturgy of suspense refers to the activity of anticipating; it provides the material from which viewers can extrapolate future developments’ can be attributed to Fincher’s presentation of pressure in both the raid in the Sloth segment for Seven and the basement scene in Zodiac.[7] Additionally, there are definitions of work-related pressure than link with my own analysis of the subject: ‘work pressure has the expected effects of reducing environmental control and creating anxiety or threat with regard to productivity’.[8]

For the analysis of obsession, the most important citations come from Lennard J. DavisObsession: A History and Andrew M. Colman’s A Dictionary of Psychology. The latter provides a definition of obsession, stating how it is a ‘recurrent and persistent thought, impulse, or idea that causes significant distress, is experienced as intrusive or inappropriate, is not merely an exaggerated worry about a genuine problem, and is recognized by the afflicted person as internally generated’ – a characteristic in Fincher’s films often noted by critics and scholars.[9] Seven is largely referenced in horror/detective/thriller genre-specific research – the remaining two films of study have to be theorised either in relation to broad generic investigations, what is written about Seven, original thought, or popular literature. The Social Network is not a horror/thriller film and so very few allusions (only similarities in character and Fincher’s style) can be made to the literature that corresponds with Seven and Zodiac. As yet, The Social Network is in a niche category. The overall melodrama, which has many branches of scholarly discussions, is not studied in conjunction with social networking. For this reason, analysing the pressure and obsession of the film relies on newspaper, magazine and online articles/reviews (which, like Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why?” article, contain useful textual examinations). “Generation Why?” both reviews and dissects the film in a number of ways that enable the two themes under inspection to be understood further than would be possible with simple critical reviews. There is a lack of thoroughness with articles such as Smith’s, yet for a contemporary film there is a great deal of information and opinion that can aid the dissertation study. Similarly, Nev Pierce’s on-set interview for Zodiac may lack broad readings of the film yet there is still an abundance of considerations and attitudes toward the film from those that made it.

James Vanderbilt, the writer of Zodiac, is interviewed in Pierce’s set-visit and recalls how Fincher, after reading the script and deciding to direct the film, asked to have the script put ‘in a drawer’ and have the current crew ‘go up to the Bay area and meet every single person who was involved in this investigation’.[10] This is one example of the obsession of characters correlating with the director. For the debate on Fincher as an auteur, I read his personality as intrinsically linked to his approach to projects. Even The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film that does not support the thematic study of this dissertation, was made partly due to Fincher’s feelings about the passing of his father. In King’s book, he defines auteurs as having a ‘distinctive film style’ following on with stating how, ‘[a] true auteur uses the medium in a manner that is identifiable from one work to another as his or her personal style’.[11] This opinion can be credited to Fincher who has formed a personal style and chosen his projects carefully since Seven. Furthermore, King writes how ‘thematic concerns have to be identified across a director’s body of work. Particular issues or attitudes are detected’.[12] Once again, throughout this dissertation and with reference to Browning, Littger’s interview, Fincher’s own commentary on his films, and several articles, this point shall be clarified in relation to the director. One counter-argument to Fincher as an auteur is the question of Fincher’s control over his films. As King recognizes, ‘the collaborative nature of the business has always put limits on the freedom of the director to claim the status of especially privileged author. This is true of almost all other than the most low-budget or “independent” feature production’.[13] The production of Alien3 (David Fincher, 20th Century Fox, 1992) was, in Fincher’s own words: ‘completely untenable, because the people that were paying it had no confidence in the person they had hired to execute it’.[14] The Hemingway quote at the end of Seven was included by the studio to ‘give some crumb of Hollywoodian comfort in a film so extraordinarily un-American in its pessimism’, and not a decision of the director.[15] These examples, along with Fincher including himself in the major mainstream scene with his recent adaptation of The Girl With Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, MGM, 2011), show how guided he may be with his productions, and perhaps without complete autonomy over them.

Films that Scar is the second book that studies the personality and filmography of Fincher (the other being James Swallow’s Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher) and contains several useful chapters for this dissertation including the Seven/Zodiac comparison and an overarching biography of the director which references the development and production of his work. For the three films, chronologically speaking, there is an obvious diminution in literature. Even so, the online writing and magazine articles are beneficial to my reading of the two contemporary films. Nev Pierce is a journalist who has had exclusive access to many of Fincher’s productions, highlighting the choice and creation of certain Fincher projects. The interviews Pierce gathers are just as helpful as Littger’s. In relation to this, it will be Browning, Pierce, Littger and Richard Dyer that will prove most valuable in the analysis of Fincher and the two themes. The Social Network and Zodiac have had little critical discussion and so, as I hope, the ruminations made on those films will be original and of merit. Very few writers define Fincher as an auteur and so there is still a lot of open ground for discussion on this subject; one with which I shall conclude.

Chapter 2: Seven


1. David Fincher quoted by Nev Pierce, “Geek Tragedy” in Empire, Issue 256, October 2010
2. Geoff King, New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2002) p.47
3. Peter Hanson, The Cinema of Generation X: A Critical Study of Films and Directors (North Carolina, USA: McFarland & Company Inc, 2002) p.1
4. King, New Hollywood, p.83
5. Stephan Littger, The Director’s Cut (New York, USA: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2006) p.xvi
6. King, New Hollywood, p.79
7. Hans J. Wulff “Suspense and the Influences of Cataphora on Viewers’ Expectations” in Suspense, Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Exploration, Peter Vorderer (ed) (New Jersey, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 1996) p. 1
8. Stuart M. Klein, Workers Under Stress (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1971) p.31
9. Andrew M. Colman, A Dictionary of Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
10. James Vanderbilt interviewed in Nev Pierce’s, “The Devil is on the Detail” in Total Film, Issue 128, June 2007
11. King, New Hollywood, p.87
12. Ibid
13. Ibid
14. Fincher interviewed by Stephan Littger, The Director’s Cut (New York, USA: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2006) p.174
15. Richard Dyer, Seven (Norfolk: British Film Institute, 1999) p.77

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