For this very special edition of Bonus Features, Jacob and Marten talk to David Prior, the writer/director behind last year’s criminally underseen horror picture The Empty Man. Over the course of our lengthy chat, David dives into his career as a special features pioneer during the the early days of DVD, and just what happened to his future cult classic at Disney/Fox.
Last October, a horror movie came and went. It wasn’t the first time a Hollywood studio dumped a horror movie in the middle of Halloween; given the ongoing pandemic, few films with a theatrical release could have moved the needle in 2020. But in the case of David Prior’s The Empty Man, this release was just the tip of the iceberg, the near-final act in a first-time filmmaker’s multi-year struggle to bring his vision to the screen.
In this conversation, Prior explains how he went from being David Fincher’s protégé to the director of 2020’s most ambitious — and most abandoned — horror film. We also explore how a perfect storm of production problems and studio politics nearly killed the film, and how a passionate audience has already started to turn The Empty Man into a future cult classic.
From DVDs to David Fincher
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. If The Empty Man survives its troubled production and halfhearted theatrical release to become a household name for genre fans, then perhaps this story will serve as a fitting beginning to Prior’s career as a feature filmmaker. For years, Prior worked as a production documentarian for filmmakers such as David Fincher and Peter Weir, but one of his big breaks came with Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, itself a studio disaster that took years to find a passionate audience.
In the years before Ravenous’s theatrical release, Prior had built relationships in 20th Century Fox’s home video department thanks to his contributions to the isolated score track on the Alien DVD release. So when Prior stumbled across Ravenous in theaters — despite a trailer that he describes as a “piss-poor representation of the movie” — he saw an opportunity to build on those connections and bring some much-deserved love to Bird’s film.
His gamble worked. According to Prior, the special-edition release of Ravenous sold three times its initial projections, forcing 20th Century Fox to rush extra copies of the film into production. With his credentials established, Prior was given his pick of future home video releases, and his decision resulted in one of the most influential relationships of Prior’s professional career. “I said, ‘I don’t know what Fight Club is, but I really want to meet David Fincher, so I’ll do that one. And that led to a relationship with Fincher that goes on to this day.”
Over the next decade, Prior became a powerhouse in behind-the-scenes documentaries, shooting features for such films as Master and Commander, Zodiac, and The Social Network. It proved to be a successful and stable career, just not the one that Prior had in mind when he went to Hollywood. “I remember at the time thinking, ‘This is gonna be something where if I’m not careful, ten, fifteen years of my life is going to go by doing this instead of what I’d rather be doing,’” the director says. So Prior took another gamble, this time using some of his own money to produce the short film that would eventually land him his role with The Empty Man.
“In 40 short minutes, David Prior shows why he is one of the most promising directors I’ve ever seen. People always ask me what to do for a ‘calling card’ in Hollywood. Well do something like this, and try to do it half as well.”
David Fincher and Ren Klyce came of age during a seminal time for Hollywood: when the pair were just kids, a group of ’70s filmmakers was reshaping what it meant to make movies, right from the pair’s native Bay Area. In a biographical detail almost too perfect to be true, George Lucas rented a house in Marin County to edit his “THX 1138,” that just so happened to be located right next door to the Klyce family’s home. A single suburban lawn is all that separated a then-9-year-old Ren from the great Walter Murch, just as he was starting to change modern movie sound forever, work he’d continue throughout the decade with another NorCal auteur, Francis Ford Coppola. And it would be on a Lucas-produced animated feature, “Twice Upon a Time,” that future sound designer Klyce would meet his Coppola, a then-19-year-old Fincher.
Over the last 25 years, as Hollywood has utilized the multi-channel surround technology pioneered by Murch to create bombastic soundtracks that all too often mask a lack of craft, Klyce has helped Fincher explore the subconscious underbelly of his own films, constantly refining how sound can be used to shape a viewer’s emotional response.
“To me, sound design is not about 96 channels all at 11, and two side cars giving you this sound pressure-gasm; to me, it’s very much about the detail and the nuance and maybe things that you wouldn’t even be aware that you heard until the second or third time you saw it,” said Fincher in an interview about his collaboration with Klyce. “I can’t talk more enthusiastically about someone [Klyce] I feel has very subtly pushed what sound designers do.”
When David Fincher sat down with Netflix executives in the spring of 2019, he did not expect to be handed the equivalent of a blank check. Sure, the 58-year-old filmmaker — a former music-video wunderkind best known for pushing the envelope with baroque serial-killer thrillers (Seven), toxic-masculinity satires (Fight Club) and social-media origin stories (The Social Network) — was a name-brand director, and had helped kick off the golden age of streaming with the outlet’s first original series, House of Cards. But Fincher was used to resistance. You can’t have this budget. You can’t tell that story. What do you mean, you’re doing a TV show, for a mail-order DVD company, and all the episodes come out at once?!
So when Fincher was told by his patrons at the company that they were interested in helping him make anything he wanted, he thought of a long-dormant labor of love: a script his late father, Jack Fincher, had written about the making of Citizen Kane. Not the tale of the brilliant director, producer, star and co-writer who, at a precociously young age, took Hollywood by storm with his rise-and-fall drama. This was the story of the alcoholic screenwriter who was hired to pen the script, originally titled American, and then inserted a personal grudge against the powers that be into the greatest movie of all time.
Fincher wanted to shoot it in black-and-white. He wanted to use a lot of old-fashioned stylistic nods to Hollywood movies of the ‘40s, as if the film had just been discovered in a vault after 80 years of gathering dust. Also it would involve an obscure chapter in California’s political history concerning Upton Sinclair’s 1934 run for governor and a disinformation campaign allegedly masterminded by studio execs. It was a shot in the dark. By his own admission, Fincher couldn’t believe it when Netflix said yes.
To see Mank, Fincher’s throwback ode to the Golden Age of Tinseltown USA, however, is to know why they did. Chronicling how the broken-down writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) helped permanently change film as an art form, his movie is an audacious, complicated, stylistically daring and thoroughly entertaining yarn — the kind of retro nod to a bygone era that makes you feel like you’ve injected a day’s worth of TCM programming into your veins. But it’s also a challenging drama about complicity, the price of speaking truth to power and the manipulation of modern media, which couldn’t make the film feel more urgent.
Over a two separate two-hour conversations from his home in Los Angeles, Fincher discussed bringing this tribute to his father (who died in 2003) to the screen, his reputation as a taskmaster on set, why he’s sorry Fight Club pissed off a fellow filmmaker, and more.
For nearly three decades, David Fincher has been making gorgeous bummer movies that — in defiance of Hollywood’s first principle — insist that happy endings are a lie. Filled with virtuosic images of terrible deeds and violence, his movies entertain almost begrudgingly. Even when good somewhat triumphs, the victories come at a brutal cost. No one, Fincher warns, is going to save us. You will hurt and you will die, and sometimes your pretty wife’s severed head will end up in a box.
Long a specialized taste, Fincher in recent years started to feel like an endangered species: a commercial director who makes studio movies for adult audiences, in an industry in thrall to cartoons and comic books. His latest, “Mank,” a drama about the film industry, was made for Netflix, though. It’s an outlier in his filmography. Its violence is emotional and psychological, and there’s only one corpse, even if its self-destructive protagonist, Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), can look alarmingly cadaverous. Set in Hollywood’s golden age, it revisits his tenure in one of the most reliably bitter and underappreciated Hollywood tribes, a.k.a. screenwriters.
The new David Fincher movie, Mank, released on Netflix on December 4th of this year, was originally scheduled to be produced in 1999 but didn’t happen due to a number of factors. In 2007 Fincher released Zodiac which was one of the first major theatrical features to be shot in a digital environment around a completely new file-based workflow that would revolutionize the industry over the next decade.
Peter Mavromates, the post production supervisor on Zodiac and a number of other Fincher projects over the years, including a co-Producer credit on Mank, joins Critical Conversations to discuss how digital workflows have grown and evolved over the last 15 years. Peter will talk about helping to design the early workflows on Zodiac, continuing to build it with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the ongoing developments created for Mank, and what’s next for the future.
Peter Mavromates has worked in post production for more than 35 years. He saw the future of “film” when he walked into a high-end video facility in New York called Charlex. Working at Charlex while still in “film” school in the NYU Grad Film Program, he saw the beauty of film (read ACETATE) and the power of electronic (read ANALOG VIDEO transitioning to DIGITAL) and watched as those two processes merged and mutated throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Peter produced his first DI on Panic Room in 2002, and his first DI of a digitally acquired movie on Zodiac in 2007. Most of the last 25 years have been spent working on projects with David Fincher, but he has also worked with Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Gaghan, and George Clooney.
With films including Se7en, Zodiac and Fight Club, David Fincher has explored the darkest edges of humanity. Yet there’s more to his unique vision, writes Gregory Wakeman, as the director’s film Mank is released.
David Fincher fans have had plenty to celebrate over the past few months. September marked the 25th anniversary of Se7en, Fincher’s deeply disturbing psychological thriller that established the then 33-year-old as one of the most iconoclastic young directors in Hollywood. Then, just a couple of weeks later, The Social Network, Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s searing exploration of Mark Zuckerberg and the origins of Facebook, turned 10. Most exciting of all for Fincher aficionados, though, is the fact that, more than six years after the release of his last feature film Gone Girl, Mank will finally arrive on Netflix on 4 December.
Fincher has waited around 20 years to find the perfect home for the film, which was originally written by his father Jack in the late 1990s. But while most major Hollywood studios were put off by the idea of a black and white biopic of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, Netflix gave Fincher carte blanche to fulfil his vision.
The early reviews for Mank have been extremely positive, and Fincher has immediately become one of the main contenders for the best director Oscar. Covid-19’s disruption of the 2020 cinematic calendar means that Fincher’s competition isn’t quite as strong as it could have been. But it’s to the Academy Awards’ great shame that this titan of modern filmmaking has somehow only received best director nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network. Despite this oversight, Fincher’s place in the cinematic pantheon has long been secure. No other modern filmmaker has examined alienation, depression, obsession, and the dark side of intelligence like he has, while keeping a stylish, visceral, and, most importantly of all, entertaining approach.
Le grand film de Fincher débarque sur Netflix le 4 décembre. L’occasion d’un entretien avec le cinéaste, mais aussi avec ses collaborateurs les plus proches. 16 pages spéciales.
Scénario pour une critique par Nicolas Tellop
Filmopathe entretien avec David Fincher – par Nev Pierce
Collaborer avec Fincher entretiens avec Erik Messerschmidt (chef opérateur) – Donald Graham Burt (chef décorateur) – Trish Summerville (costumière) – Kirk Baxter (monteur)
2. Revisiter Fincher
Plongée exceptionnelle dans l’oeuvre de l’un des plus grands cinéastes contemporains. Filmographie commentée, analyses… 50 pages à lire.
4 nuances de Fincher par Jean-Sébastien Massart et Fabrice Fuentes
David Fincher en 14 titres Propaganda Films (clips) – Alien 3 – Se7en – The Game – Fight Club – Panic Room + les plans de Panic Room – Zodiac – L’Étrange histoire de Benjamin Button – The Social Network – Millénium + la musique hantée de Millénium – Gone Girl – Mindhunter
Démoniaque – la perfection du crime par Nathan Reneaud Fantômes et paranoïa par Jérôme d’Estais Solitude & obsession – Fincher Dogma par Alexandre Jourdain Poétique du suicide par Aurélien Lemant Le système des objets – design finchérien par Dick Tomasovic
An hour or so into the 1999 premiere of Fight Club, David Fincher slipped outside for some air. The director hadn’t known exactly what to expect when his brutally violent black comedy was selected for the Venice Film Festival, but whatever the dream scenario had been, this wasn’t it. The walkouts had started early, and become a steady stream. The only audience members laughing were his leading men, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton – though in fairness, the two had shared a joint beforehand. The first review off the presses had described Fincher’s film as “an inadmissible assault on personal decency” with a fascist bent, and the festival crowd weren’t noticeably any more enthused.
“The resounding thuds every scene landed with just became too much,” Fincher, now 58, tells me from home via Zoom. He recalls sitting on the steps outside and watching half a dozen disgusted older women file past: “all wearing at least one item of leopard print, like six Anne Bancrofts in The Graduate.” One evidently recognised the American enfant terrible and hissed something to her companions, who looked across and shook their heads in sync. “It was then I knew that what we’d done was wrong,” he says, beaming with pride.
Fincher’s tremendous latest film – his first since Gone Girl in 2014 – is unlikely to cause many viewers to storm home, not least because they’ll already be there when they watch it. Mank is a Netflix production, filmed just before the pandemic struck, but edited, polished and due to be released under lockdown conditions. Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood and shot in silvery monochrome, it follows the political chicanery and personal vendettas that led to the writing of Citizen Kane: a film released in 1941, and still widely considered the greatest ever made. Mank’s hero isn’t Orson Welles, Kane’s startlingly young director and star (he was 25 when it was released), but Gary Oldman’s Herman J Mankiewicz – a wildly talented screenwriter and incorrigible gambler and drunk, whom Welles enlisted to ghostwrite the script.