The Implied Horror of David Fincher’s Basements

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social NetworkThe Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

The director rarely lets his films slip into full-on gore, but the possibilities he creates within his viewers’ imaginations are even more disturbing

Miles Surrey
September 24, 2020
The Ringer

If you ever had a basement growing up, the thought of descending down the stairs for a menial task could feel like a perilous journey during which a ghastly creature hiding in the darkness could snatch you at any second. Never mind that every other time you’d gone down to the basement nothing happened—that’s exactly what the monster wanted you to think. A kid’s imagination is potent; and Hollywood has a knack for stoking that specific, universal type of fear and paranoia. It’s the basement, after all, where the Babadook ultimately resides. (At least from what I recall: The Babadook is a good movie and I plan to never watch it again.)

It’s within that space of imagining the worst possible scenario that David Fincher wrings the scariest moment from Zodiac, arguably the great director’s greatest achievement. In Robert Graysmith’s exhaustive search to unmask the Zodiac Killer, he meets a man who supposedly has a tip about the serial killer’s true identity, only to discover that two potential clues he had for the Zodiac—that the killer likely owned a basement, which is rare in California, and that he had a distinctive style of handwriting—are right in front of him. The stranger does own a basement; the handwriting Graysmith thought was the Zodiac’s actually belongs to the person whose home he just entered. That Graysmith is successfully lured into the man’s basement on a dark and stormy night only heightens the feeling that something really bad is going to happen. Obsessive curiosity and the search for truth supplant fear and Graysmith’s own survival instinct.

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Not Many People Have Basements in California …

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social NetworkThe Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

Robert Graysmith visiting the home of Bob Vaughn in ‘Zodiac’ is David Fincher’s most purely terrifying scene. Here’s how it came together—and came to stay in the movie.

Jake Kring-Schreifels 
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York.
September 24, 2020
The Ringer

On a wet September night in 1978, Robert Graysmith couldn’t resist his curiosity.

A month earlier, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist had received an anonymous phone call regarding the identity of the Zodiac, the notorious Bay Area serial killer. “He’s a guy named Rick Marshall,” the mysterious voice told him at the start of an hourlong conversation. The killer’s string of murders in 1969 had gone unsolved, but Graysmith suddenly had a new lead. According to the tipster, Marshall—a former projectionist at The Avenue Theater—had hidden evidence from his five victims inside movie canisters, which he’d rigged to explode. Before hanging up, the nameless caller told Graysmith to find Bob Vaughn, a silent film organist who worked with Marshall. The booby-trapped canisters, Graysmith learned, had recently been moved to Vaughn’s home. “Get to Vaughn,” the voice told him. “See if he tells you to stay away from part of his film collection.”

After years spent independently entrenched in the open case, Graysmith dug into Marshall’s history and found several coincidences. His new suspect liked The Red Spectre, an early-century movie referenced in a 1974 Zodiac letter, and had used a teletype machine just like the killer. Outside The Avenue Theater, Marshall’s felt-pen posters even had handwriting similar to the Zodiac’s obscure, cursive strokes. On occasional visits to the upscale movie house, Graysmith observed Vaughn playing the Wurlitzer and noticed the Zodiac’s crosshair symbol plastered to the theater’s ceiling. There were too many overlapping clues. He had to make a trip to Vaughn’s house. “We knew there was some link,” Graysmith tells me. “I was scared to death.”

Almost three decades later, director David Fincher turned Graysmith’s nightmarish visit into one of the creepiest movie scenes of all time. It takes place near the end of Zodiac, after Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) follows Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) to his home through the rain in his conspicuous, bright-orange Volkswagen Rabbit. Once inside, the mood quickly becomes unnerving. After disclosing that he, not Marshall, is responsible for the movie poster handwriting, Vaughn leads a spooked Graysmith down to his dimly lit basement. As the organist sorts through his nitrate film records, the floorboards above Graysmith creak, insinuating another’s presence. After Vaughn assures his guest that he lives alone, Graysmith sprints upstairs to the locked front door, rattling the handle, before Vaughn slowly pulls out his key and opens it from behind. Graysmith bolts into the rain as though he’s just escaped the Zodiac’s clutches.

Ultimately, the third-act encounter is a red herring. Vaughn was never considered a credible suspect. But in a movie filled with rote police work and dead ends, those five minutes of kettle-whistling tension turn a procedural into true horror. The scene is a culmination of Graysmith’s paranoid obsession with the Zodiac’s identity—a window into the life-threatening lengths and depths he’ll go to solve the case—and a brief rejection of the movie’s otherwise objective lens. “It’s actually so different from the rest of the movie,” says James VanderbiltZodiac’s screenwriter. “It does kind of give you that jolt that a lot of the movie is working hard not to [give].”

Most simply, the basement scene is a signature Fincher adrenaline rush—a moment buttressed by years of intensive research, attention to accuracy, and last-minute studio foresight. Thirteen years after the movie’s release, it still sends shivers down Graysmith’s spine.

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The David Fincher You Meet in His Movies

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social NetworkThe Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

The protagonists of everything from ‘Fight Club’ to ‘Zodiac’ to ‘Gone Girl’ have something in common: they’re all cut from the same cloth as their director

Adam Nayman
September 23, 2020
The Ringer

No filmmaker has ever put himself into his work like Alfred Hitchcock. In movie after movie, the director made blink-or-miss-them appearances located at the edge of the frame—crossing a street walking a dog; appearing in a photo for a weight loss clinic—that prompted audiences to play a game of spot-the-auteur. These slyly miniaturized acts of showmanship were simultaneously sight gags and wry reminders of who was really in charge: The so-called “master of suspense” mixed in among the actors he infamously referred to as “cattle.”

David Fincher has not appeared in any of his own films: the closest thing to a cameo comes in 2014’s Gone Girl, a positively Hitchcockian thriller right down to its shower scene featuring a bloody blond. Midway through the film, suspected wife killer Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is being coached on an upcoming television appearance by his high-priced lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), who’s determined that his client makes just the right impression. During their dressing room prep session, the attorney pelts Nick with gummy bears to sharpen his posture and line readings. Perry supposedly didn’t know who Fincher was before being cast in the part, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that in this scene, he’s doing an indirect impression of his director—a control freak who once said there are only two ways to shoot any given scene, and that one of them is always wrong.

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David Fincher’s Longtime DP Jeff Cronenweth Has Advice, Insight, and Stories

25th Annual American Society Of Cinematographers (ASC) Awards (2011)

A podcast about how to build a career in filmmaking. No Film School shares the latest opportunities and trends for anyone working in film and TV. We break news on cameras, lighting, and apps. We interview leaders in screenwriting, directing, cinematography, editing, and producing. And we answer your questions! We are dedicated to sharing knowledge with filmmakers around the globe, “no film school” required.

Jeffrey Reeser
August 28, 2020
No Film School

Oscar-nominated camera wizard Jeff Cronenweth sat down with us to talk about his origins in the film industry.

As a young man, Cronenweth spent time on the set of Blade Runner as his father, Jordan Cronenweth shot it. He walks us through the next chapter of his career, starting out as an AC for legendary DP Sven Nykvist and how his longtime working relationship with David Fincher began when shooting pickups for a Madonna music video.

We discuss his experiences crafting the look of Fight Club, The Social Network, and Gone Girl, among other great films. Now in 2020, he is up for an Emmy for his work on the Amazon series Tales From The Loop.

Listen to the podcast:

No Film School
Apple Podcasts

Follow Jeff Cronenweth, ASC Archives on Twitter

All The Right Movies: Zodiac (2007)

“Hey Bullitt, it’s been almost a year. You gonna catch this f*ckin’ guy or not?”

July 31, 2020
All The Right Movies

A chilling series of murders by the self-titled Zodiac Killer sends Northern California into a state of frenzy. Aided and abetted by SF’s finest, cartoonist Robert Graysmith is willing to sacrifice his marriage, his career and his sanity to track down the killer. David Fincher’s period tale of obsession didn’t perform at the box office and was largely ignored at awards season, but its reputation has built over time, and it is now regarded by many one of the greatest American movies since the turn of the century.

All The Right Movies have gone door to door to find out everything there is to know about Zodiac.

Listen to the podcast

All The Right Movies: Se7en (1995)

SoundWorks Collection: The Sound of MindHunter

Glenn Kiser
Director of the Dolby Institute
July 2, 2020
SoundWorks Collection / The Dolby Institute

Cinema director David Fincher created one of the first original streaming series with House of Cards, and his innovative spirit infuses the Netflix original series Mindhunter, now in its second season.

In this podcast episode, the sound team discuss Fincher’s unique approach to the sound of serial killer interrogation scenes, a hallmark of this fascinating, dark series. The team discuss setting the acoustic tone of the series, including the oppression of the FBI agents’ basement office (and a very special door), why it was important to Fincher to always hear trainee agents at Quantico at target practice, and the joy of receiving Fincher’s incredibly detailed mix notes.

Steve Bissinger – Sound Effects Editor
Scott Lewis – Re-Recording Mixer
Stephen Urata – Re-Recording Mixer

Listen to the SoundWorks Collection podcast on:

Apple Podcasts
Spotify

Stitcher

Soundstage Access: Interview with Writer of “Zodiac” and Director James Vanderbilt

Brando Benetton
December 11, 2018
Soundstage Access

It was amazing to sit down and chat with Writer/Director/Producer James Vanderbilt, whose credits include Sony‘s ‘The Amazing Spiderman‘, ‘White House Down‘ and David Fincher‘s masterpiece ‘Zodiac.’

In our conversation we talk about James’ early success selling his first script just days away from graduating at USC, his relationship with pitching films to studios, becoming a first-time director on ‘Truth‘ and much more.

Make sure to find and follow the podcast on Facebook.

Listen to the podcast on:

Apple Podcasts
Spotify

Stitcher

Also:

Stephen Nakamura, Colorist (‘Fight Club‘, ‘IT: Chapter Two‘)
John Schwartzman, Cinematographer (‘Jurassic World: Dominion‘)

Master Class with David Fincher / Master Class de David Fincher

Carlos Reviriego
September 15, 2014 (May 8, 2020)
TAI Escuela Universitaria de Artes

Interview with David Fincher at the TAI University School of Arts (Madrid), hosted by Carlos Reviriego.

In English, with Spanish subtitles.

Questions:

0:00:33 – What did the book ‘Gone Girl‘ is based on had that made you want to film a movie about it?
0:02:33 – Talk about your first years in the movie industry.
0:06:38 – You once said ‘No one hates Alien3 more than me’. Can you talk about it?
0:09:31 – David Lynch was here last year, and he said that the most important advice was to always fight for the final cut of your film. Do you think the same?
0:15:03 – Some critics think that ‘Fight Club‘ and movies on your filmography celebrate violence and anarchy. What do you have to say about it?
0:18:39 – Do you see yourself as a perfectionist?
0:22:17 – What’s more important, talent or hard work?
0:25:40 – What changes with digital cinema?
0:28:09 – How do you work with the Cinematographer and the Art Department?
0:34:31 – Can you talk about your work for TV and House of Cards?
0:36:37 – How do you feel about Amy’s character in Gone Girl?
0:37:53 – Do you get involved in the writing process?
0:39:08 – Why do you tend to use green and yellow colours in your cinema?
0:41:12 – Do you see a certain similarity between Brad Pitt’s character in ‘Twelve Monkeys‘ and ‘Seven‘?
0:43:02 – What do you look for in an actor?
0:48:38 – Is it more complicated to do fiction or documentary?


Encuentro con David Fincher en la Escuela Universitaria de Artes TAI (Madrid), conducido por Carlos Reviriego.

En inglés, con subtítulos en español.

Preguntas:

0:00:33 – ¿Qué te atrajo de la obra literaria en la que se inspira ‘Gone Girl‘?
0:02:33 – Háblanos de tus comienzos
0:06:38 – Una vez dijiste que nadie odió Alien3 más que tu. ¿Puedes hablar sobre ello?
0:09:31 – David Lynch estuvo aquí el año pasado y dijo que lo más importante era tener el corte final de la película. ¿Opinas lo mismo?
0:15:03 – Algunos críticos opinan que ‘Fight Club‘ y otras de tus películas ensalzan la violencia y el caos. ¿Qué tienes que decir al respecto?
0:18:39 – ¿Te consideras un perfeccionista?
0:22:17 – ¿Qué es más importante, el talento o el trabajo duro?
0:25:40 – ¿Qué añade la conversión al digital del cine a tu obra?
0:28:09 – Tu estética tiene una firma o un sello personal. ¿Cómo trabajas con el Director de Fotografía?
0:34:31 – ¿Puedes hablar sobre tu participación en televisión y en House of Cards?
0:36:37 – ¿Qué piensas del personaje de Amy en Gone Girl?
0:37:53 – ¿Cómo te involucras en el proceso de escritura del guión?
0:39:08 – ¿Por qué tu cine tiene cierta tendencia a usar verdes y amarillos?
0:41:12 – ¿Crees que hay cierta similitud entre la forma de actuar del personaje de Brad Pitt en ‘Twelve Monkeys‘ y ‘Seven‘, que fueron rodadas en la misma época?
0:43:02 – ¿Qué buscas de un actor a la hora de trabajar con él?
0:48:38 – ¿Es más complicado rodar ficción o documental?

Magaly Briand / TAI (2014)

“I Had to Figure Out the True Latitude, Speed and Color Science”

DP Jeff Cronenweth On The Social Network Ten Years Later and the Mysterium X Sensor.

Aaron Hunt
May 4, 2020
Filmmaker

Film stills by Merrick Morton

On October 1, The Social Network turns ten. The RED Mysterium X sensor (also turning ten) that rendered the film is now outmoded, but The Social Network thrives due to, not in spite of, the marks of its time. The limited latitude of the once cutting-edge camera sensor pushed David Fincher and DP Jeff Cronenweth—who also shot Fincher’s Fight Club, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl—into the darker bends of The Social Network’s imitation Harvard dorms. The camera struggled with highlights, so they avoided hot windows and sunny exteriors. It also strained to digest warm tones, so they chose a cooler palette that was easier for the RED to chew on. The sensor’s limitations had implicit limitations with the story of Facebook’s origin, the first of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s two tech mogul reprimands (Fincher’s Zuckerberg was follow by Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs)—individuals he believes pioneered our doom out of spite, envy, inceldom.

When The Social Network initially released, an anecdote about Fincher hiring a mime to distract Harvard campus security was often iterated in the press. Fincher and Cronenweth stitched three shots captured by three REDs on a roof across the street and did a “pan and scan” in post to get a move they couldn’t have otherwise. But they needed light on some of the dark arches, so Fincher hired a mime to push a battery cart full of lights behind them, the impetus being that “by the time [security] got him out of there we would have already accomplished our shot.” Fincher adopted digital in its nascent stages to limit the compromises caused by the erratic nature of the film set. What remained to be compromised on he’d have more ways of fixing in post on digital than on film.


Filmmaker: What have you been watching?

Cronenweth: Eh, I don’t know. Mostly movies. I tried to do the Ozark series, which I like, but it starts to get redundant: same bad guys doing the same things. The only problem I find is that the first week we watched maybe 50 movies, so now we can’t separate the good scenes and shots from the others because we’ve watched so many in a row. That can be a handicap. I’m 58. This is the longest I’ve had off since I graduated from college. So, there are a lot of things I’ve been putting off for twenty years that have been good to get done with.

Filmmaker: Have you rewatched The Social Network recently?

Cronenweth: No, I tend not to. You see them so many times when you’re making them, in the edit, the color correct and the screenings. I would like to, though. It’s such a cleverly written script and Fincher did such a great job at bringing Aaron’s dialogue across. Everytime I watch it, regardless of how tied into it I was, it always amuses me how quickly it feels like it went by. You never have a chance to get off the rollercoaster, which is one of [Fincher’s] mottos. But by the end you go “Really? That’s the whole movie?” It feels like it just started.

Filmmaker: You guys were the first feature film to use RED’s Mysterium X sensor.

Cronenweth: It was my first experience shooting something long form with a digital camera. I had shot music videos and commercials on an array of different formats and cameras. Obviously Fincher had done Zodiac and Benjamin Button digitally. I can’t remember what they shot that on?

Filmmaker: I think they were both shot on the Viper. [Benjamin was a combination of the Viper, Sony F23 and some 35mm on the Arriflex 435]

Read the full interview

Follow Jeff Cronenweth, ASC Archives on Twitter

Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’: A Suspenseful and Thrilling Combination of Police Procedural and Newspaper Film That Masterfully Chronicles the Progression of Obsession

Zodiac poster by Barret Chapman

Koraljka Suton
January 24, 2020

If you asked David Fincher about the childhood years he spent in San Anselmo in Marin County during the 1960s, the topic that would undoubtedly pop up would be that of an infamous serial killer who, in the director’s eyes, was “the ultimate boogeyman.” For it was precisely that time and that general area that saw the rise of the Zodiac, a murderer who frequently wrote letters and sent coded messages to local newspapers, gleefully taking credit for the gruesome killing sprees that would inevitably trigger waves of paranoia across the West Coast. As Fincher recalls: “I remember coming home and saying the highway patrol had been following our school buses for a couple weeks now. And my dad, who worked from home, and who was very dry, not one to soft-pedal things, turned slowly in his chair and said: ‘Oh yeah. There’s a serial killer who has killed four or five people, who calls himself Zodiac, who’s threatened to take a high-powered rifle and shoot out the tires of a school bus, and then shoot the children as they come off the bus.’” Fincher’s fascination with the mystery man who wreaked havoc in Northern California during the late 60s and early 70s, claiming to have taken the lives of thirty-seven people (out of which only five were confirmed as being his victims), ultimately resulted in the director gladly accepting to work on Zodiac, a 2007 movie written by James Vanderbilt. The screenwriter had read a 1986 non-fiction book of the same name while he was still in high school, years before pursuing his eventual career. After getting into screenwriting, he had the chance to meet Zodiac author Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist who had been working for one of the newspapers the killer wrote to during the 1960s, and decided to make a screenplay based on the information-packed book. Having creative control over the material was of the utmost importance to Vanderbilt, given the fact that the endings of his previous scripts had been altered. Together with producers from Phoenix Pictures, Vanderbilt bought the rights to both Zodiac and its follow-up, entitled Zodiac Unmasked, after which the Seven director was asked to come on board.

Apart from having a personal attachment to the story of the notorious serial killer who was never brought to justice, what drew Fincher to work on the project was also the fact that the ending of Vanderbilt’s script was left unresolved, thereby staying true to real-life events. But Fincher’s perfectionism and his wish to depict the open case as accurately as possible led to him asking that the screenplay be rewritten, for the wanted to research the original police reports from scratch. He also decided that he, Vanderbilt and producer Bradley J. Fischer should personally interview the people who were involved in the case so that they could discern for themselves whether the testimonies were to be believed or not. The people they spent months interviewing were family members of suspects, the Zodiac killer’s two surviving victims, witnesses, investigators both current and retired, as well as the mayors of Vallejo and San Francisco. As Fincher elaborated: “Even when we did our own interviews, we would talk to two people. One would confirm some aspects of it and another would deny it. Plus, so much time had passed, memories are affected and the different telling of the stories would change perception. So when there was any doubt we always went with the police reports.” They also hired a forensic linguistics expert to analyze the killer’s letters, with the expert’s focus being on how the Zodiac spelled words and structured sentences, as opposed to the emphasis that was put on the Zodiac’s handwriting by document examiners in the 1970s.

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Film stills by Merrick Morton (Paramount Pictures)

Other in-depth articles on films by David Fincher on Cinephilia & Beyond:

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

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

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

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

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

From Facebook to ‘Fuck-You Flip-Flops’: How Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher Made ‘The Social Network’ a Fiery Word-Off