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.

Read the full dissertation

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Fincherphilia & Beyond

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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

Harmonica Cinema: Zodiac

Another comprehensive article by Spanish DP, Producer and cinematography scholar Ignacio Aguilar, this time on the cinematography of Zodiac. Time to practice your rusty Spanish or get help from a good web translator.

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Excepcional adaptación cinematográfica del libro de Robert Graysmith, basado en su propia investigación sobre los asesinatos cometidos en la zona de San Francisco a finales de la década de los 60 y comienzos de los 70, por un asesino que además enviaba cartas a los períodicos, anunciando sus planes y próximas víctimas. El film está protagonizado, además de por el propio Graysmith (interpretado por Jake Gyllenhaal), por su compañero en el San Francisco Chronicle, Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) y por el detective de homicidios Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), los cuales uno a uno, se van obsesionando por el caso que les ocupa a medida que profundizan en el mismo y creen encontrarse cerca de resolverlo. Se trata quizá del mejor y más sólido trabajo de David Fincher detrás de las cámaras, quien deja de lado su conocida solvencia técnica y se lanza a narrar minuciosamente todo lo concerniente al caso que inspiró películas como “Dirty Harry” (1971), tomando una estructura y formas muy parecidas a las de una de sus películas de referencia: “All The President’s Men” (Alan J. Pakula, 1976), escrita por William Goldman y protagonizada por Dustin Hoffman y Robert Redford. Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch y Brian Cox, entre otros, completan el reparto de un film absolutamente modélico.

Ignacio Aguilar
1 agosto 2018
Harmonica Cinema

El director de fotografía fue Harris Savides [ASC], un hombre cuya carrera en cine, entre su tardía llegada y su prematuro fallecimiento por un cáncer cerebral a los 55 años de edad en el año 2012, desgraciadamente fue demasiado corta. Procedente de los videoclips y de los anuncios publicitarios, debutó en 1996 con “Heaven’s Prisoners” a las órdenes de Phil Joanou. Ya el año anterior había rodado metraje adicional para David Fincher en “Se7en” (1995), quien le contrató para su siguiente film, “The Game” (1997), la película que puso a Savides en el mapa. Posteriormente destacó mucho con “The Yards” (James Gray, 2000) y con varios trabajos para Gus Van Sant: “Finding Forrester”, “Gerry”, “Elephant”, “The Last Days” y “Milk”, además de por su trabajo para Jonathan Glazer en “Birth”. Además tuvo tiempo para colaborar con Ridley Scott en “American Gangster”, con Woody Allen en “Whatever Works” o con Sofia Coppola en “Somewhere”. Su estilo, muy sencillo y poco recargado, a menudo estaba dominado por la subexposición y la luz cenital, a veces asumiendo grandes riesgos, siguiendo en muchos aspectos la línea de Gordon Willis durante la década de los 70.

Savides por lo tanto era el director de fotografía ideal para Fincher en este proyecto, ya que el citado modelo “All The President’s Men” precisamente fue fotografiado por el autor de “The Godfather”. Ambientada desde finales de los años 60 hasta principios de los 80, “Zodiac” sorprendió mucho porque fue el primer proyecto de David Fincher rodado en formato digital y porque hasta aquél momento, dicha forma de adquisición se había empleado principalmente en películas como “Attack of the Clones” (2002) y “Revenge of the Sith” (2005), “Collateral” (2004) y “Miami Vice” (2006) o incluso “Apocalypto” y “Superman Returns” (2006), sin que ninguna de ellas (dejando de lado del film de Gibson) fueran películas de época. Savides (ante la insistencia de Fincher) recurrió a la cámara Thomson Viper Filmstream, la misma usada por Michael Mann en las dos películas citadas anteriormente, pero a diferencia del director de “The Last of the Mohicans”, en el caso de “Zodiac” los cineastas no lo hicieron para rodar con niveles de luz muy bajos o luz disponible, sino que rodaron en HD iluminándolo de forma muy parecida a como lo hubiesen hecho rodando en 35mm. Por ello, el efecto vídeo de las películas de Mann, tanto por la textura de la imagen como por emplear el obturador abierto, no está presente en absoluto en “Zodiac”, que en muchas ocasiones es mencionada como un hito precisamente porque su estética digital fue la primera que demostró que en este formato podían seguir obteniéndose imágenes de parecida calidad a las que se conseguían con el celuloide. Y aunque la Viper era una cámara limitada (con un sensor pequeño y no tanta latitud como las modernas) lo cierto es que prácticamente nunca se perciben dichas limitaciones.

Lee el artículo completo

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Zodiac: The Unofficial Reading List

Hint of Film (YouTube)
May 21, 2018

What better way to pay tribute to a movie about obsession than to obsessively track down every single book in the movie?

Video Credits:

Edited by H. Nelson Tracey
H. Nelson Tracey (Twitter)
Hint of Film (Twitter)
Director of Photography: Tommy Oceanak
Original Music by Bryan Hume
“Graysmith’s Remix” end credits song by Unofficial B

The Complete List:

Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958) by Dr. Seuss
The Code Breakers (1967) by David Kahn
Codes and Ciphers: Secret Writing Through the Ages (1964) by John Laffin
Secret Writing: The Craft of the Cryptographer (1970) by James Raymond Wolfe
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) film directed by Eugene Lourie
Dick Tracy Lunchbox, 1967
Animal Crackers (cookie)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932) film directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Hair, original musical poster, show debut in 1967
They Laughed When I Sat Down: An Informal History of Advertising in Words and Pictures (1959) by Frank Rowsome, Jr.
McElligot’s Pool (1947) by Dr. Seuss
TIME Magazine “Race and Reform on Campus,” Volume 93 No. 16, April 18, 1969
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) film directed by John Huston
The Wrong Man (1956) film directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy, 1931-1951 (Anthology, 1970) by Chester Gould
Fox in Socks (1965) by Dr. Seuss
Curtain and The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1975) by Agatha Christie
An Artist in America (1951) by Thomas Hart Benton
Drawing: Seeing and Observation (1973) by Ian Simpson
Drawing the Female Figure (1975) by Joseph Sheppard
Mainstreams of Modern Art: David to Picasso (1961) by John Canaday
Homicide Investigation (first published 1944) by Lemoyne Snyder
Rescued in the Clouds (1927) by Franklin W. Dixon
LIFE Magazine “Confrontation in Harvard Yard,” Vol. 66 No. 16, April 25, 1969
Slinky Toy Commercial from the 1960s
Slinky Toy
I Died A Thousand Times (1955) film directed by Stuart Heisler
Star Trek, Season 3 Episode 4 “And the Children Shall Lead” (1968) guest starring Melvin Belli, portrayed by Brian Cox in Zodiac
Aquavelva (alcoholic drink)
Reprise: The Code Breakers (1967) by David Kahn
Reprise: Codes and Ciphers (1964) by John Laffin
Richard Nixon Presidential Campaign Button, 1968
“I Am Not Avery” button
6 extremely rare first edition covers of Ian Fleming James Bond Novels: Dr. No (1958), For Your Eyes Only (1960), Moonraker (1955), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), You Only Live Twice (1964), The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
Six Crises (1962) by Richard M. Nixon
San Francisco (first published 1969) edited by Jack McDowell and Dorothy Krell
The Selling of the President, 1968 (1969) by Joe McGinniss
Rubber Life Magazine, Vol. 01, No. 01, (1972)
Dirty Harry (1971) film directed by Don Siegel
Pong (1972) video game by Atari
– I Looked and Listened: Informal Recollections of Radio and TV (1970) by Ben Gross
– The Crime Vaccine: How to End the Crime Epidemic (1996) by Jay B. Marcus
The FBI in Our Open Society (1969) by Harry & Bonaro Overstreet
– Kidnap: The Story of the Lindbergh Case (1961) by George Waller
The Property Man (1914) film directed by Charlie Chaplin
– McCall’s Sewing Book (1968) by McCall Corporation
– Them! (1954) film directed by Gordon Douglas
Illegal (1955) film directed by Lewis Allen
– The World Almanac – Centennial Edition (1968)
– The Rink (1916) film directed by Charlie Chaplin
– Conquest (1937) film directed by Clarence Brown and Gustav Marchaty
Key Largo (1948) film directed by John Huston
– Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Nation’s Most Bizarre Mass Murderer (1986) by Robert Graysmith

Zodiac (2007) Credits:

Directed by David Fincher
Production Design by Donald G. Burt
Art Direction by Keith Cunningham
Set Decoration by Victor J. Zolfo

Bad Lands

2018-04 ICG Magazine - Mindhunter 05 (Patrick Harbron)

Erik Messerschmidt and Chris Probst, ASC, also have made “smart” use of LED technology, as detailed in our cover story on Mindhunter (page 36). David Fincher, who first started using LED’s for process work on Zodiac, 11 years ago, not only customized a high-resolution RED camera for the show (dubbed the “Xenomorph”), but also devised one of the most ingenious LED-driven plate projection/interactive lighting processes for driving shots TV has ever seen. Messerschmidt’s description of Fincher’s commitment to innovation mirrors those Sundancers bending technology in the service of new ways to tell a story: “For David, the frame is sacred; what we choose to include is intrinsic to what the audience thinks is important. They are one and the same.”

David Geffner, Executive Editor
ICG Magazine

Visualizing the daring and often scary world of David Fincher requires new technologies and processes rarely attempted in series television.

Matt Hurwitz
Photos by Patrick Harbron & Merrick Morton, SMPSP
April 2018
ICG Magazine

In the season 1 finale of Netflix’s MINDHUNTER, a disturbed FBI agent, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), bursts wildly from a hospital room, as a handheld camera gives chase. The move begins as shaken as ford is, but, as it lands with the agent, who collapses in the hallway, it’s as if the camera has floated to a butter-smooth stop inches from the floor, the maneuver executed like it was on a perfectly balanced Jib arm, crane, or even Steadicam. But it’s none of those. What can viewers assume from this?

David Fincher has returned to television.

FOR THIS SERIES ABOUT A PAIR OF AGENTS WORKING IN THE FBI’S ELITE BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES UNIT in 1979, and attempting to understand the mind of a serial killer, Fincher used a number of leading-edge technologies – interactive LED lighting, custom built high-resolution cameras, and, as in the shot with Agent Ford, image stabilization/smoothing in postproduction – to keep the viewer visually embedded. Fincher’s aim with MINDHUNTER, which has no graphic violence, is for viewers to “access their own attics. There’s far scarier stuff up there than anything we can fabricate,” the filmmaker insists. “I wanted people to register what’s going on in [characters’] eyes and where the gear changes are taking place. At what point do I [as the viewer] feel like, ‘OK, I’ve got an insight,’ and at what point do they feel like: ‘oh, I’m being sold something. It’s all about the nuance in how the balance of power is changing.”

Fincher’s longtime postproduction supervisor, Peter Mavromates, says he creates an “experience of omniscience,” similar to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, “where you’re in a straitjacket with your eyelids pinned open, and David’s forcing you to watch these horrible things.” In fact, the show’s unique visual process began more than a year before production started in Pittsburgh (on area locations and on stages at 31st Street Studios, a former steel mill), with the development of a unique RED camera system.

Christopher Probst, ASC – who shot MINDHUNTER’S pilot and second episode – was asked for his input on a RED prototype system, which had been designed by Jarred Land and RED’s Chief Designer Matt Tremblay according to Fincher’s specific needs. “David wanted to take all of the different exterior add-ons that create a jungle of wires, and put them inside the camera body,” Probst explains.

Fincher puts it even more directly: “It just seems insane that we’ve been bequeathed a [camera] layout [dating back to] D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin that looks like some bizarre Medusa. [The camera] should be something that people want to approach, touch, and pick up.”

In fact, the custom system built for Season 1 [Land created a 2.0 version being used in Season 2] had an RTMotion MK3.1 lens-control system, Paralinx Arrow-X wireless video, and Zaxcom wireless audio (with timecode) integrated into the RED body, with the only visible cable being to control the lens. Slating was all but eliminated, with clip-number metadata being shared wirelessly between the camera and the script supervisor, who used Filemaker software to associate takes and clips. An audio scratch track from the mixer was recorded onto the REDCODE RAW R3D files and received wirelessly.

The base camera was one of RED’s DSMC2 systems, the then-new WEAPON DRAGON, with its 6K sensor. The shell design, accommodating the added gear inside, with its angular shape and heat venting fins on top, had a “Xenomorph” appearance (à la Alien), and was dubbed as such by Land and Fincher. “When the camera arrived in Pittsburgh, they had actually engraved “Xenomorph” on the side,” Probst says.

Read the full profile:

Website version of the profile

2018-04 ICG Magazine - Mindhunter 14 (Patrick Harbron)

2018-04 ICG Magazine - Mindhunter 13 (Merrick Morton)

Zodiac. When Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Daniel Netzel
March 28, 2018
Film Radar

An experimental video essay covering David Fincher‘s “Zodiac“, a true crime masterpiece that might be more true than you’d expect.

All interview excerpts taken from the special edition Blu-ray and DVD.

Thomas Flight‘s video that helped inspire me: