Tony McVey sets up his sculpture in front of the motion-control camera.
The sound of a heartbeat is heard. A human fetus fades up on the television screen in close-up and a voiceover begins: “Would you give a cigarette to your unborn child?” The camera pans and dollies back to reveal an entire fetus existing serenely in the womb of its mother. “You do every time you smoke when you’re pregnant.” At this point, the fetus slowly brings a lit cigarette to its lips and takes a puff, exhaling the smoke into the glowing placenta it lives in. And the voiceover finishes: “Pregnant mothers, please don’t smoke.”
The 30-second spot was produced for the American Cancer Society by a talented and relatively untapped group of San Francisco Bay area filmmakers, modelmakers, and computer specialists brought together by producer Joseph Vogt (Rick Springfield’s “Bop ’Till You Drop”). With a film and conceptual design education behind him, Vogt organized the majority of his film crew from the ranks of Industrial Light and Magic. It was with the abundant talents of these production people — director David Fincher, Midland Productions, and Monaco Labs — that Vogt brought life to a most creative and technically challenging public service announcement.
Director of photography Michael Owens at the Mitchell GC ready to shoot the prepped sculpture.
Jerry Angert, director of broadcasting with the American Cancer Society, described the ad as “one of the most powerful we have done… We considered the fact that it would be controversial and the networks might not show it, but counted on the local stations to take it.” And that’s exactly what transpired. NBC and CBS chose not to air the graphic spot while CNN (Turner Broadcasting), ABC and its affiliates and affiliates of NBC and CBS elected to show it.
CBS and NBC claim the spot is too graphic. An NBC spokeswoman cited “general taste considerations” as a deterrent to airing the spot. “It was the sight of the fetus that was especially shocking and we felt it was potentially offensive to our viewers,” she was quoted as saying. A CBS spokesman said the network agreed with the “importance of the intent of the message,” but said that the spot was “far too graphic for broadcast on CBS.” An ABC spokesman, however, said the message put forth by the spot was “important for pregnant mothers to understand.” The network felt that. while it was “different visually” from the usual fare viewed on TV, it contained no material that warranted its ban from the airwaves.
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.”
Jack Fincher retired from journalism right around the time his son, David, was moving from directing music videos for the likes of Madonna and George Michael to making his first feature film, “Alien 3.” Jack, a lifelong movie fan, told David he’d like to try writing a screenplay. David encouraged him to delve into the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the co-writer (or, perhaps, sole writer) of Orson Welles’ 1941 landmark “Citizen Kane.” Jack wrote eight drafts of the screenplay, homing in on the journey of the self-sabotaging Mankiewicz as he stops betraying his talents and paints his one masterpiece (relatively) late in life.
Father and son could never quite crack the script, and Jack died in 2003 of pancreatic cancer. Those eight drafts of “Mank” sat on a shelf in David’s office for years until Netflix executives Ted Sarandos and Cindy Holland asked Fincher about his dream unmade project. That was two years ago, and “Mank” has consumed most of Fincher’s waking hours since.
The black-and-white movie, starring Gary Oldman in the title role, premiered in a handful of theaters last month and arrives on Netflix today. It figures to be a force in this year’s awards season, such as it is. It’s certainly the warmest movie Fincher has made in a career founded on the notion that “people are perverts.”
Fincher called the other morning. He was disarmingly polite, by turns generous and evasive, and full of the sardonic humor that courses through his films. “I’m a little groggy,” he said, noting that he didn’t get much sleep the previous night, “but hopefully I know the answers to these questions.”
On the cusp of the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The 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.
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.
David Fincher has reportedly signed on to direct his first feature film since Gone Girl in 2014, a biopic about the contentious development of the script for Citizen Kane, one of Fincher’s favorite films, by the brilliant and prolific but troubled screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewiczand legendary director Orson Welles. They both shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Master Actor Gary Oldman will play the titular role, Mankiewicz, or “Mank“, as he was nicknamed.
The film project inception dates back to 1993 and is based on a script by Fincher’s late father, Howard “Jack” Fincher. Jack Fincher was a journalist, writer and essayist specialized in science, a former San Francisco bureau chief for LIFE magazine, and a devoted cinephile. In 1997, he was commissioned to draft a screenplay for a Howard Hughes biopic, with Kevin Spacey attached to direct. But this project was later absorbed by The Aviator project scripted by John Logan, which ended up being directed by Martin Scorsese.
Mank will be shot in black and white, as Fincher always intended. This caused the project to stall in the past, but Alfonso Cuarón’s recent success with Roma, also for Netflix, has reinforced the limited commercial appeal of this aesthetic option.
The film will be produced by the traditional power couple David Fincher & producer Ceán Chaffin, this time alongside Oldman’s business partner and producer Douglas Urbanski. Urbanski is an occasional actor who played President of Harvard University Lawrence Summers in The Social Network.
Production is scheduled to begin in November in Los Angeles.
As far back as 1997, this biographical story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the writer of Orson Welles‘ epic motion picture Citizen Kane, was rumored as a pet project for David Fincher. From a script written by his father, Howard Fincher, the director’s black and white biopic targeted Seven star Kevin Spacey as the lead, with Panic Room‘s Jodie Foster in a co-starring role as movie actress Marion Davies. In production at the same time was HBO‘s telemovie RKO 281, which also covered the backstory of Citizen Kane (casting John Malkovich in the Mankiewicz role and Melanie Griffith as Davies). Still, the true story behind the creation of this mould-shattering movie and the writer behind it has enough scope for the production of a further feature by Fincher and his father.
Mankiewicz was a cynical but extremely talented scriptwriter, a former theatre critic for the New Yorker and the New York Times who left his job for the glitter of early Hollywood. Dropping out of the elite circle of New York’s high society, specifically the so-called “Algonquin Round Table“, Mankiewicz began with scripts for silent films, starting with The Road to Mandalay in 1926, working on more than 70 features during his lifetime. He once famously described Hollywood to a fellow writer in NYC by saying: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around”. As film technology evolved in the late twenties, Mankiewicz changed gears and moved seamlessly into talkies, continuing to write stories or dialogue for films like Man of the World (1942), The Lost Squadron (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933) and It’s a Wonderful World (1939), as well as an uncredited rewrite on The Wizard of Oz; he also worked with the Marx Brothers as an executive producer on movies like Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).
With his career flagging as the thirties ended and with his comedic hits behind him, Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning success with Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1942 gave him a brief respite. However, his alcoholism and large gambling debts eventually got the better of him and he died, penniless, of uremic poisoning in 1953. Remembered for Welles’ powerfully directed feature about a ruthless newspaper mogul, Mankiewicz no doubt drew on his personal experiences as a former associate of real-life magnate William Randolph Hearst and as a partygoer at Hearst’s huge Hollywood mansion. Although Mankiewicz was forced to share Citizen Kane‘s Academy Award for Best Writing with Welles, the great majority of the script was the writer’s own work, and it was not only a source of friction between the two men but of debate among film critics to this day.
Last mooted as a Propaganda Films movie, Howard and David Fincher’s Mank may yet be produced as a project at Indelible Pictures. Fincher has previously spoken of his intent to use a special film stock to shoot Mank, a black and white negative type no longer used in the contemporary industry that would have to be recreated from the original “recipe”. For the director, this feature represents an opportunity to produce a fundamentally different film from his earlier works in a genre he has yet to explore; at the same time, the life of Herman J Mankiewicz retains the streak of darkness that has always appealed to Fincher’s sensibilities. “Mank is a script that I’ve been working to get exactly right for ten years”, said Fincher, “and I hope, some day, to make it as one of the definitive ‘writer in Hollywood’ stories”.
Pierce: Your dad was a journalist and a writer. He wrote a script called Mank, about the Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Did you consider making that?
Fincher: We tried. It was too expensive. Because if you’re going to make a Hollywood insider movie—it’s nothing to do with Hollywood really, it’s Hollywood in the late thirties, early forties—you’ve got to make it really cheaply. We had a chance to make the movie for, like, $13 million, back in 1998 and, um, [guiltily] I wanted to make it in black and white. [Laughs] And that fucked up all those home video and video sellthrough and cable deals. I haven’t read it in a while. I probably should.
Pierce: Did your dad write a few screenplays?
Fincher: Yeah, he wrote a couple. That was the best of them, I think. He wrote a screenplay once about a divorce case. It was kind of based on the Keanes. Remember in the sixties, the guy who painted those pictures of the children with the giant eyes? They were in this bitter divorce. It was a very, very sardonic screenplay about two parents trying to prove what bad parents they are, so the other will get stuck with the kids! It was pretty funny! [Laughs] But it had an awful sentiment! But it was funny. It was a good script.
Pierce: There’s an element of your work—in Se7en, The Game, Zodiac— that is about professionalism and obsession. Is that something you think you got from your dad?
Fincher: My dad wasn’t very obsessive. Slightly compulsive, but not obsessive. You know, my dad did used to say, “Learn your craft; it will never stop you from being a genius.” It’s like, “Do the hard work, figure out how it works…” My dad worked a lot, but he paced himself. He paced himself a lot more than I think I probably do. […] My dad… he was an intellect and sort of a Monday-morning quarterback.