Dismantling the Myth of David Fincher

On the cusp of the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social NetworkThe 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.

Eric Ducker
Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.
September 21, 2020
The Ringer

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.

Read the full profile

The David Fincher Exit Survey

To kick off Fincher Week, contributors explain what they find so fascinating about the man behind ‘Fight Club,’ ‘The Social Network,’ and more

The Ringer Staff
September 21, 2020
The Ringer

David Fincher Revives One of His Longtime Dream Projects, “Mank”

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. Mankiewicz and legendary director Orson Welles. They both shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

And he is doing it for Netflix, the streaming service and production company that has granted him artistic freedom and for whom he has developed and produced the series House of Cards and Mindhunter, and executive produced the animated series Love, Death, and Robots.

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.

Fincher has shot many commercials and music videos in black and white, including Oh Father for Madonna (1989), notably inspired by Citizen Kane. His last music video, Suit & Tie (ft. JAY Z) for Justin Timberlake (2013), and last two commercial campaigns, for Calvin Klein (2013) and Gap (2014), were gorgeously shot using RED Cameras with monochrome sensors, perhaps with Mank in mind.

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.

James Swallow wrote about the original project on his essential chronicle of the first half of Fincher’s career, Dark Eye. The Films of David Fincher (Reynolds & Hearn Ltd, 2003):

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”.

Nev Pierce asked Fincher about the project during his 2009 career interview for Empire Magazine:

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.

Thanks to Joe Frady and Andrew Moore.