How David Prior’s ‘The Empty Man’ Survived the Perfect Hollywood Storm

We talk to the filmmaker about the unfortunate fate of his ambitious horror fIlm.

Matthew Monagle
March 2, 2021
Film School Rejects

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.

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Watch The Empty Man

Watch AM1200 (2008)

David Fincher:

“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.”

Director David Fincher discusses Mank with Aaron Sorkin

A DGA Virtual Q&A

February 6, 2021
The Director’s Cut. A DGA (Directors Guild of America) Podcast

A disillusioned screenwriter in old Hollywood gets a shot at redemption in Director David Fincher’s biographical comedy-drama, Mank.

Fincher’s film takes place as film 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles hires scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz to write the screenplay for his masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

On February 6, Fincher discussed the making of Mank in a DGA Virtual Q&A moderated by Director Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7).

During their conversation, Fincher spoke about his love for “the altar of cinema,” the communal aspect that can come through film. “For me, what I love about cinema is going into a big dark room with 700 people and through their laughter and through their surprise and through their shock and through their reactions you realize, I’m not alone. I’m the same. I’m wired into this group in the same way just organically and I’m picking up on all these other cues. That is what makes the cinema, or a great grand theater, an almost cathedral-like experience.”

Fincher’s other directorial credits include the feature films Se7enThe GamePanic RoomZodiacGone Girl; episodes of the television series House of Cards and Mindhunter; and countless commercials and music videos. He has been nominated for the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Theatrical Feature Film for The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In 2013, he was nominated for the DGA Award for Dramatic Series for House of Cards, “Chapter 1” and has twice been nominated for the DGA Award for his Commercial work with Anonymous Content in 2003 and 2008, winning the Award in 2003 for Beauty for Sale (Xelibri Phones), Gamebreakers (Nikegridiron.Com) and Speed Chain (Nike).

Fincher has been a DGA member since 1991.

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American Cancer Society’s “Smoking Fetus”

Directed by David Fincher and shot by Michael Owens, this PSA gained national attention due to its striking images and potent warning.

Bruce Mink
August 1985
American Cinematographer

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 FincherMidland 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.

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American Cinematographer, August 1985 cover

Watch the commercial and read The Fincher Analyst dossier:

1985. American Cancer Society – Smoking Fetus (PSA)

Director Aaron Sorkin discusses The Trial of the Chicago 7 with David Fincher

A DGA Virtual Q&A

January 23, 2021
The Director’s Cut. A DGA (Directors Guild of America) Podcast

The counterculture movement of the 1960s clashes with the hostile Nixon administration in Director Aaron Sorkin’s historical drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Set in the aftermath of what happened after a peaceful protest turned into a violent encounter with the police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Sorkin’s film recounts the infamous 1969 trial of seven political activists – that included moderate Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden, militant Yippies led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers – who were all charged with conspiracy in an unfair trial that transfixed the nation and sparked a conversation about mayhem intended to undermine the U.S. government.

On January 23, Sorkin discussed the making of The Trial of the Chicago 7 in a DGA Virtual Q&A session moderated by Director David Fincher (Mank).

During the conversation, Sorkin spoke about how he came up with a plan to shoot the riot scenes despite his budgetary limitations.

“I find a constraint like that forces you to get creative,” said Sorkin. “It forces you to have an idea. So we came up with this plan, we were going to get a few wide shots and we were going to take advantage of the tear gas. We got smoke everywhere. I discovered what happens when you shoot light through smoke so I wanted smoke in every scene. I could not get enough smoke. It didn’t matter where we were.”

In addition to his directing work on The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin was nominated for the 2017 DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in First-Time Feature for his debut film, Molly’s Game. He was also part of the producing team (which includes DGA President Thomas Schlamme) that won multiple Emmy awards for “Outstanding Drama Series” for their work on the series The West Wing. Sorkin also took home an Academy Award for “Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay” for David Fincher’s feature The Social Network.

Sorkin has been a DGA member since 2016.

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Red Carpet Rookies: Tim Miller

Mike Battle
September 23, 2020
Red Carpet Rookies

Tim discusses his beginnings in animation, his journey to directing his first live action movie at 50 and why he’s glad that for all the challenges that came along the way. If that wasn’t enough, he shares thoughts on why his Netflix collaboration with David Fincher works, why film studios will be ‘fossils’ if they don’t keep up with the streamers, and what to expect from Love, Death & Robots Series 2!

Red Carpet Rookies guests are recorded over Zoom. All efforts are made to get the best quality possible but we are victim to the connection!

Tim’s ‘book that everyone must read’: ‘The Sea Wolf’ by Jack London

You can support the show by signing up for a 2 month free trial of online course database Skillshare.

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Video excerpt. Tim Miller Talks Love Death + Robots Season 2 & Collaboration With David Fincher:

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Film Roundtable: Jeff Cronenweth, Erik Messerschmidt, and Phedon Papamichael

Matthew Woolf
December 18, 2020
Film Roundtable (Instagram)

In our latest Film Roundtable discussion we talked with Jeff Cronenweth, Erik Messerschmidt, and Phedon Papamichael about how the love of the image fosters the collaborative relationship amongst Cinematographers.

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David Fincher’s Impossible Eye

David Fincher by Jack Davison

With ‘Mank,’ America’s most famously exacting director tackles the movie he’s been waiting his entire career to make.

Jonah Weiner
November 19, 2020
The New York Times

Six years ago, after I contacted David Fincher and told him I wanted to write an article about how he makes movies, he invited me to his office to present my case in person and, while I was there, watch him get some work done. On an April afternoon, I arrived at the Hollywood Art Deco building that has long served as Fincher’s base of operations, where he was about to look at footage from his 10th feature film, Gone Girl,” then in postproduction. We headed upstairs and found the editor Kirk Baxter assembling a scene. Fincher watched it once through, then asked Baxter to replay a five-second stretch. It was a seemingly simple tracking shot, the camera traveling alongside Ben Affleck as he entered a living room in violent disarray: overturned ottoman, shattered glass. The camera moved at the same speed as Affleck, gliding with unvarying smoothness, which is exactly how Fincher likes his shots to behave. Except that three seconds in, something was off. “There’s a bump,” he said.

Jack Fincher photographed by David Fincher in 1976, when he was 14.
“That’s why it’s out of focus”.

No living director surpasses Fincher’s reputation for exactitude. Any account of his methods invariably mentions how many takes he likes to shoot, which can annoy him, not because this is inaccurate but because it abets a vision of him as a dictatorially fussy artiste. Fincher, who is 58, argues that this caricature misses the point: If you want to build worlds as engrossing as those he seeks to construct, then you need actors to push their performances into zones of fecund uncertainty, to shed all traces of what he calls “presentation.” And then you need them to give you options, all while hitting the exact same marks (which goes for the camera operators too) to ensure there will be no continuity errors when you cut the scene together. Getting all these stars to align before, say, Take No. 9 is possible but unlikely. “I get, He’s a perfectionist,” Fincher volunteered. “No. There’s just a difference between mediocre and acceptable.”

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Lensing Creativity Goes Remote

The pandemic has accelerated many technical trends that were already underway

David Heuring
November 11, 2020
Variety

Necessity is the mother of invention, and nothing proves this proverb more true than the evolution of film and television production technology in the age of COVID-19. While the field has always changed rapidly even in normal times, the pace of change and adaptation has accelerated over the past six months.

This adjustment has posed many questions. Beyond personal protective equipment, mandatory testing, on-set safety monitors, walking lunches and corona contingency fees, will the pandemic have enduring effects in the creative, collaborative endeavor that is filmmaking? The technology to work remotely has essentially been in place for some time, but will the pandemic finally push us over into a new normal?

Numerous existing technology trends are being suddenly supercharged by the necessities imposed by the coronavirus. Shooting close to home has never been more appealing, and that impulse aligns neatly with ongoing advancements in LED backings and virtual production. In the world of image processing, connectivity solutions such as those offered by Moxion, Frame.io and Sohonet were already bringing immediacy and super-high resolution to a wide variety of devices without regard to location — and now those virtues are suddenly in much higher demand. And remote collaboration solutions including PIX are looking positively prescient.

Director David Fincher’s team found that the PIX production backbone, a tool they’ve helped develop over the years, facilitated safe group creativity but also enhanced efficiency on the forthcoming Mank.

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Mix Magazine 2020: The Music in Sound with Ren Klyce

Ren Klyce in Peter Elsea’s Studio (1984)

Larry Blake
November 5, 2020
Mix Magazine / SoundWorks Collection

Animated short for Sesame Street (January 17, 1984) produced by John Korty. Sound and music by Ren Klyce:

From Madonna to Mank: Why David Fincher’s Greatest Film is an Erotic Pop Music Video

The Gone Girl director is known for the psychological depth, visual symbolism and pulpy thrills of his films but all roads lead back to his tempestuous – and mysterious – collaborations with Madge.

Adam White
November 6, 2020
Independent

It was in the winter of 1993 that David Fincher murdered Madonna. The crime scene: a music video for one of the latter’s greatest singles, “Bad Girl”, and what would be the last of the pair’s four collaborations. In its wake, Fincher would become one of cinema’s most revered directors, the prickly genius behind Se7en (1995), The Social Network (2010), Gone Girl (2014) and the forthcoming Mank. But it’s “Bad Girl” that remains Fincher’s most important venture. It is a short, stylish erotic thriller that begins and ends with Madonna’s lifeless corpse; a video that nods toward the filmmaker Fincher would become, and a final act of artistic symbiosis between two titans of pop culture.

Back in the Nineties, Fincher was coming to the end of a luminous eight years as a music video visionary. The likes of Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” and George Michael’s supermodel-filled “Freedom ‘90” were gorgeous exercises in style and short-form storytelling. Little was more thrilling, though, than his work with Madonna – from the grandiose myth-making of “Vogue” and “Express Yourself” to the richly personal “Oh Father”. They both recognised the cinematic potential of the form, even if it came at a cost – all of their collaborations rank among the most expensive videos ever made.

That trilogy of music videos – which came before “Bad Girl” and were shot over the course of 10 months between 1989 and 1990 – would reflect a fruitful creative tussle between the pair. Despite Fincher’s relative lack of clout in the industry at the time, and especially compared to Madonna’s cultural ubiquity, they would approach their work as somewhat begrudging – and almost flirtatious – equals.

In interviews, Fincher recalled expressing mock outrage when Madonna asked him if he had heard of Metropolis, the landmark sci-fi film she wanted to replicate for “Express Yourself”. Madonna sneered at his idea to have her crawl across the floor, lick milk from a bowl, and then pour it over herself in the same video, assuming it might look like a student film. It turned out to be one of the video’s most memorable set pieces. The visual for “Oh Father”, meanwhile, a psychological wormhole into Madonna’s childhood and the emotional toll of her mother’s death, only came about at Fincher’s insistence. Madonna had been unsure it would even work as a single. Fincher, though, saw it as ripe for visual accompaniment, and captured her vulnerability like no other.

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