November 28, 2018
November 25, 2018
November 25, 2018
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While I was finishing the fourth season of House of Cards, David Fincher called me to say he was planning another series with Netflix and to ask if I would be interested in designing it. Of course I jumped at the chance, not knowing exactly what Mindhunter would be, but certain that with Fincher involved it would be a quality project. I soon found out that it was based on the John Douglas book of the same name and that it would be shooting in Pittsburgh, a city I knew quite well since I received my graduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University there, and where I got my start in the film business while still a student in the CMU theater department.
The series is somewhat different than many crime shows in that it’s not a who-done-it, or even how’d they do it, but more of a psychological exploration of why’d they do it.
Mindhunter is a period show set in the late 1970s, so I knew the choice of Pittsburgh as a location would simplify much of the exterior design work. Many rust belt cities like Pittsburgh were hit particularly hard by the collapse of the steel industry, and all the ancillary businesses that supported steel have suffered as well. The small towns that surround a city like Pittsburgh are often stuck in the past, sometimes for forty years or more. A lot of the exterior street sequences required were possible and looked appropriate with a minimal amount of redesign because there just hasn’t been an influx of business dollars to do architectural upgrades; there were very few modern structures to modify extensively or hide. This, and the fact that there is a wealth of great period dressing elements to be had at reasonable prices at the many local flea markets, estate sales and antique stores, made the task of recreating the period much more manageable.
One of the first things I remember David Fincher saying about the look of the series was that he did not want it to look like other films or series set in this same period where the style of the time is pushed so far that it becomes exaggeratedly over the top and starts to seem camp. The focus would be on the more mundane and ordinary look of American life in the late 1970s. I knew a lot of the characters were from the lower social strata, so there were few places for high style or the cutting edge fashion of the time. One big influence on the design was photographs from the time by people like Stephen Shore, particularly for our many on the road scenes in motel rooms.
November-December 2018 Issue
Merrick Morton (Sony Pictures)
When David Fincher was fielding accolades for his 2010 masterpiece The Social Network, he was already in the midst of filming his follow-up project. On the surface, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t a significant departure for Fincher. At the time, he was already well-versed in the arena of making dark dramas with an edge, be it The Game or Zodiac, and he clearly had plenty of experience telling stories about serial killers. The source material of Dragon Tattoo was massively popular, sure, but with that popularity came the opportunity to take hold of an even bigger budget, telling this dark tale about a pair of outsiders investigating a killer of women against an epic canvas. What Fincher (and the rest of us) couldn’t have known at the time, however, was that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would be one of the last of its kind, the dying breath of the big budget studio adult drama, as Hollywood would pivot to bigger, flashier, and more superhero-er films in the ensuing years. In hindsight, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a fossil from a bygone era.
The “American” adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was born in 2009, when producer Scott Rudin secured the rights to the book for Sony Pictures and fellow producers Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal. They set Oscar-winning Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian to work on the adaptation, and in March 2010—just as Fincher had completed principal photography on Sony’s The Social Network—the studio began courting the Se7en filmmaker to take the helm.
Fincher had actually been approached about Dragon Tattoo years earlier by Kathleen Kennedy, with whom he’d worked on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But he rejected the proposition without reading the book, assuming a movie about a bisexual hacker in Stockholm who helps a disgraced journalist uncover a dark secret would never get made. The Swedish film adaptation proved he was wrong, and when Pascal came calling a couple years later, she had an exciting proposition:
“As I finished Social Network, [Sony studio boss] Amy Pascal told me they’d just bought the rights to Dragon Tattoo,” says Fincher. “She said, ‘We believe that a movie franchise doesn’t necessarily have to be for 11-year-olds, that this material is most certainly not for 11-year-olds and that is why we are bringing it to you’.”
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From Killing Eve to Mindhunter and Narcos, there’s a trend in TV for colossal captions. It’s a confident style choice that nods to noir fiction.
David Fincher’s work is full of fine details. You could conceivably watch his entire back catalogue without realising, for instance, that the camera tends to mimic the actors’ smallest movements. But during the editing process for his 2017 TV drama Mindhunter, he had an idea that nobody can have failed to notice. “I’m not sure which episode we were watching,” editor Tyler Nelson told the Art of the Cut website, “but he said, ‘Let’s fill the frame with a big location card.’”
Whenever Jonathan Groff’s behavioural psychologist Holden Ford visits a new town, we’re told which one it is in massive letters that take up the whole screen: welcome to (eg) BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS, and to a trend in TV and film for enormous location titles.
Mindhunter fans are split between loving its colossal captions and hating their overbearing presence, but they’ve caught on.
Fincher hasn’t just upped the stakes by making his location titles fill the entire screen, rather than merely a large proportion of it: the size of the text, combined with the chosen typeface (it’s Heroic Condensed, font fans) recalls tabloid newspaper headlines of the 1970s, when the show is set. It also evokes pulp/noir detective films from a few decades earlier.
David Fincher’s Fight Club is now considered a classic, but it had trouble getting off the ground.
What the hell is Fight Club anyway? A horror film about a Jekyll-and-Hyde office worker who becomes a terrorist? A drama about late 20th century masculinity in crisis? A warped romance about a man trying to change himself into someone as interesting as the woman he loves? A thriller about a decadent generation goading itself into extremism?
Executives at 20th Century Fox certainly struggled with Fight Club. Unsure how to market a film in which young men beat one another to a pulp and stole bags of fat from the bins of liposuction clinics, the studio placed ads for it during World Wrestling Federation matches. Meanwhile, Fight Club‘s posters, dreamed up by an expensive design firm, featured a pink bar of soap with the title incised into its waxy surface. It certainly looked unlike anything else stuck up outside a movie theater in 1999, even if most people walking past wouldn’t have had a clue as to what it meant – the soap being a wry reference to a key scene in the film.
The bewildering split between TV ads during wrestling matches, which emphasized the film’s bruising bare-knuckle scenes, and the artistic posters with their pink bars of soap, were an indication, perhaps, of Fight Club‘s slippery quality. How do you get people to go and see a film like this, Brad Pitt or no Brad Pitt?
In retrospect, it’s little surprise that some of Fox’s higher-ups didn’t like Fight Club – least of all one Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul whose News Corporation had acquired Fox in 1985. Here, after all, was a film which openly attacked corporations, advertisers and the entire capitalist system.
One of Fight Club‘s producers, Art Linson, recalled the first screening of the film for Fox’s executives; they were, he said, “flopping around like acid-crazed carp wondering how such a thing could even have happened.”
There was one executive who did believe in Fight Club: Fox’s studio head Bill Mechanic. In the mid-90s, Chuck Palahniuk‘s Fight Club novel was doing the rounds at Fox before it had even been published, and was originally envisioned as a low-budget movie to be made through the studio’s Fox 2000 division, which specialized in independent film. Along with production executives Laura Ziskin and Kevin McCormick, Mechanic was an enthusiastic champion of Fight Club‘s spiky humor and unpredictable plot.
How can the good guy and bad guy be so similar?
At the core of any story is the relationship between protagonist and antagonist, especially in a story where the protagonist must understand his enemy in order to find him. The best battles between good and evil are convoluted with characteristics that could be categorized as either, or neither. When hero and villain are more alike than either would want to admit, that makes for a dynamite struggle between them. There are so many books out there that explain how to achieve that element in storytelling, but few movies ever do it as well as David Fincher’s serial killer masterpiece Se7en (1995).
Honestly, we’ve learned to expect nothing less than greatness with a Fincher + serial killer collaboration, and Se7en was his first. This almost neo-noir thriller follows the investigation of a serial killer using the seven deadly sins to justify brutal killings all over an unnamed city. Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is an aging homicide detective on his way out of the department when he’s assigned the worst last case. He’s paired with his replacement, an idealistic and determined young detective named Mills (Brad Pitt). They’re forced to work through their differences to solve the case, which is more horrifying and unpredictable than either could imagine.
There are viable arguments for who is the true protagonist in this movie, Somerset or Mills. For the sake of reading the rest of this article, just humor me if you disagree that Somerset is the protagonist in this story. He begins and ends this movie, most of the struggles are his own, and he’s in 90 percent of the scenes. While Mills has a major relationship with the killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) as well, what convinces me that he is not the protagonist is the connection and similarities between Somerset and Doe.