If you asked David Fincher about the childhood years he spent in San Anselmo in Marin County during the 1960s, the topic that would undoubtedly pop up would be that of an infamous serial killer who, in the director’s eyes, was “the ultimate boogeyman.” For it was precisely that time and that general area that saw the rise of the Zodiac, a murderer who frequently wrote letters and sent coded messages to local newspapers, gleefully taking credit for the gruesome killing sprees that would inevitably trigger waves of paranoia across the West Coast. As Fincher recalls: “I remember coming home and saying the highway patrol had been following our school buses for a couple weeks now. And my dad, who worked from home, and who was very dry, not one to soft-pedal things, turned slowly in his chair and said: ‘Oh yeah. There’s a serial killer who has killed four or five people, who calls himself Zodiac, who’s threatened to take a high-powered rifle and shoot out the tires of a school bus, and then shoot the children as they come off the bus.’” Fincher’s fascination with the mystery man who wreaked havoc in Northern California during the late 60s and early 70s, claiming to have taken the lives of thirty-seven people (out of which only five were confirmed as being his victims), ultimately resulted in the director gladly accepting to work on Zodiac, a 2007 movie written by James Vanderbilt. The screenwriter had read a 1986 non-fiction book of the same name while he was still in high school, years before pursuing his eventual career. After getting into screenwriting, he had the chance to meet Zodiac author Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist who had been working for one of the newspapers the killer wrote to during the 1960s, and decided to make a screenplay based on the information-packed book. Having creative control over the material was of the utmost importance to Vanderbilt, given the fact that the endings of his previous scripts had been altered. Together with producers from Phoenix Pictures, Vanderbilt bought the rights to both Zodiac and its follow-up, entitled Zodiac Unmasked, after which the Seven director was asked to come on board.
Apart from having a personal attachment to the story of the notorious serial killer who was never brought to justice, what drew Fincher to work on the project was also the fact that the ending of Vanderbilt’s script was left unresolved, thereby staying true to real-life events. But Fincher’s perfectionism and his wish to depict the open case as accurately as possible led to him asking that the screenplay be rewritten, for the wanted to research the original police reports from scratch. He also decided that he, Vanderbilt and producer Bradley J. Fischer should personally interview the people who were involved in the case so that they could discern for themselves whether the testimonies were to be believed or not. The people they spent months interviewing were family members of suspects, the Zodiac killer’s two surviving victims, witnesses, investigators both current and retired, as well as the mayors of Vallejo and San Francisco. As Fincher elaborated: “Even when we did our own interviews, we would talk to two people. One would confirm some aspects of it and another would deny it. Plus, so much time had passed, memories are affected and the different telling of the stories would change perception. So when there was any doubt we always went with the police reports.” They also hired a forensic linguistics expert to analyze the killer’s letters, with the expert’s focus being on how the Zodiac spelled words and structured sentences, as opposed to the emphasis that was put on the Zodiac’s handwriting by document examiners in the 1970s.
It’s been 20 years since David Fincher’s cult classic Fight Club first exploded onto screens. The film, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel of the same name, repelled and excited audiences in equal measure when it was released, changing the optics of how political cinema could or should be – with the first worries of copycat rebels emerging from the gutters. Today, Fight Club boasts a loyal and fervent fanbase still full of praise, discomfort, conspiracy theories and fascination for the iconic relic of modern cinema.
Exclusively for Empire and Nev Pierce, David Fincher opened his personal photography archives in the 2020 Preview Issue, leafing through his memories on-set, and sharing insights on many of the film’s key ingredients – from the setting of Project Mayhem’s headquarters, to his stellar leading trio of Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter, to the mechanics of successfully shooting Edward Norton’s cheek off. Here’s a sneak preview of the feature, in which Fincher explains why the dynamic of his three stars, as the story’s mismatched trio of lonely and dangerous sociopaths, worked so well – with photos from Fincher’s own collection.
Fight Club archive material courtesy of David Fincher. Black and white photography by Merrick Morton. Special thanks to Ceán Chaffin and Andrea McKee.
David Fincher on his leading trio:
“They were a very playful and fun group. Brad is a kind of feline influence. He’s like, ‘Are all the instincts here aligned?’ and, ‘Can we now play and find an interesting mistake or a movement or a gesture?’ Edward is very much, ‘Tell me in advance all the things you want me to hit and let me blow your mind.’ And Helena is sort of a blend of the two. She’s disciplined and, ‘What is it you’re trying to get across? Let me work backwards from that a little bit.’
Edward had only made a few movies and I think he wanted to get it right. There’s a tendency for him to come across as somebody who’s trying to contain or control what’s happening. But really I think what he wants to know is, ‘Where is this thing headed? Let me try and help you get it there.’ He has a very different process than the other two. But when they were together, they were a lot of fun. As far as having an intensely watchable and charismatic triumvirate, they were a ball.”
“I want to have no idea what’s going on in your head.”
David Fincher is issuing instructions to a
moustachioed man, who is gazing into a mirror, adjusting the shoulder strap on
the woman’s slip he’s wearing. The crew, similarly delicately, adjust the
lighting for this moment of self-fulfillment — one of a series of episode-puncturing
vignettes of Dennis Rader (played by Sonny Valicenti), aka The
Bind. Torture. Kill. And do it quickly.
Fincher is on a tight schedule
for these late additions to the lengthy shoot. While the scene is set, he sits
at the monitor with lead writer Courtenay Miles, adjusting dialogue, as
the art department present him with crime-scene photographs and mementos of victims
for sign-off. Multitasking can be murder.
Camera set, they shoot. Once. Twice. “That is fucking creepozoid,” says Fincher, after the third take. If you can manage to unsettle the director of Seven and Zodiac, then you’re probably doing your job. The next few days filming in this cavernous Pittsburgh studio will involve FBI office politics, masks (literal and figurative) and autoerotic asphyxiation. As one crew member puts it, “Some things you can’t unsee.”
Back for its second season, Mindhunter has lost none of its fearlessness. BTK returns, of course, but following impactful portrayals of lesser-known serial killers Edmund Kemper and Jerry Brudos, this year is taking on the iconic — including arguably the two most famous serial killers of all: Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam (Oliver Cooper). The latter we’ve previously seen on screen being commanded by a demon-possessed dog in Spike Lee‘s Summer Of Sam. And — on the 50th anniversary of the murders his ‘disciples’ carried out — Manson is everywhere, including in Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (portrayed by the same actor, Damon Herriman). But whereas most movies lean into the mythology of Manson, or embellish Berkowitz, Mindhunter is looking to re-examine reality. This isn’t hellhound hyperbole or gauze-softened myth. It’s the ugly truth.
“We want to believe they’re madmen,” says Courtenay Miles, “But when you read their history, their journals, letters, you see it is a human being in there. But it’s a human being gone wrong.” Miles was first assistant director on the debut series — the aide-de-camp to the director’s general — and made the unlikely but long-cherished transition to writer when Fincher gave her a shot. She immersed herself in the world of serial killers, and lost sleep as a result. “All of the characteristics that are in their mental structure and their compulsions are things that any other human being can identify with,” she says, reflecting on the long gestation of serial killers. “They’re made over 20 years. Nurturing these compulsions. That just got under my skin.”
Miles got the chance to be disturbed — and earn her first screenwriting credit — because Fincher cares considerably less about reputation than he does about his own lived experience. But while the first season saw him employ emerging directors (the most high-profile being Asif Kapadia, whose greatest achievements were in documentaries), here he’s joined behind the lens by two cinematic heavyweights. Carl Franklin is of late an in-demand director of TV, including House Of Cards, but was responsible for some astounding crime cinema in the 1990s: Devil In A Blue Dress and One False Move. In that grubby, merciless thriller, the wife of Bill Paxton‘s seemingly guileless cop observes, “Dale doesn’t know any better. He watches TV. I read non-fiction.” Mindhunter bridges that divide. The other director is Andrew Dominik, whose three features all deal with the ruthless reality beneath criminal lore and legends (Chopper, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly). Dominik has wrapped his two episodes. Franklin is shooting four, Fincher three — but, as Dominik puts it, “his tentacles are everywhere”.
I’ve been Mark Zuckerberg—there are times in my life where I’ve acted that way. There are times in my life where I’ve been Eduardo Saverin—where I’ve gone and made a scene and regretted it and where I’ve been emotional and felt silly and stupid. And there are times when I’ve felt self-righteous and I’ve acted out in this other way… Look, what Mark does is no different than directing a movie—it’s what I do for a living every day. You grow something, and your job is to grow it well and to make sure it gets enhanced and to take care of it. That’s the subject of the movie. And if you have to hurt people’s feelings in order to protect that thing, that’s what you have to do. It’s a responsibility. You want to love every character in the movie. You want to be able to understand them. You want to be able to relate to them. But, as a director, the characters’ behaviors are inevitably related to facets of moments in your own life. You look at the work and say, Maybe I do know what that is. I’ve been the angry young man. I’ve been Elvis Costello. I know what that’s like. The anger is certainly something I felt that I could relate to—the notion of being twenty-one and having a fairly clear notion of what it is you want to do or what it is you want to say and having all these people go, well, we’d love to, we’d love you to try. Show us what it is that you want to do. It’s that whole condescending thing of having to ask adults for permission because the perception is that you’re too young to do it for yourself. And that’s why I understood Mark’s frustration. You have a vision of what this thing should be. And everyone wants to tell you, Oh, well, you’re young. You’ll see soon enough. —David Fincher
The 21st century computer-scribes who work behind the scenes behind the screens, creating culture and beauty with code, got an anti-hero to remember on the silver-screen in 2010 with David Fincher’s 8th feature film. From a once-in-a-generation, “holy shit” screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network is a movie about a 19-year-old Harvard student creating Facebook while losing the relationships in his life. It is an examination of a social outsider who built one of the biggest “clubs” the world’s ever seen, and it’s about the new age zooming past the old. It’s about ignorance in high places, that awkward moment when powerful hired officials prove they have no concept of what simple features on Facebook are in a hearing on Facebook security. It’s about a new language of coding that’s sweeping and running the globe, and about treating coding with the respect it deserves. It’s about coders being taken as seriously as writers, musicians, filmmakers, film producers, painters, costume-designers, photographers, and all other artists and creators. It’s about attaining power even though you’re socially anxious or awkward, and about finding that inner drive that helps you accomplish your goals. It’s about what happens when you lose your humility in your thirst for greatness, and about the fragility of the line between “passionate” and “ass-hole.” The Social Network is simultaneously about a seismic shift in the zeitgeist and your best friend getting your company in trouble for feeding his fraternity chicken a piece of chicken. It’s about creating and solidifying one’s identity, and everything and anything else that goes with what Fincher once jokingly referred to as “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies.”
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.
The show returns to London so journalist and filmmaker Neville Pierce — whose latest short, Promise, just arrived on Vimeo — can discuss the life-changing impact and technical virtuosity of David Fincher‘s Seven. Your genial host Norm Wilner believes in the second part.
Over nearly 20 years, film journalist Neville Pierce has collected bylines at most of the U.K.’s top film publications, including Empire (where he’s a contributing editor), Total Film (where he was the editor) and The Guardian. And while he worked as a reviewer early in his career, he’s best known for his long-form profiles of actors and directors, pieces that are deep dives into the art and craft of subjects like Michael Fassbender, Mark Romanek and, most consistently, David Fincher, whose sets he has visited and written about no less than seven times.
But since 2011 Pierce has been building a parallel career that particularly resonates with us here at Filmmaker. Moving from covering films to making films, he began to write — and sell — screenplays and, in the last two years, direct short films. Parlaying connections within the U.K. acting community, Pierce has made four shorts, three of which are premiering online today. Strikingly, they are different in style and content, illustrating Pierce’s range while also indicating, perhaps, his own process of artistic discovery — an exploration of different genres and tones while working, one presumes, towards an inevitable first feature.
PIERCE: The biggest lessons probably came from my two favourite contemporary filmmakers. I interviewed Steven Soderbergh for The Informant and he talked about fantasy versus reality, “Are you going to deal with the world as it is or are you going to constantly trying to turn it into something that it’s never going to be?” That thought had a big impact both professionally and personally. Acting out of the facts, rather than out of wishes. The other thing, which I keep at the top of my digital “to do” list, as a constant reminder, is from Fincher: “The lesson of Alien 3 is ‘Take all of the responsibility, because you’re going to get all of the blame.’”
“I love Hannibal Lecter,” says director David Fincher, referring to fiction’s most infamous serial killer, from The Silence of the Lambs. “But he doesn’t exist when you really look into serial killing. He may actually be destructive to the understanding of who these people are.”
Few film-makers have “looked into” serial killing with the intense interest of this wry 55-year-old. His breakthrough picture Seven, which announced this one-time music video maestro as a major cinematic force with a flair for an indelible visual image, featured a serial killer (Kevin Spacey) who slaughtered people according to the seven deadly sins and a notoriously shocking ending that left police procedural clichés decapitated.
His best film is arguably Zodiac, a meticulous account of the frustrated attempts to catch the real life titular killer who terrorised California in the late Sixties. You could even argue – though this would likely bring a raised eyebrow from the director who also counts Gone Girl, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Fight Club on his CV – that the predatory Xenomorph from his ill-fated debut, Alien 3, is more dangerous even than Lecter, or that the reverse-ageing romance The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is really about the ultimate serial killer, Death himself.
His new Netflix series Mindhunter, however, is more grounded in reality than any of these projects. Yes, it deals with killers, but these aren’t gourmets or masterminds. Instead, inspired by the memoir of FBI agent John Douglas, it follows two agents (Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff) as they interview convicted killers for insights to help them capture active murderers.
“I thought it was more interesting to see what makes a serial killer in real life, rather than turning him into a comic book supervillain,” says Fincher of the 10-part show, which is really about the birth of psychological profiling. “I thought a show based on conversations with the monster could be compelling, maybe in a new way. I was interested in the idea of not imbuing these creatures with a mythological power over us.”