David Fincher: Mind Games is the definitive critical and visual survey of the Academy Award– and Golden Globe–nominated works of director David Fincher. From feature films Alien 3, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and Mank through his MTV clips for Madonna and the Rolling Stones and the Netflix series House of Cards and Mindhunter, each chapter weaves production history with original critical analysis, as well as with behind the scenes photography, still-frames, and original illustrations from Little White Lies‘ international team of artists and graphic designers. Mind Games also features interviews with Fincher’s frequent collaborators, including Jeff Cronenweth, Angus Wall, Laray Mayfield, Holt McCallany, Howard Shore and Erik Messerschmidt.
Grouping Fincher’s work around themes of procedure, imprisonment, paranoia, prestige and relationship dynamics, Mind Games is styled as an investigation into a filmmaker obsessed with investigation, and the design will shift to echo case files within a larger psychological profile.
There’s a specificity of intention to David Prior’s “The Empty Man” that eludes most studio horror projects. Inspired by the Boom Studios! comic (created by writer Cullen Bunn and artist Vanessa del Rey), Prior’s debut could have been a success story were the movie released under different circumstances. Inherited by Disney following the Fox merger, and dumped into theaters mid-pandemic, “The Empty Man” certainly wasn’t given the A24Ari Aster treatment, which is a shame, as Prior’s film would make an outstanding, grief-tinged double feature with “Midsommar” or “Hereditary,” though its shape is far more chimerically hypnotic.
Laying somewhere in the cosmic ether between David Fincher’s serial killer films, “Se7en” and “Zodiac,” Prior’s sepulchral vision slithers like a paranormal odyssey in the guise of a J-horror procedural a la Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s “Cure,” veteran character actor James Badge Dale aiding in making detective work look effortless through a mesmerizing lead performance. “We go looking for things we have lost… More than that, there is no such thing as loss,” a mysterious cult leader, played by Stephen Root, preaches
Audiences missed out on “The Empty Man,” but it’s deservedly found a devoted following. “If the price of making the movie I wanted to make meant getting abandoned by the studio and left to be picked up by passionate people who saw it on their own, that’s not a bad outcome.” Prior told us, “At least it’s the movie I wanted to make. It wasn’t some highly compromised, shortened, messed up version of that probably would have gotten more support from the studio but it would have vanished from everybody’s mind as soon as they saw it.”
Prior was later approached by David Fincher (for whom he used to direct documentaries) about a new film appreciation series, titled “Voir.” Scheduled to debut at AFI Fest this month, Netflix’s video essay project spotlights “passionate voices that love movies… highlighting the elements that get people excited about cinema.”
In a time when streaming services threaten to swallow up the theatrical experience, “Voir” is an essential look back at what makes film uniquely hypnotic. “Movies cornered the cultural conversation throughout the 20th century.” Prior told us. “It was the art form of the 20th century… [movies] don’t hold the same place in cultural thinking they used to and there’s a lot that’s important being lost.”
No great film deserves to be forgotten, and Prior is keenly aware platforms like Netflix now hold the keys to Hollywood’s kingdom, as “custodians to the cinematic experience.” “The Empty Man,” may not have mopped up box office dollars but revealed its director to be as impassioned and skilled a filmmaking scholar as David Fincher. We were fortunate to sit down for an extensive chat with him ahead of “Voir’s” upcoming premiere. Eerily, both his debut film and new Netflix series stemming from an obsession with “Jaws,” the legendary Steven Spielberg, a fervent supporter of his film appreciation project.
Over and again throughout The Empty Man, we see characters sitting in the lotus position, cross-legged and attentive, a pose connoting receptivity. It is in the migration of this mindset from snowy Bhutan to small-town Missouri, muled from East to West by the unlucky occidental tourist who doubles as its title character, that David Prior’s film locates both its celestial sense of scale and a fine-grained gestural specificity. After literally stumbling into a cliffside cavern—the first unexpected plunge in a movie whose characters constantly find themselves either on shaky ground or descending into a darkness of their own volition—Paul (Aaron Poole) becomes transfixed by a skeletal figure whose meditative posture he adopts, seemingly permanently and much to the bewilderment of his fellow backpackers. Dragged back to the surface, he has become a husk, limbs locked and rapidly atrophying, staring out at the world with eyes wide shut. It would seem that he’s been hollowed out. Or is he suddenly full up?
The old Zen proverb about the philosopher who tells his overzealous visitor to return to him with an empty cup—the better to receive the flow of wisdom—comes eerily to mind in the image of a hiker mutated into a hapless Buddha. The story lying beyond The Empty Man’s gorgeous anamorphic frames is also akin to a kind of koan: if a great cosmic horror movie gets (barely) released in the middle of a global pandemic, and nobody sees it, does it really exist?
Today, I’ve got the honor to post the interview I did to David Prior; who After being in charge of production video documentaries and have worked alongside nothing other than David Fincher, arrives with his horror film The Empty Man, making his directorial debut. The Empty Man is based on the Boom Graphic Novel called the same way. David, Tells us the unfortunate fate his movie went through all due bad management and bad luck to be in the middle of a transition between companies, addition to that, the company launched a misleading trailer, transforming the movie in another weird horror teenage movie, totally opposite of twist-thrilling horror film. The Empty Man is a top notch production with a great cast and crew team. The film got to us on October 23, 2020 in theaters and on Digital on January 12, 2021.
The director also shared with us the film creation process, the rocks he had to apart away from his path to get the film off the ground, his insights and learnings from all this exhausting but comforting filmmaking labor.
David Prior got his break directing DVD special features for such David Fincher films as “Zodiac” and “The Social Network.” He obviously drew on that work experience in writing and directing his debut horror feature film, “The Empty Man.”
“Any time you spent hanging around the set with David Fincher or Peter Weir or any number of the other people that I’ve been able to hang around the set with, it’s always going to be valuable,” Prior said.
“The Empty Man” focuses on an ex-detective named James Lasombra. James is grieving the deaths of his wife and son. He helps his friend Nora whose daughter has gone missing.
James’s investigation leads him to a sinister organization called The Pontifex Institute, which turns out to be a cult. The film stars James Badge Dale, and chameleon-like actor Stephen Root who delivers a great performance as the cult’s leader.
The movie also became embroiled in a mega media merger that delayed and botched its release. “The Empty Man” features an impending sense of dread and doom and themes of guilt, grief, the meaning of existence and mind control. Prior explains to WPR‘s “BETA” why he wanted to include such big ideas in his film.
David Prior is an American writer and director who made his feature directorial debut with The Empty Man, an epic in the world of horror, one of the most criminally overlooked horror movies of 2020, and one of the most ambitious horror movies of recent years . It has the scope and execution of a Chris Nolan movie while mixing elements of cults, quantum horror, and creepypastas into an extremely unique mythology that is all its own.
The story behind the making of The Empty Man is very harrowing. In the middle of shooting in South Africa, it was temporarily shut down due to weather conditions, during which a key studio executive who greenlit the film left the studio, essentially leaving the movie abandoned. If that wasn’t enough, once the movie finally got finished, David had to endure a series of calamities, including negative test screenings and studio interference which kept the movie in limbo for years. If that wasn’t enough, once the movie was finally released, it was in theatres during the height of the pandemic only to get largely negative Rotten Tomato reviews (which were very unjust) and thus be completely buried.
However, as of the past few weeks, The Empty Man has been seeing a major resurgence as a number of outspoken critics have been singing the praises of the movie and thus causing it to get the attention it deserves. The story behind The Empty Man brings to light the many issues that can befall a movie but also shows the power of the internet to champion a movie when it belongs in the spotlight. I’m personally thrilled that The Empty Man is getting the viewership that it has been; it’s a must-see, and I’m convinced it will be considered a horror epic for years to come.
In this conversation with David, we got into the whole story behind The Empty Man, his directorial processes, and what he learned observing directors like David Fincher, Tim Burton, and Peter Weir when he visited them on set while producing special features for multiple DVD titles. All of this and so much more on today’s episode of The Nick Taylor Horror Show.
Between the global pandemic, studio mergers, and the overwhelming onslaught of content flooding streaming services, it has never been easier for a movie to slip through the cracks. Years from now, we will no doubt look back on an entire generation of great films that were lost to the ever-shifting chaos of the industry over these past few years. What does feel safe to say is that when we are discussing the great works lost to this strange time, 2020’s The Empty Man will be in the conversation.
If you’re interested in the details of its tumultuous production, director David Prior has been remarkably candid about the process in recent interviews: 1, 2, 3. Long story short: The film, a very loose adaptation of Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey’s comic series of the same name, was marred by reshoots, recuts, the Fox–Disney merger, a constantly shifting release date, and losing its original producer in the middle of production. After sitting on a shelf for years, it was tossed into theaters in the middle of the pandemic, grossed a paltry $4 million worldwide, and was quickly forgotten. It is currently only available to rent via Amazon, and as of the writing of this story, there are no plans for a DVD/Blu-ray release.
To be fair, even if theaters were open for business as usual, one could be forgiven for chalking The Empty Man up as skippable after its first trailer, which, in one of the more damning marketing moves in recent memory, dropped about a week before the film hit theaters. The film’s borderline nonexistent marketing paints the James Badge Dale vehicle as a sort of Slender Man–adjacent creepypasta horror, the sort of bland Blumhouse rip-off designed to come and go with as little noise as possible. Its initial critical reception was middling at best, though it even went underseen in that respect — its current 50 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes is based on 14 official reviews. It’s the sort of perfect storm that renders a film nonexistent in the cultural consciousness.
And that’s a shame, because The Empty Man very much warrants a place there.
For this very special edition of Bonus Features, Jacob and Marten talk to David Prior, the writer/director behind last year’s criminally underseen horror picture The Empty Man. Over the course of our lengthy chat, David dives into his career as a special features pioneer during the the early days of DVD, and just what happened to his future cult classic at Disney/Fox.
When the twist-filled cosmic horror mind-bender The Empty Manwas unceremoniously dumped in theaters last October, its writer and director David Prior wasn’t even sent a link to the final version of the film by the studio. More than four years before, he’d pitched the movie to 20th Century Fox, a perhaps unconventional home for such a strange project, and, after the company was acquired by Disney in 2019, Prior’s debut feature slipped through the corporate cracks. In the middle of a global pandemic, The Empty Man was released with one misleading trailer, which marketed the two-hour-plus saga as another urban legend-inspired teen thriller, and minimal promotional fanfare. Unsurprisingly, it bombed, grossing just over $4 million worldwide. Prior transmitted and almost no one received.
Adapted from a Boom! Studios comic by the writer Cullen Bunn and artist Vanesa R. Del Rey, The Empty Man was initially sold to Fox in 2016 as a stylish horror mystery infused with thematic ambiguity, existential dread, and a dash of Lovecraftian terror. James Badge Dale plays ex-detective James Lasombra, a grief-stricken widower whose friend Nora (Marin Ireland) enlists him to help find her daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) after she disappears. Amanda and her teenage friends may or may not have summoned the Empty Man, a mystical entity with an odd connection to a cult-like organization called the Pontifex Institute, led by a charismatic leader played by Stephen Root of Office Space and Barry. (I’ve been describing it to friends as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets The Ring.) In his early conversations with executives, Prior compared it to Mulholland Drive rather than something in The Conjuring universe or the Blumhouse arsenal. In the writing stage, executives even encouraged him to expand the film’s lengthy opening, a snowbound tale of hikers in Bhutan’s Ura Valley who stumble upon a sinister cave.
The Empty Man‘s journey to the big screen quickly unraveled. In some ways, the story has all the hallmarks of classic Hollywood fiasco: a shoot plagued by bad weather, disastrous test screenings, fights over runtime, studio meddling, a breakdown in communication, and an ambitious first-time director threading potentially alienating material into familiar genre fare. (Not many horror movies have a prominent shot of a high school named after a famous French philosopher.) In other ways, it’s a uniquely modern tale of mounting corporate neglect, expiring tax rebates, confusing IP mismanagement, and slow-building social media advocacy.
Are audiences hungry for movies like The Empty Man? The movie’s box office performance would suggest a definitive no, but, since becoming available as a digital rental in 2021, the film has taken on a second life online, where podcast hosts and viewers on platforms like Twitter and Letterboxd have sung its praises, turning it into the rare 21st century studio project that earns the over-used descriptor of “cult movie.”
Prior, who began his career working on a DVD of the 1999 horror movie Ravenous and later directed special features for David Fincher films like Zodiac and The Social Network, has a keen awareness of how his movie plays into certain narratives. Over a Google Hangout, he spoke with the combination of weary cynicism and wounded pride that often accompanies someone who has been through an ordeal. “It’s amazing how trenchant Barton Fink is about the way the Hollywood system really works,” he noted early in the conversation.
As the Coen Brothers screenwriter protagonist knows, the “life of the mind” can be painful. While unpacking the jargon-heavy mythology of his debut and the turmoil-packed narrative of its production, Prior repeatedly emphasized how grateful he was that the movie has found an audience and often laughed at the absurdity of its fate. Who can be blamed for what happened to The Empty Man? As one of the movie’s grizzled detectives remarks in the film, “We can’t indict the cosmos.”