A Beginner’s Guide to… David Fincher

Hello there, I hope everyone enjoyed the first of the series of A Beginner’s Guide to… two weeks ago where we looked at Quentin Tarantino, what did you think of the selection of films that I briefly spoke about? And is anyone a master in Tarantino knowledge and filmwatching yet? This week, I am going to be looking at David Fincher, whose films range from sci-fi to thriller to drama and everything in between. What I believe Fincher does manage to represent very well is the apparent darkness that protrudes into everyday life despite the situation and circumstances that are happening.

To quickly explain these series of articles again, I want to be able to give a brief history of the director and then choose three of their films to discuss.The Beginner film would be for viewers who haven’t ever watched a film by this director (a good introduction, some may say), the Intermediate would be for those viewers who have a little background but still want to learn more about the director before coming along to Advanced, which would be the films by the directors which may be the least commercial or well known, but die hard fans of the directors would have watched.

Week Two: David Fincher

David Fincher is an American film and music video director. He is best known for his dark and stylistic thrillers such as Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999) and is Academy Award nominated, as well as Golden Globe and BAFTA winning for The Social Network (2010).

What is completely fascinating about Fincher is that unlike some of his contemporaries such as Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee and Gore Verbinski, he eschewed the film school route, getting a job loading cameras and doing other hands-on work for John Korty’s Korty Films. This is an initial connection to my previous director, Tarantino who also avoided film school and gained experience though working at his local video store. Other directors who are known for taking a different route are Steven Soderbergh and Sam Raimi.

In 1983 Fincher joined Industrial Light & Magic where he worked on productions of Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But it wasn’t until 1984, when Fincher directed a commercial for the American Cancer Society, where he struck an audience showing a fetus smoking a cigarette. After this strike of originality Fincher went to Los Angeles to direct the documentary The Beat of the Live Drum featuring Rick Springfield in 1985. Though he would continue to direct spots for companies like Revlon, Converse, Nike, Pepsi, Sony, and Levi’s, Fincher soon discovered music videos and joined video-production company Propaganda Films. Like Fincher, other directors such as Michael Bay, Neil LaBute, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Zack Snyder and Gore Verbinski learnt and found their specialities while working at there.

A credit has to be given to Fincher’s music video directing career which is sometimes looked over as a phase, all before his first feature Alien 3 (1993) and which he continues (sparingly) today. Since his debut, working with Rick Springfield in 1984 on “Dance This World Away”, Fincher has since worked with Sting in 1988 (“Englishman in New York”), the first of four videos in 1988 with Paula Abdul, four videos with Madonna including “Express Yourself” (1989) and “Vogue” (1990) and one video in 1993 with Michael Jackson (“Who Is It?”). The most recent video that Fincher has directed is Nine Inch Nails “Only” in 2005 and since then has worked with lead singer Trent Reznor (and collaborator, Atticus Rose) on the Academy Award winning soundtrack to The Social Network and are working together again on 2011’s English remake of Stieg Larsson’s first crime thriller in The Millennium Trilogy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.

In 1993, Fincher stepped into the footsteps of Ridley Scott and James Cameron to direct the third in the Alien Quadrilogy. The film, despite being acknowledged for it’s special effects, was not a success and after disputes between Fincher and 20th Century Fox, where Fincher blames the producers for not putting enough trust into him, he withdrew from films and returned to music videos until the success of 1995’s dark thriller, Se7en.


The Social Network, 2010

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield & Justin Timberlake

The first I heard of the The Social Network, was about a year before its release when I came across a group on Facebook stating that Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) was planning on writing a screenplay for a film about Facebook and on this group, he wanted to hear people’s stories of how they used the social network founded by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 in his Harvard dorm room and the impact of Facebook on people’s lives. I was initially intrigued by the idea, especially as a student who pretty much used Facebook everyday but then news on the script went cold until it was announced that David Fincher would be directing a new drama based on the story of the founding of Facebook and that Aaron Sorkin would be providing the screenplay for the film.

The script which became The Social Network, was based on Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book, ‘The Accidental Billionaires’ which Mezrich wrote with co-founder, Eduardo Saverin who is played in the film by Andrew Garfield. During the year of 2010, the film received massive critical acclaim topping many critics’ top 10 lists for the year and appearing in many others. It was given eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director and walked away with Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Film Editing.

So for those who haven’t seen the film, let me sum it up for you. We follow Jesse Eisenberg who plays Facebook founder, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg who comes up with a directory of females students where others can judge their looks called Facemash. Despite being put on academic probation, Zuckerberg is brought to the attention of the Winklevoss twins who need someone to help create their ‘Harvard Connection’. Throughout the film, many theories are brought to light about what happened during the conception of Facebook and whether Zuckerberg stole the initial idea. Throughout the film we watch the founders coming together to create the global phenomenon but at various points they go their own ways, whether it be for fame or for money.

For me, what stands out about The Social Network, is some of the film editing for which it won several accolades. For a film, which on the surface, doesn’t sound too engrossing or unique, Fincher manages to encapsulate the audience with a gripping tale which has to do with a lot more than Facebook. The themes are dealing with friendship and betrayal and it manages to do so without becoming melodramatic or like a soap opera, but rather, a really well written drama. Returning to the film editing, there are several sections of The Social Network, where Fincher shines and despite the film, perhaps not falling within his typically darker, stylised thriller, there are some sequences where it comes through. In my mind, the sequence where the Winklevoss twins are taking part in a rowing competition and the exquisite soundtrack, provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose, is playing ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ manages to create a harsh atmosphere, both in the slow motion camera work, the damp colours on the screen and the rusty sound timbre of the music which gets faster and faster as the sequences goes on. Juxtaposing the richness of the sound with the dank picture, foreshadows what is to come; namely, riches to be gained but alliances will be broken along the way.

The reason that I chose The Social Network, as the beginner film is because of the name that it managed to build for itself. One only has to look at the sheer number of awards that it was handed as well as the film being about Facebook, which many of the audience will have had something to do with (even if you don’t use it yourself). One is able to understand what the film is about and is able to empathise with the situation (perhaps not over millions of dollars) but the stories that the film is telling about the bonds of friendship and business and how one may override the other. The film is also relatively easy watching compared to other Fincher features, and this is helped massively by the great cast of the film. The trio of Eisenberg, Garfield and Timberlake, set the screen alight with geeky personas and backstabbing ways.


Fight Club, 1999

Starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton & Helena Bonham Carter

Perhaps the best known of Fincher’s filmography is 1999’s Fight Club, based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk, which follows an unnamed narrator (who was played in the film by Norton) as he deals with insomnia. To make himself feel better about his own life and the suffering that he finds in his head, he impersonates seriously ill people in several support groups. During his visits to these groups, he meets a mysterious man named Tyler Durden (Pitt) and establishes an underground fighting club as radical psychotherapy.

What is necessary to talk about briefly when looking at Fight Club is the ways in which it is compared to Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and The Graduate (1967). These three films are considered films which represent a generation, they talk directly to the audience they are aimed at and they expressively mean something more to the people that were born into that generation than any other. Looking at a review written by Jay Tierney, he says the following;

“My reference to The Graduate at the beginning of this review might seem odd (I don’t remember Dustin Hoffman beating the crap out of Anne Bancroft?), but the connection is in how it reflects its target audience. Older viewers may not understand Fight Club, which truly represents generations X and Y (and probably Z when the time comes) or more simply: the under-35 crowd. I know a lot of people, myself included from time to time, who can relate to many of the ideas covered in this film — specifically its harsh views towards consumerism. As Tyler Durden says, “an entire generation working jobs they hate, so they can buy shit they don’t need.” Even if it isn’t you, believe it. There are a lot of people out there who basically live for the things they own. Advertisements tell them what their lives are supposed to be like and if reality doesn’t live up to these expectations, they’re disappointed.”

There is something special about the way in which Fight Club speaks to it’s audience. Not only though appealing to the generation by critiquing the state of the world around them but also through visual effects and cue marks throughout the picture. These cues remain throughout the entire film and some people manage to point them out as the film is going on but despite the best efforts to point out many visual cues, it is even down to Tyler to point out a cue to the audience just after the midpoint of the film. Fincher fills the story with homoerotic visual cues and overtones that he took from the original novel to create an uncomfortable and alienating atmosphere for the audience; they aren’t sure if what they have just seen is really what they saw and really don’t know if they should discuss it.

For me, Fight Club shows three of Fincher’s best performances from his actors. This is the second of (the current) three appearance’s Brad Pitt makes in Fincher films and really shows off all he can do in terms of being a hedonist and a sexual being. We know from his appearance in Thelma & Louise (1991) that Pitt can embody nothing but image if need be (and we have seen him in a fair amount of roles since where this happens) but Fight Club seems to flip the image. He is sexy and he knows it, a massive part of the story is the feminisation of the male characters in the film and this is played against the violence of these fight club sessions and yet Durden manages to play the entire film as the puppet master, sexy can also be smart. To top of performances by Norton and Bonham Carter, I can safely say Fight Club manages to push it’s actors far beyond anything we have seen from them before to something sexy and nasty all at the same time.

The reason for making Fight Club the intermediate film is because the film is possibly the most famous Fincher film, even if you haven’t seen it, you have heard of it. Whether it is because of the actors in the film, the controversy that the film caused or because you are a Fincher fan, Fight Club pushes boundaries that filmmakers want to push when making a proper social critique. As the world was moving from the 90’s into the new millennium, Fincher managed to create a visual reckoning of Palahniuk’s novel which is just as relevant over a decade ago as it is today.


Zodiac, 2007

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo & Robert Downey Jr.

Zodiac is one of those films which you really have to pay attention to if you are going to watch. By no means is it an easy film to dip in and out off and you really have to give those 2 and a half hours your all but, for me and a lot of other Fincher fans, you come out feeling like you have achieved something when you watch. What Zodiac manages to portray (as a theme of Fincher, but even more so here) is mood and tension. If Fincher is wanting to give you a thriller where you are on the edge of your seat following the tension, he will do so but if he wants to give you a different sort of thrill where the danger is more violent and gory, he can do that as well (Se7en).

Zodiac tells the story of the hunt for the serial killer known as “Zodiac” who killed in and around the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Furthermore he taunted the local police with letters and ciphers mailed to newspapers. The case remains one of the most famous unresolved murder crimes to this day.

The script to the film is based on Robert Graysmith’s non-fiction book of the same name. Graysmith was a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle (one of the newspapers involved) at the time of the murders and is portrayed in the film by Gyllenhaal. The two other stars of the picture, Downey Jr. who portrays a crime reporter at the newspaper and Ruffalo who plays Det Toschi complete this trio of actors who together try to come from different angles at this serial killer story that swept the nation.

As I mentioned earlier, Fincher has managed to create in Zodiac a film where the mood precedes anything else in the script. The story tells itself through the feelings of the characters and the mise-en-scene. The film is filled with dark shadows, slow movements and every noise is picked up as well as the general feeling of loss and sorrow amongst everyone in the film. For the three men at the centre of the film, finding the killer almost becomes an obsession and at various points, it manages to get the better of them. What is outstanding about the film is some of the performances including Downey Jr’s who leaves the newspaper and becomes very much a recluse to the rest of the world; an audience only has to wonder how far within himself he had to go to bring back unwell feelings that Downey Jr had in reality. The general feeling of losing hope, something we saw from his drug phase in life, returns in the film and takes control of the screen.

The slow pace of the film only creates more tension in a verisimilitude that Fincher creates where there is very little else going on outside of the world of those looking for the killers and yet manages to capture the times with their dress and general style. More impressive about  Zodiac is that despite the audience awareness of the different era in which the film is set, it doesn’t determine how far the story is allowed to go, obviously within the constraints of the truth.

The reason that I have chosen Zodiac as the advanced film is because the film really does show a true master at work. Personally, the most other comparable film of Fincher’s to Zodiac is Se7en for it’s dark colours and deathly mood, and yet the former portrays an internal investigation; the film is just as much about the three men as it is the serial killer and Se7en is about a search for a serial killer and the horrid images that the detectives find along the way. Fincher is able to make the audience feel like they are taking place in the investigation but also makes the audience empathise with the sorrow of the situation. For this reason, true Fincher fans who understand what came before and after, can understand where the greatness is in Zodiac.

By no means is this list extensive, the rest of Fincher’s filmography is also brilliant and should be viewed but rather I aim to just give a brief picture of where the director is coming from and hopefully will get a few more audience member’s interested in said director.

Keep following Front Row Reviews for the latest on Fincher and his new picture, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, due out later this year.

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3 Responses

  1. A Beginner's Guide to… David Fincher - MJ International Fan Club

    […] A Beginner's Guide to… David Fincher … worked with Sting in 1988 (“Englishman in New York”), the first of four videos in 1988 with Paula Abdul, four videos with Madonna including “Express Yourself” (1989) and “Vogue” (1990) and one video in 1993 with Michael Jackson (“Who Is It?”). … Read more on Front Row Reviews […]

  2. Mike Chapman

    Great Article! Really loved Zodiac, good choice for ‘Advanced’. Like you said it took a bit of time to get into but definitely worth it! Any ideas about what director will be next? Would love to see Spike Lee or Werner Herzog one sometime.


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