David Fincher: A Retrospective


January 30, 2013 by Craig Sutherland

Who is David Fincher?

Even the most casual of cinefiles has more than likely stumbled across some of Finchers work, He is the man behind Fight Club, Se7en and The Social Network. Fincher’s style is unique and is often copied but rarely bettered. His films are dark, sometimes harrowing but for the most part believable. Fincher’s strongest suit is taking a script and getting to the actual roots of what the characters are trying to do whilst using a style that is real, gritty and dirty.

Let’s start at the beginning. David Fincher was born in 1962, At 8 years of age he was so inspired by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid he began making movies with his 8mm camera. He was hired by Industrial Light and Magic in 1983 where he got work on Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, He found fame directing Commercials and Music Videos for Madonna, The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, Then 20th Century Fox came knocking…



2Oth Century Fox failed to convince Ridley Scott to come back to the franchise for Alien³ and after endless scripts and re-writes, Fincher flopped into the directors chair for what would be his debut. Critically, the film has always had mixed reviews. It’s 42% rotten on Rotten Tomatoes.
Fincher makes some bold choices in the film, like killing off Bishop, Hicks and Newt which angered Allen Dean Scott, The Writer of the novelisations of the first two Alien films and the final scene *Spoiler* in which we see Ripley die. As a standalone film it is a decent romp and stylistically it’s far superior to James Cameron’s Aliens. Therein lies the rub, Fincher has to follow-up Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s seminal pictures whilst wanting to create something fresh. This would be decent debut for anyone if the bar hadn’t been set so high by it’s predecessors.  Here’s a quote from Fincher in 2009  “No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.” He bashed heads with the studio over a lot of fundamental elements of the film, He worked with who he was told to work with when he had a great team of people he knew well from his time working on commercials and music videos. He then swore that he would not compromise like that again.


Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Pride, Lust.
Fincher got it right with Se7en in 1995 with the tale of a sadistic serial killer who’s murders each represent one of the seven deadly sins. Fincher said this of directing after his experience on Alien³ “I thought I’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie”, That was until New Line Cinema sent him the script for Se7en, except they sent him the wrong script… they sent him Andrew Kevin Walker’s original script *Spoiler* with the head in the box ending, Have a look at Walker’s alternative script here. Once again Fincher bashed heads with a studio but this time he had a partner in crime… Brad Pitt, Pitt had a bad experience with his previous film Legends Of The Fall after it had its emotional ending cut after poor feedback from test audiences, he refused to do Se7en unless the head in a box ending stayed. It did and the film became both a critical and commercial success grossing $327 million becoming the seventh highest grossing film of 1995.Attention to detail is one of Fincher’s strongest suits and this is visible from the opening of Se7en, The John Doe diaries featured in the tittles were created by Clive Piercy and John Sabel and took two months to make at a cost of $15,000, Fincher also used the Nine Inch Nails track ‘Closer’ to score the opening, beginning his relationship with Trent Reznor who went on to score The Social Network accompanied by Atticus Ross.

The Game

After two films Fincher now gets a ‘From the director of…’ on his films, Se7en had given him the freedom to go and make the films he wanted to without having argue with the studio anymore, he was given the script for The Game and worked with Andrew Kevin Walker to thicken up Michael Douglas’ character.All was reportedly well on set and the film wrapped within a hundred days. The Game has mostly positive reviews, It’s 71% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics main issues with are that it is formulaic and over-long. Roger Ebert posted a rather praise laden review here But most reviews highlight the style of the picture and how technically proficient Fincher is.

Fight Club

  ”Now, a question of etiquette – as I pass, do I give you the ass or the crotch?”
Based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel of the same name, The novel was inspired by an altercation Palahniuk had whilst camping and the refusal by his co-workers to ask any questions as to why he was so banged up.
20th Century Fox optioned Fight Club and hired Jim Uhls to adapt it for the screen, Fincher was on a list of four directors (Peter Jackson, Bryan Singer and Danny Boyle were the other three) and Fox hired him because of his enthusiasm for the project, Bryan Singer never picked up the book. In another world, Fight Club may have starred Russell Crowe as Tyler and Matt Damon as the Narrator, Thankfully Brad Pitt was cast at the cost of $17.5 Million and Edward Norton was cast for $2.5 Million after the production on his film Runaway Jury shut down. The pair threw themselves into Boxing, Taekwondo and Soapmaking. Pitt even went as far as have a dentist chip his teeth because, you know, ”Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart”, the dentist put the pieces of his teeth back after production wrapped.
The filming of Fight Club lasted 138 days, production costs escalated from the original $50 Million to $63 Million, Fincher had managed to shoot 1,500 rolls of film (Three times the standard Hollywood production). Fincher hated shooting on location and felt as though most of the overspend was down to transporting gear from location to location, This wouldn’t be a problem on his next film Panic Room.
Fight Club grossed $100 Million worldwide, it was deemed a flop and critically the film polarised reviewers who feared that the films violence might inspire copycats like A Clockwork Orange had done in the 70s.Fincher embraced the DVD age with the incredibly well made Fight Club 2Disc Special Edition, That DVD alone grossed $55 Million in rentals and went on to become highest selling DVDs in the studio’s history.
Fight Club has become a massive cult hit and is probably the film that most people have judged Fincher by. It’s a film that defies convention, it’s overly dark (Brad Pitt’s hair was highlighted in the film but appears dark brown in most scenes), the film uses voice over too much but it all works, After seeing this film more than once you can start to look at the films subtleties, like the single frame shots of Tyler Spiced in or Tyler popping up in the hotel ‘Welcome’ video, It’s a film that will grow on you and film that stays with you.

Panic Room

Panic Room is a thriller starring Jodie Foster, Kirsten Stewart, Jared Leto and Forest Whitaker. It’s a claustrophobic heist movie. Leto and Whitaker with the help Dwight Yoakam decide to rob a safe in a four-story brownstone in New York, they have information the the previous owner had $3 million in bearer bonds locked in the safe, they were going to steal the bonds before the house had new occupants…
As with most hiest films, it doesn’t quite go to plan with Meg Altman (Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Stewart) already getting comfortable in their new home. When the burglars get inside the Mother and Daughter rush to the panic room and a game of cat and mouse begins.
Fincher visualized this film as a ‘Popcorn’ flick about survival that harked back to the days of ‘Rear Window‘ in the vein of ‘Straw Dogs‘. After his experience on Fight Club of using insane amounts of locations, Fincher decided to use a single set and plan every shot out in advance, he experienced a number of difficulties on the production such as cast (Nicole Kidman dropped out of role of Meg Altman because of a recurring knee problem picked on time shooting Molin Rouge!) and crew changes as well as issues with his pre-production plans.
Critically, the film received mainly positive reviews, it is 77% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, Several critics said that the film was too mainstream for someone of Finchers calibre. It grossed $196.4 Million, His second highest gross at that point. (Se7en took $327 Million).


There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.
Zodiac is slow-paced mystery film based on the book of the same name by Robert Graysmith, The film tells the story of the hunt for the ‘Zodiac‘ killer who killed in and around the San Francisco Bay area during the late 60s early 70s, He liked to leave cryptic messages for the detectives and to this day is still one of the most high-profile unsolved cases in San Francisco history.
The film follows Paul Avery (Downey Jr) who is crime reported for the San Francisco Chronicle and Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) who is the political cartoonist. Letters are sent to the Chronicle by ‘Zodiac’ and even though Graysmith is keen to get involved he is ridiculed due to him being a lowly political cartoonist, until he breaks zodiacs code in one of the letters…
On the production of the film actors complained of Fincher’s perfectionism claiming that some scenes would take up to 70 takes, Gyllenhaal said in an interview with the New York Times “You get a take, 5 takes, 10 takes. Some places, 90 takes. But there is a stopping point. There’s a point at which you go, ‘That’s what we have to work with.’ But we would reshoot things. So there came a point where I would say, well, what do I do? Where’s the risk?” Downey Jr when for a slightly more comedic route “I just decided, aside from several times I wanted to garrote him, that I was going to give him what he wanted. I think I’m a perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags”.
The film was a disaster at the US box office and Fincher accused Paramount of mis-marketing the film, Zodiac eventually limped to $84 Million worldwide of a budget of $75 Million. It is rated at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and is widely lauded by critics.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mark Twain once remarked ”The best part of life was from the beginning and the worst part was the end” this was the inspiration for Benjamin Button

Fincher’s next project was his biggest to date, a sprawling fantasy based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name. Starring Brad Pitt as the man who ages in reverse and Cate Blanchett as his love interest throughout his life. The story is told from Daisy’s deathbed on the day Hurricane Katrina was to hit New Orleans. Caroline (Julia Ormond), Daisy’s daughter reads aloud the diary of Benjamin Button to daisy. The story begins in 1918 and ends in 2003.

Director Tarsem Singh was enlisted to shoot the brief handheld montage of Benjamin backpacking through India and Cambodia, after David Fincher learned that Tarsem and Brad Pitt were both already planning to be in Southeast Asia at the same time.

The film received mainly positive reviews, some critics found flaws with the concept of a backwards life, Cosmo Landesman of the Sunday Times wrote: “The film’s premise serves no purpose. It’s a gimmick that goes on for nearly three hours,” concluding “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an anodyne Hollywood film that offers a safe and sanitised view of life and death. It’s Forrest Gump goes backwards,”

The Forrest Gump similarities- Taken from here

Both work for a long time on boats.
  • Narrates the story starting with the words “My name is…”;
  • Is born in the South without a father and has difficulty walking;
  • Is born on an important day in American history;
  • Has a mother who gives him pearls of wisdom and helps him walk.
  • Meets the love of his life as a child and then sporadically throughout his life — they have one long stint of being together but are unable to make their relationship last despite conceiving a child together;
  • Serves in a wartime battle in which a friend of his is killed;
  • Travels the world on his own for an extended period of time;
  • Earns a lot of money easily

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button cost $150 Million to make and grossed $333 Million worldwide, Fincher’s biggest ever gross.

The Social Network

In 2010 Fincher directed The Social Network, Based on the Ben Mezrich book Accidental Billionaires. The film is about the creation and implementation of Facebook, it’s a drama but the thrills don’t come from heists of car chases, instead it comes from the alleged theft of a concept that is worth billions and the breakdown of the relationship of two friends (Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisesberg and Eduardo Saverin played by Andrew Garfield)

In reality Zuckerberg states that the only piece of the film that was non-fictional was the depiction of his wardrobe “It’s interesting the stuff that they focused on getting right – like every single shirt and fleece they had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own.” according to Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz The Social Network is a “dramatization of history … it is interesting to see my past rewritten in a way that emphasizes things that didn’t matter” Facebook Co-founder Eduardo Saverin who brought the idea of Accidental Billionaire to author Ben Mezrich said of the film, “The movie was clearly intended to be entertainment and not a fact-based documentary.”

The Film got rave reviews and is sitting pretty on Rotten Tomatoes with a rating 96%. It was Roger Ebert’s film of the year “David Fincher’s film has the rare quality of being not only as smart as its brilliant hero, but in the same way. It is cocksure, impatient, cold, exciting and instinctively perceptive.” Giving it his only four star rating of the year he went on to say “The Social Network is the movie of the year. But Fincher and Sorkin triumph by taking it further. Lacing their scathing wit with an aching sadness, they define the dark irony of the past decade.”

Fincher’s 8th film won him widespread acclaim and Academy Awards for Best Film Editing, Best Score (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross) and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film grossed $224 Million at a cost of $40 Million.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

 “What is hidden in snow, comes forth in the thaw”

Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo is a remake of the 2009 film of the same name by Niels Arden Oplev, in Sweden Opley’s film was called Män som hatar kvinnor – literally – Men Who Hate Women. Both films are based on the first book in ‘Millennium’ trilogy by
Stieg Larsson. Many people scratched their head when it was announced that Fincher would be heading up a remake so soon after the Swedish film had grossed $104 Million worldwide two years prior, the American version would cost $90 million to make and people were curious if there was an audience for Lisbeth, the unconventional cyber-punk . But believe it or not there are some people that will not go and see a film with subtitles, this is what MGM were hoping for.

The plot follows two arcs, the first is Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, Who seems to have decided that he wont do an accent even though EVERYONE else is making some kind of effort) and his troubles with a lost libel case and the second is Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a brilliant but damaged hacker who is employed to do a background check on Blomkvist. Blomkvist is later hired to look into a mystery that has haunted a family for years and eventually gets Lisbeth on board to help him out.

If you were to sit down and analyse the two films you could write a rather long blog post, see Here, but the main difference for me was how Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth was warmer, more likable, You could understand her motives better and it made the 2011 film a whole more enjoyable.

The piercings (including multiple ear, eyebrow, and nipple piercings) that Rooney Mara sports as Lisbeth are real, not cosmetic simulations. Mara got the piercings in a series of sessions in Brooklyn and Sweden. The ear, nose, eyebrow and lip piercings were removed after shooting completed, but she kept the right nipple piercing for possible sequels. “It’s not something I want to ever get re-pierced,” she said. “So I’m going to keep it in.”

The film grossed $232 million worldwide and was widely regarded to be of the same or better quality than the 2009 film, Rooney Mara gained mass praise for her role and got an Oscar nomination for best actress. (She lost out to Meryl Streep)

In summary

David Fincher likes a challenge, he walks down a road seldom walked by a mainstream Hollywood director. His visuals are unique and every film he does is aesthetically pleasing, he is not afraid to bridge subject matter that other directors would baulk at, but most importantly he makes films that studios want made and they give him a lot of money to make them, he never struggles to get productions funded like Darren Aronofsky had to with Black Swan or David O. Russell with The Fighter, He knows how to work the system and will continue to do so for many years. He has made a sidestep into making more audience friendly films of late with Benjamin Button and The Social Network and with the news that Disney have him working on ”20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” we will see him realise a ”Steam-punk Sci-Fi movie from 1873” But he will be involved with part two and three of the ‘Millennium’ trilogy but maybe not as a director.

Our next glimpse into the weird and wonderful world of Fincher will be the TV series House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey, a political drama about about the race for the presidency.

”I don’t know how much movies should entertain. To me, I’m always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about Jaws (1975) is the fact that I’ve never gone swimming in the ocean again.” –
David Fincher


One thought on “David Fincher: A Retrospective

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