Looking Back: David Fincher

In 1984, the American Cancer Society produced a commercial about the dangers of smoking while pregnant. The director was to be a young filmmaker, previously an employee of Industrial Light and Magic. In 1985 the commercial aired. The camera pans left to reveal an unborn fetus, a cigarette between his thin, pale lips. We zoom out to reveal the a full shot of the womb, the fetus curled up within, as the dulcet voice of a woman asks, “Would you give your unborn child a cigarette?”

The commercial lasts only thirty seconds. It’s of grainy quality and the synth soundtrack is jarringly out of place; it just screams 1980’s. Yet the image is shocking, the implications of it haunting. It all makes for a very nauseating image. People were impressed, producers in L.A., and they tapped the man behind the ad to helm the music doc “The Beat of the Live Drum.” It was David Fincher’s first film.

For the next half a decade Fincher directed commercials and music videos for Propaganda Films, a production company that employed the talents of Michael Bay and Spike Jonze, among others. In 1992, Fincher got the opportunity to direct his first feature, the next film in the Alien franchise, “Alien 3.”

For a young budding filmmaker, the chance to direct an installment in the Alien franchise is a dream come true. It had been thirteen years since Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi horror film “Alien,” and six years since James Cameron’s “Aliens,” a decidedly different yet totally effective take on the series. Fincher would be working in the shadows of two film titans, and he wasn’t exactly walking into a perfect situation either. Production had already been plagued by script problems, the final edit of which was an amalgam of three different screenplays by three different writers. Early versions of the screenplay didn’t feature Sigourney Weaver, as producers were unsure whether or not she would be available for filming. Nevertheless, production began, and multiple directors came and went before Fincher, the greenhorn, stepped in. Things did not improve. He would arrive on set and be handed a new script, rewritten the night before, unbeknownst to the director of the film. Eventually, Fincher left the production. He has since disowned the film, refusing association with it to this day. He’s since been quoted as saying, “I hated it more than anyone. To this day, no one hates it more than me.”

As harmful and discouraging as the experience on “Alien 3” was, it’s almost a miracle the way Fincher managed to turn his career around. One can almost split his movies into two halves. The first half, from 1992 to 2002, includes the films “Alien 3,” “Se7en,” “The Game,” “Fight Club,” and “Panic Room.” The second half, which is from 2007 to 2014, includes “Zodiac,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and the soon-to-premiere “Gone Girl.” Comparing one half to the other, there is present in his latter films a confidence and assuredness that permeates every frame. His films are hypnotizing in a way. A movie like “The Social Network,” quite plainly, is just cool. The dialogue is quick and sophisticated. It is a movie that feels effortless, perfectly put together. It’s fun to look at, listen to.

One of Fincher’s greatest strengths, though, has always been his ability to create moments. Even in his most memorable films, there is always a sequence or a line of dialogue that manages to stick with the viewer long after the film is over. Often times these moments become engrained in pop culture; almost everyone recognizes “What’s in the box” and “The first rule of Fight Club is…” Scenes like the cattle prod rape in “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or Jake Gyllenhaal sneaking through the basement in “Zodiac” are indelible, unforgettable.

Fincher has always been a master of suspense and dread, creating the most ominous of set-ups. In “Se7en,” when Kevin Spacey screams out to Brad Pitt, puts his blood-caked hands up in surrender, and says, with frightening passivity, “You’re looking for me.” Even in a movie like “The Social Network,” a drama, there are fantastic moments of tension; the scene where Mark Zuckerberg notes that it has begun raining, goes on a smug, condescending rant, and tells his accusers’ lawyer, “You have part of my attention. You have the minimum amount,” is chill inducing. This is in part due to Fincher’s fantastic work with composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose score is minimalism personified, and incredibly effective.

Reznor and Ross have returned for Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” set for release on Friday, and if early critical reaction is any indication, it will follow the trend of success enjoyed by its director this past decade. To go from directing one of the most ill received, maligned sci-fi films of all time to directing subsequently with any degree of success is an achievement in itself. But to move on and helm critical and commercial hit after critical and commercial hit is something else entirely-it’s a legacy. It’s a place few artists get, a place of such comfort and confidence, the ability to create what you want, develop the projects you want. It’s a luxury few can afford, and something tells me, looking back at the failure of his first film, the precipice of defeat on which his career teetered, that David Fincher understands.

By Lucas Dispoto

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