Interview: David Fincher discusses 'The Social Network,' 'Fight Club,' and the digital age
The last interview of the year was, as it turns out, one of my favorites.
David Fincher's offices aren't in the part of town you'd expect, and from the outside, you'd never realize one of Hollywood's most in-demand filmmakers was working there. On the Thursday before the end of the year, a small group of journalists were invited to spend some time talking to Fincher about the upcoming Blu-ray release of his latest film, "The Social Network." An early copy of the Blu-ray was messengered over so I could check it out before sitting down with him, and I took that seriously, since there's no reason to ask him a question that he answers in the film's supplemental section. I also noticed that they beep him for language several times on the commentary, and also once when he gave out Aaron Sorkin's e-mail address. In the following interview, Fincher is not, in fact, beeped, so be warned.
I watched the film with his commentary track, and then watched the feature-length documentary on the making of the film that was put together by David Prior. It's an excellent look inside the development and creation of the film, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants an unvarnished look at big-budget studio filmmaking.
As I prepared to head into the conference room to chat with Fincher, I saw Steve Weintraub from Collider on his way out. He ran his interview just before the New Year break, and it's interesting how there are a few quotes that Fincher worked his way around to in both interviews, things that are very obviously on his mind. We covered a lot of different ground, though, and reading his, then reading mine, you get a good portrait of where Fincher's head is at right now.
In his conference room, he's got a blow-up print of a quote from Alexander Walker's response to his original infamous "Fight Club" review, and I couldn't help but laugh when I read it:
"It is not simply the unbelievable brutality of the film that caused critics to wonder if Rupert Murdoch's company, 20th Century Fox, which produced it, knew what it was doing. The movie is not only anti-capitalist but anti-society and, indeed, anti-God."
At the time, Fincher laughed about the outraged reviews, and was quote in response to Walker's piece saying, "Fuck, I'd like to put that on a one-sheet. I would! I read that and I was like, 'I'd go see that movie in a heartbeat.'" It's that quote he confronts every time he sits in his conference room, and when I read it, I laughed. I told him about the e-mail Ebert sent me after I published my review of the film originally, telling me "You fell for that macho wheezy porn trick."
Fincher grumbled, "Fucking Ebert," as we took our seats, and just like that, we were off. "That movie is just not violent enough to have created the stir it did, you know?"
"I understand," I said. "I had visceral reaction the first time I saw it, and I would imagine if you had the opposite version of that reaction, it would shake you up."
"Well, first of all, that movie was sold in such a kind of a retarded, salacious way, so it was already like the context was being abused. Instead of it being satire, it was sold like it was for underground fighting what "Fast and the Furious" was for street racing." He shook his head, irritated. "It not that we were advocating that, and the position is fairly well stated in the movie that Tyler's…"
He caught himself getting revved up and he laughed. "You know, I was very cautious to say that this Nietzschean uberman is a great idea for high school seniors and college sophomores, but it doesn’t really work in the real world beyond that, you know? And that’s kind of what the movie’s talking about. And the thing is, Chuck… have you ever met Chuck?"
That would be Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. I told Fincher I have not met him, but have corresponded a bit with him online. "He's so fantastically broad-minded, and he has such a huge world view that for people to misconstrue that’s what it was just shows you how incredibly closeted and narrow their thinking was," he said.
I had prepared some general topics for discussion based on the commentary and the documentary, and this look back at the outrage around "Fight Club" actually led right into one of the questions I had prepared. I told Fincher how impressed I was with Brenda Song in the behind-the-scenes material. "She’s on fire. She’s amazing. Like just a great presence. And you guys took some heat over her character in the film. And when you get criticism on something like that being anti-Asian or anti-woman or something like that, and then you turn around and you look at how strong she is as a performer and the choices that she’s making on-set and how she gets the role completely and understands what she’s playing, does that…are you able to shake off that kind of an attack because you know how completely ungrounded it is? Or do you feel like that’s criticism that, okay well now somebody said this and now I have to respond to this?"
Fincher considered it for a moment. "Did I respond to that? I don’t know that I did."
I replied that Aaron Sorkin had definitely addressed the criticisms, and Fincher sighed. "Yeah," he said, "I told him… look, I never felt that that was worth responding to. You can’t look at anything from every angle."
I responded that "The Social Network" is a film about how things look from several angles and how elusive truth can be when you're talking about people and personality. "Besides," I said, "does showing something in a film automatically mean you’re endorsing it or in any way glamorizing it? Is it simply possible to show something? I mean it goes into that idea that all film characters have to be likeable or that your lead always has to be a guy you like."
Fincher leaned forward at this point, and you can tell when he's engaged by a question. He digs into it. In this case, I obviously poked at something that was on his mind already. "That’s the perception of people who are trying simply to separate you from the money in your wallet. Yes, if what you’re doing is trying to…if I’m just trying to get you to go into a theatre and give me your money, then I’ve got to be thinking in terms of what are you going to want to see nine times out of ten? What’s the kind of stuff you like? If you don’t look at movies that way, if you don’t look at a movie as this is just supposed to separate somebody from their ten bucks and you think of it as something other than just a diversion for people on any given night of the week, then I think you’re…then you’re doing something else. And so to address people who are criticizing something on the basis that it doesn’t fit the mold of well, 'That’s not very entertaining.' People who say, 'I actually was kind of disturbed by that.' And my problem is, I’m going to say, 'I’m so happy.' You know? That’s what it was designed to do. You know, the whole notion that Mark Zuckerberg is unlikable is…I mean I don’t even dislike him on '60 Minutes'. I question whether or not he’s the guy who should be speaking on his own behalf, but I question that with a lot of people, you know? So that isn’t making him an asshole to me. I actually think he’s fantastically compelling. In the way that I think that Rupert Pupkin is fantastically compelling and Travis Bickle is fantastically compelling and Jake LaMotta is fantastically compelling."
I laughed. "Your'e naming some of my favorite characters from my favorite movies. People that I’m endlessly interested in as I watched them."
He nodded, enjoying himself at this point. "And that was the theme. I find that when somebody gives you a script like this and you read it and they say to you, as Amy did, 'We’re making this movie. We’re making this movie. And, sure, there are some caveats. It has to be made for X,Y, and Z,' but when you counter that with, 'Well, I would make this movie but don’t come crying if it’s not Russell Crowe. And know that I can’t make this movie for $20 million. It’s going to cost double that. And you better be prepared to green-light it right now because if we’re not shooting by September, I’m not making this movie.' And when you have this moment in time where somebody says, 'We want you,' and you say, 'I want to do it but I’m going to set up some hurdles for you'. And she says, 'I can jump those hurdles.' And you go, 'Okay, great.' That's when somebody comes along and says, 'Is he likable?'"
Fincher paused, shaking his head. I agree with him. That question is the bane of my existence as a writer. Fincher continued, "It’s like, 'Let’s go back to that original thing which is we’re making this movie.' You know what I mean? I feel odd about this because I see what Aronofsky went through in order to get 'Black Swan' made, or you know how they had to cut the budget in 'The Fighter' back, and I know that these movies get made in this way where it’s like they almost get made in spite of the circumstances surrounding the business in that period of time. And I wish I could say that we had to struggle, but you know, Scott Rudin said, 'It’s the best script I ever read and I want you to do it,' and I said, 'I’ll read it tonight.' And I read it and I was like,'Holy shit. Aaron Sorkin hit it out of the fucking park. And I didn’t know any of this stuff and I can’t imagine being anything other than endless interested in listening to these people talk. And I think you’re going to be able to find a fantastic cast of kids that maybe you’ve never seen before, which there’s nothing greater than going to a movie and having a revelation like that.' And the studio says,'When can you get started?' I feel bad for everybody who had the Sisyphean effort of getting their movie made, but we didn’t. We were like on God’s highway. All the lights were green."
That hasn't always been the case, of course. When I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1990, "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" had already been in development for a while. That was a rock a lot of people tried pushing up a hill before David Fincher finally figured it out. "Yeah, and it was a drag," Fincher said. "It wouldn't have gotten made without three or four people at both Warner Brothers and Paramount who looked at it on paper and said, 'It doesn’t make any sense but by all means.' So even when you have that support, it can be really difficult because that was a movie that could have cost $100 million more than we spent on it and so it was tough. That movie was tough. This movie wasn’t a cake walk but you know, when you have a script like this you get to go to work going… there’s that line in… was it Ira Levin's 'Deathtrap'? Where he says, 'It’s so good even a talented director can’t even fuck it up.' That was this."
Most conversations about "The Social Network" by necessity come back around to Aaron Sorkin's script, and it looks in the behind-the-scenes material like Sorkin was a major presence on-set for the film. "That’s what you get with Aaron. You can’t send him away," Fincher said. "That's television. The writers have control because in Aaron's case, the pages don’t come out of his hand until he comes out of his trailer, you know, comes out of his office. And to be honest, I’ve never worked that way before and there were things that I disagreed with him on, like what was going on or the level of complexity of what was going on. But, you know, I think he’s a voice just as the same way that Justin’s a voice and that Andrew was a voice and Armie was a voice."
Just mentioning Armie Hammer bent the gravity of the conversation in that direction, and Fincher professed to being a converted fan of the young actor. "We searched high and low to find a Winklevoss who wasn’t a punchline. We needed a guy who could go, 'Because we’re gentlemen of Harvard,' and we would go, 'That’s interesting,' instead of going, 'You fucking dope.' That’s the key. That’s what took four months to find. To find that guy where you go, 'Okay, he could be a Kennedy and he’s chiseled and he has an air of good breeding without the arrogant condescending side.' I needed somebody who, for all of his advantages, he’s got to be able to overcome his upbringing."
I commented how much I enjoyed the tension between Fincher's sensibilities and Sorkin's that seemed to be a big part of the reason "Social Network" works. "I met Aaron a couple of years ago when he was just out meeting people and it was after 'Charlie Wilson's War,' and I had read that script. I don’t remember why. I think Pitt wanted me to read it. And I read it and then Mike Nichols got involved, and I remember seeing the movie and having, you know, nothing but appreciation for the verbal dexterity of it. And feeling like… I’m probably more of a fascist than…" He stopped, laughing at his own description of himself. "I like to think that I’m sort of a Sean Penn fascist. Sean has this great thing where he says, 'It’s not that I’m for gun control. I just want people who think like me to have the guns.' I think if there was anything that Aaron and I kind of differed on, in terms of how we were thinking about the film, he was much more comfortable with the 'Revenge of the Nerds' being the kind of muscle, that it was like these are the disenfranchised, these are the outsiders, these are the guys with their nose pressed against the glass watching the cool people finger bang. And I felt like, that’ll get you through Facesmash, but there’s something else to this guy that is way more than vaginal retribution."
It's interesting watching a guy as smart as Fincher struggle to find the exact way to phrase something. I sort of think if he could sum it all up in two sentences, he wouldn't have made a 120-minute film to explore these ideas. "This is about… this is about… this is a guy who… you know, it’s kind of like I made this joke and it’s haunted me now. But I believe that you’re one of the people who will understand what it’s intended to say, which is I wanted to make the 'Citizen Kane' of John Hughes movies. That’s not to say we’re making 'Citizen Kane.' But specifically, the 'Citizen Kane' of John Hughes movies. So, yes, it is a coming of age movie. They are kind of dorky teens figuring this shit out between them. And there’s no real intervention on behalf of adult society, you know? It’s kind of like they’re forced to figure it out for themselves."
One of the things that I've always been fascinated by is the history of how filmmakers have approached the technical issue of shooting one actor playing a pair of twins. There's the basic can't-go-wrong techniques of something like "The Parent Trap," but over the years, we've seen variations like the aiming-for-invisible approach of Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers" or the in-your-face-what-the-hell impact of Zemeckis on the "Back To The Future" films. As I asked Fincher about it, he seemed bemused at my interest in this particular topic, and when I mentioned the Cronenberg and Zemeckis examples, he said, "Well, come on… there's a lot of motion control in 'Dead Ringers,' to be fair."
And he's right. There is. But Cronenberg never oversold the trick. He just tried to build a space where Irons could give two very real performances, where a lot of times, people oversell the trick to make sure you notice it. The reason I'm so impressed by "The Social Network" is that when I saw the film for the first time, I didn't know Cameron and Tyler were played by the same person. I just accepted it completely. I thought they found twin brothers to play the part. "I love that," Fincher said. "Here's the trick. If you're backing out of a technique, you’re going to get fucked every time. If you say, 'Well, we'll just do it all blue screen, it’s all going to be blue screen.' Eventually people look at 500 blue screen shots, they’re going to get it. If you’re working forward from 'I've got 19 arrows in my quiver. I know I can do it split-screen. Sometimes we put the element that should have been rotoscoped, and instead of putting it in the middle of the… we would shoot that blue screen, instead, so you just keep changing it up so that people never have a chance to get used to looking at one thing. 'Okay, well, look at the front of his collar. That looks like green screen. It looks like it’s fringing a little bit. Okay, now look at his hair.' There are so many things that you can fuck yourself on when you go, 'This is how I’m going to do it.' When you go in and go, 'Look, I’m going to stage the scene. I’m going to look at it. If we have to, we’ve got a 4'x6’ blue screen we can bring in. If we don’t, we’ve got somebody who can roto it. If we have to do a move on it, you know, bring in a motion control camera and do that. But for the most part we’re going to figure it out later.' Because I know what elements are going to be needed given what the technique is and so I can just go, 'You know what? When he slides the thing over, I’m going to flip the whole table. So that’s fine. So he’s just going to do this, so I just need you at that point that you slide the paper over and you just have to look down, I’ll cue it, we’ll hear it playback and you’ll hear it actually slide across and I’ll just remind you to look down at it.' We did a lot of that kind of stuff where we just wing it, you know? But, you know, it’s a digital universe. It’s a different thing than a hard matte line on 'The Parent Trap.'"
Josh Pence is the guy who played the other Winklevoss, giving Armie Hammer someone to play off, a real acting partner. Defining what he gave to Armie for the film and what he gave to David requires a more limber definition of "performance" than we've seen in the past. "That was the hardest conversation, having to say to somebody, 'I don’t want anybody else but you to be here so I can chop your head off and you can get no fucking credit. I need you to work as hard as you’ve ever worked, though.' It's hell on that guy because no one will ever recognize him." I talked to him about the way some actors and SAG react to performance capture and motion capture, making public statements about how all of this technology is going to replace actors. "That's just actors who haven't done it yet," he said.
I agree. If anything, I think it just gives actors more tools to bring to the table. "Let’s put it this way," Fincher said, "there was a time and place where everyone agreed however stupidly that we were going to find twins And we looked and we looked and we looked and we looked and we looked. And then finally I said, 'We’re not going to find twins. And I think this guy Josh, if he’ll agree to do it, and I think Armie could play both the guys and then Josh can play the body and I think that will work.' And the studio said, 'Oh my God. How much is that going to cost? I mean you’re talking about all this stuff.' I think it ended up costing a little over half a million dollars more, which they were shocked by. They were like, how’s that possible? You know what I mean? That’s the day and age we live in. We found stuff like we brought out motion control cameras and we had Armie walk into a room and be the A side of it and we’d take what we like. And Josh will be there. And then we’d have Armie walk in and be Josh and do the same thing. And what we’d end up doing was once you track the background against itself, you don’t need motion control because you’ve got the same books, same bookcases. All that stuff’s there. It’s going to register to itself. The only thing you have to make sure of is that the guy doesn’t go over where he's supposed to be, because all you need is, you know, a matte line around him of the background printed through itself. So you end up with this thing where you have, you know, in some cases you take the camera, flip it on its side and shoot vertically and go, 'Just don’t let that motherfucker break the line,' and then wherever he was, reconcile the background and then sometimes at the top or the bottom, you’d have way more extra than you’d need. And you’d find the background, track that and then just go in and roto that. And it can be a really sloppy roto. It’s easy."
What I love about Fincher's work is just how much technical control he has over his image, but how organic his films feel in those spaces he creates. It's hard to do. Guys who design their films as meticulously as Fincher risk leeching all the life from the stories they tell, but he manages to make it work. "My background in visual effects is always how you give that guy what it is that he wants and how to make it exist in the real world. Like how do you make it as real as you can possibly make it? And again I think, I’m not saying a different way of working because some composers write music to be heard, and some composers write music to support the film. Some actors want to be noticed and some actors are perfectly happy to be part of something bigger. When you’re talking about putting an ensemble together and as much as you love Rashida Jones and this and that, the question is, "Are you going to be okay being an extra for fucking 12 days of shooting? I mean you are literally going to be handed a piece of paper and you’re going to tuck them into things and you’re going to write things on a fucking Post-It note. That’s what you’re doing. Are you okay with that?' You know? Because you want that person. You want that face. You want that voice when she finally speaks, you want somebody who’s a fucking Harvard graduate, who’s like… this is somebody. She’s a formidable actor. And so you’re cobbling all this stuff together. How do I make this world as real as I can make it or make it support the most realistic interpretation of this wholly unreal script where everybody has a 162 IQ and they’re ranting at each other, you know, at 50 mph. I look at that as what you’re juggling. That’s what your job is. That’s where you start."
When I saw "The Social Network," it was one of the very first screenings of the finished film, and Fincher was already on a plane on his way to Sweden to start work on "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I asked him if he ever watches the work of his peers, and if so, whose work inspires and impresses him. "I don’t watch as many movies as I should or as many as I used to or as many as I’d like to." It's a common complaint with filmmakers. He explained that he likes to build momentum on a film and not have outside thoughts get in the way. "Part of what you’re doing is intention based and part of it is response based. You know, you have an intention for what the scene’s about like how he should sound when he says this and how that line should be read and no one can do it the way you have in your head. So then it becomes whoa, that was interesting. It’s not what I had in mind but that’s useful. Like there’s stuff that Jesse would do that I would look at and go, it’s not what I saw but that’s in the movie. Like when he gets flustered and stuff, I would go well I really didn’t see Zuckerberg as a guy who’s flustered like that and yet there’s something about it that’s kind of so human. Like great, you know? So part of it is you’re trying to cage the amoeba. But also part of it is allowing it to take you places and, you know, I’m probably… I’m always impressed by shit that I didn’t have to be there for, you know? I watched the opening titles of 'Black Swan,' and I go, 'Fuck. She’s doing that. She’s doing that.' And there's all the lens flares, and… I hate hand-held, but I thought that it was exactly right. And it was like the sound of the shoes squeaking and then whatever was going on with that slightly compressed shutter thing, I don’t know… there was something out of phase or frequency on it. It was just like all of a sudden you weren’t aware of a camera as much as I was just aware of like her skin and her muscles, you know? And I’m seeing her ribs and I’m seeing this effort. And you know I’m always one of these people, I try not to watch a movie star's eyes because it’s so easy to be seduced, you know? You don’t want to, like, don’t get caught in the headlights. Don’t be a deer. You know, you want to be able to kind of see how they’re occupying this space. And as I'm watching, I don’t know what I would have thought in dailies. I might have thought, 'Oh, should I have cut her upper shoulder a little bit more?', you know what I mean? There’s something that you have when you’re not involved with it and you just go, whoa, it’s so exciting. I like that aspect of it but then there’s also other things, you know, where I’ve been involved in projects that get made by other people and you go see the movie and you just go, 'What the fuck? All these people tell me my movie sucks? Look at that!' You know?"
The regatta scene, cut to the Trent Reznor arrangement of "Hall Of The Mountain King," is one of the film's most striking moments. It was also the last thing that FIncher filmed on July 4th, 2010. I told him that putting off a sequence like that to the end of the shoot is always a crap shoot, and in Rinzler's phenomenal The Making Of 'The Empire Strikes Back' book, Lucas kept putting off Yoda until the very end of the shoot, never knowing for sure if he'd work. Fincher laughed. "Can you even imagine how fucking balls out George Lucas was at that point in his life? He stakes his whole house, takes his entire bank account, pushes it to the center of the table, and says, 'Yoda is a Muppet.'" He started laughing again. "'I need 10,000 pounds of fucking baking soda. Get me the best stop-motion guy in the world. And get me Frank Oz.' You go, dude. That's so sick."
I asked what Fincher would have done if the regatta had been rained out or cancelled or if something had gone wrong with the shoot and they just didn't get it. He smiled, then put on a fake sad face. "I would have cried and cried and cried." As I laughed, he continued. "No, we shot for five days. We shot the actual Regatta for two days. We shot the day leading up to the finals and we shot the day of the finals. What I didn’t understand was, you know, there’s 100 boats or 300 boats to begin with and then they’re in these heats and then people start going away. So you have 250,000 people on the first day and by the time it’s done it’s down to the 16 races that are going to define the finals. You’re talking about the stands are filled with a couple thousand people. So we watched and my God it’s like the Superbowl and then like the next day it’s like half the Superbowl and the third day it’s like a quarter of the Superbowl. The problem with that scene was not what are we going to get? The problem with that scene, and I shake my fist at Aaron jokingly was like, fuck you man. How can you write a scene in a movie that comes in the middle of a race if we don’t understand the importance of it? We don’t understand where we are. It’s not like 'Rocky.' The guy’s been training. Suddenly you see him in the ring with Apollo Creed. That makes sense."
He shook his head as he continued. "It’s like you don’t know where you are. You don’t know what the stakes are. You don’t even know how sculling works. And I honestly couldn’t shoot live-action material. Like all the stuff with the guys rowing in the boats was shot with Reds on the camera mounts, so all the crowds advancing, all that stuff is CG. But we couldn’t do the motion capture because we couldn’t tile it in. We didn’t have enough time. We had to finish something in like nine days. I got sick and we ended up having to go a day over and I needed the oar lock shots. So Bob Wagner went out shot all the shots in the last day. I got on a plane and by the time I landed in L.A. the footage had been sent over the Internet and they were cutting it upstairs. So we had two days to go, and we had a piece of music. We’re cutting to a piece of music and then we went okay, time to put it all together. And it was thousands of photographs and thousands of frames and mattes had to be generated."
Finally, I asked Fincher about his longtime habit of using David Prior as the guy who puts all the home video materials together for DVD and Blu-ray. "Did you see his movie?" Fincher asked. He's referring to this:
And the answer is, yes, I've seen it, and yes, it's great. Prior is a talented guy, and he's been with Fincher for a while now. I asked if he feel comfortable at this point just letting Prior shoot everything, because not many filmmakers are able to relax enough for that. "I’m going to sound remiss as a control freak," Fincher replied, "but there are certain things I just turn over to David. For example, there’s some stuff in the documentary that shows me berating some boom operator, and Scott Rudin called me and was like, 'Do you want to be seen doing this?' And I said, 'Should I ever do that again? Probably not. It’s probably not nice and unnecessary, so maybe it’s a good thing it’s on the DVD. Maybe now I’ll fucking remember. And Prior was like, "Look, you should show movies being made. People need to see a real document on the things, how it got made."
I mentioned how little patience I have with most studio-safe EPKs, and he nodded. "That was something that we always say. 'As long as you’re not doing an EPK.' I hate that stuff. And I also think it’s wholly fraudulent. It’s a fucking circus, man, you know? And it’s a bunch of trucks and a bunch of people shoveling shit and it goes from one city to the next and you do the best you can and you know the most important thing is make sure none of the trapeze artists die."
I told him that my favorite part of the documentary was how much time is spent listening to the way Fincher speaks to his actors. He's far more theatrical than many film directors, and I think he offers his actors some real insight and support in the conversations we see on the disc. "I’ve never seen anybody else direct, so it’s a weird thing. I’ve seen Steven Spielberg, a little, and Wolfgang Peterson to a certain extent and a couple of other people, but I don’t really… I've never really been on anybody else’s set so I don’t really know. I kind of feel like you’ve got to make your own way, and you need to be willing to change it up. When you’re at a table with six 25-year-olds, it’s a really different thing than when you’re opposite Morgan Freeman. You know, Morgan Freeman's not bad at his job. You know there are certain great things about working with people you’ve never worked with before. And there’s also really great things about working with people you have worked with before because you don’t even have to say words. I like the way that I work and on certain things that Prior photographs that I’m embarrassed about… oh, well. Blu-ray will probably live on to be the most accurate document of what the movie was."
As we wrapped up and I packed away my laptop, we talked about the Blu-ray of "The Game" that should be coming in spring of 2011, and we talked a bit about the days of laserdisc, when we would look at CAV transfers of films and think "This is as good as it's going to get," and we talked about how much he hopes he can get "Heavy Metal" made with cohorts like James Cameron and Guillermo Del Toro, something that he describes as "very cool" but that has been difficult to get off the ground so far. It was a great conversation, and a nice way for me to wrap out last year and kick off this year publishing.
"The Social Network" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on January 11.