February 3, 2011 / 4:33 AM / 8 years ago

The curious case of David Fincher

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - David Fincher points to a rifle placed strategically on a desk in his vast Hollywood studio.

Director David Fincher poses in Paris, January 22, 2009. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The weapon is “a reminder of the consequences,” he quips, cryptically.

It’s early morning on New Year’s Day and the director’s latest film, “The Social Network,” is just embarking on a roller-coaster ride that will see it win the top critics awards, then lose at the all-important producers, directors and screen actors guild awards — mainly to “The King’s Speech.”

Fincher is in a mood to provoke. Perhaps the rifle is metaphorically aimed at awards voters, or any studio executives who take him on — though right now, few would dream of it.

A year and a half since he agreed to turn the improbable story of a billionaire computer nerd into one of the most original pictures in years, Fincher, 48 — coolly commanding even in jeans and a black sweatshirt — has become a superstar, flooded with offers for projects like his upcoming “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

It’s an odd twist for a director with a lifelong disdain for authority, especially short-sighted Hollywood suits. Amid a successful stint as a music video and commercials director he was handed the reins of his first film, “Alien 3,” aged 27. But he battled 20th Century Fox so hard that he got fired three times. The resulting 1992 film was a work neither side liked. To this day, he hates to talk about it.

“ANARCHIST’S MENTALITY”

“He was very successful at a young age and had people try to take it away from him, and he knows what that feels like,” “Social Network” producer Scott Rudin says. But it still didn’t make him toe the line. “He has an anarchist’s mentality,” Rudin adds. “He likes to blow up systems.”

Time and again Fincher refuses to do what’s expected, declining interviews, even poking at the people who most support him.

“I’ve been frustrated by what society wanted from me,” he acknowledges, though he’s hardly the confessional sort. “I flip through catalogs and don’t see anybody who’s like me. Flip through a J.C. Penney catalog and you go, ‘None of these people hold any of my concerns.’”

But aren’t they the very people who watch his movies? He shrugs, indifferent. “The comfort zone,” he says, is when they love and hate his work in equal measure. He recalls attending the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s 1982 release “The King of Comedy” and thinking, “This is fantastic — to take an audience to a place where they feel genuine discomfort!”

There was no shortage of discomfort among the audiences who saw Fincher’s “Seven” (1995) and “Fight Club” (1999), films that in many ways defined his work: dark, visually audacious, emotionally distant.

BITTERSWEET “BUTTON”

After the relative disappointment of the 2007 thriller “Zodiac” ($33 million, domestically), Fincher ventured into the mainstream with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), Eric Roth’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slender short story about a man who ages backwards.

Button earned 13 Academy Award nominations and raked in $127 million at the domestic box office. The film drew mixed reviews but reminded the industry that stars like Brad Pitt — who also appeared in “Seven” and “Fight Club” — often delivered their best performances for Fincher. And yet its success was bittersweet, not because the film won only three Oscars but because it left him utterly, ineffably drained.

“It took six years to get that through the starting gate,” he sighs. “It was just exhausting.”

The desire to avoid that exhaustion came into play with “Social Network,” a Sony project initially developed as a directing vehicle for its writer, Aaron Sorkin.

After making sure Sorkin was willing to step aside, “I said, ‘I want to make the movie, but I don’t want to make it next spring. We have to be as close to ground zero with this phenomenon as we can. We have to be in Cambridge in the fall.’”

Sony agreed. Following the usual back and forth — the studio wanted to make the film for $25 million; Fincher insisted on $42 million — shooting began three months later. Unlike “Zodiac,” where Fincher and Sony had parted ways over casting, the studio accommodated the director’s wishes.

“I said, ‘You gotta have 20- to 25-year-old kids. You have to give me free rein to find the best people for these parts,’” he remembers. “Now, I said this on ‘Zodiac’ and I got the list and it’s Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise. This time, Amy (Pascal, Sony Pictures co-chairman) wanted me to meet people in the Sony fold. I said, ‘Let’s cast it widely.’ They came back and said, ‘We get it. Go.’”

MARKETING RESISTANCE

“Go” meant allowing Fincher to shoot Sorkin’s 162-page script uncut. After 68 days of filming in Boston and Los Angeles, when Sony saw his rough edit — missing only the Henley regatta sequence that would later be filmed to fit Trent Reznor’s prewritten music — “They didn’t ask for any changes,” he says.

The studio’s marketing executives were more resistant.

“(Key art designer) Neil Kellerhouse came to us with one that had the tagline, ‘Punk prophet genius billionaire thief,’” Fincher recalled. “It was fantastic, but for about four months it was, ‘You can’t do that! We’re not going to get involved in a lawsuit!’”

Fincher smiles. “I wanted ‘Punk prophet genius billionaire Judas.’”

Now he’s back in the Sony saddle with “Dragon Tattoo,” the story of a bisexual hacker and the journalist she helps unravel a murder mystery. With location shoots in Stockholm, Zurich and England, it’s a giant project that Fincher initially avoided.

“I sort of felt, ‘F—-, I can’t see anybody wanting to make a movie of this scale about a tattooed, bisexual hacker in Stockholm.’ I can’t go tap-dancing again.”

Insiders who’ve seen Steven Zaillian’s script say it focuses far more on the title character, Lisbeth Salander, as played by “Social Network” love interest Rooney Mara, than the Swedish adaptation of the book.

“We got her an apartment in Stockholm and she kind of disappeared,” he says of Mara. “She learned how to ride a motorcycle and got all of her piercings and tattoos. Also, I asked her to learn how to skateboard because you need to stand like a 13-year-old boy. I said, ‘I don’t want you to stand like a girl.’”

ACTRESS TOPLESS

Fincher clicks on a photo he’s planning to use for the “Dragon” poster. It shows Daniel Craig’s journalist character half-hidden behind Mara, who’s looking directly into the camera. Her hair is spiky, her face pierced with rings, her body covered in tattoos. It’s black and white and beautiful, but there’s no way any studio will ever let Fincher use it, as he knows.

Because Mara is naked from the waist up.

Two weeks later, Fincher is standing in a tiny trailer on the Paramount lot where he is filming “Dragon” on six soundstages.

Despite getting a huge budget and precisely the actors he’s wanted, Fincher seems frazzled, dealing with an overheated studio where air conditioning has to pump in cold air to simulate the bitter Swedish winter — an ironic contrast to his Swedish shoot, where the actors had to pretend the sun was baking while temperatures stooped to 40 degrees (4 Celsius).

He runs his hand through his hair, thinking. Even with that rifle back in his studio, should he ever need it, there are limits to what he can do.

“You’re in charge, but you’re not in control,” the famously controlling director says. “Anybody who thinks they are in control is nuts.”

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