Todd Doogan interviews director
David Fincher is a poet of images. Not many can do what he does (sometimes even he can hardly do what he does). He's known to do many takes of some of the most mundane things. But he always gets the shot that he wants to get. He's a filmmaker with a wide fan base, and he deserves it. I started following his filmmaking career after I saw his music videos, and couldn't wait to see what he was going to do with a wider screen. It helped that his first project was Alien 3. Although ill-fated, David seemed to learn a lot from that experience and, after a few years away from the big screen, he came back with a vengeance with Se7en. At that point, I wanted to be David Fincher. I may never get the chance to hold a big ass camera next to my face, but I can watch his movies and dream. I recently had the opportunity to talk with him about one of my favorite movies of his, Fight Club, and how it came to be. And that was just the starting point. So join us as we talk about the studio system, film preservation and what it's like to have the Internet waiting for you to pick your next project...
Todd Doogan (The Digital Bits): How did Fight Club first come about? How did the project find its way onto your desk? I mean, the novel wasn't exactly flying off the shelves before people heard it was going to be your next picture.David Fincher: Josh Donen, who is one of my agents now, was a producer at the time and he told me, "I've got this book and you've got to read it." I've got no time to read books, so I told him I couldn't.
And he just says, "Yeah, it's really thin. I'll send it over. You've got to read it." So I tell him I can't read it, and he reads me the Raymond K. Hessel scene, where Tyler puts the gun to the guy's head and tells him, "I know who you are. I know where you live. I'm keeping your license, and I'm going to check on you, mister Raymond K. Hessel. In three months, and then in six months, and then in a year, and if you aren't in school on your way to being a veterinarian, you will be dead." [Fight Club, chapter 20] I just said, "All right, you've got to send it over. I have to read this." So I read it that night and I flipped out. I was laughing so hard that I just said to myself, "I've got to be involved in this.
If anyone should make this movie, I should at least give it my best shot." So, I called and found out that Twentieth Century Fox had bought the rights. I didn't have a very good time with Fox the first time [Alien 3, anyone], so I was basically going thinking, "Oh, no that's over with." But Josh called and told me to just go in and talk with Laura Ziskin, and tell her that I wanted to make it. So I do - I go in and talk with Laura Ziskin and I told her, "Here's the movie I'm interested in making and I'm not interested in watering any of this shit down. I'm not interested in explaining, but I think I can make a movie that you don't need to have read the book in order to understand what's going on. I have no interest in making this anything other than what this book is,
which is kind of a sharp stick in the eye." She was very cool with it. We could have made it a three million dollar or five million dollar Trainspotting version, or we could do the balls-out version where planes explode and it's just a dream and buildings explode and it's for real - which is the version I preferred to do - and she backed it.The agreement I made with her was that I didn't want to have to see a committee about this, because I just didn't think a committee would be able to understand this. I said, "Laura, I'm looking you in the eye and Bill [Mechanic] I'm looking you in the eye and I'm telling you this is going to be a singular thing and it's going to be something you're going to be proud of, but I can't, we can't market test it.
There's no way we're going to be able to ask a focus group if they like it." They were totally cool with that. So I said, "Let's get a writer that we both agree on and let me go away. And when I come back to you, I'm coming back with a script and it's going to be the script I want to shoot. Instead of coming back and saying, "What do you think? Oh, yeah, I can change that." I'm coming back with a script I'm willing to kill for. But I'm also coming back with a budget and I'm coming back with a schedule and a cast."So I went away for about a year, and we came back. Poor Jim [Uhls] had to write something like five drafts, most of them for free. We went back to them [the studio] and we dropped this huge pile of stuff.
Actually, we took them out to dinner, Art Linson and I, and we took them into a back room at a restaurant in L.A. called Chianti. They came in and we gave them something like three bibles worth of stuff - a huge package. I said, "This is the movie. 67 million dollars, here's the cast, we have this many days of shooting, this is why, these are the stages we want at Fox. We don't know who's going to play Marla, but we think it's going to be this person - give us your answer tomorrow." They called back and said, "Okay."
Todd Doogan: Did you have final cut?
David Fincher: Well, no. We had in my agreement that I had final cut - that was in my deal. But when the [proposed] budget went over 50 million dollars,
Bill Mechanic said, "I can't do this to my shareholders. I can't give this to you because then I have no recourse when this movie goes over budget." I said okay, I understand that. But we had some little contractual loopholes, where - the title sequence was about $800,000. There's no reason for that, we could have done the sequence with white titles over black and then cut to Edward's face. So they held that out for the first six months. If we were going rampagedly over budget, and were getting careless about spending money, then they weren't going to give us the title sequence. But we stayed pretty much on schedule and pretty much on budget, and by the end, 10 or 12 weeks into the shooting, they finally said,
"Okay... you can start the title sequence." Ultimately, when Bill said, "I can't give you final edit over 50 million. If you can do it for 49.9 then you can have final cut," I said, "I couldn't do it for that, but I trust you and you trust me so let's do it."
Todd Doogan: That's pretty daring considering what happened with Alien 3.
David Fincher: Well, Bill Mechanic's a different animal. Here's a guy who bets on horses, not races. I think the only way you can do that job [studio head] is to have respect for the people that you hire and let them do what they do. There's no way you can go into the movie - if you read the book, there's no way you can go into this movie and think this is going to be Pretty Woman.
I think they [the Fox brass] fell in love with it, warts and all, in the dailies. A lot of people get back on their heals about this movie and feel assaulted. But I think if you take that assault over 20 weeks of shooting, then you have a better chance of people warming to it. Think about what happens in two hours after it downloads in front of you, and you get all "whooooahhh!" I think they really embraced the tone of it. So by the time we were done, they knew what this movie was. Although, the first time we screened it was, (laughs) it was amazing. We screened it for Laura, Bill and Arnon Milchan, who came in three weeks after shooting and put up half the money, so he became a partner in the whole thing.
I remember showing it to them... it was about 2:25 or 2:29 [running time] - about 15 minutes longer than it is now. By the time it was over and the lights came up, they were like... their mouths were open and their eyes were wide. That's a very awkward thing, when you show people who paid that much money for a movie like this. What are they going to say that's going to live up to it? They all said exactly the right thing: "I'll call you tomorrow." I thought, well we did it - we made it. Because that's the reaction we should be getting. You don't want people to jump up and go, "GOD, I love it!" You wouldn't believe it.
Todd Doogan: You'd look at them weird.
David Fincher: Yeah. You'd be like, "You love it? Seek therapy."
Todd Doogan: Now, there's no doubt that Fight Club was misunderstood by a lot of people, who initially took the violence at face value and thus condemned the film. What's your response to that?
David Fincher: I always saw the violence in this movie as a metaphor for drug use. I mean, is drug use glamorized in Pulp Fiction? I guess it is. But what you're trying to show in the character is that he has a need. There's sensuality to this need and there's sensuality in this need being fulfilled. So maybe that's wrong, but it's the only way to help talk about it. The violence gives him [Norton's unnamed character] the pain he feels. You're talking about a character who's ostensibly dead. You're talking about a guy who's been completely numb.
And he finally feels something and he becomes addicted to that feeling. He has a need to feel, and that need is fulfilled by the Fight Club. So there's a kind of parallel in a weird way to people who disappear into drugs. The secret society and the people who congregate there, the lingo, the code and all that stuff. The drug metaphor I felt was clearly obvious, but I never thought the violence was glamorized. I think there much more glamorization of violence in the kinetics of chaos and the ballet of chaos in The Matrix then there is in this film - but it didn't offend me in The Matrix. Maybe I'm the wrong person to ask about it. I thought Raging Bull was beautiful and I know it was talking about something that was ugly.
But I thought that the way it made that ugliness fascinating was making it beautiful. Otherwise, it's very difficult to talk about characters who are beyond redemption. I don't know if you'd get out of bed if you had to worry about how two hours of controlling everything somebody sees and hears can be misconstrued. You have no option, it is going to be misconstrued and it is going to offend someone - paintings are misinterpreted. There are things that you don't even know what the effect on an audience is going to be until you try it. You don't even know what it's going to be on yourself. A movie is a prototype. Every single one of them is a prototype - it's not the finished thing. You're spending a hundred million dollars on an airplane,
but you get a couple of runs in a wind tunnel. You don't get that with a movie. There are a couple of things that you think are going to work a certain way, and you think they are going to mean something. But as soon as you create the context for designing the moment, you create a context for defining the moment and it's very difficult for you to understand it out of that context. It's a tough thing. I did not think people would be as offended as they turned out to be with the movie. After the initial onslaught of derogatory comments about how offended they were, I could just not give a fuck. I've gotten beyond it pretty quickly.
Todd Doogan: P.T. Anderson has said that he thinks a film like Fight Club is "incredibly irresponsible" - his quote [Creative Screenwriting, Jan/Feb 2000 issue].
With today's climate of extremist P.C., and the fear of violent acts like Columbine and Oklahoma City happening again, what's your take on the effect of violence in the media and the catch all concern of "responsibility as a filmmaker" in that regard?
David Fincher: The nature of what inspires people and what repels people is all happening at once. There's no way to know. If we could understand abhorrent thinking, then it wouldn't be aberrant. If we could predict how people were going to behave, we wouldn't have Columbine. But to say that because we have Columbine then we have to be very careful about the ideas we put out there is inane - ludicrous. As for Paul Thomas Anderson, I don't know what he's talking about.
Todd Doogan: On a lighter vibe, from the perspective of a filmmaker,
how do you view the DVD format? Is it a chance to teach something about the filmmaking process to a larger audience than laserdisc had? Is it an opportunity to say more about a particular film that you've wanted to say? Is it a chance to revisit a film, and get the last word, so to speak, with a commentary and a director's cut and the like?
David Fincher: I don't think about it. I think there are many great attributes to DVD and many unfortunate ones. The most unfortunate being that this is probably the best chance of a pristine record of any motion picture out there. That's truly sad. I think that we owe it to our culture - and we owe it to ourselves - that we have some sort of record of our culture. When I saw Rear Window's recent resuscitation...
it's tragic. You look at that film and you go, "This may be the best restoration two million dollars can buy, but it's nowhere near good enough to be released again." It's horrifying. Not what they did - they did a lot of really great work, but it's horrifying that movies get to that place where they need such extensive restoration. So in that respect, DVD is truly a godsend. We will have a fairly permanent record of movies that are made these days. But should they compressed? Should we go 720 progressive or should it be 1080 progressive? And what does that mean in terms of owning copyright and being able to master? You've got the DLT manufacturer saying that the Phantom Menace hi-def television release was good enough for George Lucas,
so it's good enough for everybody. A lot of tragic decisions are being made based on where technology is right now, that are going to make DVD the final records of movies being made right now. I would bet you in 10 to 20 years that these are going to be the best records of these films that we have. I mean, unless someone decides to go in and start doing 4K scans of classic movies or movies that make over 100 million dollars.
Todd Doogan: Now, that's a sad commentary - that it takes 100 million dollars to make a movie important.
David Fincher: It really is. Look at Star Wars - you can't ask for a creator who's more interested in making that document a permanent thing. Then you look at the 20th Anniversary re-release, and you just go, "Wow.
That kind of looks crappy." They lost so much stuff here and there and reconstructed things and you look at it and go, "Ugh..." But that's the way things are going to go. And it's unfortunate. It's either all going disappear into dust, or someone is going to say, "Hey, there's a whole business out there that needs to be defined." Which is, once a movie has enough people who have seen it, and it becomes a part of the public consciousness, then we owe it to ourselves to have some sort of digital record. The look of a 4K scan, as good as it is, is different from the original thing. We're doing tests on Se7en right now, and we'll probably try and archive it to do a 4K record of the movie, and then do a timed-perfect 2K record that New Line would
have forever and would be updated onto new media. We're talking about a movie that's only five years old. Five years ago, they vaulted the negative - and recently did a hi-def transfer from the original negative - and now it's already getting scratched up and starting to decay.
Todd Doogan: Probably the thing we hear most from DVD fans is, "When is David Fincher going to go back and revive his original director's cut of Alien 3 on DVD?" Because, having seen that cut - your original vision for Alien 3 - a lot of people think it's a much better film than what was finally released in theaters.
David Fincher: I have no plans to revisit Alien 3. There was a kind of famous encounter about that, when footage was cut and I remember saying,
"Can we possibly save this stuff for the laserdisc?" And I was told by someone with great relish, "There are no plans ever to do that." You know... it was flawed from its inception and it was certainly flawed - actually pretty fucked up - well before we started shooting. So there you go.
Todd Doogan: What's it like having people constantly speculating about the next projects that you'll do? People have a certain project in mind when they think of a "David Fincher film." I think it would be maddening to know that every book I read, every CD I buy, every video I rent - suddenly it all becomes an aspect of "my next project."
David Fincher: I don't know, because I don't keep track of that stuff. Every once in a while, someone will call me up and say,
"So, you're gonna do this..." And I have to go, "No, no, no - we're just talking about it." I have that, but I don't know anything about Internet speculation. I only went into the Internet Movie Database once in the last couple of months, just to see what people had to say about Fight Club. It was interesting, when the movie came out. I thought, "Wow, we're getting some great reviews." And now it's remembered as being trounced. I was going back to see if I was sane - kind of taking stock after. Being inside the cyclone... things look different. I just fled town when it opened, so I had no idea what was going on. I did my "six months later" taking stock thing. That's the only stuff I do on the Internet. I use it like a librarian.
Todd Doogan: There are seven things that I know of that have you attached in some way...
David Fincher: Yeah, you know... I'm trying not to be a whore, but if it's something I'm interested in, I go, "Yeah, I'd like to throw my hat in the ring." But, I don't have anything yet.
Todd Doogan: How important do you think credit sequences are to a film? Yours are pretty impressive and seem to really set the tone in each of the films they appear in.
David Fincher: I don't know that they are. I love Woody Allen's stuff - I think they're fucking hilarious and they haven't changed over the years. I don't know if it's that important. I mean, looking back... in the end, would I rather not spend $800,000 on Fight Club? Yeah. Given that the film only grossed 100 million worldwide,
you kind of go, "Ah... maybe we shouldn't have." But for prosperity, they're kind of great. If they can help you set the tone - I just want something that starts the movie by going, "Everybody, open your fucking eyes and shut your mouths and get ready because we're moving. If you trip up, we're leaving without you." ---end--- The staff of The Digital Bits would like to thank David Fincher for taking the time to chat with us. Thanks also to Fox Home Video and Dorrit Ragosine. Be sure to read our full-length review of Fight Club on DVD, as well as Bill Hunt's interview with the producer of the set, David Britten Prior.Keep spinning those discs!Todd Doogantodddoogan@thedigitalbits.com