After seeing Zodiac last February, I begged for an interview with David Fincher. My Paramount reps tried, but the reality is that Fincher has always been a little press shy. But now, with the Director’s Cut being released on DVD (buy it here from CHUD, or go to your local store right now!), Fincher is being unusually available. Which is how I managed to get on the phone with him.
I always expect press-shy people to be bad interviews, but Fincher was great. He was relaxed, funny, open and honest. And as you’ll see at the end of this interview, when I said goodbye after a half hour (the usual phoner with a big name like Fincher is from 10-20 minutes, tops), he was surprised we were done so soon. I could have talked for another half hour easily, but I didn’t want to monopolize the guy’s whole day.
If you haven’t seen Zodiac yet, there’s no longer any excuse. It was my #2 film of the year, and it’s a movie that I think is going to be regarded as a major work from this decade. And it’s out on various home video formats right now. Once you’re done with this interview, buy it!
When Zodiac first came out and you were doing press rounds at the time, a number of interviewers noted that you asked them how they thought audiences would react to the movie. Looking back now, what’s your take on how audiences reacted to Zodiac and its box office performance?
I don’t know. I think for probably a smaller group than anybody would want to build a studio distribution wing around, the movie worked. When a movie makes 13 million the first weekend, you’re not getting enough people in the theater to begin with. There are people who really like the movie and there are people who who would rather see something as involved in character and that takes so long on TV. But I don’t know, I don’t know how to answer that question.
The original talk about Zodiac was that it was an end of 2006 Oscar movie, and then it ended up being released at a time when a lot of people thought the studio was taking it out of the race. Now at the end of the year the film has re-emerged and people are paying attention to it, it’s making top ten lists. Do you think the film was hurt by the release date? Would it have done better at the end of the year?
I’m the last person to ask about that stuff. Would I have liked to have seen it out last year? Yeah. At the time the prevailing wisdom was, it’s a very crowded market place, we don’t have enough time to get really really good materials and put them in place to sell this movie at the end of 2006. We said okay, if you don’t think you have the time to do as good a job as you think you can do… it’s the same thing with me, I don’t want the studio coming to me and saying, ‘We know you say you need 26 weeks to finish this, but really we want to give you six.’ That doesn’t serve anybody’s best interest. At the end of 2006 both studios felt like the best place was what we later heard referred to as the dumping ground of March [laughs]. You agree to this stuff and then you hear somebody go, ‘Wow, they’re dumping your movie in March?’ You go, ‘Well… yeah… I guess so.’
I think there are people who are very wise and trusted advisors at the highest studio levels who said it’s not an Academy movie. It’s too lurid, and it’s a different kind of a thing, not whatever an Oscar movie is, that kind of righteous, upstanding, earnest, people overcoming affliction movies or whatever. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. I’ll take the compliment that people are still talking about it.
It’s so rare to walk out of a movie and to feel like I know more about a subject than I did walking into it. Watching Zodiac is like the experience of reading a really absorbing non-fiction book, and I know that part of it for you was about honoring the people who were the victims of the Zodiac, but you also have so many details, so many facts, you take it to such a level where there’s so much information… why was that important to you?
I don’t respect movies that treat me like I don’t have the attention span or mental faculty to follow… it’s one thing to talk about Dave Toschi’s fall from grace in an oblique and generic way. I can answer that question in a couple of different ways. I wanted the movie to take its toll on the audience, I wanted the audience to feel like they went through it, like they went through the ringer with these guys, and I didn’t know how to do that because these guys didn’t run across rooftops and fall off fire escapes. In their quest to bring the Zodiac to justice they followed the trail of breadcrumbs as far as it would take them, and they kept pushing and kept pushing when there were crackpots coming out of the woodwork. I felt like I didn’t want to make one of those movies where you do montage/montage/montage and you get the idea that they went to the mat with this, that it took its toll – I wanted the audience to feel that. You know, in retrospect you look at it and say maybe audiences who are looking for entertainment on a Friday night don’t want that toll taken on them. I felt like anything less than that would be doing the story and people involved a disservice. You could do it as something compressed, where you get the gist of it, and we would have shots of Jake [Gyllenhaal] half asleep and you would have those obligatory shots where the boss says, ‘You look like shit.’ And in the end I still don’t feel like you get enough of what happens with his family, we don’t get enough with his wife and kids, but it was all we could do to get it in at under two hours and forty minutes. I feel like we took about as much time as you can really expect an audience to sit still for and we tried to make them feel what it was like to be invested in this circuitous run down the rabbit hole.
I read that your DP, Harris Savides, wasn’t all that excited to be shooting on digital. Is that true?
That would be putting it mildly. Harris is one of the five greatest cinematographers in the world today, and he wants to have his brushes. I don’t think he felt like he wanted us to be experimenting with his reputation, and I don’t think he had the full arsenal of tools that he’s used to. But by the same token, when you shoot a movie digitally and you see the movie projected the way it’s supposed to be, there are a lot of people who will tell you it feels like the way it was supposed to be seen.
What was his take on the final product? I thought the film was gorgeous, so I’m curious what he thought.
He was happy with it. I mean, it’s hard to gauge with Harris. Part of his humor comes from being the guy where you’re not going to hear about what’s amazing, you’re going to hear about what’s totally fucked up. He’s harder on himself than he is on anybody else, but he’s never going to say, ‘I love it,’ he’s going to say, ‘It’s totally fucked up. I wish I had never gotten out of bed. I wish I had never answered the call.’ Look, I think his assessment of it is absolutely correct: this technology is in its infancy. We’re not talking about it walking, we’re talking about can it hold its head up. We’re at that stage.
Your next film continues you on the bleeding edge of technology. You’re using the Contour system to do face replacement for Benjamin Button?
Well, it’s a hybrid of a lot of different things. I’m not really well versed enough to tell you how it’s being used or abused. I’m not really at liberty to discuss it, because I don’t know enough about it to speak definitively, but we’re using a lot of different techniques glued together in a potpourri of technological money flushing.
Well, that’s interesting – looking back at your career, even the films that might have been small movies in someone else’s hands become bigger and more technically complicated in yours. Zodiac is a procedural about a guy they never caught that took a long time to shoot and comes in at two forty-five; Panic Room could have been a really little movie but you built a whole apartment building and have these incredible CG shots. Are you the kind of filmmaker that can’t go small? Are you just drawn to go bigger.
I like the long way around. The argument for the way we made Panic Room was that you could either go to New York, find a brownstone and tent it and then tell all the neighbors to keep quiet for 12 weeks while you do that, or you can have control over the environment. I think what scared a lot of people away from that movie was that it was one house – what can you do with one house in one night? And I thought it could be an interesting notion. It’s definitely limiting. In dreaming up the things we wanted to do in the house and the way we wanted to talk about cinematic omniscience, that became the reason [we built it]. If somebody said to me, ‘You can’t build the house, you have to use this house in Queens, we’ll let you tent it,’ I would have said no. I wouldn’t make that movie, I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do.
The same thing with Zodiac: I’m sure somebody could have come up with a 30 day schedule for that movie. We could have done it off location in Vallejo, but that’s not the movie we wanted to make. The movie we wanted to make was 115 days and it was a lot of locations, and some of them was Northern California and some of it was Southern California. Yes, we had to pack everybody up and move to Culver City for these two scenes, but it’s cheaper than building a set. So there’s different ways of doing it, and you make those choices based on the movie you want to see.
There are a lot of people who will tel you that I like to make things more complicated than they need to be, that I like to make things hard on myself, but those aren’t the people seeing the movie in their head before it’s filmed. They’re just looking at the trucking waybills.
It’s been almost a decade since Fight Club. It’s a film that’s grown on home video and been discovered by a lot of people. Sometimes I’ll meet people who are huge fans of the movie and when I talk to them I wonder if they actually got the film. What’s your take on that? Do you think people ‘get’ the movie?
Yeah, for the most part. I’ve had waiters at restaurants serve me dinner and say, ‘You’re money’s no good here, sir.’ [laughs] You hope they got it, and you go wash your mouth out just in case. I’ve never experienced… I’ve had a couple of run ins with third graders at my daughter’s school and they say, ‘I love that movie!’ and I instantly question their parenting. This is one of those things that amuses me, when you test screen movies, you show it to 400 people in Chatsworth or someplace, and you keep them afterwards and you have these cards and you have the focus groups. They always say – and I have never had this not happen with any movie I have ever made – they always say, ‘I really liked it, but I don’t know that I can recommend it to any of my friends.’ Which I always love. You always want to say, ‘Look, you’re the most sophisticated person in your peer group. We know you get it.’ And that’s the thing that always freaks out movie studios, because what they really want is a recommend. You loved it and you’d recommend it.
We always get people saying they like it but couldn’t recommend it to their friends. We still get that, and rightfully so on Fight Club. That movie was really odd to me in that people took it really seriously and didn’t think the funny parts were intentionally funny. I think it’s intended to be funnier than people take it.
I meet people who get hung up on Tyler Durden and never make it past that, intellectually, to the final scene and what the Narrator realizes and they have this very 17 year old view of him, and I think the movie is about getting past that view.
It’s fascinating to me to see people get hung up just on the Tyler Durden part, and how cool he is.
They get the first half! [laughs] I find that there are people who love Seven who are way more dangerous than people who love Fight Club.
When you talk about Rendezvous With Rama, it reminds me of Zodiac, in terms of it being detail oriented. You talk about it in a way that sounds like you’re interested in hard science fiction, something very based in fact and physics.
Hard science fiction? My take on it is more of an adventure movie. First things first, you can’t do the movie where you’ve got the character with the southern drawl who wears a cowboy hat and chews tobacco, and you have the Olympic weight lifter eating wheat germ or whatever – the way that you differentiate characters in those kinds of movies is irksome, and I’m not interested in that. I like the fact that I don’t know substantive differences between the two astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I know them by where they part their hair, and that’s all you need. It should be through their actions rather than spending the first third going, ‘Well, he’s always chewing gum, so that gum’ll come in handy.’
There was that aspect of it, and the other aspect is that you’ve got a story that’s been pilfered for so many years and by so many fucking great, talented people who took a lot of these concepts to work in great movies, like Alien and Aliens and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Armageddon and Deep Impact. There’s a lot that Arthur C Clarke did that’s shown up in a lot of other works. I want to do it like John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. I want it to be a whole movie about you’ve got an extension cord that’s this long and you’ve got this many cylinders of oxygen – how far into this thing can you go? The notion that you’re so excited that you’re in danger of not having enough oxygen to go back because you’re taking in things no human being will ever see, that this thing is going to travel past Earth and it’s going to disappear into the sun and it’s going to be lost forever; you’re the satellite repairman who’s going to see it.
Talking and working on it for so long, we want to make a movie where kids will want to walk out of the theater and buy a telescope instead of an action figure. And it’s a technologically vast undertaking; it requires photorealistic CG the likes of which we haven’t seen yet, at a resolution level – it’s a movie I’d love to do in 3D or for IMAX, but in 4k. Insane resolution. It’s getting there, but it’s probably two hours and twenty minutes of 98% CG at a level – Beowulf is getting there, but you have to make the people [better]. You want it to be science fact-ion, not science fiction.
It’s a project that’s still there for you?
Yeah. I’m waiting. [Producer] Lori [McCreary] calls me up and tells me there’s another draft, and I’m always waiting her for when they’re happy with it to crack this puppy open.
Mr. Fincher, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk.
That’s it? Listen, do you have the new Zodiac disc?
Have you seen the documentaries? The Arthur Leigh Allen stuff?
It’s fantastic. You watch that documentary and there’s a lot of information that I know from the movie, which is great. Usually you see a historical film, a film based on true events, and you have to go home and look it up to find out which parts are absolute bullshit, and I never got that from Zodiac.
We kept going back over stuff and saying, ‘You know, we could consolidate this, but it won’t be as believable as it is when this guy tells it to you. And we could give this information to another character, but there’s something so great about meeting somebody who only gives you this one other facet.’ Ultimately that’s what the movie is all about. We just felt if we overconsolidate this stuff, you’d never get to the facts and you’d never feel like you lived through twenty fucking years of this.