Interview: David Fincher
Although he made one movie about mad love—The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—David Fincher never seemed a director deeply concerned with intimate relationships between women and men. His primary subject has been masculinity as a struggle within the male psyche (Fight Club, The Social Network) or against a savage doppelgänger (Seven, Zodiac). What links these films to his wildly anticipated Gone Girl is his tragi-comic sense of the absurd, as it applies to the extreme actions human beings take to protect and project an image of self largely based in what old-fashioned existentialists termed false consciousness.
Adapted for the screen by Gillian Flynn from her 2012 best-seller, Gone Girl has engendered much speculation, especially among the novel’s six-million-plus readers. Indeed, no major film since Hitchcock’s Psycho has been such a minefield of spoilers, and for viewers who haven’t read the novel, that minefield begins less than halfway into the narrative. We have tried not to give any of the film’s surprises away. Gone Girl is about Amy and Nick Dunn, two not particularly distinguished journalists who met and married in New York just before the crash of 2008 cost them their jobs. They move to the Missouri small town where Nick grew up and which Amy, a New Yorker born and bred, finds intolerable. When Amy goes missing, Nick becomes the prime suspect in the investigation of her possible murder.
How did you go about adapting Gone Girl?
The book is many things. You have to choose which aspect you want to make a movie from. Most interesting to me was the idea of our collective narcissism as it relates to coupling, or who we show to our would-be mates and who they show to us.
The most dire part of the book then?
Well, maybe. It also is the most absurdly honest part, the part that touches us the most. And the newest thing in terms of what it illuminates about marriage and what may or not be going on behind closed doors.
Let’s talk then about the casting. Rosamund Pike is fabulous and she is exactly on the nose in terms of who I think Amy is. But the casting of Ben Affleck is a bit more surprising. Usually you work with actors who have great technical flexibility—the kind of actor who can speak a line 10 different ways and time his or her gestures and moves in relation to the words. It never struck me that Affleck is skilled in that way. But when I read about the casting, I thought that in another way he was right for Nick because he can be a blank slate on whom you can project just about anything.
He’s probably a lot craftier than you give him credit for. He’s wise as an individual, extremely bright, and he’s very attuned to story and where one is in the narrative. I think when any actor is miscast, it’s easy to blame them for trying to stretch. It’s difficult to be in the position where people are giving you a lot of choices. You have to be most thoughtful when everyone wants you. I enjoyed working with him immensely. The baggage he comes with is most useful to this movie. I was interested in him primarily because I needed someone with wit and someone who understood the stakes of the kind of public scrutiny that Nick is subjected to and the absurdity of trying to resist public opinion. Ben knows that, not conceptually, but by experience. Ben has all of that.
When I first met with him, I said this is about a guy who gets his nuts in a vise in reel one and then the movie continues to tighten that vise for the next eight reels. And he was ready to play. He was completely subservient to that notion. It’s an easy thing for someone to say, “Yeah, yeah, I’d love to be a part of that,” and then, of course, on a daily basis, to ask: “Really? Do I have to be that foolish? Do I really have to step in it up to my knees?” Actors don’t like to be made the brunt of the joke. They go into acting to avoid that. Unlike comics, who are used to going face first into the ground. They know what open mic is like. But actors, they want, when someone else is writing the lines, to be made to look good.
But we got the truth out in advance. When I first met with him, we didn’t have the script yet, but he had read the book. And I said, I’m going after something that walks a fine line between satiric and stupid. There was a National Lampoon record in the mid-Seventies called That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick. That’s kind of the tone of the movie. If we play it too earnest and sincere, then it’s tragedy, but if we go with the absurdity of it, I think it can walk a satirical line. The beginning of the movie purports to be the Scott Peterson case. Stripped from the headlines. And you say, I know what this is and I know where I am in the investigations. But then, by the time Desi [Neil Patrick Harris] comes into it, it becomes not about you at all. It takes off into this semi-absurd world. And then by the time we get to the fight in the dressing room, you kind of go, oops, we as an audience are not absolved. We’re complicit.
The movie keeps changing on you as you watch it.
Isn’t that what’s fun about it.
If Hitchcock’s Psycho had come out in the era of social media, Hitchcock could not have organized the publicity the way he did. He couldn’t have kept audiences from tweeting about the shower scene when the movie was only a third over. So this film is going to run into the problem that no one keeps quiet about anything. In a way, the film itself is about that problem. I can’t wait to see what’s going to be said about the movie.
I can’t wait to see what will go on between couples at dinner after they see it. There are so many interesting tectonic shifts in the movie. There’s the moment where Andie [Emily Ratajkowski] comes into it, and you watch the sexual dividing line in the audience. I’ve shown this movie to people and when they come out of it, they are either Team Amy or Team Nick. Team Amy doesn’t have a single quibble about her behavior, and Team Nick doesn’t have any problems with his. Especially the uninitiated. They are the most honest in their response. Then there are people who primarily measure the movie against the book and how they felt about the characters in the book. And the narrative of the movie is vastly denuded from the way it’s allowed to grow and bloom in the novel. It wasn’t a defoliation as much as a deforestation. Once you got it back to the branches and the trunk, it was pretty easy to see that this movie was going to be about who we are versus who we present to those we are endeavoring to seduce. And once we got there, it was easy to see that the absurdity needed to be part of the two-hour-and-half-hour fabric in a much bigger way than in the novel. For me, the 30 percent of the novel that’s about who we present—our narcissistic façades—becomes the entire foundation of the movie. Where the book had room for four endings, we only had room for one. You begin to prune back.
When we started working together, the biggest concern was how we would represent the two voices. And what was interesting was Gillian [Flynn] adapted so quickly to the structure that the “she said” is in flashback and the “he said” is being lived out in front of you. And you question which one is reliable or if either of them are. It wasn’t a question of there are 500 pages and which 300 were we going to lose. But all of a sudden, it was, if we prune back, it’s not so much a question of “he said, she said,” but that the “cool girl” speech becomes central to the exploration of “we’ve been married five years now and I can’t get it up anymore to be that person you were initially attracted to and I’m exhausted by it and I’m resentful that you still expect this. And you throw in a little homicidal rage and it’s a fairly combustible idea. Does that make sense? [Fincher has been laughing all the way through this passage.] I’m so sorry I made this movie: it’s just not marketable.
I’ll loop back: when you tested this movie, were there people who were actually on Amy’s side?
I think, oddly, that it’s equally balanced. I don’t think Gillian is a misogynist. She’s taking everybody to task in a very subtle way. I think she is really gifted. I think she has a very interesting Midwestern pop sensibility. That is, she understands the salacious interest of “What’s going on in that house at the end of the cul-de-sac? It can’t be all that it appears to be.” She has a sort of Rear Window prurient interest that we all have to a degree. She probably has a higher percentage than most. But she also writes very much from the point of view of an audience member. She’s not above her material. She’s not making fun of these people, even the nosy neighbor. She’s not making fun of even those archetypes. And she’s interesting in that way. I kind of held my breath and waited to read her first draft and I was so emboldened by it. She was not only capable of slaughtering the darling, she took a peculiar pleasure in offing those extensions of her own imagination. And how she got to the things that interested me most: Who Are We? That great moment in The Stepfather, where he says: “Who am I here?”
I think everyone has those moments in relationships, especially extremely intimate relationships where you’ve spent years with someone and you find yourself standing in front of the mirror, and going “What!” Part of it is that I don’t want to let the other person down in their idea of me. When I hear my mate talking about me in the best possible terms, I absolutely want to be that person. Not at any cost, of course. But there are also times when you’d be shocked to hear your mate talk about you in not such glowing terms, and you can’t see yourself in that way. I think she was able to take the kind of headline-news angle—“What Was Going On in This Marriage”—and use that to create real traction with the question of who are any of us in these relationships. And she has a lot of fun with it.
But, look, it’s not healthy to have an idea in your head of who your mate should be. Who your mate is should be revealed to you through interaction, the quality of the person’s character, the behavior they exhibit. But I certainly know that early on in my life, I had ideas that I could fix someone. But then the thing you realize, if you’re remotely sane, is that I can’t fix anything about anybody else, and I need to look at that part of myself that thinks this is who I need to see myself with, and also, what length did I go to, how much did I betray who I really am in order to seduce that person and lead them to believe that I was a suitable mate for them. Forget how much I was lying to you, how much was I lying to me? There are all kinds of narcissism that a modern cultural intersection needs to address, but this book was on a frequency or a channel that I hadn’t seen before.
Are you describing the Hitchcock model? Sean Connery thinks he can save Tippi Hedren in Marnie, but that belief proves that he’s crazier or more damaged than she is. In Vertigo, Scottie thinks he can transform Judy into Madeleine, but he’s so crazy he doesn’t see that they are the same woman.
I don’t remember Marnie very well, but I know Vertigo really well, and I think Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo is so much crazier than any of villains in Hitchcock. I mean the so-called hero of that film is wandering up to women on the street and saying, would you wear a gray suit and change your hair for me? But I think this movie is different. Maybe it travels in those regions, but it didn’t occur to me, maybe because in some weird way Scottie never worries about the impression he makes. “No, that gray suit’s not the right one. Try this.” [Lots of laughter]
This is off the main subject, but did you ever read the piece Chris Marker wrote in which he theorizes that the second half of Vertigo is the fantasy that Scottie tells himself when he’s in the psychiatric hospital because he can’t admit his guilt for having not protected that nice woman, Madeleine, as he was hired to do, but instead allowed her to commit suicide by jumping off the tower. The only way he can handle his guilt is to turn her into an accessory to murder, who duped him, so the whole second half of the movie is a kind of wish-fulfillment dream—see, she’s really guilty, she deserved to die.
I’ve always thought that anyone who directs a movie in which a character sits down in the second half of the movie for half a reel to write a letter explaining what happened in the first half of the movie should turn in his DGA card. That aside, I’ve always felt the more compelling version of Vertigo is her point of view, which is so much weirder and more freakish even than his. And his is really sick. I don’t know how you can make that movie and not expect people to go “Dude, you’re so sick.” But I always felt the movie was inverted and the most interesting version would be following this woman who meets this man [Gavin Elster], falls in love, and then he says to her, “Hey, would you dress up like my wife, wander around a few museums, maybe toss yourself in the bay, let a stranger disrobe you and keep you in his apartment all afternoon, and drive with him down to Santa Cruz or wherever they go, and meet me on the roof.” So she climbs up to this rooftop knowing that the guy she drove down with can’t follow her up the stairs, only to find her lover tossing his dead wife of the roof and saying to her, “Shhh, now you’re in it deep, up to your neck. Keep your mouth shut, and here’s some jewelry.” That seems like a way more compelling movie—you are in it deep.
I’ve always thought that Vertigo is about a police detective who falls in love with a transvestite, not knowing that she is a transvestite.
Especially the way she looks in that gray suit [laughter]. Reminds me of Rigby Reardon [Steve Martin] in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid when he’s imitating Barbara Stanwyck and he goes: “I’m only half the woman you think I am.”
[Author’s note. In fact, as critic Rob Nelson pointed out to me, Flynn makes a strong reference to Vertigo in the novel. I had forgotten it when I interviewed Fincher, and maybe Fincher was being polite in not pointing out what a careless reader I was or maybe he had forgotten it as well.]
You’ve made two films in a row that are adaptations of best-selling novels. Is that the only thing that there is financing for, besides comic books?
Neither Girl with the Dragon Tattoo nor Gone Girl was a struggle to set up. But neither was The Social Network. That was a “go” movie. The Social Network came to me at a point in my life when I said, “Wow, just because it’s a really good piece of material doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it.” [Laughs] I wasn’t offered any Marvel movies nor expect to be, and I don’t know why anyone thought of me for this, but I’m glad I got a chance to read it, and I’m extremely happy to have had a chance to work with Gillian and come up with something that I thought would make an interesting movie. My criteria isn’t to make something that’s been on the Times best-seller list and has a built-in audience of at least five million. I just thought when I read it that I haven’t seen this movie before. Dragon Tattoo was a story I was interested in, kind of in spite of itself. I was interested in the story of him and her. I liked that relationship. I thought it was spectacularly modern and beyond sexual.
That was great.
I hadn’t seen that. Yes, they partake of each other’s flesh, but that wasn’t the primary reason for them to have met. And it not codependent love, which I really like about it.
Novels are hard. They have incredible expectations around them.
There are not a lot of applicable comparative relationships. There aren’t a lot of people taking a symphony and whittling it down into a pop song. I always want to please the writer, not only the writer of the source material, but of the adaptation. I really wanted Chuck Palahniuk to be proud of the movie of Fight Club. And I felt the same way about Aaron Sorkin on The Social Network and Andy Walker on Se7en. I want the person who dreamed it up to walk away thinking that’s an effective distillation. I’m looking for the most salient storyline. There was a lot of good stuff in Gone Girl that maybe didn’t distract from the narcissistic facet of it but maybe was just too fine a marbling. Film narratives just move so much quicker. And have to be able to be seen, which usually means they have to be a little bit broader.
I’m happy that Gillian thinks it’s a good adaptation of her book. She did most of the heavy lifting. And I feel a responsibility to the audience, but no one feels more of a responsibility to the audience than Gillian. She’s ruthless. There was a moment when we were working on the end of the movie and we had these competing elements and we realized that the last 33 pages of the script didn’t help us. So she went away and came back the next morning and those 33 pages had become 31, but the two versions had maybe six lines in common. The rest of it she just chucked. She has an amazing work ethic. And she is completely at home with slaughtering anything that isn’t progress for our new collective narrative. Because it’s one thing when you ask who is Amy and who is Nick, but then, when Amy is Rosamund and Nick is Ben, you have to tailor everything to those personalities and what they are giving you.
I think when you are working with a novel that sold six million copies there’s a tendency to work backwards from the book, but the best adaptations work forward through the characters. And to have the novelist/screenwriter sit there and make eye contact with everybody and understand that implicitly. On some level she just took to it and realized that there is no point in fighting what these two people give us. You have to go through it with these people and allow them to shape it. We had these bookended shots that were going to launch and close the film, and these bookended sentiments, but the question was what was going to happen in that house with those characters after the shower. And she was just able say, okay, here we go.
So could you outline the process step by step?
I was sent the book. I said it’s interesting. Obviously we have to cut 300 pages but I don’t know yet which ones. They said the novelist is working on a draft of a screenplay but if it doesn’t pan out… I said, no, let’s let her get to the end of what she’s doing. And Gillian’s first draft was, albeit long, incredibly streamlined in terms of what my expectations were of what she would do. So I met with her and said, unabashedly, that I was impressed, “I’m betting on you.” But here’s what I think is extraneous and what I think is improbable. And we rolled up our sleeves and went at it for a month or so. Then we started talking about cast and availabilities, and we got to a draft that we thought could be sent out. In the meantime, I talked to Ben about the idea of it. And I sent him a script. And then we began to look for an Amy. And after those two, the most linchpin character was Desi, because he’s sort of like Clare Quilty, he sort of doesn’t exist in reality. And so we just took a left. We spun the wheel and it wasn’t your father’s Oldsmobile. And once we did that, the tone of the Scott Peterson inquiry, which is what you might think the opening is, was out the window, and we had to run off the end of the pier, and you’re in all the way up to your eyeballs. That’s what Neil Patrick Harris as Desi allowed us to do. And then Tyler Perry [who plays the lawyer, Tanner Bolt] because we wanted a calming influence, not a huckster. And once we had the widest ends of the spectrum in place we started filling in everyone else. And then we got everybody on Skype and had a read-through. It was interesting, all the little squares, but we could see who the actors were and how they felt about each other and where they each were in their careers. And we recorded the whole thing. All those little Hollywood Squares.
Had you ever done that before?
No. But we learned a lot so we were able to make more revisions. And then we rehearsed about three or four weeks and cut about 10 or 15 pages. And toward the end of that, we focused on the third act and what the summation of our thesis was going to look like. And then we went to Missouri and shot for about six weeks and came back to Los Angeles and shot another 10.
So when you talk about the book having four different endings, do you mean the book has four different rationales for the ending?
The book has a more elaborate wind-down, and the movie couldn’t have it. The end of the movie that we have now is the denouement of the novel, but the emotional catharsis is happening four minutes before that as opposed to 12 pages, which it initially was. For everybody, it felt that we were overstaying out welcome. And we needed to say, this is not something abstract. This is not beyond the experience of most of the people in the theater—what people tell themselves to make it all okay.
I read that Trent Reznor [who wrote the score] said this is a really, really dark movie. Do you think it is?
I think there are certain conceits in the kind of story and the storytelling… Well, let’s put it this way, I think he read the book or part of the book and he felt kind of the way you do. This is not me, it’s about Midwesterners or this writer who returns to this small town. And then when it got to the third act, as absurd as some of it is, it began to resonate with him. That was shocking to him because he thought at first that Fincher’s doing a popcorn movie. He hadn’t read the script so he hadn’t realized that once we had pruned back, we didn’t have Desi’s mother and we didn’t have more than an impression of Amy’s parents—they are much more caustic in the movie because they have only two or three scenes. Their suffocating presence in her life becomes more crystalline. And I think he was expecting to see something that was more polite.
Or more National Lampoon?
You don’t get much from Trent when you show him stuff. He’s cagey that way. But when he came out of the screening, he was laughing, almost giddily. And he said: “That’s so sinister in what it’s talking about. It makes me feel bad about myself.” I don’t really want to speak for Trent because he’s wildly articulate.
But I’m not sure yet what you think the tone of this movie has.
I think there were people on the crew who thought we were making Fatal Attraction. One of those Paramount thrillers of the late Eighties or early Nineties.
It’s definitely not that.
But there are these TV spots that all dance the same gig. Have you seen the trailer? Does it seem as if it’s selling the proper aspect of the movie that could possibly hook people without giving anything away? One of the things it took six months to negotiate in my deal was that they couldn’t use anything in the trailers of Amy past reel four. Because if you do, you ruin the movie. People go to the movies to discover things. They want to see actors as they’ve never seen them before and to see them in situations you never imagined them in because hopefully you never imagined seeing yourself in that situation. I need that sense of discovery when I look at movies.
I just want to correct something. I think Ben Affleck is wonderful casting. I would have done something stupid and obvious. I would have cast someone who is obviously ambiguous, like the Jude Law of Side Effects.
Interesting. But there needs to be a frat-boy component to Nick. You needed someone for Nick who could have opened their mouth and inserted both feet. And certainly Jude Law knows what that shit-storm is like. But Nick also has to be someone who has skated by on charm and has that as a deflection mechanism. And that’s what crucifies him. It’s the stuff that he didn’t do that makes him come on their radar. And once he comes on their radar, it’s the stuff he does do that seals his fate. And he needs to have wit; Ben has great wit. I think Jude Law does too. But I can’t see Jude Law getting in that kind of trouble.
Ben seems like the guy who wants to be everybody’s friend.
Yes, and that’s what Nick does too. And that’s what gets him in trouble—that “Hey, can’t we just all get along” attitude. That’s what I love about Carrie Coon [who plays Go, Nick’s sister]. You get the idea that she just loves him even though she’s going to develop calluses on her forehead from slapping him.
She’s great. She’s the reality principle. I love that character.
She’s part of the trification of how we see Nick. There’s Amy’s view of him, there’s Boney’s [Detective Boney, played by Kim Dickens ], and there’s Go’s. And she really, really knows him. So she’s the most necessary of the secondary characters.
I think all the women are very good in the movie. We haven’t talked enough about Rosamund Pike, but it’s hard to do that without giving too much away. I think this will be a much-talked-about movie, and it is also a very serious movie. But I really want to know what you think the tone of the movie is.
I think it is high seriousness in little dishes of candy.