When Fight Club was released in 1999, it was considered a box office flop. Today, it’s one of the defining turn-of-the-century films. The first rule of David Fincher’s output is clearly “don’t underestimate David Fincher’s output” — and the second as well.
From crafting iconic music videos to making his feature debut with a chest-bursting franchise to helming the pilot for Netflix’s first-ever original series, Fincher has never taken the expected path, even as he keeps returning to a familiar theme. If it’s a dark tale that dissects humanity’s desires, the two-time Oscar nominee will be drawn to it. If it can be told with exacting, revealing visuals, even better still.
With Fincher the third filmmaker in The Vice Guide to Film hot seat, we jump through the basics behind the Seven, Zodiac and Gone Girl director.
The Fincher essentials
If David Fincher had grown up somewhere other than San Anselmo, he mightn’t be the influential filmmaker he is today. California has fuelled many a Hollywood dream, but for a boy who resided half an hour away from the Zodiac killer’s stomping ground, it also planted the seeds for a life spent delving into nightmares. That Fincher counted George Lucas as one of his childhood neighbours helped pave the way to the film industry, and he would later work at the Lucas-founded Industrial Light & Magic. Still, it’s impossible to ignore the fact Fincher lived through the fear created by a serial murderer he’d later chronicle — “that’s what Zodiac was for a seven-year-old growing up in San Anselmo. He was the ultimate bogeyman,” he told The New York Times — and that much of his work is fascinated with destructive deeds and bleak impulses.
Alien 3, his first feature, might’ve seen him play director for hire, but it fits the mould. Seven, the film that would catapult him to attention, does too. Indeed, with Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the 1995 movie comprises the filmmaker’s unofficial serial killer trilogy, with the forthcoming Mindhunter continuing the trend on television. Concerned with the mindset and motivations behind both murderers and those endeavouring to stop them, rather than the mechanics, they demonstrate Fincher’s flair for psychological thrills. Much of the rest of his output may swap death for other dramas — playful paranoia in The Game, existential malaise in Fight Club, a home invasion in Panic Room, marital strain in Gone Girl and political machinations in House of Cards — but they’re grounded in the same terrain.
With his early career spent directing music videos for Rick Springfield, Madonna, Billy Idol and more, Fincher’s other obsession is his visuals. As his Gone Girl star Ben Affleck explains, “David has the taste of the artist and the mind of an engineer.” Riffing on Metropolis in the clip for "Express Yourself" and then recreating Old Hollywood glamour in "Vogue" were just the beginning, a training ground for his meticulous framing and innate ability to layer a single image with splendour and darkness. If The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems an atypical entry on his resume, it cements its place with its rich sights of a reversed life. The Social Network satisfied both Fincher’s thematic and aesthetic urges, as well as his nous for pairing sound and vision. Both films would earn him an Academy Award nomination for best director.
Three things you mightn’t know
- Thanks to his time at Industrial Light & Magic, Fincher has credits on Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (as an assistant cameraman), The NeverEnding Story (matte photography assistant) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (matte photography).
- He directed one of the most memorable anti-smoking advertisments ever made for the American Cancer Society, featuring a smoking fetus.
- Propaganda Films, the production company Fincher co-founded in 1983, would also help launch the careers of Michael Bay, Mark Romanek, Gore Verbinski, Zack Snyder, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry.
Five films you really need to see
Seven: From the detailed, Nine Inch Nails-accompanied opening credits to its intricately staged murder scenes to the now infamous twist, Fincher’s first serial killer film remains one of his finest works.
Fight Club: With his adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fincher made something as beautiful as it was ugly — a slickly, energetically crafted exploration of consumerism and masculinity at its emptiest, and a revelatory vehicle for his Seven star Brad Pitt.
Zodiac: In a filmography filled with detailed deep dives into menace and manipulation, Zodiac is Fincher’s quiet masterpiece. Less flashy but no less aesthetically immersive than the director’s earlier efforts, it proves the picture of procedural perfection as it charts the manhunt for the famed, real-life killer.
The Social Network: Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook proves an apt fit for Fincher’s fondness for probing the juxtapositions of modern life, as a platform created as a joke becomes a world-changing business, a social network drives friends apart and the need for connection proves the depths of humanity’s isolation.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Taking on an existing franchise mightn’t have worked well for Fincher with Alien 3, but remaking an existing hit proved the exact opposite in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a rare US effort that manages to improve upon its foreign-language predecessor.
Who’s sharing the Fincher love?
Robin Wright: After co-starring in Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, Wright was convinced to move to television — or “the future”, as the director put it to her — to help lead House of Cards with Kevin Spacey.
Tamra Davis: Making the leap from music videos to features, as Fincher did, Davis directed clips for Young MC’s "Bust A Move", Sonic Youth’s "Kool Thing" and Hanson’s "MMMBop", as well as Billy Madison, Crossroads, and episodes of TV’s My Name Is Earl, Grey’s Anatomy, Santa Clarita Diet and You’re the Worst.
Ben Affleck: Affleck starred in Gone Girl, a film he says the director “wanted couples to go home arguing” about. Considering Seven to be a perfect movie, the actor/filmmaker watches it several times before stepping behind the camera on his own features.
Jesse Eisenberg: Eisenberg was Oscar-, BAFTA- and Golden Globe-nominated for playing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.
Kiva Reardon: Reardon is the founding editor of feminist film journal cléo, and a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival. Read her thoughts on the rom-com logic in Fincher’s Gone Girl adaptation.
Jeff Cronenweth: Fincher’s frequent cinematographer dating back to the music video for George Michael’s "Freedom ’90", Cronenweth lensed Fight Club, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl.
What should I watch next?
Hear more from Jesse Eisenberg about working on The Social Network on SBS On Demand:
Watch The Vice Guide to Film every Tuesday night on SBS VICELAND. You can also stream the show at SBS On Demand.