For all the rumors about the intense, ruthless filmmaking persona of director David Fincher, the 52-year-old Oscar-nominee was quite the surprising firecracker following Film Independent’s sold out special screening of “Gone Girl” Wednesday night. Moderated by Film Independent Curator Elvis Mitchell and hosted at the majestic Theater at Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, the event saw a spirited Fincher at his humorous best. And rightfully so, given that “Gone Girl” is set to top the box office once more following its $37.5 million opening weekend, the biggest debut of Fincher’s career thus far.
Adapted by Gillian Flynn from her bestselling novel of the same name, “Gone Girl” stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as a couple whose marriage becomes unhinged when the latter disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. Considering all the shocked gasps and nervous belly-laughs that filled every inch of the theater’s acoustics during the screening, Fincher’s knack for calculated, shape-shifting tones remains in peak form throughout “Gone Girl.”
While Fincher was not without some deep reflection (“I don’t think any place is safe once you bring human nature into it” was a thought-provoking summation of his work), a majority of the post-screening conversation proved he could be just as diabolically funny as the film itself. Anytime Mitchell drew connections across Fincher’s filmography, such as how the director has an affinity for marooning the affability of his lead actors (see Michael Douglas in “The Game,” Brad Pitt in “Fight Club,” Ben Affleck in “Gone Girl,” etc.), Fincher’s response was a humbly confounding, “Hmm…” or “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” After Mitchell name-dropped Denzel Washington, Fincher interjected with the witty rebuttal, “Oh wait, you dropped something,” prompting Mitchell to throw his jacket on the ground and mockingly walk off stage. And when Fincher recalled his first music video shoot in San Francisco, he concluded of the city, “If you’re not shooting your black-and-white lesbian western, you’re a fucking sellout.” The resulting audience reaction was a standing ovation’s worth of howling laughter.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. From insightful casting tidbits to Fincher’s honest confessions about watching his own films, Mitchell drew out a multitude of interesting sound bites from the prolific director. Below are all of the major highlights from the nearly hour-long “Gone Girl” conversation.
1) “Gone Girl’s” narcissism and hyperbole drew Fincher to the project.
The big twist that is revealed an hour into the movie is a hate-it-or-love-it moment for viewers, particularly because the film, as Fincher confirmed, evolves from its mystery origins to become “completely hyperbolic.” This absurd escalation of tone was a big reason Fincher wanted to take on the adaptation of Flynn’s novel in the first place. “One thing I had never seen before when I read the first draft, which was very different than what we ended up shooting, was what Gillian had done,” Fincher said. “And that was to create a story where you could have a movie that was a mystery, that could hand the baton off to this absurdist thriller, and that could hand off the baton and become a satire. I had never seen that done before, and I wanted to give a shot.”
Ultimately, it was the self-absorbed characters that furthered Fincher’s interest in the project. As Fincher explained, “What I was most interested in was the idea of narcissism as a way to hold two people together, and the notion of how we project the best version of ourselves not only to seduce someone we imagine to be perfect for us, but also to have it fit into our own perfect narcissistic projection.” He later referred to marriage as a “contract” and confessed to loving the “wrath” that is inspired when you can no longer endure the person you once thought was your better half. “I loved that in the book. It’s this thing where you look over at your wife or girlfriend and you see them holding their tongue, and then five years later the retribution starts. It’s funny.”
Fincher was attracted to the script even more since both characters square off on the same playing field. “I want to see arguments between characters where I agree with both of them,” Fincher explained. “I want to see situations that are horrible for one of the participants, either way. I’m interested in those things where you have a hard time rooting for one side as opposed to the other, because then you know something will come at a cost. It will have to be bad for somebody. I like that stuff.” When Mitchell then asked if the director had realized just how masterful he was at engineering dread, Fincher continued this theme by refuting, “It’s not so much to me that there’s dread as much as everything is balanced. It’s not so much that notion of making the hair stand up on your back, it’s letting you realize that both characters have merit. I don’t know if you root for Ben or if you root for Rosamund, but I root for both.” Fincher humorously concluded, “I certainly root for Rosamund. I love seeing her planning out when she’s going to take her own life. I think that’s hilarious.” Now that’s narcissism and hyperbole indeed.
2) Hitchcock, Scorsese and Scott influenced Fincher’s obsession with breaking characters down.
Mitchell noted a theme across Fincher’s filmography is the stripping of characters’ identities, to which Fincher replied, “It’s about taking people out of their comfort zone. You’ve got to move your characters to a place where their discomfort is palpable and they either have to sink or swim.” Although he’s a fan of earnest heroes, Fincher prefers breaking down his characters because that often yields audience squirms, which is “just as valid as cheering at the end for the exploding Death Star.”
When asked what films had successfully proved this, Fincher recalled moving to Los Angeles in 1983 and getting free tickets to the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s “The King Of Comedy” through his new deal with CAA. It’s the moment where Robert De Niro brings his girlfriend back to Jerry Lewis’ house that Fincher recalls seeing the back of 700 audience member’s heads disappear in their seats out of anxious shock. “You’re kind of sitting there hoping it’s a dream, and you’re sitting there saying that this can’t actually happen. I was so alive in that. I thought that was a great, valid moviegoing experience.”
A screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” at the age of 9 had a similar eye-opening result for the filmmaker. “I had no idea what the movie was about, but I was watching it and it got to the point where Raymond Burr is taking his suitcase in the middle of the night, and I turned to my dad and said, ‘He killed her. He cut her up and put her in the suitcase,'” Fincher reflected as the audience found humor in the image. “My dad told me to quiet down, but I remember thinking that it was insane that I was thinking about it. I didn’t know these people and I didn’t know what was going on, but I was being led to this conclusion and I was thinking the same horrible thought that everyone else was thinking. Except I’m 9! I love those moments in movies where you go, ‘Oh no.'”
The complete shock of Janet Leigh’s death in “Psycho” was another Hitchcock moment that affected the director and fed his appetite for dark character turns. “‘Psycho’ is one of those great ‘that’s not fair, you don’t get to do that, you don’t get to kill her’ moments,” he summarized. Tom Skerritt’s death in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” was another moment in the same vein. “Just when you think he’ll take care of it, he’s gone. Now what happens? I love those moments.” Given the abrupt character shifts in “Gone Girl,” it’s no wonder Fincher had a blast with the material.
3) Fincher finds great humor in viewer’s nitpicking
One of Fincher’s wisest observations came when he explained, “Part of the curse of working in cinema is that nothing is treated as accidental or off-handed.” He proved his point in a comical note on one of the film’s early scenes in which Affleck’s Nick Dunne gives his twin sister the game Mastermind as a present. The director talked about the humor he gets when everyone tries to nitpick the meaning of Mastermind – especially since the word seems to apply whole-heartedly to Amy Elliot Dunne – and gave an exaggerated eye-roll when recalling how he saw journalists at the New York Film Festival writing down notes as soon as Nick gave his sister the board game. “When you cut to something, it gets this weird importance, so you have to be careful,” Fincher explained. “Red herrings are fun, but they’re also distracting. You need to be careful.” So what exactly was the board game’s significance? “There was absolutely no importance to that at all, there’s no significance at all,” Fincher answered with a laugh. “I think it was the only game we could legally clear, and of course everyone comes up to me and asks what it means.”
4) Ben Affleck fits glove and hand with who Nick Dunne has to be
Many pundits have weighed in on the meta-casting of Ben Affleck in the role of the media-hounded Nick Dunne. But while some would say the role subverts all we know about Affleck’s off screen persona, Fincher would disagree, claiming, “I don’t feel Ben subverts what we know about him, I think he just fits hand and glove with who Nick has to be. He’s described as the homecoming king, and the actor has to work with that. In a movie where you have to have a pivotal scene where somebody stands next to a poster of their missing wife who is smiling and then smiles, you need somebody who can do that and, I mean, that’s something Ben knows how to do.” Fincher confessed to bringing Googled images of Affleck’s smile to set and showing the actor which type of insincere grin he wanted that day of shooting.
However, Fincher did agree that the role of Nick Dunne was perfectly rooted within Affleck’s persona. “When I explained the character to Ben – and the character is someone who gets his feet run over by a steam roller, and then he gets his ankles run over, then he gets his shins run over, then his knees and his pelvis and lower back – the funny thing is that he had been through it all already,” the director claimed. “Ben knows what it’s like to be tossed by the 35-foot waves of public perception. And he also has great wit about it. He knows it has nothing to do with you. At a certain point it’s not about you anymore at all, you’re not even apart of the question. The symbol of you becomes more important than your actual participation.”
5) Fincher knew Tyler Perry was his Tanner Bolt the minute he first saw him.
Tyler Perry’s cool and controlled performance as Tanner Bolt is arguably the biggest surprise of “Gone Girl,” and one of the conversation’s funniest anecdotes was when Fincher was asked why he cast the actor known by many for dressing up as grandma Madea. The question gave way to the story of when Fincher first met Perry while the director was visiting Perry’s Atlanta sound stage for use on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” As Fincher was driving up to the lot, he spotted Perry on the top third floor roof wearing a tracksuit and flying a remote controlled airplane. When he went to enter the building, a man greeted Fincher and said, “Mr. Perry will see you in a moment,” which Fincher pinpoints as the encounter that proved Perry could play the part. “Tanner Bolt would make people wait as he finishes flying his RC plane,” Fincher chuckled. Of their meeting, he explained, “I told him I was not looking for fire and brimstone or Johnnie Cochran, but for a talk show host, for the calmest, most serene person to put you at ease at the same time as he’s telling you to go on Diane Sawyer and tell everyone what a fucking scumbug you are and that it’s going to be good for you. I figured if anyone could do that it would be Tyler Perry.” Mission accomplished.
6) Fincher saw Carrie Coon’s butt-chin as the key to playing Ben Affleck’s twin sister.
Carrie Coon, the breakout star of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” turns supporting character Margo Dunne into a major onscreen presence in the film, so it’s no wonder Fincher had nothing but praise of the up-and-coming actress. He jokingly referred to her butt-chin as the reason for casting her as Affleck’s twin sister, but later admitted it was her perseverance for the role that landed her a spot on the ensemble. Coon sent in a last minute audition tape of 18 scenes filmed with her brother on her iPad, and her audition proved she could keep up with the “very verbal and very quick” Affleck. Additionally, the role called for complexity that Coon could provide in only a handful of scenes. “What’s great about the part is there are things that Nick has not disclosed to her – like the father’s little brown house or his relationship with Andie – and those things really hurt her. She’s not prepared for the fact that there are things he is disclosing from her because they do have this very open dialogue about how irritating Amy is, so why not tell her about Andie? They were great together, and it was easy to see how it was going to work.”
7) You can thank the Tony Awards for Neil Patrick Harris’ casting.
As book readers who have already seen the movie know, the character of Amy’s ex-boyfriend Desi Collings has been drastically reduced in the film adaptation. Because the film version of Desi had to make an impact with only a tiny bit of screen time, Fincher equated the character to that of Clare Quilty in “Lolita.” As Fincher noted, “Clare Quilty has no cinematic antecedent, he kind of just floats in with the wind like leaves, makes noise, and then he’s gone.” As a result, Fincher needed “the most quicksilver, watchable, disruptive energy” he could find to hang the performance on, and he finally found his man when he was watching the Tony Awards. “So I’m watching television and I turn on the Tonys,” he explained, “and suddenly this guy can make me watch the Tonys, which is amazing!” The crowd appropriately howled. “It’s like Clare Quilty by the way of Sting. I don’t know if he’s scary, but he has to be off. Neil really wanted to play that. He read the script and liked it.”
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8) Watching his movies (especially at the New York Film Festival) makes Fincher want to puke.
When Mitchell asked Fincher what it was like to revisit classics such as “Fight Club” or “Seven,” the director dropped one of the funniest lines of the night: “It’s like flipping through the channels and suddenly you see your graduation picture. It’s not fun. It’s horrible. It’s not that you’re not happy, but you can always make something better. I’ve seen it. But at some point you just have to throw your hands up. Movies aren’t finished, they’re abandoned. And you have to make your peace with that.” He then confessed to how anytime he re-watches a movie of his he always spots scenes where two minutes could’ve been shaved off in the editing room.
Fincher drew even bigger laughs when asked if this same anxiety and trepidation applied to watching “Gone Girl.” “Nothing will convince you that you’re movie is way too fucking long than opening the New York Film Festival. You just sit there and squirm. I was never more aware of how long the scenes were than at the New York Film Festival. I was there for about an hour and then I had to leave because I was going to throw up. But you sit there and you watch it with a room full of callous sophisticates and you become aware of how much talking there is.” “Gone Girl” was Fincher’s second NYFF opener after “The Social Network” in 2010, and he concluded this bit by equating festival premieres to “having a C-section in front of 700 people.”
9) Fincher loves Bob Fosse.
“Chinatown,” “Alien” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” were three of the movies Fincher used as examples after Mitchell asked him if there were any “perfect” films out there. But the biggest surprise on the list was the entire filmography of Bob Fosse. “I’m a big Fosse guy. I don’t think the guy made a bad movie. His staging is amazing and he’s ruthless with his characters. They’re amazing and they’re watchable and they’re disgusting. It’s amazing.” Fosse was a master of hyperbolic tones and of turning genres on their head, both of which apply directly to “Gone Girl.”
10) Fincher absolutely hates the shooting process.
Remembering his first day on set as director of his very first music video, Fincher recounted the nerves of being a 21-year-old having to run a crew of about 90 people. When he began shooting preparation and started to discuss all blocking and focus plans with his assistant cameraman, the 45-year-old focus puller responded with a puzzled, “Really?” “I spent the first 20 years of my career trying to get to the point where I could be like, ‘Yeah fucking really,'” Fincher quipped to thunderous applause from the audience.
But the shooting conflicts he encountered on his very first day would not be his last, and Fincher openly admitted to hating the shooting process. “All shooting days are hard because whatever you’re left with you got to make the movie out of. I love actors, I love blocking, I love photography, and I love getting the band together to try and do something, but the commitment is daunting. You wake up at 6am and hours later that’s the scene. That’s what it’s going to be forever, and that makes me want to throw up a little. I hate that.”
“Gone Girl” is now playing in theaters nationwide.
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