It seems unfair that David Fincher’s 1997 directorial outing “The Game” is often in the back of cinephile’s minds when they think of the director’s magnificent oeuvre. It is understandable in some ways, seeming as it’s sandwiched between two monumental directorial efforts into the pantheon of cult movies with Fincher’s own “Se7en” coming in 1995 and “Fight Club” hitting in 1999, but many fans of the notoriously finicky filmmakers would probably rank it close to or at the very top of their lists of the director’s best work. While it certainly isn’t as abrasive a film as “Se7en” or “Fight Club,” it’s just as memorable for showcasing the benefits of David Fincher’s acute attention to detail that would greatly benefit the many twists and turns of the film’s script.
A tantalizing and wholly manipulative little thriller, “The Game” was released on September 12, 1997, and follows a wealthy financier named Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) who receives a seemingly absurd birthday present from his erratic and wayward brother Conrad (Sean Penn) — which is a live-action game that consumes his life. It’s been 15 years now since the film first hit theaters, and perhaps to vindicate Fincher fanatics who balk at the idea that the only film from the director under the beloved Criterion Collection banner is the far inferior “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Criterion is releasing the film on a special edition DVD/Blu-ray next week on September 24th. We’ve gathered up five things you might not know about Fincher’s classic thriller. Check them out below.
1. Jodie Foster was originally set to play the role of Michael Douglas’ sibling.
As is the case with most great films, it’s always a treat to learn that another familiar face was cast in a key role somewhere along the path of production. In this particular instance, actress Jodie Foster was originally set to play the role of Michael Douglas’ sibling Conrad (we’re guessing the name was different), who sets him up with a voucher for a “game” offered by a company by the name of Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Now there’s several accounts of this tale, but the version found in author James Swallow’s “Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher” seems to be the most thorough and well-researched, and so it goes that once the film’s producer, PolyGram Pictures, had both Douglas and Foster signed on for roles, they announced at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival that both actors would be making the film with David Fincher attached, only nobody could really predict what a problem this would cause. As with most things Fincher touches, several rewrites (some completed uncredited by “Se7en” screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker) and story revisions were made to John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris’ script before the film could head into production. This included Fincher feeling that a star of Foster’s stature would feel out of place in a supporting role (she was still pretty hot off of respected hits like “Silence of the Lambs,” “Little Man Tate,” and even “Maverick”). Foster’s role was then rewritten as Douglas’ daughter, but ongoing changes to the film began to cause scheduling conflicts with director Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact,” which barred Foster from continuing on the project and she subsequently dropped out. Quite soon after she departed the project, Jeff Bridges was approached for the role of Conrad, but after he declined they ultimately ended up going with Sean Penn. Foster would go onto sue PolyGram to the tune of $54.5 million – even with her very own Egg Pictures serving as one of the film’s production companies. Thankfully, the matter was settled out of court and there wasn’t too much of a fuss, which probably ensured things weren’t that awkward between Fincher and Foster on the set of “Panic Room” years later. Also, it should be said the Penn does more than his fair share of scene stealing throughout, so we would certainly suggest that things ended up falling in the hands of the right actor.
2. Michael Douglas was actually going through his own messy divorce proceedings while filming was taking place.
While this may seem slight to some, we’d argue that Michael Douglas’ performance as the vapid, icy, Nicholas Van Orton is by far one of his best performances on film. While Douglas usually seems like a genuinely jovial and all-around good sport, it’s a wonder he always plays such diluted and tortured characters. Perhaps shedding a little insight onto this particular performance, Douglas comes off a uncharacteristically candid on the commentary track for the Criterion release (which is cribbed from the 1997 laser disc edition the company put out), explaining that he in fact was going through a pretty mess divorce at the time the film was being made. This plays a key role into Van Orton’s personality, as we continue to see throughout the film that he’s estranged from both his ex-wife and brother, and his cynical, withdrawn nature helps easily secure his position as the best rendition of Ebenezer Scrooge outside of “A Christmas Carol” adaptation. It’s a quintessential example of art imitating life, with Douglas explaining he felt as if this really helped him play Van Orton in a sense that the man’s work had overtaken any social connection he had outside of it. Perhaps he’s suggesting that his own furious work pace overtook his social life or perhaps now we’re drawing too many parallels. It’s just nice to see the guy can find an artistic outlet to take his frustrations out, just so the rest of us can enjoy this performance.
3. David Fincher’s original idea for the marketing motif was much more marionette oriented.
For anyone who enjoys lamenting the craft and superb marketing sensibilities that used to go into making a great trailer, a fine example would be the 1997 teaser for “The Game.” It was devised by David Fincher himself (doubt they let filmmakers do that anymore) and featured no semblance of the actual film outside of dialogue from some of the film’s more tense exchanges. Instead of bombarding audiences with a sizzle reel of all the best shots, we instead see a beautiful marionette puppet attached to long ominous strings – this is all before the marionette begins to shake violently at the hands of some unseen force. Quite the use of metaphor, if we dare say so ourselves. There is one quick glimpse of Michael Douglas breaking the surface of the water (post car crash) but other than that, it’s all audiences were given. Fincher was hoping to stick with the marionette motif throughout the film’s marketing, but PolyGram had other plans for a heavy emphasis on the pieces of a puzzle forming the face of the film’s star Michael Douglas. A bit on the nose and not nearly as creative as Fincher’s more secretive direction, but the poster of Douglas being formed from puzzle pieces is still pretty recognizable. Fincher laments his marionette motif on the Criterion commentary track as well, noting that he made the opening title sequence feature puzzle pieces falling into place just to keep the motif ongoing, so as not to disrupt the overall experience of the film. His teaser lives on through the disc, along with the film’s standard trailer, with both featuring commentary tracks. As for Fincher’s prized motif of the marionette? It does live on in a small way, as the cover for the latest Criterion release hints at some string being pulled while Van Orton takes a long fall.
4. Deborah Kara Unger’s audition for the role of Christine was a test reel consisting of a two-minute sex scene.
Deborah Kara Unger is one of those rare Hollywood actresses who isn’t afraid to bare it all – and we mean that quite literally. For anyone who’s seen her role in 1992’s “Whispers in the Dark” or especially David Cronenberg’s twisted fantasy in 1996’s “Crash,” the actress does not get camera shy when it comes to nude scenes. In a 1997 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Unger bared all in a different way, discussing hang-ups about getting nude on screen – and the odd route she took to land her role as Christine in “The Game.” Other than some brief moments of sexuality, including a scene where Michael Douglas sees right up her skirt, Unger mostly keeps her clothes on in the role of Christine – a waitress who also appears to be caught up in this “game.” Although when she sent her acting reel in for consideration for “The Game,” it didn’t exactly earn her any fans, with Douglas telling the magazine: “Deborah’s test reel was a two-minute sex scene from ‘Crash,’ ” Douglas recalls, ”and she didn’t say anything. I thought it was a joke. Then we saw her in person and thought that she was just great.” Considering she’d mostly done some extremely low-budget independent films and the third film in the “Highlander” franchise, perhaps she felt that a scene from the film of a semi-respectable (at the time) filmmaker like Cronenberg would help her land a higher profile role. As we can now see, she wasn’t wrong.
5. The film was originally set to be a Jonathan Mostow-directed project with Kyle MacLachlan and Bridget Fonda in leads.
Oh, Jonathan Mostow, where art thou gone? While the director of 1997’s Kurt Russell-starring “Breakdown” and 2000’s submarine thriller “U-571” didn’t exactly prove himself to be a master auteur with those two films, he certainly proved he was on track to be a perfectly capable filmmaker who could give us an entertaining-as-hell thriller. Unfortunately, diminishing returns have lead to Mostow giving us such fluff as “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” and the dead-eyed Bruce Willis Sci-Fi thriller “Surrogates” — leaving admirers of his first two films bemoaning what could have been. Also, there has been a variety of Mostow projects that almost where – including the recent Jennifer Lawrence starring “The House at the End of the Street,” which Mostow was set to direct from a script by “Donnie Darko” mastermind Richard Kelley. And for anyone wondering why Mostow has an executive producer credit on “The Game,” it’s because he was in the director’s chair at one point. When the spec script by “The Net” screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris was picked up in 1991, it sat in a sort of development hell until Propaganda Films picked up the film and attached Mostow to direct. He had set “Twin Peaks” star and David Lynch wunderkind Kyle MacLachlan and Bridget Fonda for the lead roles (though it isn’t clear if Fonda would assume the role of the female sibling or the waitress Christine), but this trio has us dreaming up a wildly different film altogether. Even though a tentative production date was set, in 1992 the project was moved to PolyGram and Mostow would end up with only executive producing credit when Fincher eventually came aboard. As much as we love Fincher’s version, our wheels are spinning as to what Lynchian charm MacLachlan could have brought to the role of Van Orton, and how nutty Fonda could have gotten with her role. We suppose that we still probably ended up with the best possible version of “The Game.”