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Calling Directors Like ‘Gone Girl’s David Fincher ‘Control Freaks’ Is Lazy and Inaccurate

Calling Directors Like 'Gone Girl's David Fincher 'Control Freaks' Is Lazy and Inaccurate

David Fincher likes to do a lot of takes. It’s well known that Fincher is an demanding, meticulous perfectionist who will go up to 100 takes if it means getting the scene right. That’s led to him making some of the most acclaimed Hollywood films of the past two decades, but it’s also earned him the reputation of being a “control freak” among producers, actors, and media types. But is that label fair or accurate?

In a piece titled “Stop Calling David Fincher a ‘Control Freak,'” Jason Bailey of Flavorwire wrote that the “control freak” tag has gotten out of hand, and that it’s seeped into evaluations of Fincher off-set as well as on, without any basis in fact. Anne Thompson (who, full disclosure, is another Indiewire blogger) noted that Fincher was “typically controlling” during the NYFF’s “Gone Girl” press conference, telling the press not to film the conference or shares spoilers. Bailey says this is inaccurate:

First off, to be clear, speaking as someone who was in the first row of that press conference: Fincher wasn’t being “controlling” (typically or otherwise) during the 35-minute news conference following “Gone Girl’s” press and industry screening. He barely talked through the first half of it; when he did discuss “spoilers,” he did so jokingly, most memorably in a very funny back-and-forth with Rosamund Pike that culminated with her telling the assembled press core, “Don’t quote us!” I was able to double-check that exchange via my audio recording of the event, which of course I and any other journalist there was “allowed” to make (wouldn’t be much of a press conference otherwise!); the restriction on the event was that we weren’t allowed to make videorecordings, presumably due to the studio’s piracy concerns. Asked for comment, a representative for the Film Society of Lincoln Center confirmed, “We’re going along with the studio’s wishes in that case.” 

Bailey continues to say that the “control freak” label totally misunderstands what a director does:

But labeling these precise, meticulous filmmakers “control freaks” is not only downright silly; it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what a director does. Calling them “controlling” is like calling an actor “overly dramatic.” It is quite literally their job to focus on every detail, to create an environment conducive to capturing their vision, and to do it until they get it right. Does Fincher go overboard? Who knows! We’re not there. But what we are able to observe is the fruits of directors’ labor — and Fincher (like Kubrick before him) is clearly doing something that works.

To be fair, most directors don’t necessarily emulate Fincher’s level of exactitude, though few  follow Clint “One Take” Eastwood’s example either; most would probably fall somewhere in the middle of two approaches. But “control freak” implies that directors like Fincher, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott or whoever are outright dictatorial and unwilling to view their actors as collaborators, which is a gross exaggeration of their methods and aims. It paints them as people who want things an exact way because of some dumb power play rather than a desire to get the scene right. Hell, Kubrick would have actors try dozens of approaches until they got the one that surprised or intrigued him.

And where does the “control freak” label begin or end? What separates Fincher from Martin Scorsese, who’s also a perfectionist and actually has OCD tendencies but never gets called out for being a control freak. Is it because Scorsese’s own perfectionist methods don’t rankle actors used to getting in and getting done quickly? Even then, as many of the actors who have worked with Fincher have praised him as complained about his methods, if not more. Some have signed up to work with him multiple times, while others marvel at his ability to keep everything in the frame in his head in order to determine whether or not they’ve nailed the scene as a team.

There’s a better way to describe Fincher’s methods and choices if one finds the results airless or lacking spontaneity, but it requires more work on the part of the writer. What’s strange is the “control freak” label is being used by people who like Fincher’s work as well. Bailey cited a number of publications that have called Fincher a “control freak,” and all were from writers who seemed enthusiastic about his work. Thompson liked “Gone Girl,” saying that “it works–even at two and a half hours.” The 2011 Wired article Bailey cites, timed to the release of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” praises him for his “bleak yet captivating visions.” The New Yorker article cited in Bailey’s piece, meanwhile, came in 2010 from David Denby, who, after calling Fincher “a demon on the set,” named “The Social Network” the best film of that year. At this point, “control freak” becomes less a lazy pejorative and more a lazy way to punch up an article.

If a writer, as Bailey says, wants to engage with how an apparently obsessive director makes films about the dangers of obsession, fine. If they want to talk about how his methods don’t work for them, fine. “Control freak,” though, is as empty a criticism as “pretentious” or “quirky” and as meaningless a label as “Oscar-worthy.” Better to spend a little more time working on a better description than to oversimplify someone as an artist and a person.

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