Here are some of the highlights:
On when he knew he wanted to be a director
I was fairly convinced at the age of eight that’s that what I wanted to do with my life. And when I was living in Marin [County] my next door neighbor was George Lucas and I was that
close to movies that were being made. Then my parents decided to tear us out of there and take us to this place [in Oregon] where there was no cinema except for this little cinema. I worked after school directing plays and doing lighting for plays and at night, from six to midnight, one in the morning, I was a projectionist. At the weekends I would shot E&G footage for a local television station. If a barn was burning down I was the guy out there trying to get a shot of it. So I worked in a movie theatre because I wanted to see movies and I wanted to really watch them over and over again, and I worked at the TV station to learn how to use a camera. I remember I saw “Being There” 160 times, I saw “All That Jazz
” 200 times, I saw “1941” 200 times, whatever was there that was interesting I would just watch it. [Watching those movies] I was, “Why are they doing it this way?” Because from the time I was eight I made Super 8 movies and the dominos were starting to fall for me about coverage and over the shoulders shots and how you knit a scene together.
On why he knows everyone’s job better than they do
[In the early days] being on sets and watching how shit went down, I watched a lot of directors get rope-a-doped. I could see that they wanted to be able to execute something and the “experts” who were hired to help and support them would go, “We don’t really have the time for that.” So I watched talented people I liked and I admired get spun and worked, and I vowed never to let that happen. I was like, “I want to know what every muthafucker in the room does. I never wanted to be the guy who was victimized by other people’s laziness. So I haunted the hallways at ILM and would hang out in the optical department and I would go into editorial and I would go into the animation department.
On his days directing music videos
Music videos were a film school in that you had to sign off on budget, you had to deliver it in so many days for X, Y and Z, but the difference is the star of your short film is also the studio, they were paying for it. And you learned pretty quickly how to work with them in order to make them take risks. And you learned to follow the talent, find out what they can do, find out what they’re great at, find out what they’re not so good at. You’re caging an amoeba, you’re trying to make sure that they can do stuff that a) you can do and that you can help them do, but also keep them away from doing anything foolish because there were videos from that period that literally ended recording artists’ careers.
On how he initially wanted Ned Beatty to play John Doe in “Seven”
I wanted and Andy [Kevin Walker, screenwriter] wanted, originally, Ned Beatty. He loved this idea, and I think it was kind of oddly based on the police drawing of “Zodiac,” this guy with a crew cut and horn-rim glasses. That was the vision, that he should look like a postman, so we sent it to Ned Beatty, and Ned Beatty called me and said, “I can’t play this, this is the most evil thing I’ve ever read.” And I went, “Okay.” Then [Kevin] Spacey came in and read and killed it and we were, “He’s the guy” and New Line said, “His quotes are too high.” So we continued to read people and finally we were shooting and Brad said, “What’s going on with Spacey? Are we going to get Spacey?” I said, “They’re running me around the block on his quote.” He said, “Fuck that.” And he got on the phone and said, “You’ve got to get Kevin Spacey
!” And they said, “Okay.”… It pays to be blond.
On “Fight Club”’s marketing issues
I don’t make movies in spite of the people who pay for them. I don’t fund my own films and the people who do fund them, they’re not tricked or drugged or kept in the cellar, we report to them on a daily basis, you show them the dallies. “Fight Club” was a movie that half the financing fell out before we shot it. And Bill Mechanic, to his credit, said, “I’m making this movie.” And Laura Ziskin, may she rest in peace, was there every step of the way, saying, “Keep going, we love the dallies, it’s amazing.’’ And the subversive nature of it, they knew what we were doing. I storyboarded the entire movie. I could take them through the entire thing and say, “Here’s where we’re going to feel a little weird, and this is going to be a little bit sickening and this is a tiny bit misogynist.”
We walked them through it and they were, “Okay, okay, we’re ready to take some risks.” When we cut the movie together and showed them the final thing is the first time everybody realized they were going to get fired. “What’s the poster here? How do we get people to see this?” Marketing said: “Men don’t want to see Brad Pitt with his shirt off and women don’t want to see him bloody, so you’re kind of fucked.” They devised a campaign for the film to sell it to people watching the World Wrestling Federation. I wanted to sell it as a satire. Madness. The biggest thing that we had was the exit polls were like “That’s not a fuckin’ fighting movie, that movie’s really homo!” People go to the movies to see what they haven’t seen before. Call me a radical.
On his propensity for shooting multiple takes
Here’s my philosophy. You spend $250,000 on a set, you’re putting on a soundstage that costs $5,000 a day, you put in $8,000 worth of lights, and you’re going to bring in $150,000 crew in. You’re going to bring in actors from all over the world, put them in hotels, and they’re going to come there with the idea to get them out as soon as possible. That doesn’t make sense to me, because we watch movies to see behavior that we can relate to. We watch stories to see the most concise, most layered, most nuanced… If I fly you in from Iceland, I want to make sure we get it. I want it to be about finding those little things. Often times they’re mistakes… There’s a point in time whenever an actor says, “I’m sorry, I’m lost, can we start again…” they were great, right before they pull the pin on the whole thing, they were great.
And there’s another aspect to it. There’s 90 people on a set, there’s boom operators, camera operators, there’s a focus puller, and you do something many, many times, it’s the ballet of it, how people fit together. A dolly grip for me is almost more important that some of the actors because that person can kill you and kill how you proceed somebody [into a room] and when move to somebody and when you land in a room, that, to me, is very, very important, the spatial relationships between the person pushing the dolly and the actors, they have to dance, and so to go in and say, “we’ve got to get out of this in three,” just seems nuts.
On working with your actors
I’m not one of these directors who think, “I could do that [acting].” I could not fucking do that in my life, and to me if you can help them be great, everybody wins, that’s the point, that’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re shooting, we’re shooting to make all of this great. You’ve got to get them on the same page, you got to get in the same world, in the same timbre, meter, the camera is going to trap them in amber for all time. Acting is ultimately about generosity. I want actors to be selfish in their authorship of the character that they’re playing and absolutely a thousand per cent generous to the other person just to their right who is doing the same thing. I have to create an environment where they can do that.
On originally passing on “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”
Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall [who produced “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button”] were this
close to buying that book two years before a movie got made — Niels’ movie — longer than that. So they sent it to me, and I read enough of it to say, “This movie’s gonna cost a lot of money, no fucking studio’s gonna make this.” And we’d already pushed this brick up a hill for seven years with “Benjamin Button,” so I was, “Please, let’s not do this.” Then it came back around right as I was finishing “Social Network,” and Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin bought it and said, “Do you want to get on the plane and go to Sweden and make this movie?” And I said, “Yeah.”
On “Gone Girl” and Gillian Flynn’s adaptation
I do think that the movie, in terms of its structure, in terms of what Gillian was able to do, was she took this massive 500 page book and threw 380 pages away and came up with this terrain that I had never seen described in a movie before, which is it begins as a mystery, it becomes an absurdist thriller and then ultimately it becomes satire, and I’d never seen anybody try to juggle those things and do it, so it’s a high wire act and it’s interesting in that respect. She has a real gift. She’s truly special. There’s a thing with screenwriters when they get really good at it, they tend to hold their stories at arm’s length like a petri dish and sort of spin it, and they’re masterful at it. And the thing about Gillian is she can [hold it as arm’s length] but she much prefers being the thirteen-year-old girl with a bucket of popcorn. She has great love of her characters and equal amounts of disdain and she comes down on either side of the fence and rides that plot.
On the differences between film and TV
Television has become the place for characters to evolve. There’s very little time in movies anymore for characterization. [In movies] you’re giving people plot that they put in their backpack and they accrue their way through that narrative, and I think television is a place where characters can be slowly peeled and revealed.
On what makes cinema great
We tell stories. It takes titanium and aluminum and steel and glass and lasers to do one thing, to impart feeling, that’s all we do, to strangers. We want to impart that feeling for everyone in the audience at the exact same time. That’s the magic of cinema. But it takes all of those pieces of technology to deliver this thing and you want it all in service of that moment… I remember being nine years old and watching “Rear Window” with my dad and Raymond Burr walks out in the middle of the night with a suitcase and I’m nine years old and I said, “He killed her and cut her up.” And I look back at that and think, “How the fuck did I get that idea?” That’s cinema. Cinema is when you put an idea in somebody else’s head. Or you put an idea in 700 people’s heads at the same time.