Few film books in recent memory made waves like Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, a too-rare melange of authorial talent, topical interest, and opulent presentation. Last year Nayman and I spoke at length about the tome that no doubt you’ve seen in bookstores (big and small alike) since.
Nayman has returned with David Fincher: Mind Games, another Abrams-published doorstop on another double-capital-A American Auteur, lined again with essays that surprise in their capacity to find new perspectives and provocative readings on films for which there seemed no more room. Finally able to converse in-person—thus, you’ll (please) read, at greater length—we sat down for a talk on writing thousands of words on someone for whom a consistent critical standing is tougher than meets the eye.
The Film Stage: I was looking at our interview from last year, where you said something that keyed me into this book: you have a desire to write about “directors who realize [their] intentions very successfully.” Interesting in light of Mind Games, which has much ambivalence and balance in assessing Fincher’s path. There’s a kind of omnipotence to the writing, in that you’re trying to take every piece into account—and when you do so it’s often conflicted.
Adam Nayman: Yeah, I think that’s really true. I think that, with Fincher, what I said about intentions holds true. The caveat being that I’m so taken with him when those intentions are realized [Laughs]—that in the films where he realizes intentions in a somewhat hollow way, or films where intention seems to exceed execution—I’m interested in them as part of the package. So on the one hand you could say, “To give the best possible face on David Fincher, should this just be a book on the procedurals that form the spine of his career?” Do you write about Seven, Zodiac, and Mindhunter in conversation with each other and say, “This is the best execution he’s capable of within a thematic and genre framework”?
But that’s not comprehensive; that’s not an overview. So you do find yourself writing about the intentions, realized or not, of a filmmaker who’s nothing if not intentional, nothing if not omnipotent, and if you conclude that the results are mixed—like I tried to—not only am I being honest about my own taste and reception and not trying to totalize this into auteur worship; I think it’s interesting that the one thing he both can totally control but not transubstantiate is his own material. I quote one of the best critics, Mark Asch, who when he reviewed Dragon Tattoo had a line I pulled out of an L Magazine review: “People are saying The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is material beneath David Fincher. At what point does that become his fault?”
And I like that question—not because I fully agree with every implication of it. I mostly agree that that’s not a very good book. I guess if I think he’s a good director and it’s a bad book, I guess I kind of agree it’s beneath him. But I’m not sure if that’s a question of fault or a question of deliberate strategy to pick something that lets him do some good things as a filmmaker. And I’m not sure if it’s somebody’s fault. I’m not sure if somebody who makes a movie that makes $300 million feels like they fucked up. [Laughs] That’s a critic’s dilemma.
Yeah. $300 million from a 160-minute R-rated movie based on a novel “for adults.”
But I do feel like that tension between filmmaker and material—and that tension between the myth and reality of Fincher’s control vs. the fact that he doesn’t generate the material—makes him so different from, say, the Coens, who generate that material from a place of almost unfathomable twin-cerebral-wavelength kind of genius. Like, where does this come from? We know where it comes from: they steal it from a hundred other things. But it’s theirs. With Anderson, it’s sometimes adaptation, sometimes homage, but it’s nothing if he doesn’t think of it. He’s putting what he wants to put onscreen.
Fincher puts what he wants to put onscreen, but it’s not always his. Is his auteurism one that makes other things his? Is the limit of his authorship that he can’t always personalize things? Is it a signature, as I write in the introduction, or a monogram? A barcode? What does it mean to say he directed a movie other than the fact that he did? I think if I come up with ambivalence about that—if that’s what came through in reading it—I’m very happy. Very happy.
It was a funny thing. Sometimes it felt like being tricked: “Oh, that one he really likes.” Then you come in with “However, this is clearly bullshit.” You write really positively about Benjamin Button, a movie many don’t know what to do with…
…and as you’re really in the heart of praising it you note uncomfortable racial elements—which comes up about a few movies—and challenge Fincher’s words on the audio commentary, which you call “disingenuous at best.” It reminds me of how the Anderson book, despite being called Masterworks, didn’t treat each film as such.
There is a bit of a trick… or not a trick. If people think the book is a failure it’s not a trick—it’s the locus of the failure—but there’s a fetishism to these books as auteurist objects. I couldn’t believe it last year when David Bordwell took time to write about my book, because I’ve been studying Bordwell since film school. He wrote very positively but talked about how, in some ways, the form of the book—the shape, glossiness, illustrations that are commissioned in the style of the film, and the title—they become fannish. He mentions that sometimes there’s tension with the writing and sometimes there’s not. One thing about this book, design-wise, is that you’ll notice less of those interstitial art bits.
There’s reason for that, both intentional and not, but as a result I think it feels more focused and dour. There’s no flights of fancy and romanticizations of how these movies might look in another format or how an artist might reproduce them. There’s a series of portraits that are pretty severe: they suggest head-to-head conflict in the movie and tension within the movies. None speak to these movies in terms of lyricism or stray details. With the Anderson book, we took off from the idea that, in these movies, there’s so much stuff flying around you sometimes wish you could see a movie about a two-second thing. We tried to do that with some of the art. Same with the Coens, which was very digressive with the design.
The Fincher book’s designed as a bit of a dossier and draws connections, parallels, and commonalities between the films, but I think the overall package feels a bit less celebratory. So there’s maybe a better launching pad for that kind of distinctiveness between a shiny, glossy, purchasable object and the idea that a critic is completely onboard. And I do try—sometimes deep in the heart of praising something—to sound that cautionary note, but I also try in this book… something like Dragon Tattoo, that chapter turns itself around in a different way.
At the beginning I say it’s a real collection of his usual stuff strung opportunistically around a bestseller—which, by the way, sucks—and a movie that invites a lot of skepticism about what he’s doing making it. But in writing about it I found I turned myself around on it, and I found there were things in the collaboration with Rooney Mara, in the incredible precision and focus and linearity of the moviemaking, that didn’t just redeem it for me; I found myself quite invested in it while writing about it. And I surprised myself with that. Because when I saw that film on its release I thought it was awful. Sometimes you want to surprise your reader, sometimes you surprise yourself when you look at a movie more than once.
Is that surprise more present here than in the Coen or PTA books?
With the Coens I’m not surprised because I’m in the bag for them. I don’t profess to have a special understanding of their work, but my understanding of their work is special to me.
I care very much. With Anderson I talked a lot in that book—or hinted a lot, maybe—about not being on board with him when I was younger and kind of growing into an appreciation of his movies, or his movies grew and changed in a way that’s closer to my appreciation. With Fincher I guess I kind of wanted to be surprised, and I ended up being surprised—because I knew that the wraparound title to this book was going to have to be Mank before I saw Mank. Which is just a question of timing.
This was a book signed off on and commissioned and agreed on right as COVID was hitting, and was to some extent occasioned by the fact that the previous two books had done well and people liked them—which I’m proud of, but which also creates a certain pressure about wanting to live up to them without duplicating them. And then there’s this question of how the narrative around Mank is going to affect this book, because before anyone saw the film it’s like: was this going to be a career high mark? Was this going to be a film that gets him an Oscar?
And in some ways the two narratives kind of happened, which is that: it did get a huge amount of industry praise and traction, but because it’s a Netflix film, its release is so ephemeral and probably left less of a mark than almost any of his other movies. The same way Netflix films by these great directors—even Buster Scruggs and The Irishman—have an ephemerality to them separate from their quality or lack thereof. And it’s a film that, in some ways, turned parts of film culture around and against him in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated when I started the book. Gone Girl was seven years ago and had been inflated to almost mythic levels of online memeification and affection, which I think it deserves. But it wasn’t the kind of film-cultural acclaim where the old heads and keepers of the critical flame really cared—like, “People like Gone Girl. Good for them.”
Mank, I think, reawakened the elder gods of criticism to say the same stuff they said about Fincher at the beginning: he’s a callow carpetbagger who’s out of his depth. And the cool kids weren’t nuts about it either, though there were pockets of people who saw it and ignored the negativity, or people who saw it a little later, after the first cycle, and said, “People are overreacting.” But there were three or four weeks when people were seeing it, it was coming out and I’m writing this book, that were challenging. To the point that even a really ambivalent, mixed piece—like the one I wrote in Ringer—came down on the positive side of the ledger. Not because it seemed diffused with deep passion for the movie, but because what was being written on the other side was not good.
I saw Mank just before it came out. Don’t know any responses to it, going in fresh. I’m watching it and after 35 minutes realize I’m literally tapping my foot. “I think this is a dud.” I just wrote a review that however-many people read, after which it sits on a website; you’re writing about it for a hardcover book and interviewing those who made the movie. It’ll be preserved. With the PTA book, Phantom Thread was, what, a few years old?
A year old when I started writing.
Whereas you’re watching a watermarked screener of this director’s new movie. So what’s it like to see it and realize you maybe don’t like it that much?
Well… you get in and zero in, I think, when you watch that movie. It’s about posterity. Posterity. The test of time. Credit. The further you get away from when movies are made, the bigger the myths can grow about them and the less certainty people have about these things. Citizen Kane is a movie with a big-enough myth that 70 or 80 years later David Fincher can make Mank. Mank won’t leave a big-enough myth that, in 80 years, somebody’s going to make Finch. I mean, I’m being glib when I say that, but I’m also saying there’s a reverse-gravitational field here. Mank, I think, is Fincher’s grab for posterity in certain ways because it’s by his dad. I think to some extent it’s about his dad; he said in some interviews he didn’t think he could make it at 30 and is happier he could make it at 60.
But that’s interesting in a very self-contained way to the reception of this movie. I don’t think it’s more than a blip in 2021 film history, to say nothing of film history as a whole. You have this movie that’s all about posterity, that itself is weirdly ephemeral because of Netflix—how quickly people get over it because of how cycles move—so that is at least an interesting thing to write about. And there’s also writing about a perfectionist who’s weirdly sloppy, and trying to sort out the reasons for that sloppiness. Trying to sort out why the audio-visual aspects of this movie are simultaneously incredibly specific—they know more about editing and montage and percussion and sound-recording than any normal person does—but they’re not put in a way that’s terribly coherent.
Even the interviews, including a wonderful interview [Erik] Messerschmidt gave in the book, I found the answers were oddly all over the place, sometimes evasive. I think they were honest, but it’s hard to square someone as smart as Fincher saying he wanted something that looks like it came out of Scorsese’s basement…
…and the fact that it simply doesn’t. And trying to use that—these little cracks in the period fetishism of it—to open up into the one way that, maybe, the movie kind of works. And the one way the movie maybe kind of works is as a bold-faced, broad-based cautionary tale about image-making, and that image-making yoked to dangerous ideology, or image-making undoing progressive ideology. Right? Where whether it’s opportunism or good luck, Jack Fincher, when he wrote this thing, couldn’t have anticipated the Sanders campaign, but the editors of that film and creators in the promotion cycle glommed onto that as a way to contemporize and, I think, give the film a certain urgency.
And I quote, writing in the book, from hardcore socialist journals—former DSA leader of America and all that. They like the film. And in some ways they like the film for the most obvious reasons: it’s on their side and not someone else’s. But even the idea of Fincher as a political filmmaker… that’s a pamphlet, not a book. So in that sense I think Mank is interesting.
To get back to that idea of a perfectionist being sloppy: I think it’s the rare case of a movie… and I don’t know David Fincher. I think having him as a structuring absence in this book has an effect, the same way the Coens and Anderson not being in my book do too. But I think Mank, in a strange way, seems like a movie made with a huge amount of love. And there are a lot of people—people who wrote the most viciously about that—who don’t want to hear that. Or if they do they’ll shrug it off and say “who fucking cares?”
What’s the line in Seven Morgan Freeman says—“all that passion all over the wall.” In this case it’s love. Who cares? When I watch the last stretch of the film—all these guys coming out to see Herman on the ranch, saying “are you sure you want to do this” and he sticks to his guns—you can’t help perceiving Fincher feeling, maybe, for his father and for what his father represented to him as a guy of another age: a two-barrelled, double-fisted journalist.
You talk about it as a film made with a slight lack of confidence.
I find those aspects of the film quite beguiling and fascinating. I credit a guy who I follow on Letterboxd, Collin Brinkmann. He noticed a little catch in Oldman’s voice at the very end, when Herman’s giving his shitty line to Welles—”I accept this in the spirit it was written: without Orson Welles”—and Oldman kind of goes “how was that?” It’s caught between the two loud things he says. It’s an acting moment; I don’t think it replicates the audio of the speech. And that idea that, even at the end, in his smugness and moral victory in getting credit, he’s still not sure how he’s performing the role of the irritant. It’s a somewhat provisional question being asked of him.
And when I hear that being asked on behalf of the movie—whether it’s Fincher’s intention or not—there’s something about it that becomes very interesting to me. It doesn’t make it a good movie or better movie. But the idea that maybe it’s not a film made with total confidence, or maybe it’s confidence is tempered by other things… it’s interesting to me. Especially because he’s such a bulletproof filmmaker elsewhere. Where, actually, some of the other movies you kind of want to chip away at, but the certainty of technique is such that it feels futile.
You ascribe a certain ironclad quality to The Social Network, which I think with time has proven—as both film and document of its subject—fairly imperfect.
I’ve rewatched it a couple times doing this book. Wrong perspective on Facebook? Sure. Bad scriptwriting by Sorkin under the guise of good scriptwriting? Always. Lousy female characters? Yeah. A movie that, in some ways, is more on Zuckerberg’s side than people want to admit. Just ask Fincher—he’ll tell you. And you know what? That movie is bulletproof. I don’t care. It’s so successfully realized for what it is and the quality of its execution is so high. You’re not going to get very far with me saying it’s a bad movie. All those things I just said about it are reasons why it should be kind of bad, reasons why its status should drop. But: no. It just works like fucking gangbusters.
I read your chapter on The Social Network the day of the “Metaverse” launch. So many directions reading that, thinking about the movie, seeing the launch, and remembering what Aaron Sorkin said after winning a Golden Globe.
What did he say?
“Rooney Mara’s character makes a prediction at the beginning of the movie. She was wrong. You turned out to be a great entrepreneur, a visionary, and an incredible altruist.” Funny how that was sort of… it was right in front of us the whole time. Him standing before all of Hollywood and saying “Mark Zuckerberg is good.” It’s as if Mank accepting his Oscar said “There are some misconceptions about William Randolph Hearst.” It’s insane to think about.
Well, supposedly there were times where Mankiewicz, maybe in an abstract way, would praise Hearst when Welles would not. But The Social Network I just think is interesting in its relationship to power. This is a filmmaker you might not expect me to bring up, but let’s bring them all up so people read this interview. You look at Pablo Larraín, for instance, who’s gotten away with—on the strength of one-and-a-half good movies—convincing people he’s a satirist of power. He gets off on it. He gets off on the proximity to it, and the fanciness is what he’s interested in. He’s like Sorrentino in that way, except he’s better than Sorrentino.
Fincher in Social Network, I think it’s very clear: it’s not the deluxe trappings of power he’s interested in, because he evades them. He’s interested in the mechanism whereby an idea becomes realized and sold to be successful, because he’s a former adman. He’s not interested in political power. His dispatch and remove gives The Social Network plausible deniability as to whether it’s a hero’s narrative or not. Right? He makes it like a docudrama. The telling and staging of it is mesmerizing because what it’s about is actually interesting. Fictionalized or not, it’s like a thriller—more than his actual thrillers are because you don’t have the release valve of neo-Nazi rapists and serial murderers. That stuff lets you breathe, I find, and you can laugh when that shit happens. In Social Network, not.
I think, in a way, when I read Fincher say he identifies with Zuckerberg or sees the early days of Facebook being close to the early days of Propaganda, I suspend judgement on that because—within the space of the movie he’s made—if that lets him have the investment to make the material that way, great. I think Social Network is a self-contained great film that doesn’t hold up under other kinds of questioning. So it depends on which way you want to qualify it. If you say it’s a great film and the other stuff doesn’t matter? No. Does the other stuff make it any less of an impressive achievement for a director, in how it’s put together? Absolutely not.
That’s the difference between it and Mank. What’s wrong with Mank isn’t that it gets dates wrong; it’s not that Orson Welles didn’t say that but Herman Mankiewicz did say that; it’s not that Hearst was that much worse of anti-semite. It’s just that the urgency’s off. It’s not there. Mank’s principle stand against whatever or his guilt about accidentally becoming a cog in the machine theoretically works on the page, but on the screen—as you say—you’re tapping your foot. Social Network, the urgency he has to get home after that shitty break-up and amplify his anger at himself for losing his girlfriend into this participatory, scapegoating ritual of ugliness—not only is it incredibly compelling. Even if it has the wrong angle on this 21st-century origin myth, it’s the right movie to make. Can’t imagine it being made better, and if you want to imagine it being made worse, watch Steve Jobs. Which is a bad Fincher movie.
Almost was a Fincher movie.
And his version of it probably would have been materially better. But Boyle is doing a Fincher—playing with formats, playing with aspect ratios, going for a Fincherian tightness—and that’s where you can talk in terms of relativism. Fincher’s never going to be Renoir, Straub, or Elaine May. He’s not going to be a million things, and the million things he’s not going to be are all the things he isn’t.
When you see people try and be what he is—the kind of commercial filmmaking he has achieved and sustained at a high level—maybe it doesn’t become impressive at all if you don’t want it, but if you acknowledge it as valid and there’s a lot of people trying to make movies like this, they’re chasing him. And I don’t think anyone, when he’s good… it’s not just that no one’s caught him and wrestled him to the ground. When he’s good he outpaces the people who want to make movies like him, American and otherwise. He laps them. When he’s good.
There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in him striking a Netflix deal. There’s the Anonymous Content mold, so much bad Netflix material trying to ape Fincher with the desaturated colors, hard lines of widescreen compositions.
All of it.
I don’t think it’s terrible he went there. It gave us Mindhunter, which I like, and I’m looking forward to this next movie. And maybe Mank was a great thing—he had to get it out of his system. But it is funny seeing him have a huge impact on American visual culture while he’s not per se a household name.
No, he’s not. That’s true. And I like the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy,” because his music videos—which I tried to write about as well as I could here—the distinctive style that got him hired is Fincher. To the consumer who are not hiring him—they’re watching MTV and buying the CD—the style belongs to the artist. Right? So the house style of artists like Madonna, Paula Abdul, Steve Winwood—they gave their images over to Fincher. He did really, really well to keep himself getting hired, because when people watch music videos they go, “I want that.” But for the viewers, they see the artist and go, “I want that.”
His videos are not so conceptual, but they erase the artist. And when they’re hugely conceptual they’re in service of huge artists. “Express Yourself” especially would overwhelm anybody—except it’s Madonna. So actually that video is just keeping pace with how fucking huge Madonna was. It’s like Fritz Lang and Ridley Scott and incredibly loaded racial, sexual, gender imagery. It would overwhelm another artist. “Why is this director hijacking the video?” Well, no: it’s Madonna. Madonna in 1989. Of course it’s huge. “Freedom 90,” which you could argue is the best thing David Fincher has ever directed—if you believe in brevity, getting shit in in six minutes. It’s maybe the best thing he’s ever directed.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.
It’s incredible. Watch it when you get home. It’s brilliant. It’s brilliant on behalf of George Michael. Doesn’t mean Fincher’s self-effacing—just that the visual style is striking and captivating, and works on behalf of the song. When he does “Love Is Strong” and turns the Rolling Stones into Godzilla attacking New York, that’s about the Stones. So I think you’re right: a huge impact on visual culture without necessarily being a household name. For the people who fight over him, I guess the question is what kind of household name is he. Is he a brand? Is he an appliance? [Laughs] What is he?
A utility. But when he’s feeling himself—even in a movie that, it’s accurate, I should have the most conflicted feelings about because it really is about a conflicted consciousness—you look at Fight Club and go both what’s wrong about that movie and, “I’m going to go in the unexpected direction.” The expected direction is to say, “This is what works about it but here’s the problem.” I would turn it around and say, “The problem with Fight Club is obviously a kind of Adbusters, Vice, energy-drink obnoxiousness that is both totally millennial and it generated the wrong fanbase.” But you find me a movie from that period—and now we have distance—that understood the language of advertising, and understood the way that ideas take root, how they are presented visually, and the way ideas are performed and spoken. I don’t know if it’s a question of it looking good, but it’s unmatched.
Yeah, it’s a monument to itself.
It’s a monument to itself but it’s a looming monument. It’s funny, because it and Magnolia are so similar, but I would argue that Magnolia has left nothing except for the rebirth of the artist out of it.
No arguments here.
If you care about it you care because you’re gathering your feelings on Anderson and looking at the career. It’s not left anything. Fight Club really did, when it had those 20th-anniversary pieces looking at it, “Well, actually, yeah. Weirdly, the things this movie are about—not just the what, but the how—I can’t put this away. It feels gaping and open.” Even its obnoxiousness is significant.
I haven’t seen Fight Club in more than 12 years, when I was 16. I don’t need to tell you—look where I’m sitting—that between the ages of 14 and 16 I watched Fight Club enough times to internalize it. And I was surprised, speaking with the highest compliments, what your essay awoke: the extent to which it’s unmistakably great. In so many ways.
In so many ways.
Just looking at it like: “shit. Obviously one of the most monumental American movies of my lifetime.” It’s not a question. Doesn’t mean you have to defend or exalt or argue for it, but I’m rewatching clips and, if nothing else, knowing I like it more than I realized. I felt like I was reading something on it that wasn’t old hat.
I appreciate it. I tried with that one; it’s a hard one. Because I am hard-wired at age 20 to despise that film, because it felt important to dislike it. It felt like a blow against the… ironization and the… degrading of an American cinema that I wanted to believe in and discover. Right? So I’m watching Fight Club in 1999; my brain is telling me, “You shouldn’t like this. You should be watching Cassavetes. Why aren’t you catching up on all the John Ford movies because the first three or four you saw were great, so you should be seeing more. Why do people like this?” It’s a very reactionary reason, on one level, to dislike a movie that’s deceptively reactionary in a political sense. I didn’t think the movie was dangerous, but I felt like the idea that the movie was dangerous was dangerous, and people were being seduced into liking something that seems hip and subversive but, ultimately, is kind of pandering.
I’m not sure, on the whole, that that total view of Fight Club is wrong—but on the other hand, looking back on it, you don’t want to necessarily praise a movie for catching their time, because a lot of bad movies are products of their time. Fincher coming out of commercials and music videos to make a movie that essentially uses that mode of address and a certain rock ‘n’ roll, punk ethos as a means of indoctrination. It’s suggesting that even revolt and social rebellion can just be an attempt to get you to buy something.
The idea in Fight Club that really the Brad Pitt character doesn’t have ideas beyond Edward Norton—he’s a figment of the drone’s imagination, so all he can imagine is franchising terrorism—is not ever meant to be provable; it’s meant to be self-defeating. And when the capitalist towers tumble at the end, Fincher doesn’t shoot it as a new beginning; it’s fruitless, pointless, a symbolic rather than meaningful sort of apocalypse. I think the movie is all about rude gestures without real catharsis or release or change. In that sense I don’t see it as neutered or futile; I think it’s really smart. And I think it puts that across with what, 20 years later, I just recognized as amazing showmanship. Because we don’t have showmanship anymore.
You at 20 thinking it’s a warning sign for American cinema and, obvious point to make, if you could look ahead 22 years to see where we are now…
Fincher’s showmanship is of a particular variety—sometimes a kind of dour showmanship. He’s not a joyful filmmaker. But there’s parts of Fight Club where I find myself responding, 20 years later, to the exuberance. The movie he mentioned in certain interviews that I think would make you distrust it is The Graduate, because I find The Graduate pretty smug and don’t think it’s much of a late-60s counter-cultural comment. When he mentions Lolita, trying to adapt Fight Club and trying to bring something as subversive as possible to a studio and get funding for it, I soften a little bit and sort of go, “That’s pretty funny.”
I find myself looking back on all those interviews, all those pieces about how the hell Fight Club got made, and admiring his brio, and admire him for following through and pulling it out—for making something video stores didn’t necessarily want to stock, or someone as humorless as that guy writing in the U.K. would call “a fascist movie.” Maybe it’s that, in middle age, I’m longing for being an annoying teenager again. It kind of makes me want to like Fight Club, whereas when I was an annoying teenager I was like “stay away.”
Talking about Fincher’s craft is very fun. You don’t want it to get too gear-headed and tech-heavy because then you alienate a certain set of your readership, and you alienate yourself because that’s not my first language for writing about films. But it’s hard to write about technique because we’re so used to adjectivizing it. “This person has great technique. This person has precise technique.” I mean, how many adjectives can you find sometimes? So actually sometimes describing not just the technique—which we all kind of agree on—but trying to describe the ideas, the sensibilities, the intentions, or weirdly compelling shapes these movies take, sometimes, outside their own plot I think is necessary in this case. Like I said: I don’t think anyone’s going to get too far with him if they say “David Fincher can’t put a movie together.” Who says that?
Though there’s well-placed criticism from others. You buttress your skepticism.
One of the negative voices I invoke in the book—on both him and PTA—is Armond White. Because at least with Armond, he understands music-video form and film form, and when he mounts an argument against Fincher he’s intertwining Fincher’s form, kind of, with his ideology. But critics don’t really write about ideology that much. Maybe they write in terms of “correctness” or decency or representation. The problem with Fincher Armond saw a long time ago was a perverse nihilism and veneration of hipness above all. And… not wrong. So the question is: is that a deal-breaker? Are there things in the movie that kind of work against that? I think it was a lot easier in the early ’90s—and it’s not just Armond—to see him as an incursion against a kind of classical filmmaking style he was going to wreck along with all the other music-video directors.
But by the time he makes Seven, the smart critics—like Amy Taubin—they see this is not a music-video marauder; this is someone who’s actually reinstating [Laughs] in its weird way, not classical exactly, but a steady, intentional form to genre material. He’s not exploding anything. He’s not lagging behind the real craftspeople and moviemakers. This is not a chaos of incoherence. This is: oh, someone knows how to make a fucking movie. That, to me, is the open-shut case about Seven. Talk all day about morality and excess and gore and cliché and whatever else, but structure, instruction, shape—is there a better thriller in the last… 30 years? 25 years than that? I mean, it’s his second movie. I’m asking it rhetorically, but my rhetorical question comes with an answer in the lining, which is: no, there is not.
There just isn’t something better-built than that. And that’s just not an old mater who tried over and over again. And it’s not a case of great material, because the Seven script is not great material; it’s good material. I think the argument that he transubstantiates his material, that he’s a real artist and makes grist into art, that’s the movie you start with. It’s not the movie you end the argument with, but it’s where I’d start for sure.
And it’s his second movie… well…
It’s his first real movie.
It’s his first movie not made under duress. Few Hollywood productions are more compelling than Alien 3.
Oh, it’s amazing.
I mean, that’s an origin story.
Which is why in the book I try—hopefully without throwing my back out—to say, “Well, in some ways, I wonder what he and Orson Welles would have to say to each other.” Because of the idea of being handed the train set. Welles didn’t have the same problems he had making Citizen Kane—a different set of problems; you could argue a more noble and elevated set of problems—but they both came to Hollywood form from other mediums and immediately asked “why can’t I have it my way?”
Let’s talk about Gone Girl a bit.
I have a friend—I won’t cite who they are; I don’t want to embarrass them—who, when I was working on this book, messaged me. “Have you written about Gone Girl yet?” “Why?” “You need to point out that, formally, this movie is basically as good as Red Desert.” And I’m like, “I probably will not use that exact phrase. But go on.” And just the way that, in Gone Girl, every aspect of location in that town, every palette in the costume design, and every bit of casting—everything—is maniacally on-point.
The idea of fully inhabiting something so rickety and threadbare and kind of hollow as paperback fiction, he inhabits it so fully. He brings it to glorious artifice. Glorious, glorious artifice. Even if it’s monochrome and even if it’s desaturated—it’s not Leave Her to Heaven, Technicolor artifice. I cite that movie very strategically, because I think there’s a bit of Gene Tierney in Rosamund Pike. So maybe it’s not glorious Technicolor artifice, but man is that movie having fun not being real.
You could fit on a bar napkin the number of movies from the last 25 years with Fight Club’s cultural impact. But if it doesn’t quite reach that level, it’s amazing how, 15 years apart, he makes movies that enters the cultural bloodstream to inextricable extents. If you say someone got “gone girled…”
…however spring-loaded that term is, you immediately know what it means. You picture the movie. I love him hitting cultural epicenters at exactly the right moment. And if he is—quoting The Social Network—standing on his shoulders and calling himself tall, he’s pretty tall in his own right.
He is pretty tall in his own right, and I defer—as is often the case with this generation of directors—I mention in the last book the turnaround Kent Jones did on Anderson was pretty interesting, because it felt pretty real-time with my own. I only discovered that retroactively, because when I’m 20 years old I’m not really following Kent Jones. But when I was 25 I was. Jones is the first critic of real substance… well, that’s not true. Nathan Lee wrote really well on Zodiac in the Voice. But Jones in Cinema Scope was the first critic who wrote about Zodiac and Benjamin Button in a way where I went, “These movies are about time. There’s a certain majesty and tragedy and melancholy to them, and he’s describing, fundamentally, a changed artist.” So when Jones wrote about Gone Girl, at that point I’m really paying attention.
Kent said it’s a film about people constantly checking and rechecking their self-presentation. And when you’re watching it you realize two things that are equally important: that within the technological sphere of 2014 that the movie exists in, it’s absolutely true that they are. But they’re doing it in a way that feels more like a movie being made a few years later, and that if it had been made 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 years later—if those things had a bigger role—Fincher would have perfectly handled those things too. Because he handles the comparatively barren social-mediasphere of 2014 perfectly, so the movie doesn’t feel dated now. It’s really of a piece with The Social Network: yeah, this is kind of how people relate to reality now. That’s what ties into that idea of artifice that’s so thrilling.
I don’t think it’s that Gone Girl is artificial and has nothing to say about reality; I think it has an awful lot to say about reality. That’s why the acting in the film is so good: because everybody is always putting things on. The actors give those performances perfectly. I don’t know if Ben Affleck’s a great actor; that’s a great performance. It’s a great performance the way male leads in Hitchcock films were great. I don’t care if that gets pulled out and screencapped on Twitter in two weeks where someone’s like “what a dumb thing to say.” It’s not a dumb thing to say. It’s true. It’s a great performance the way some of Stewart and Grant’s performances for Hitchcock were great. Is it equally as great? Is it exactly the same movie? No, but it’s a kind of star acting. He’s amazing.
What is Fincher’s knowledge of the book?
He’s aware of it. It’s funny: the person I met and befriended too late—you can put this in the piece if you want; I’m not going to say anything wrong—was David Prior. Because Prior worked on all these movies behind the scenes and he’s very close with Fincher. I like David Prior an awful lot. I think The Empty Man is as close as a movie’s come to feeling Fincherian, and not in a way that feels like it’s lagging 40 miles behind, either.
Prior has Fincher’s ear, but I kind of made my peace with it because, in a way, the only one of these three filmmakers that I would ever expect to be in touch or get any feedback from would’ve been the middle one. There’s something about Anderson: it’s not that’s he super-reachable and approachable and God knows we’re not on terms—good, bad, otherwise—but there is a sense, I know, that he’s aware of it, read it, cares. I think; what I’ve been told.
I saw Benjamin Button once, at 15. Supposedly I hadn’t thought about the movie much since then, but reading your piece— at 28, with every standard hurt and disappointment endured between then and now—I was surprised by a) how much was subconsciously lodged and b) how overwhelmed I was just at descriptions. And I thought I can’t watch it—if I do it will decimate me.
When I watched it… not for the book, because when you watch it for the book you’re watching it on your laptop screen. And I was also writing this during a global pandemic when our kid was at home, so you don’t have time to be emotionally invested. You’re just like, “Did I get the cut right that I’m describing?” But when I watched it during the thinking of writing about this book… I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t take it. And in some ways—again, circumstantial to me—that movie has flaws all over the place. They are flaws of concept, adaptation, screenwriting. All the stuff Armond White said about representation in that movie, I’m not going to say they don’t matter. It’s a flawed movie.
But I still… I can’t take some of it. That’s also just the way he translates things into images. There are a couple passages in that movie—three, four minutes—where all the prosaic voiceover and all the Eric Rothisms kind of don’t matter. So if it’s possible to rock with a perfectionist whose work is largely imperfect—if you can rock with that idea—but also sometimes the imperfect movies are not the exception to the rule of him being good, but finding him being good in these other ways that can shock the hell out of you, I think it’s why, for all the book’s ambivalence, there’s obviously beneath that ambivalence an undergirding of care and even, kind of, affection.
Because I will say this too, just to talk about the three books—and we won’t go on forever—but it’s interesting: I don’t think anybody feels proprietary about the Coens because nobody owns those films. They made them. I think you bring your admiration or scorn to them. People feel hugely proprietary about Paul Thomas Anderson—I think because he represents something impulsive and emotional and weird. And there’s an interest in impulsive, emotional, weirdo outsiders in the work that gets people in their teenage feels. I’m not saying that skeptically; I feel it sometimes too.
Fincher, I also don’t think people feel, necessarily, proprietary about. In a way he’s the most one-perfect-shot of all those filmmakers, and it’s more a sort of… I think people feel aspirational about him, from a careerist point of view. He’s a moodboard filmmaker. A lot of filmmakers are like “I want to do that. How can I do that?” More than they maybe feel love for him. He’s also not a super-lovable guy. [Laughs] I haven’t met him. If I ever meet him, I don’t know what I’ll think of him, but he doesn’t go out of his way to be lovable. Anderson’s become so cuddly of late—sweet dad Paul Thomas Anderson.
A funny contrast with him wishing testicular cancer on David Fincher for Fight Club. Interesting writing books about directors who wish cancer on each other.
I know. I mean, the closest Fincher had come to doing something cute—and it was very cute—was during the Golden Globes. When he took a drink every time Mank lost. That was very funny. But yeah, I think maybe what turned people off here—and we’ll have to see what happens next—was the feeling that he wanted the award. I think maybe the Coens never seem like they want awards. They go “thanks” and run away. What did Kelley Dong write? She said Mank feels like an awards ceremony with one nominee. That’s the flipside to posterity: you’re also being made for prestige. When Norton says “I am Jack’s Academy Award clip,” that’s sarcastic; Mank has literal Academy Award clips in it.
And maybe that’s what people, at the end of the day, were so skeptical about. They thought, “Where is the shitty, smarmy guy? Has he grown out of it? Are we going to get that back?” Without, maybe, feeling the way they do with Anderson: that it’s good that he’s gone, because it’s being replaced by real feeling and real emotion and real self-deprecation. Phantom Thread and Gone Girl make a really fascinating conversation about rom-coms, but you did not catch Fincher talking about his marriage when he promoted Gone Girl; he talked about capital-M Marriage. Making a movie about an institution. Whereas Anderson was like, “No, that’s me.”
He keeps a distance. You only know about his personal life if you really look into it.
Every time you read a piece like the one Jonah Weiner wrote—“David Fincher’s Impossible Eye” in the New York Times; all the notes about the anal-retentiveness—I love how every single one of those pieces has to have them moment where Fincher’s like, “I’m not like that” in the middle of 4,000 words. I have material witnesses saying, “No. He’s like that.” So in some ways, every time someone’s like, “Here’s the secret to how he makes movies,” it’s not a secret. In some ways that’s why I tried not to go too deep, in this book, into the cult-of-personality stuff, because man… people are like, “Why didn’t you write more about the commentaries or making-of stuff? Why not the tech.” And I thought: because it’s all kind of out there. I’m just going to be paraphrasing. Who needs me to paraphrase the director commentaries? They’re hilarious. Listen to them. The Fight Club commentary is funnier than the movie, and it’s a funny movie. He’s not really all that mysterious.
That was the thing about Kubrick: because of the era he made things in, it’s all come out now. But at the time people really could stroke their chins after a Kubrick movie and go, “How did he do that?” Fincher can be as reticent as he wants, at times, but it’s all out there. It’s out there in VFX and American Cinematographer and on the making-ofs and on Criterion. He explains all of it because he’s so proud of it. I love Pitt saying watching movies with Fincher is like watching a coach watch a football game. It doesn’t make you think much of Fincher’s taste, that all he can do is watch these movies like, “That’s a bad camera angle” or “the light’s in the wrong place.” It’s kind of miserable. But there’s the form.
David Fincher: Mind Games is now available.