Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking tips of David Fincher.
Perfectionist. Demanding. Hard to work with. David Fincher is a man who hates his own brand but is secure in his own reputation. Of course, it’s a little bit easy when that reputation includes stunning movies and a mind that can operate at an auteur speed in the high-occupancy Hollywood studio lane.
He’s a (mostly) accessibly genius, which is rare and which means that we as fans and filmmakers can learn a lot from him. Fortunately, he’s as free with his advice as he is with his nightmarish visions.
Here’s a bit of free film school from a living legend.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from David Fincher
1. Make the Calls Yourself
“What you learn from that first – and I don’t call it ‘trial by fire’; I call it ‘baptism by fire’ – is that you are going to have to take all of the responsibility, because basically when it gets right down to it, you are going to get all of the blame, so you might as well have made all of the decisions that led to people either liking it or disliking it. There’s nothing worse than hearing somebody say, ‘Oh, you made that movie? I thought that movie sucked,’ and you have to agree with them, you know?”
Fincher said this to Quint in regards to his experience making Alien 3 and the beginning belief that the people around him would know the best people to work with. That full interview is worth perusing because it feels like the evolution of a strong-willed director realizing he should never pocket his opinions in the service of the studio.
The key here is that after growing in his craft with a solid team he knew, Fincher accepted that the studio would be even better at securing talented DPs, gaffers and technicians. That wasn’t necessarily the case – or, at least, Fincher didn’t gel with them as he could have with a trusted group, and the result was lacking.
2. Give Everything You Have and Know It Won’t Be Enough
“I never fall in love with anything. I really don’t, I am not joking. ‘Do the best you can, try to live it down,’ that’s my motto. Just literally give it everything you got, and then know that it’s never going to turn out the way you want it to, and let it go, and hope that it doesn’t return. Because you want it to be better than it can ever turn out. Absolutely, 1000 percent, I believe this: Whenever a director friend of mine says, ‘Man, the dailies look amazing!’ … I actually believe that anybody, who thinks that their dailies look amazing doesn’t understand the power of cinema; doesn’t understand what cinema is capable of.”
False modesty? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem likely. Of course, Fincher appears to be as broody as his films, but this feels more like Zen wisdom than anything else.
That Zen wisdom can go a long way. Making a “perfect movie” is impossible even before considering the subjective loopholes. As an art form with thousands of people crafting individual pieces that lock into place, one person will never have the power to make exactly what he or she wants, but will always have the power to give their best, hardest, smartest work.
3. Directing is Ballet
It turns out Fincher was the main character of Black Swan (and that he rightfully doesn’t see movies as a platform solely for actors to monopolize the stage).
Only six takes? Prima donna.
4. Look at Everything Through Two Different Eyes
In the commentary track for Se7en, Fincher explains that when he was working at ILM, he was taught that a director should look at each scene’s set up with each eye individually. Left eye for composition (because it’s connected to the creative right side of the brain). Right eye for focus and technical specs (because it’s connected to the mathematical left side of the brain).
There’s no telling whether this is spot-on or absolute bunk. If it is bunk, it’s bunk from David Fincher and ILM, so it’s probably still worth something.
5. Know the Difference Between Films and Movies
“A movie is made for an audience and a film is made for both the audience and the filmmakers. I think that The Game is a movie and I think Fight Club’s a film. I think that Fight Club is more than the sum of its parts, whereas Panic Room is the sum of its parts. I didn’t look at Panic Room and think: Wow, this is gonna set the world on fire. These are footnote movies, guilty pleasure movies. Thrillers. Woman-trapped-in-a-house movies. They’re not particularly important.”
Another lesson here? Don’t be so pretentious that you think everything you make is “important.” There’s room in this world for popcorn fiction and movies that are exactly the sum of their parts.
6. Have No Fear and Eat the Whale
“You can’t take everything on. That’s why when people ask how does this film fit into my oeuvre. I say ‘I don’t know. I don’t think in those terms’. If I did, I might become incapacitated by fear . . . How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time. How do you shoot a 150-day movie? You shoot it one day at a time.”
Fincher has spoken on multiple occasions about his “brand” and his dislike for being branded. His solution is not acknowledging it when it comes to attaching himself to projects or making creative decisions. He hates it when marketing departments put “From director David Fincher” on posters, but who would have thought the guy who made an obese man eat himself to death would want to follow an Ivy League computer nerd?
Sack up, and take a bite of the whale.