David Fincher's Rocky Road to Success: The Triumphs and Failures That Shaped Him
In a wide-ranging discussion with BAFTA, David Fincher reflects on his career as a Hollywood maverick and some of the lessons he's learned about how to work the system.
Since 1995, and the release of Se7en—a film whose title sequence alone has been wildly influential—David Fincher's career has been, to the casual observer, a fever dream of innovative, big-budget Hollywood films that somehow manage to, like Tyler Durden's projectionist in Fight Club, sneak one past the gates. But the truth is, Fincher's success is owing to his savvy nature, hard work, and a mind-bending degree of perseverance (as well as that ephemeral quality known as talent, which, no matter how many anodyne assurances, is still very much a prerequisite for success).
"I was certain that I would never be employable again." — David Fincher
1. Don't Get Spun
Fincher started his career in high school, where he directed plays from the end of the day until late in the night—after which he would work more. This rigorous work ethic that landed him a job as a PA with an early incarnation of American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola's free-wheeling filmmaking collective. During this period, he found that, as a director, "the dominoes were starting to fall...about how you knit a scene together."
More than that, though, Fincher realized the importance of learning how movies worked from a technical and practical angle and became "one of those kids who was committed to being on set...and seeing how shit went down."
According to Fincher, perhaps the most important observation he made during this period of his career was what not to do. "I watched talented people...that I liked and admired get spun, and I vowed never to let that happen."
He vowed to be someone who knew "what every [person] in the room does." That is, if you know where the shears are kept, it's that much easier to avoid having the wool pulled over your eyes.
2. DIY— with Friends
Working on the weekends, Fincher and a group of fellow filmmakers sold a landmark PSA to the American Cancer Society. More than 30 years later, the 30-second spot is still a triumph of visual messaging; the shocking visuals and simple, surreal concept made Fincher into a hot commodity as a commercial director.
That success paved the way to the formation of his first company, Propaganda Films, a collective of directors—including, at one point, Steven Soderbergh—that became the biggest music video and commercial house in Hollywood in the 1980s. In three years, the company went from billing $2.5 million per year to %65 million, equivalent to a 2,500% increase in business. This helped land the young director his first feature.
3. Stick to Your Guns (and Don't Listen to Conventional Wisdom)
Fincher's first feature, Alien 3, was (at the time) widely-maligned. It is a film whose "failure" was laid at Fincher's feet—though as a franchise film, its production history is an example of Hollywood convolution at its Waterworld-est. The perception of the flop led to Fincher's certainty that he "would never be employable again."
The director blamed himself—but not for any aesthetic missteps. Rather, it was his decision to follow the advice of the executives behind the film, whose main message had been that working with his friends—doing the thing that had worked for Fincher well thus far—was ill-advised. Fincher felt that he had to heed the executives' advice; otherwise, they might have "resented you and your age...and [you should] let them tell you what to do."
Fincher, 30 at the time of the film's release in 1992, "retreated back to doing TV commercials." But then he received the script for Andrew Kevin Walker's Se7en and found himself dumbfounded at the appearance of the killer, John Doe, and his manipulation of the detectives in the final half hour of the film. It was a genre film like no other—though according to Fincher's agent, he had received the wrong draft, with the wrong ending. However, with the assistance of noted movie star Brad Pitt, it turned into the right ending; Pitt also went to bat for Fincher's choice of Kevin Spacey to play the anonymous, homicidal, and extremely on-the-nose zealot.
Though Fincher won these arguments, he resents any notion that he is duping anyone. "I don't make movies in spite of the people who pay for them....the people who fund them are not tricked," he said. "I storyboard the whole movie and I can walk them through."
Nevertheless, when he showed a cut of 1999's Fight Club to execs, the people who had greenlit his decisions "realized they were going to be fired." According to Fincher, one producer wanted to put the kibosh on Norton's voiceover. A marketing exec explained that Fincher had delivered an impossible film, because according to conventional wisdom, "Men don’t want to see Brad Pitt shirtless, and women don’t want to see him fighting."
They were wrong. Of course, the film became a massive hit on DVD and one of the most culturally relevant films of the early 21st century, earning the attention of term-paper "services" as well as serious academics.
None of these lessons would be worth much had they not been learned the hard way—and they would not have been learned at all were it not for the tremendous talent and hard work of Fincher. Since his first PSA, he's demonstrated a unique ability to harness technology and aesthetics to his own ends (see: his heavy use of novel developments in VFX as well as a highly influential use of color and tone, typified by Se7en's unique palette, the product of a fruitful collaboration with DP Darius Khondji). While the entire video is worth a watch, the main takeaways would seem to be that working hard pays off, and that while it's important to know what you want, it's just as important to know what you don't. Be prepared to stake your reputation on decisions that would be easier left in the willing hands of others. (And, also, to be super talented. That helps.)