David Fincher has an incredibly unique visual style, both in terms of composition and use of color. He knows how to keep his audience guessing through the use of clever plot twists and strong storytelling and he's never been afraid to buck the Hollywood system or play by his own rules.
Needless to say, aspiring directors can learn a great deal from Fincher. Here are just 10 of his most commonly mentioned or most unique tidbits of advice for those wanting to direct.
1. Don't be afraid to ask for as many takes as you need
Fincher is perhaps best known for his Kubrickian tendency to ask for 50, 75, or even more takes on his movies, whatever it takes for him to get exactly what he wants. In his eyes, it's not a matter of how much the actor will give you, but which take will culminate in the ideal cooperation between all the team members on a set, from sound to lighting to acting.
2. Make all the decisions, because you'll take the blame anyway
This is one of his better-known adages, and it helps to solidify his reputation as a director who pushes for what he wants, creatively. In 2008, Fincher told Ain't It Cool News that he learned to advocate for his own creative freedom because he realized that, in the end, a film's success or failure would be blamed on him alone, regardless of the advice given to him by studio executives.
"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," he said. "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 [a film] or disliking it."
Listen to this portion of the interview here.
3. Look at the scene in different ways with each eye
In this bit of unconventional advice taken from the Se7en commentary, Fincher suggests literally using each eye to consider the parts of every scene. During his time as a matte photographer at ILM, he learned to use his left eye (or the right side of the brain) for composition, and the right eye (or left side of the brain) for the technical aspects of a shot, like its focus.
If you've tried this, let us know.
4. Get out of the way of the material
During his commentary for The Game, Fincher remarks on how important composition is, explaining how he mindfully used different shots to remain in the main character's perspective without giving too much away about this twist-filled story.
What Fincher means by "get out of the way of the material" is to not be too heavy-handed in your direction. Let the story and actors' performances stand on their own, be purposeful with the shots you select, and trust the audience to innately know what everything together is communicating.
5. Accept that you might have differences of opinion with your executives
If you're fortunate enough to make it as a studio director, you're going to have to deal with lots of cooks in your metaphorical kitchen. Fincher thinks that, in these situations, a kind of "creative Darwinism" will weed out bad ideas that might get thrown your way. Take solace in moments of creative difference that the strongest ideas will win out.
6. Don't attempt to hide your interests
Fincher believes that a filmmaker's fascinations will be evident in their work. So be true to what interests you, and don't try to hide behind affectation, because it will be glaringly obvious.
7. If you don't get perfection the first time, try CGI
Here is another area where Fincher stands out as a director. He is notorious for using visual effects to achieve exactly what he wants in every shot, even if it's small things in the background or details in an actor's appearance. If you have the resources and Fincher's proclivity for perfection, then maybe you can try using CGI to tailor your scenes, too.
8. Seriously... get lots of takes
Fincher knows there are lots of elements at play on a film set, as we saw in the first clip about multiple takes. But he also believes that repeated actions will help the actors become more natural in the blocking, emotions, and delivery of a performance. In his mind, the best way to reach that level of organic behavior and comfort in the moment is to just have the actors do the same thing over and over again.
9. Challenge yourself, but within reason
After shooting Fight Club in hundreds of sets and locations, Fincher purposefully took on the opposite challenge of Panic Room, which takes place on a single set. The shoot ended up being a nightmare for the crew.
When asked what he learned from the experience, Fincher told Entertainment Weekly in 2004, "I learned that you can’t make a movie just because it’ll be hard. [...] I kind of like challenges, and then you end up two years into the challenge that you’ve made for yourself and you just go, 'Nothing’s worth this.'"
10. You can say no
Fincher famously turned down a chance to direct one of the new Star Wars movies. He gave Empire several reasons why it wasn't for him, including the intense pressure to live up to the saga's popularity. "You’d have to really clear your head, I think," he said. "You’d have to really be sure this is what you wanted to do, because either way, it’s two years of your life, 14 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Before you take on a project, make sure it's something you really want. And if it's not, don't be afraid to say no.