Moments before David Fincher is supposed to take the stage and field questions after a screening of his new PolyGram film, “The Game,” at the Directors Guild, the director eyes the crowded screening room and disappears, heading for the bathroom. When his return seems overdue, a PolyGram executive jokes, “Maybe he’s in there throwing up.”
If there’s anything Fincher loathes, it’s being in the spotlight. Intensely media-shy, he won’t sit for a photo session and is uncomfortable, but cordial, giving an interview. He has boyish features, with the impatient air of a rush-hour driver caught in a slow lane of traffic. He scoffs at the media’s celebrity worship of film directors.
“I’m not interested in reading stories about directors,” he says one night, sipping iced tea at the Cha^teau Marmont. “I think the last time I cared what a film director had to say was when I was a kid, reading what Steven Spielberg said in Time magazine about ‘Jaws.’ ”
For Fincher, the spotlight belongs on the actors. But sometimes the spotlight catches the guy behind the camera, especially if he’s a natural-born director like Fincher. At 34, he’s emerged as one of our era’s most dazzling visual stylists, having directed three Hollywood films, a raft of splashy TV commercials and some of the most distinctive rock videos of the MTV era. Fincher’s forte is noir-style pop chic, whether it’s his Charles Barkley on Broadway Nike ad, his scruffy on-the-town portrait of the Wallflowers in “Sixth Avenue Heartache” or his sleek, George Hurrell-style adoration of Madonna in “Vogue” and “Bad Girl.”
His films offer equally ravishing visual images, but you need good night vision to spot them. “Alien3,” “Seven” and “The Game” all portray dark, subterranean worlds cloaked in grime and shadows. In “Seven,” a thriller about cops hunting a serial killer, the detectives are always shining flashlights into inky-black darkness, a trick Fincher first used in his “Janie’s Got a Gun” Aerosmith video.
Though he’s a superstar in advertising and MTV circles, he hasn’t scored with most film critics. “The Game,” which took in $14.3 million in its opening weekend, has earned mixed reviews, but “Alien3" and “Seven” were dismissed as murky and pretentious. The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley found “Seven” so dark that she wondered, “Is it art or did Fincher just forget to pay the electric bill?” Despite the snubs, “Seven” was a huge box-office hit.
Made on a $70-million budget, “The Game” is a nightmarish, “Twilight Zone"-style thrill ride. Fincher describes it as “Scrooge by way of ‘Mission: Impossible.’ ” It stars Michael Douglas as a ruthless tycoon whose ultra-controlled life gets a nasty jolt when his brother, played by Sean Penn, persuades him to sign up for a custom-designed psychological warfare game. When the game spins out of control, Douglas begins to wonder if he’s been lured into a high-stakes con that might cost him his life. After a chance encounter with an irascible waitress, played by Deborah Kara Unger, Douglas thinks he’s found a faithful ally. But maybe she’s playing a devious role in the game, too.
Detractors dismiss the surprising ending as farfetched, a complaint that elicits a tart Fincher response: “Is it any more farfetched than John Malkovich on top of a runaway firetruck in ‘Con Air’?” He is also unmoved by concerns that Douglas’ character--and for that matter, much of the movie--comes across so cold and controlling that it’s hard to sympathize with his predicament. “I find people who are cold and aloof, and wear it on their sleeve, very likable,” he says. “What could be more honest?”
Of course, to hear Fincher’s friends and associates tell it, Douglas’ character isn’t so different from the director himself, whom they describe as intense, controlling, manipulative, arrogant and--oh, yes--extraordinarily talented. “You have your hands full with David--he’s very clever and manipulative,” says “The Game” producer Steve Golin, who founded Propaganda Films with Fincher in 1986 and recently signed Fincher to a new long-term production deal.
“There’s a part of that Douglas character that David really relates to. He’s anal and fastidious, which can be incredibly infuriating. If you came into his office and played with something on his desk, and didn’t put it back in precisely the right place, he’d go nuts and have to move it to the exact spot where it was originally. So you can imagine what he’s like when he’s making a movie.”
When Fincher was shooting “Seven,” he would often respond to a stray noise on the set by yelling, “Shut the [expletive] up. . . . Please!”
“David is smart and glib, but he backs it all up,” says “Seven” producer Arnold Kopelson. “He’s not a waffler. He’s always prepared, decisive and he has the greatest knowledge of the medium of anyone I’ve worked with since Oliver Stone.”
Still, Fincher’s perfectionism on “Seven” pushed the film’s cost to $33 million, far above the film’s original budget. The New Line top brass “would go into these meetings with David, saying, ‘Absolutely not, not a penny more,’ ” one studio insider recalls. “But he was so relentless and persuasive that they’d come out all ga-ga-eyed, and give him more money.”
Until recently, Fincher was a pariah at 20th Century Fox because of his obstinate behavior during the making of “Alien3which also ended up far over budget. It’s easy to mistake Fincher’s nervy self-confidence for arrogance. Asked if he’s always wanted to be a film director, he rolls his eyes, as if the answer were painfully obvious. “When I was 8, I knew I was going to direct movies,” he says. “It just seemed like the right job for me.”
It’s no wonder he often quotes from James Cameron and Alfred Hitchcock, two directors with an imperious sense of will and control. “David often infuriates people because he’s so intractable and uncompromising,” says one friend. “The problem is that he’s so young and sure of himself that he comes off arrogant. But to him, it’s not a power trip. He just wants to make a great movie, and if he needs another $5 million, he’ll find a way to get it.”
Michael London, who was a Fox executive on “Alien3,” recalls being impressed by Fincher’s power of persuasion. “Here was someone who’d never directed a film, coming in saying, ‘I’m the rightful heir to [“Alien” directors] Ridley Scott and James Cameron,’ and you believed him,” London says. “If you’ve read any of the Orson Welles biographies, which describe how arrogant and egomaniacal and yet how disarmingly sweet and seductive Welles could be, you have to think, they could just as easily be talking about David Fincher.”
Fincher grew up in San Rafael, Calif. When he was a boy, his father, a writer for Life magazine, would regularly take him to the movies. He saw George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” when he was 10. Months later, the director moved in two doors down from Fincher’s house.
“I thought it was so cool,” Fincher recalls. “I’d walk down 4th Street and say, ‘Hey, that’s where he shot the drag racing scene, right by the Bank of America building.’ Here was this guy who’d made my favorite movie, going out every morning in his bathrobe and horn-rimmed glasses, picking up the San Francisco Chronicle on his driveway. Suddenly being a movie director wasn’t some magical, faraway thing--it made it feel very attainable.”
In high school, Fincher built optical printers and shot Super 8 movies. At 19, he got a job at ILM, where he did go-motion photography on “Return of the Jedi” and matte work on “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” He left to shoot commercials and founded Propaganda Films with Golin and others in 1986. By 1989, at age 26, he was a rising star, shooting ads for Nike and videos for Madonna.
Then came “Alien3.” One of Fox’s most valuable franchises, the film was rushed into production to make a summer release date. When its original director dropped out, the studio turned to Fincher, who was hired for his visual prowess and because he had enough cachet to be approved by the film’s star, Sigourney Weaver. Fincher and Weaver remained allies during filming, but the young director repeatedly clashed with Fox executives, who saw the film spiral far beyond its original $40-million budget and deluged Fincher with script notes and revisions.
“It was ugly and silly,” Fincher says. “We only had 45 pages of script when we began shooting. I tried to quit on Day 1, but my agent told me if I did, I’d never work again. What I learned was that my instincts were correct; if you don’t have a story, 120 pages of script that you can believe in, you’re [in trouble], because the magic trick of making a movie is based on believing. You have to be the director, not a puppet. After ‘Alien’ I vowed that I’d never be in a position where I wasn’t the person who could pull the cord and stop the bus.”