New age Fincher
David Fincher’s new film, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” opening Christmas Day, is in many respects an archetypal award-season movie: a decade-spanning tear-jerker filled with big stars and grand themes and sweeping emotions.
But for the 46-year-old Fincher -- the virtuoso auteur behind many of the most indelible serial-killer movies of the last dozen years (1995’s “Se7en,” last year’s “Zodiac”), the fanboy favorite behind the head-banging ultraviolence of 1999’s “Fight Club” and the mind-game paranoia of 1997’s “The Game” and 2002’s “Panic Room” -- it could reasonably be considered a departure.
“I think it was probably easy up until ‘Zodiac’ to say, ‘That’s a guy who’s interested in those movies where people do horrible things to each other,’ ” Fincher said earlier this month, slumped on a sofa in the presidential suite of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. “But there’s a much higher body count in this movie than in anything I’ve ever done.”
Played by Brad Pitt, with the help of other actors’ bodies and armies of makeup artists and CGI pros, the title character is born old and seems to grow younger as he ages. Abandoned at birth, an infant-sized octogenarian, Benjamin is raised in a New Orleans nursing home, surrounded by the frail and the dying. The specter of mortality remains even as he sheds his wrinkles and enters a robust middle age and a romance with his lifelong love, the bohemian dancer Daisy (Cate Blanchett).
Benjamin is both a remarkable special effect and an all-purpose symbol: He may grow more youthful as he ages in reverse, but can’t stall the passage of time. A tale of magical realism, a picaresque journey as strange as it is sentimental, the film is also a somber exploration of the most terrifying -- and in Hollywood, arguably the most taboo -- of subjects: aging and death.
With that angle in mind, Fincher said, he has settled on a line for those who insist on calling his new film an anomaly: “Isn’t time the ultimate serial killer?”
Loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Benjamin Button” has taken years to come to fruition. In the late ‘80s, producer Ray Stark commissioned a draft by screenwriter Robin Swicord, and for a while various directors, including Steven Spielberg, circled the project. It continued to change hands, and was resurrected in earnest a few years ago by producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, this time with a revised script by Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for his “Forrest Gump” screenplay.
“It was mostly about expense,” Fincher said of the project’s long, on-off gestation period. (The film’s budget is reportedly in the $150-million range.) “Technology has gotten cheaper. We started five years ago, and you could probably do the same amount of work for $3 million or $4 million less, with what we know now.”
To create the movie’s primary visual trick -- Benjamin’s appearance at different ages -- Fincher cast several actors, and in most cases combined their bodies with Pitt’s voice and digitally manipulated face using a motion-capture technique similar to the one Robert Zemeckis used in “Beowulf.”
“I call it the Botoxing of the performance,” Fincher said. “As high-resolution as it is, there’s something that gets kind of dulled, something not so articulate in the lips. But when a guy’s 85 years old, it’s OK that he’s a little soft.”
Benjamin may be a state-of-the-art technical marvel but at the film’s heart is Pitt’s performance, a delicate feat of physiognomic control. “There are so many facial tics that make people who they are, especially movie stars,” Fincher said, “and one of the things we found with Brad was it’s the speed at which he does things, it’s when he blinks, when he moves his eyes.”
He was quick to praise Pitt, who, including “Se7en” and “Fight Club,” has now starred in three of Fincher’s seven features. “Some of my favorite shots in this movie have absolutely nothing to do with technology and everything to do with an actor’s choices, like when Brad made these decisions that were odd and childlike, that Popeye face when he’s walking for the first time,” Fincher said. “It’s ultimately those things that win you over.”
He added, “Is Benjamin absolutely 100% believable in most shots? No, but there are a couple that I look at and go, ‘Wow, we got really close.’ It’s just enough to get you to suspend your disbelief.”
Fincher is known as a craftsman and tech-head, but he puts CGI wizardry in the service of illusion more than spectacle. “Zodiac,” he said, made extensive use of digitized cityscapes in part because he couldn’t get permission to shoot on the streets of San Francisco. “You don’t want people to go, ‘Wow, that’s the most beautiful street corner in history,’ you don’t want to make it overly flowery,” he said. “When people spend a lot of money on digital effects, I think they want it to count. I just want people to be absorbed in what’s going on.”
It’s a lesson he learned early in his career, when he worked at Industrial Light & Magic in the early ‘80s and was struck by the difference between Spielberg movies and most other effects-heavy films of the period: “It wasn’t just the degree of execution that made those effects, it was the way they supported the story around them. The setup is almost as important as the execution.”
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” with its blank-slate hero and life-sized timeline, is among other things a curious experiment in viewer identification. “I like to think of the movie as truly experiential,” Fincher said. “There’s no back story. You live his back story; you’re there for everything. For me it really is about living a life. He’s an extraordinary man in extremely mundane circumstances. We all know the first kiss, the first hangover, the first love, the first time you get dumped. And you’re intensely aware of every moment as the inverse of what you’re seeing. He’s not 70, he’s 10; he’s not 60, he just turned 20. And I hope people can chart that from an empathetic standpoint.”
While “Benjamin Button” might be the only Fincher film to count as a weepie (though “Fight Club” is not without its poignant undercurrents), it shares an obsessive, control-freak quality with his other intricate entertainments.
Fincher’s single-mindedness has earned him a reputation as a perfectionist taskmaster. “I’ve become obsessive because I think it’s professional,” he said. “If I’m going to take tens of millions of dollars from somebody, I’m going to try to make the best movie I can. And for the actors, I think the duty of the director is to make playing dress-up as effortless as you can. We’re asking someone with a blue stretchy cap on their head to act like an 85-year-old man. So you help out as much as you can. The attention to detail, the obsessiveness that I’m saddled with -- it’s me just doing my job.”