In 'Dragon Tattoo,' Fincher taps another network
NEW YORK—Bumping into a reporter in a hotel lobby shortly before a scheduled interview, David Fincher doesn't hesitate.
"I can always talk," the director says cheerfully.
During the subsequent 90-minute conversation, Fincher certainly proved that, speaking thoughtfully and expansively about the job of a director, the moment-to-moment psychological underpinnings of character dynamics and the appeal of remaking "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."
The film, starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara as an unlikely pair investigating a Swedish family's dark history, is an attempt to kick-start an R-rated franchise for adults, and to bring the unusually popular novels by Stieg Larsson to American movie audiences. Fincher takes pleasure in that something as grim and prickly -- so un-Hollywood -- as the "Dragon Tattoo" series can spawn a global sensation.
"That's sort of reassuring to me," says Fincher. "I look at it and I go, `I like that.' It makes me feel like the kind of stories that I might be interested in might be interesting to other people."
That's typically been true throughout Fincher's now eight-film career as a movie director. Though he hasn't found extreme box-office success or won an Academy Award, the twice-nominated Fincher is widely acknowledged as one of the most gifted filmmakers in the business. With masterful command of atmospheric frames, Fincher's tightly honed craftsmanship has endeared him to critics and young cinephiles, particularly because of his electrically contemporary films, "The Social Network" and "Fight Club."
But perhaps an overriding philosophy running through his work is summed up in the great final line of "Seven," as narrated by Morgan Freeman's character: "Ernest Hemingway once wrote, `The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part.'"
"I'm more attracted to the pervert's story," says Fincher. "I'm not as positive what we'll all agree on. I think I made a choice early on in seeing that other sandbox and going, `Everyone else wants to hit that home run in escapist entertainment. And yet I always sort of liked this stuff that sneaks in through the side window. So why not provide a viable alternative?
"That's not to say I wouldn't have loved to make a movie like `Jurassic Park.' They all would have died, but ..."
Fincher smiles wryly, but he has deep admiration for Steven Spielberg and even musical theater legend Bob Fosse. After all, his virtual film school was working at the effects house of another escapist master, George Lucas, at Industrial Light & Magic. Still, the filmmakers that made a bigger impression were Alfred Hitchcock and, particularly, Roman Polanski -- both directors known for deriving pleasure in subverting audience expectations for wholesome entertainment.
"Hitchcock was more of a child playing with these ideas," says Fincher. "Polanski, I don't think, was ever a child. ... I wish I was as confident to be as perverse as Roman has been."
Though his visual abilities often overshadow his storytelling talent, Fincher, like Hitchcock and Polanski, might be best understood as a psychological filmmaker. He delights in describing, in great detail, a scene's nuanced interplay of gesture, eye contact and emotion. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" may not differ mightily from the Swedish original, but few would argue that, by way of a million subtleties, it's better crafted.
"I genuinely feel like he's the closest thing we have to Hitchcock," says Craig of Fincher. "People kind of compare him to Kubrick, but there's something else about him -- something that he does with visuals and he does with actors. People kind of give career-defining performances in his movies."
Fincher, 49, has an almost mythic reputation for obsessiveness, particularly because of a shooting style that favors a huge amount of takes -- an approach he feels that does away with artificial, calibrated movement to arrive at a hopefully less self-conscious performance.
Mara first worked with Fincher in the famous, 99-take opening scene of "The Social Network," but she's never felt controlled by Fincher.
"David won't lie to you," says Mara. "He just won't. I don't think he's capable of it. He's the most straightforward human being I've ever met. He always empowers you to have a choice."
Fincher's bluntness has also figured into his image, but Eric Roth, who scripted Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," says in an e-mail: "He is a man sure of himself with good cause and despite his pugnacious style is as generous and loving a person as I have had the good fortune to work and remain close friends with."
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is essentially Fincher's third detective-based film, following the ill-fated serial killer hunt of "Seven" and the prolonged compulsive search for another murderer in "Zodiac." He acknowledges: "The evil that men do in their basement with power tools when they're not being supervised was certainly something that I'd explored before." But he also notes that the procedural of "Seven" becomes a meditation on evil, and the pursuit in "Zodiac" turns to an examination of unknowing endlessness.
The conclusion of "Dragon Tattoo" is tidier than those films, but there could be two sequels, although the film didn't perform especially well in its first weekend of release, earning $13 million domestically. In any case, Fincher says that while he's open to anything, directing another in Larsson's series "isn't even something I want to entertain."
Among other things, he's working on a 3-D blockbuster update of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," a kind of thriller about a Craigslist murder, an HBO series co-produced with Charlize Theron for HBO called "Mind Hunter," and an adaptation of the paranormal comic book "The Goon."
For Fincher, the best part of any production is the early work: casting, doing lighting tests, building sets -- all elements where he's energized by the possibility of a film, before inevitable compromises mount.
"I like reading the script the first time," he says, half-joking, "and then it's kind of over."