The Fincher File
The UK release of David Fincher's latest film, Zodiac, was delayed a couple of months so that it could compete for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival (the rules say that a film can only have shown in its home territory to be eligible).
I imagine it will be a serious contender for some sort of recognition from Stephen Frears' jury, but even so it's been a cruel wait for Fincher fans: five years this month since Panic Room, and even that felt like a bit of a knock-off, something he took on as a technical exercise and to smooth over the studios after the anarchic anti-corporate energy of Fight Club (1999). In the interim, he has been linked with a number of projects, including Mission: Impossible 3 and The Black Dahlia, both of which ended up with other directors (JJ Abrams and Brian de Palma, respectively).
The good news is: Zodiac is worth it. A movie that clearly engaged Fincher on all levels, it's right up there with his best work.
The Zodiac killer terrorized San Francisco and its environs in the early 1970s, taunting the police through the media and even threatening to target a school bus. Fincher, born 10 May 1962, experienced that fear first hand; having grown up in the Bay area… he says he remembers a highway patrol car following his bus to and from school for some weeks. It's tempting to surmise this is where the fascination with serial killers and the dark side of the street comes from; 'Zodiac was the ultimate bogeyman,' he says.
Either out of boredom with the question or as a defense mechanism, Fincher has often denied that he's attracted to dark material, though it's demonstrably and literally the case: Fox bosses were dismayed to find that all their expensive sets were virtually invisible in the blanket of darkness Fincher devised for Alien 3 (his first feature), and you practically needed a torch to navigate his next film, Seven. Just as well: what you could see was so macabre you didn't want to see any more of it than absolutely necessary.
He has a reputation as a technical whizz-kid, and he's famously fastidious with the look and texture of his films (Zodiac had a shooting schedule of 115 days, about twice the average). He came from the commercials field (he co-founded a company called Propaganda and made ads for Nike, Levis and Pepsi, as well as commercials for Madonna and many others). Before that, he worked at George Lucas's special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic. The story goes that George Lucas lived on the same block as the Finchers, and young David used to see the Star Wars director picking up his morning paper in his pajamas every morning.
He's extremely exacting with his actors too - shooting as many as 90 takes of some shots, and talking as if the process itself is almost a war of attrition: 'Every once in a while there are actors you can defeat,' he told the New York Times.
Robert Downey Jr, who plays a crime reporter in the film, gives the other side of the story: 'I just decided - aside from several times I wanted to garrote him - that I was going to give him what he wanted. I think I'm a perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags.'
Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Zodiac author Robert Graysmith, notes that 'Fincher paints with people, [but] it's tough to be a colour.'
If Fincher is anal and obsessive, arrogant and cerebral, a tech-head fascinated by violence and psychosis, all these qualities transform Zodiac into a crime movie unlike any other. It's a detective thriller that bombards us with clues, facts and dates to the point of information overload, tantalizes us with contradictory leads, then offers solutions that solve nothing. (Zodiac was never caught.) No wonder this perfectly modulated exercise in frustration flat-lined at the US box office.
Meanwhile Fincher is well into the 150 day shoot for his next film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, with Brad Pitt as a man born into old age who regresses to infancy over the course of his lifetime. The studio is describing this one as a love story. Fincher puts it differently. 'I think it's a story about death,' he says bluntly. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
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