Director's Chair: David Fincher - 'Gone Girl'
Issue: October 1, 2014

Director's Chair: David Fincher - 'Gone Girl'

David Fincher first arrived on the scene with his 1992 sci-fi thriller Alien 3, and followed that up with Seven and The Game. Since then, he’s established himself as one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors — and an Oscar favorite — thanks to such eclectic films as Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Social Network.

Fincher’s new movie Gone Girl, based on the best-selling psychological thriller "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, seems like an apt follow-up project to his last film, the dark and suspenseful The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, it tells the story of an apparently happily-married couple, Nick and Amy Dunne, and what happens when, on their fifth wedding anniversary, the wife mysteriously disappears.

Family secrets are, once again, front and center as Fincher explores the murky moral depths of human nature. Here, in an exclusive interview, Fincher, whose credits include Zodiac and House of Cards, talks about making the film, his love of post, and the importance of image stabilization.

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“I don’t think I set out to make a certain type of film and I don’t think of this as a thriller. For me, it’s a mystery that becomes a satire. So I don’t really think in terms of genre — I just read material and respond to it. Then you ask yourself, is it worth spending two years of your life making it, and when I first read the book — there was no script then — I was taken with the idea of how the writer had expressed the narcissism of seduction and coupling, and the idea of people presenting the best version of themselves in order to ensnare the best version of whom they see as their mate, and how that becomes problematic down the line. It was a very interesting notion to me.” 

What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together and how tough was the shoot?

“It was a long shoot but not so tough, and there were no big technical challenges as we’d done it all before. It was more a question of recording the performances in the most optimal way and having enough coverage. I think it’s a most delicate act of alchemy in any film, finding the right tone, and this needed one that’s both emotional and incendiary, that walks the line even if it’s sardonic. You don’t want to put an audience through 150 minutes with characters who are beyond redemption. You want them to be human and have characteristics that we can all identify with — but they’re also extremely flawed.”

This was shot by cinematographer and your frequent collaborator Jeff Cronenweth, who lensed Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What did he bring to the mix?

“We’ve worked together for 27, 28 years now, and he has great taste and is a great supporter of what you’re trying to do. He doesn’t freak out, he doesn’t get overly stressed by problems, and he’s always consistent and unflappable. I really dislike working with people who suddenly change personalities under pressure, and it’s great to have someone who instantly gets that this is an Ethan Allen aesthetic, not The Godfather.”

How early on did you integrate post and VFX with the production?

“There’s no real ‘post’ in our pipeline at all, as we start color, stabilization, discussing set extensions and all the rest of post on raw dailies. Right away we talk about hiding defects and so on, so there’s not a traditional post. And [editor] Kirk does so much with split screens and time compression, and all our VFX start on day one. It’s all happening on top.”

Did you do a lot of previs?

“None at all on this. I like previs and I use it when I need exactitude and designing very specific shots on a stage, like swooping into a window. But on location, it’s very difficult to plan and use previs, and it’s still too slow.”

Do you like post?

“I love it, and I enjoy it more now as it’s so hassle-free. Back in ’99 when we did Fight Club, we had a lot of very tricky post stuff to do — pin-registered transfers and so on — and it was a drag. Now, I feel like we’re finally at a point where the medium is plastic and you can do anything — and I thought we’d reach this stage back in ’01! (Laughs) So it’s taken all these years to get to where you don’t have to talk about the pain of executing something. If you need to change something in the background or change someone’s eyes, it’s just not a big problem anymore.”

The film was edited by Kirk Baxter. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked. Was he on the set?

“No, he and Tyler [Nelson, assistant editor] are back in LA cutting, and I prefer that, although Tyler did come out to reclaim footage at some panicked moments and to supervise the ingest technology, which is very close to being a completely robotic process, but which you need to set up. Even on Dragon in Sweden, they were back in LA. So editorial is wholly integrated into production, but it’s also its own banana republic, and we have such faith in their ability to execute and make it all seamless. If I can see it at as offline, I know it’ll work, and they’re wholly autonomous as they’ll usually come up with a better solution than I would.”

How important is image stabilization to you?

“It’s a very big deal to me, in that there’s only so much a camera crew can do, when someone’s pushing a dolly and you’re trying to tilt a camera and so forth. You don’t have much control, so I’ll work on all that in the edit and post with like-minded people who’ll comb through the footage to get each frame right. We did it on House of Cards, which really pioneered it for us, as we stabilized every shot — and it’s the same thing in this. Nearly every single image is manipulated to make the camera operation as perfect as possible. I want people to forget that the camera’s being moved around by someone.”

How many visual effects shots are there in the film?

“Around 2,000, and they were done by Digital Domain and Ollin Studio, but then it depends how you define a VFX shot. We did a lot of retouching of hairlines, wigs, and there’s a lot of cosmetic stuff to do with Rosamund’s character’s weight loss and gain, reflections in sunglasses, and tons of set extensions, lens flares, adding leaves to trees and such.” 

You’ve done music videos for everyone from the Stones to Madonna and Jay-Z. Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker? Where did you do the mix?

“We always mix at Skywalker, and my philosophy is that people don’t go to the movies to see something — they go to feel, and so every part — editing, the music and sound design, and even the stabilization — is there to help that. And the music isn’t about, how do I keep people awake? Or how do I keep this bit from being boring? It’s really about imparting a feeling to people I’ve never met, and what [composers] Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do is enable parts of your conscious mind to accept things that are entering on a subconscious level. It’s pretty amazing. And it’s the same with all the sound design, and the sound of the cicadas.”

The DI must have been vital. Where did you do it and how did that process help? 

“We did it at Light Iron, who we used previously on The Social Network and Dragon Tattoo, and it’s so important to me and it’s getting more and more important in the way you can customize just a part of a shot.” 

Did the film turn out the way you hoped? 

“They never do, although I’m very happy with it. There are parts I love but also a couple of other bits I wish I could go back and re-work, but I can’t. All in all, I’m satisfied.”

What’s next? 

“I’m hoping to do more work for HBO but I don’t have another film lined up yet.”

Is film dead?

“No, it’ll stick around as a sub-category, and it can be very beautiful, but it’s the past, not the future.”