David Fincher is not happy with the trailer for his new movie, ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’ He feels it gives off too much of an ‘Inception’ vibe, and that’s not the kind of movie that he made. “I had screaming fights with Sony,” he admits. He wasn’t always so opinionated. “I was much more collaborative then,” Fincher reflected when discussing some of the concessions he made while shooting a George Michael video in the early 1990s. Today, Fincher has a reputation for being the feisty director of some of the most stylized films of the last 16 years — from ‘Se7en’ to ‘The Social Network’ — and he doesn’t particularly like doing press, which, when you’re sitting in a room with Fincher, is evident. Not in any sort of “I’m above this” disposition. What I found was a genuinely interesting person who, at least in this type of situation, could almost be described as shy. Fincher was manic at times, restrained at others, but always full of surprises. Put it this way: during the course of this interview, I certainly didn’t expect to hear Fincher do an impression of Scooby-Doo. Yet I did. Three times.
In ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’ Fincher gives us his version of Stieg Larsson’s now famous Swedish best-seller. The story of, as Fincher was told, “a bisexual hacker in Stockholm who rides a motorcycle and fights misogyny and Nazis,” is a pretty unlikely one to be translated into a Christmastime blockbuster — but here we are. Fincher explained how ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ came to his attention in the first place (and how a certain Enya song will now forever be associated with one of the more horrific scenes from this movie), reflected on some of his more popular music videos — by artists including Rick Springfield, Billy Idol and George Michael — and broke down exactly what his job was on the set of ‘Return of the Jedi.’
[Warning: some spoilers about ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ follow]
I was told you weren’t eating lunch and I felt bad, but I’m happy to see that you are eating something.
No, no. Never feel bad. Certainly one only need to take one quick look at me and know that I’m well fed.
What are you talking about? You appear to be a very much in-shape person.
Hardly. This is what happens when you watch a TV for a living.
I’ve had Enya stuck in my head for the last week. I’m not sure whether to be happy or upset about that.
Well, let’s say that you had Enya stuck in your head for the right reasons.
And nothing against “Orinoco Flow”…
It’s funny, we were sitting in a hotel room — ironically just like this one, because it was a sister hotel in Soho. And we were saying that Martin [Stellan Skarsgard’s character] should be this audiophile. But what song should he play? And Daniel Craig piped up and said, “Orinoco Flow!” And everyone in the room was like, “What is he talking about?” And he says, “No, no, no, and he went and grabbed his iPod [at this point Fincher runs across the room to simulate Craig’s actions] and he went, “play.” And we all just burst into laughter. I didn’t know that’s what it’s called. If he had said “Sail Away”…
I enjoyed that you acted that out for me. I felt like I was there.
The funny thing was with his scamper across the room … he was so pleased.
I would have never guessed that song idea came from him.
Daniel Craig is a fucking funny man.
Before you got involved with this, what did you know about the books?
Nothing. In 2005 or 2006 I was trying to get ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ made. Kathy Kennedy brought me an English language translation of the first book and said, “I want you to read this.” I said, “Kathy, it’s 600 pages. I don’t have time to read a 600-page book right now. Tell me what it’s about.” She says, “It’s about a bisexual hacker in Stockholm, rides a motorcycle and fights misogyny and Nazis.” And I said, “Why are you doing this to me? I’m not getting this movie made.”
So I didn’t read the book. And it was my bad and it was stupid and I apologized to her many, many times. But, five years later, the book has sold 25 million copies and a Swedish language movie was about to come out. I had just finished ‘The Social Network’ and I turned the movie in and Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal came to me and said, “We’re making this movie. We want it to come out next Christmas. Can you do it after you finish ‘The Social Network’? I read the book and I thought, Oh my God, what do you cut?
You changed some things from the book. What didn’t you like that you felt needed to be changed?
Well, we needed to distill it as much as possible. I mean, how many Vangers can you keep in your mind at any given time. I mean, why see flashbacks when a film had already been made where you don’t see the flashbacks? I like putting a face to Harriet. I like living through that day and seeing what Sweden was like in 1966. I liked all of those things that Steig chose to do and I like how it made this odd parallel between the girl who didn’t fight back — the girl who ran — and the girl who does fight back.
Also, in the Swedish version, when Henrick Vanger shows Mikael the flowers that he assumes are coming from the killer, I remember my first thought was, Why does it have to be the killer? I didn’t feel that way with your version. It felt more subtle.
Well, you don’t know when you’re reading subtitles, you don’t know if that’s how it plays out. I have seen interviews that I’ve given in Sweden, written in Swedish, and translated back into English and I don’t recognize what I’m saying. So I think a lot gets lost in translation. There may be that kind of subtlety, I don’t know. I know in the translation into English of the Swedish film I think there’s some stuff in it that you go, “Why would you put it that way?” But I only saw it once.
Now you’ve made two movies in a row in which watching people type on a computer is somehow enthralling. All day at work I watch people typing: not exciting at all. That seems like a very monotonous thing to do…
[Laughs] Incredibly monotonous. Well, it’s also … Look, you just have a rule of thumb: It’s got to be as short as you can possibly make it and make the point. And you have to ask yourself, “Am I asking the audience to conclude something from what they’ve seen? Or am I asking them to simply watch somebody who’s masterful at interfacing with this technology?” If I have to have something take place on a screen and then I have to make it land — it has to drop nine stories and land on its feet — I’ve got to go to somebody’s reaction. And as goofy as it is to ask actors over a 140 day shoot, or whatever, to go, “I need another Scooby-Doo”…
We’d call them Scooby-Doos [in a Scooby-Doo voice], “Huh?” You know, “We’re going to need a Scooby-Doo from you here!”
I just heard David Fincher do a Scooby-Doo impression.
Yeah. But we were joking about that on the set and Rooney would be there and she’d ask, “At the end, do I [in a Scooby-Doo voice] ‘Huh?'” And I’d be like, “Yeah, you’ve got to Scooby-Doo the ending.”
I’ll never watch those scenes the same again.
You have to ask yourself what you’re doing, and then you have to go and get the pieces that it’s going to take to do that.
You had a quote recently where you said…
Holy shit. I don’t even know if it’s true.
You mentioned how if it were up to you, you wouldn’t screen movies early. You’re David Fincher, couldn’t you just not screen them if you don’t want to? I just assumed it was up to you.
We didn’t screen this movie. We didn’t screen ‘The Social Network,’ we didn’t go to a mall and recruit an audience and show it to them. We didn’t.
But you screened it for press. I was under the impression that’s what you were talking about.
No. I’m talking about the whole thing. I don’t have it in for [New Yorker critic] David Denby [who ran a review early, breaking studio embargo]. I don’t really care.
I agree. That whole thing was nonsense. I just thought what you said about not screening movies early was interesting.
What I care about is, in this day and age — to the extent that this has bothered me in the past and to the extent that it has had to be addressed with me by other people — I have had to sit with people from Sony and Scott Rudin’s people who will show you studies done at major universities as to whether or not spoilers are bad. And the work being done now in that area would lead you to believe that spoilers don’t actually hurt a movie to go in and experience. And part of this has to do with Pavlovian response people have to movie that have “2s” and “3s” after them. We’re trying to turn audio and visual content into fast food.
How has that affected you?
The reason all trailers look the same … you know, I had screaming fights with Sony. I loved the trailer for ‘Inception.’ I just don’t want to make the trailer for ‘Inception.’ I appreciate what it was, but I don’t want my trailer to go, “Whomb … Whomb!” I feel that’s their thing. They did it beautifully, more power to them. They branded a sound. They branded a way of this sort of throbbing call to action. Great. ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is not that. It’s a very different thing. You know, it’s a much different experience. And I felt like we had bequeathed them when we handed over Karen O singing ‘Immigrant Song’ in this drive up to the Vanger manor in the snow and this flash cutting of sort of the highlight scenes from book you may love.
There are similarities between the ‘Inception’ trailer and the first ‘Dragon Tattoo’ trailer.
We had sort of given them a roadmap. Then when the trailer started being cut, all of a sudden it was ‘Inception’ and the television spots look like ‘Inception.’ Part of that is just the world that we live in. There’s this wanting to make the promise of a Friday night experience. “How do we go to the thing that you last loved?” Well, that would be fine, but it precludes all of the hard work that [starts hitting the table] this specific story which is very different from that other story.
Speaking of movies with “2s” and “3s,” if ‘Dragon Tattoo’ does well, is it a done deal that you will direct the next two movies?
No. Not a done deal. And, you know, this has to do well at a scale that … a big scale.
Let’s make the assumption that you don’t do another one, for whatever reason.
If another director asked you, “Should I do the sequel?” what advice would you give them? Because from what I’ve read, you didn’t have the best experience taking over an established franchise when you did ‘Alien 3.’
It was a tough thing on ‘Alien 3’ because there was no need to make a movie for any other reason than it was a sound business decision. There was no story that everybody felt, “Wow, this is worth getting out of bed early for.” It was simply, “We could do this or we could do that or we could do this.” I don’t think you have that with this. You have books that are beloved. Let me put it this way, you have a jumping off point.
So it’s just a completely different situation?
Yeah. You had a different thing with ‘Alien.’ In ‘Alien’ you have one sort of returning cast member who desperately wanted the movie to be amazing. I desperately wanted the movie to be amazing. Even the guys who wrote it and produced it wanted the movie to be amazing. The degree to which we would all go to make the movie amazing was different. Sigourney and I had a lot to lose and we worked really, really hard not to embarrass everyone. And, in the end, it wasn’t enough.
The first thing that I ever saw you do, that was quite amazing when you’re a 10-year-old kid…
The video for Rick Springfield’s ‘Bop ‘Til You Drop.’ All of a sudden Rick Springfield was in a ‘Star Wars’-type video.
That one got me out of ILM. I mean, I would make that video very differently today.
That doesn’t surprise me, but, come on it was 1984…
Yeah. And for a 22-year-old and the first $150,000 I’ve ever had to spend … yeah, we did the best we could with what we had. Rick was incredibly sweet to me to give me that opportunity, but I honestly don’t know what any of that had to do with that song. At least it was different.
I really didn’t want to see Rick Springfield bop ’till he dropped, I wanted to see him run around with lasers.
Well, there you go.
You also directed the video for Billy Idol’s ‘Cradle of Love,’ which, if I remember correctly, was challenging because Idol had just been in a serious accident.
He couldn’t stand. He was on crutches. We shot him from the waist up and put him in a bunch of different Warhols, or whatever.
Did that almost give you more freedom with his limitations?
I knew Billy. I liked that ‘Rebel Yell’ album — it is a fucking amazing record, still, to this day. I didn’t want to do a tie-in to a movie…
‘The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.’
Yeah. I didn’t want to do that. And neither did he. He liked the sort of salaciousness of what that song was talking about. And we knew he would be limited to the amount of hours he could be on set. We had to build a little brace that he could kind of hold on to and move himself around. He was fucked up. His leg was really, really atrocious. So they came to me and said, “What’s it going to cost to get you to do a movie tie-in video?” and I said, “There’s not enough money in the world.” They said, “Well, it’s Billy Idol.” And I said, “Oh, I might reconsider that.” They game me the song and I liked the song. And I gave him my ideas and he thought they were funny. So we did it and then I think somebody came in later and cut the scenes from ‘Ford Fairlane’ into it.
The clips of ‘Ford Fairlane’ don’t flow with the rest of the video.
Yeah, and there was that thing at the time with MTV where they were like, “Wait, we want to put MTV all over it, but we don’t want you to be able to market anything else on the back of this high quality content.”
Then you did George Michael’s ‘Freedom! ’90,’ and Michael isn’t in that video at all. Did he tell you that he wouldn’t do it?
No. He said, “I don’t need to be in a video again.” Yeah, there’s a better cut of that. Our first cut of that was actually better. And it’s one of those things that, you know, it is what it is. I was much more collaborative then.
Something that I’ve always wondered, and you’ve mentioned ILM, what exactly was your role on ‘Return of the Jedi’?
I was loading cameras.
Were you around [‘Jedi’ director] Richard Marquand?
I met Marquand, but I was one of 9000 people getting the movie made. I did the Chicken Walkers [a.k.a. AT-ST Scout Walkers] — I was working on the Chicken Walkers. They had a lot of shots that were panning and tilting in the Redwood Forest in Crescent City and my job was to figure out a way to match move that stuff, which hadn’t been shot in motion control at all. So I was doing a lot of sitting in the dark and taking a mirror and taking registered interpositives and projecting them out of this vision cameras using … fuck, it was like a — I think we used little tiny leekos. It was crazy. I mean, when you think of ILM, you always think of this thing where it’s like NASA, or something: this is so thrown together and so half-ass. And I would projectile the camera on to these big cards — these big circular cards — and I would put a line on a tree. I would sit there with Jerry Jeffress’ early, early, early field motion control unit and program match move. I’d match move the plates for the pan and tilt, then I’d bring in the blue screen, bring in the go-motion unit, match the lighting, and put the Chicken Walkers into the shot.
That was my job, I was 18 or 19 years old.