6 Filmmaking Tips from David Fincher
That thing about looking at each setup with one eye at a time kind of blew my mind. I can’t wait to try that. And totally agree about what you learn on your first movie.
1) “What you learn from that first [film] - and I don’t call it ‘trial by fire’; I call it ‘baptism by fire’ - is that you are going to have to take all of the responsibility, because basically when it gets right down to it, you are going to get all of the blame, so you might as well have made all of the decisions that led to people either liking it or disliking it. There’s nothing worse than hearing somebody say, ‘Oh, you made that movie? I thought that movie sucked,’ and you have to agree with them, you know?”
2) “I never fall in love with anything. I really don’t, I am not joking. ‘Do the best you can, try to live it down,’ that’s my motto. Just literally give it everything you got, and then know that it’s never going to turn out the way you want it to, and let it go, and hope that it doesn’t return. Because you want it to be better than it can ever turn out. Absolutely, 1000 percent, I believe this: Whenever a director friend of mine says, ‘Man, the dailies look amazing!’ … I actually believe that anybody, who thinks that their dailies look amazing doesn’t understand the power of cinema; doesn’t understand what cinema is capable of.”
3) “A friend of mine once, he was directing his first film and he called me and said, ‘How many takes can I ask for?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well I’m working with this actress and she said that she’s only going to give me six takes.’ And I said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, you ask for whatever it is you need.’ I’ve never understood… It’s not about an actor presenting their work to forty people around them. It’s about, you know, it’s the boom operator, it’s the camera operator, it’s can you tweak the light better, can the person hit their mark better, can they be in focus. There’s so many aspects, it’s not just about the actor. That’s the focus of what you’re trying to get, but it’s a ballet between so many different people. And to me that’s the thing, to make it all coalesce, to make it look effortless.”
4) In the commentary track for Se7en, Fincher explains that when he was working at ILM, he was taught that a director should look at each scene’s set up with each eye individually. Left eye for composition (because it’s connected to the creative right side of the brain). Right eye for focus and technical specs (because it’s connected to the mathematical left side of the brain).
5) “A movie is made for an audience and a film is made for both the audience and the filmmakers. I think that The Game is a movie and I think Fight Club’s a film. I think that Fight Club is more than the sum of its parts, whereas Panic Room is the sum of its parts. I didn’t look at Panic Room and think: Wow, this is gonna set the world on fire. These are footnote movies, guilty pleasure movies. Thrillers. Woman-trapped-in-a-house movies. They’re not particularly important.”
6) “You can’t take everything on. That’s why when people ask how does this film fit into my oeuvre. I say ‘I don’t know. I don’t think in those terms’. If I did, I might become incapacitated by fear … How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time. How do you shoot a 150-day movie? You shoot it one day at a time.”
- Interviewer: I have to be honest with you. A while ago when I heard about your way of doing business, for filmmaking and doing so many takes, I sort of questioned it. But the more I’ve learned about the art of the industry, you have a very rare luxury of having the time to do this many takes and the way you describe your editing process, I don’t think you could do it with only four takes.
- David Fincher: Well, I’ll go you one further which is… “What the fuck are you doing?” If you’re flying out actors from all over the fucking place, because they’re the right person to read that text, and you’re spending weeks with them in rehearsal, and then you get there and you’re going, “OK, trained monkey, do that thing.” How unbelievably disrespectful is it to everybody’s time? I look at it this way. There are a lot of directors who like having a Technocrane on the truck. So if they decide they want to do a crane shot, Technocrane’s there. OK, well, Technocrane’s fucking $3,000 a day. So, if you don’t have that, you can go another 15 or 20 minutes right before lunch in order to allow for that person to do something better. So I look at it as, I’ll always trade helicopter shots, steadicams, and that stuff in order to have the time to let somebody fail upward. To let somebody… they know what they’re doing, they’ve figured out who their character is. They’re coming from a solid place of contributing, and now you want to get them to a point where they are no longer thinking about, “Which hand is it? I didn’t pick up the thing…” It’s like, you do something 16 times, you can do it in your fucking sleep. Now, once you can do it in your sleep, now let’s get the words to come out of your mouth like it’s the first time you said it and you always talk like this. That’s what we were doing. So you sit there and you go, “Couldn’t the Winklevosses’ attorneys’ conference room be more marble, more carved wood?” Yea, it can be a much more elaborate thing. Does it need to be? No. Would I rather have eight days in there to shoot that stuff than six days? So if I take some of the elaborateness out and I don’t relight as much, and if I take some of the green screen stuff that I wanted to see out the windows of San Francisco and I take that out of my budget. I go, “OK, the windows can be blown out and just be a glow outside because that’s often what it looks like when you try to balance exposure for the real world to the real outside world.” Am I OK with that? Does it get me two more days with Andrew Garfield? Yea. OK, well, I’d rather have two more days with Andrew Garfield. I’d rather give him nine more bites at the apple on every setup.
To me this movie does to genre filmmaking what L’Avventura did to narrative cinema in the 1960s, in the sense that in L’Avventura, all of a sudden, the central character disappears, and you’re just left with abstract issues of what was really going on in life around that character.
Here you have the notion that everything is in place for a classic narrative — a serial killer, the cops, a smart guy from everyday life, the ciphers. Everything should fall in place and there should be a resolution, and here you’re only left with question mark after question mark, which ultimately is what real life is about, and it’s very rarely acknowledged by cinema.
What amazed me at the time and still does is the connection with Seven, because it’s like the anti-Seven. It’s this incredible exercise in dialectics. In American cinema, I don’t see an equivalent."