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The auteur stylings of David Fincher

December 20, 2013

As the director of films including Alien 3 (1992), Se7en (1995), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), Panic Room (2002), Zodiac (2007), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The Social Network (2010), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), and most recently, the Netflix TV series, House of Cards (2013), Fincher has made a distinct mark upon the film world with his stylized oeuvre. But it isn’t just stylization for the sake of it; Fincher is an auteur, and a highly skilled visual storyteller, who absconded film school in favor of real world work experience. Not a single shot in his films appears without motivation. David Fincher is a formalist through and through.

Born in 1962 in Denver, CO, the son of Claire Mae, a mental health nurse, and Howard Kelly Fincher, a bureau chief for Life. At a young age the family moved to California, but in his teens Fincher moved to Oregon where he graduated high school. Like many directors, the camera and movie-making came early, at age 8, when he began making films with an 8mm camera. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the film that inspired the young Fincher but, unlike many modern auteurs, film school wasn’t his classroom.

David Fincher behind the scenes of Alien 3

David Fincher behind the scenes of Alien 3

One summer, he and a friend attended the Berkley Film Institute’s summer program, which ended up being a lesson about the value of technical and working experience, rather than the high art of film. Disappointed by the pretentious attitudes and the lofty ideals of young filmmakers, Fincher found the school “very Berkeley. There were all these people who were there to communicate and change the world… and then they made these really shitty, stupid little movies.” Fincher and his friend found themselves working as grips and electrics on everyone else’s films, happier engaging in the technical side of production instead of getting bogged down in film school theory.

Fincher was hired by Industrial Light & Magic in 1983, gaining more experience on films, as an Assistant Cameraman for Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi and a Matte Photographer for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, quite a job for a 21-year-old. A year later he left ILM for the opportunity to direct a commercial for the American Cancer Society. With a growing résumé he was provided with the opportunity to direct the 1985 Rick Springfield documentary The Beat of the Living Drum. This led to other opportunities directing music videos and commercials with the production company Propaganda Films, where other directors including Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Gore Verbinksi also honed their craft. Fincher would go on to direct music videos for Madonna and commercials for companies such as Nike, Revlon, Pepsi, and Sony, to name a few.

See Fincher’s visual style in an early Nike ad, “Trail of Destruction.”

It was in music videos like Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” “Oh Father,” and “Vogue” that Fincher would begin to develop his own signature style and expression, resulting in his first feature film, Alien 3. Traces of the gritty, industrial look of Alien 3 can be found in Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” along with stylistic touches of low angles, swooping crane shots and fast tracking shots. In Madonna’s “Oh Father” and “Vogue,” the director’s affinity for deep chiaroscuro (composition defined by bold, strong contrasts between light and dark) was explored in the black and white style of these videos. Though, like many directors coming into their own at the time, rapid crosscutting, shock cuts, and fast edits were the visual conventions born of the MTV and cable era, moving beyond the classical Hollywood style of holding shots and invisible editing. Still, Fincher’s unique style clearly was taking shape and calling attention to itself.

Fincher’s unique style in music videos such as, Express Yourself and Vogue:

Fincher’s feature film directorial debut, made when he was only 29, was Alien 3, a devastatingly challenging production with many script incarnations, the result of various rewrites and writers, and heavy studio interference in the actual production. As a first time feature director, Fincher was undermined and would go on to disavow the film. The experience even led Fincher to swear he would “rather have colon cancer than direct another picture.” Luckily, that wasn’t the case. For fans of the franchise, the third film was considered a failure, a departure from the quality and story set forth by Ridley Scott and James Cameron. Commercially and critically Alien 3 was a bust. Though disowned by Fincher, visually the film still represents the establishing of his signature style: using darks and shadows to set mood, creating a visceral experience, a noir-esque color palette, wide lenses, and deep focus. It may not be a film that fans or Fincher are proud of but it still looks like a Fincher film and it taught him better ways to navigate within the studio system.

“My idea of professionalism is probably a lot of people’s idea of obsessive.”

Maintaining his distinct vision while operating within the studio production system has led to a reputation as an irascible, sharply opinionated, and vocal director, that’s clear from many of the statements he makes, “People will say, ‘There are a million ways to shoot a scene,’ but I don’t think so. I think there are two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.”


David Fincher’s next feature, Se7en, would be a much more clear expression of his artistic vision and visual style. The neo-noir serial killer tale relished in its dark tone and creepy serial killer story. With Morgan Freeman as veteran detective Somerset, a few days from retirement, training a new transfer, Mills (Brad Pitt), while they investigate a set of serial murders, the film traffics in a few formulaic avenues but it’s not a detective story. The film is a dark, grim, study of character and evil, imposed upon the naïve Mills by a maniacal killer, under the experienced and authoritative eyes of Somerset. Fincher’s world is dirty, cluttered, messy, and chaotic; the rain in this city never seems to stop. But there is little difference between this visual world and that of Fight Club. For the film’s look, cinematographer Darius Khondji (who would also work with Fincher on Panic Room) applied a new re-silvering process to the negatives, which revealed more grain in the celluloid and made blacks more impervious to light. The resulting look is a mise-en-scène that’s highly defined, with the viewer’s eyes heavily directed in each shot. Think of the first murder scene that Somerset and Mills investigate, the beams of flashlights, piercing through a smoky darkness in a dirty apartment; what little lighting there is directs the viewer’s attention. It’s gross and appalling but enough of it is obscured by the dark that one has to work to visualize the full extent of the abhorrent scene. Altogether, scenes like this and the film as a whole creates a sense of dread that few can match.

One of the crime scenes from Se7en.

One of the crime scenes from Se7en.

With more films under Fincher’s belt, this same use of form to control and manipulate the experience of a story has evolved, even while the tools, tone, and style remain much the same. While Se7en and Fight Club are lived-in, dirty, impure worlds, his later films like, Panic Room, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the TV series House of Cards are drawn from the same stylistic cloth (similar color palettes, heavy chiaroscuro, common framing and camera techniques) they are much more ordered worlds. The settings are affluent locales: the upper class home of Jodi Foster’s character in Panic Room, the Harvard campus and deposition rooms of Social Network, the orderly world of the snowy island in Dragon Tattoo, the staid and composed world of D.C. in House of Cards; all still dirty and impure but defined in a more ordered way. Gone is the dirt and grime of the underworlds, replaced with the filth of power, money, and corruption. The worlds have changed but the means of depicting these worlds still relies on much of the same stylistic techniques.

“I don’t know how much movies should entertain. To me, I’m always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about Jaws is the fact that I’ve never gone swimming in the ocean again.”

The power of Fincher’s work is that he creates worlds that are impactful and memorable. Though maybe not always scarring, they make their impression nonetheless. His visual language is easily identifiable but also one of a kind. No other director creates worlds that look like his. He is truly an auteur and a master of form.

David Fincher with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt on the set of Fight Club.

David Fincher with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt on the set of Fight Club.

See the worlds of David Fincher in Alien 3 and Se7en, now showing on HDNET MOVIES.

Alien 3