Monday, January 27, 2014

David Fincher: Master of Making the Mundane Cool

While watching Zodiac last week, I found myself utterly dumbfounded by a brief aerial shot of a moving taxicab. If you’ve seen it, you won’t forget it. The camera glides perfectly from above, as if it’s an extension of the cab itself. When the cab switches lanes, the camera gracefully changes lanes with it. When the cab makes a right turn, the camera pivots so exactly, that the effect is somehow mesmerizing.

So I wondered: How the hell can a director make the movement of a taxicab so visually stimulating? And then it hit me: the reason that shot is so incredible is because David Fincher is the master of making mundane things look cool. He gives purpose to the bland. Originality to the common. The more I thought about this notion, the more examples I was able to come up with. So below are a handful of shots and scenes that most any other director wouldn’t think twice about. But because of his passion for detail, Fincher was able to give theses seemingly throwaway moments true purpose.

Note: I didn’t include the brilliantly over stylized mundaneness of the David Fincher opening credit sequence. Those are cause for another post all together.

Se7en
A Man Does Research in the Library

I used to dread the library scene in Se7en. As a teen, I was eager to get back to the grim world that David Fincher had created in the film. And I could never understand why he slowed his film down so purposefully (and so early) with a boring scene in a library. Watching the sequence now, I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to find it dull. For starters, it’s gorgeous. Those horribly mundane green desk lamps (a staple in so many American homes in the ‘90s) have never had more purpose. With Bach’s “Suite No. 3 in D Major” blissfully blaring away, Morgan Freeman doing nothing (but doing everything), and the seven deadly sins as seen from Dante… it’s an immaculate set piece that may seem dull and mundane to an eager 12-year-old kid, but to the adult me, it is certainly anything but.
What Fincher Said: “There’s not much characterization in films anymore. You gotta kind of get to the fuckin’ point, get to the digital effects. But the stories I’m more drawn to are character ones. The audience wants to see a story, I think. So much of real police work is sitting around in cars, drinking bad coffee, waiting for somebody to show up. There is a lot of legwork. But [this sequence] is very much about setting up who these people are, and what their relationship is to their surroundings.”

The Game
A Man Gets a Physical

One of Fincher’s best and curiously overlooked films, The Game, is full of magnificently mundane shots. Like Michael Douglas silently playing a solo game of squash in slow motion, or the “simple” shot from under a plane as it takes off.

But my favorite mundane-made-cool sequence in the film is when Douglas undergoes mental and physical testing for the mysterious company, CRS. Using a series of cross dissolves to show the slow passage of time (a motif Fincher executes throughout the film), we watch as Douglas’ helplessly entitled character is forced to sit through something he cannot control. From taking an excruciatingly long multiple choice test, to sitting in an empty theater, alone with a Clockwork Orange-type experimental “film,” only David Fincher, with help from the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides, can make the act of undergoing a physical something so incredibly eerie.
What Fincher Said: “I just like the idea of being left in a theater. It’s like, you’re not done until the movie is done with you. You have this weird test, and you don’t know how the test works, and it seems like the people who are running the test are off getting a coffee, and you’re asking these questions and no one can answer them for you.  It’s this idea of who’s minding the store.”

Fight Club
A Man Walks Through His Living Room

Leave it to Fincher to make the simple act of a man walking through his living room the most entertaining shot of a movie. Just as we’re getting to know the plight of Edward Norton’s character, we cut to a 360 shot of his apartment. As the camera pans around, the room literally begins to build itself with new furniture, as perfectly timed catalogue descriptions of the items pop into frame. Norton casually shrugs by (notice how his body blocks some of the descriptions but not others… what a nice touch), as the dryness of his narration helps accentuate the mundaneness of the whole affair.

This is a man defined by his things. Things that give him a pathetic sense of status, of purpose. Things that make for one hell of a visually divine sequence.

What Fincher Said: “It was some kind of visual representation of the idea that we’re a byproduct of the armor that we select to let people know who we are. And that’s not just clothes and cars and hairstyles. It’s also the furniture you pick and whether or not it’s Southwestern or Pottery Barn or Ikea. In this case, it’s Ikea.”

Panic Room
A House is Discovered

The best shot of Panic Room is a three minute-long work of sheer bravado. As Jodie Foster lays to rest in her new, lavish brownstone, the camera gently pans away and glides downstairs. Once on the first floor, we move to the window and notice a few thieves quietly trying to break in. We glide over to the front door, go through the keyhole, then come back out the keyhole and on and on. Whether the camera moves between the handle of a coffee pot, or through an entire floor of the apartment, everything about this sequence is utterly captivating. Sure, digital effects play a big part in the shot’s overall finesse, and Howard Shore’s score is as important as the camera’s movement, but the shot will forever remain a staple of Fincher’s panache for camera trickery.
What Fincher Said: “This is called The Big Shot. It was one of the first things that interested me in the movie, the notion of being inside a fish bowl, looking out and seeing the cats. I liked the discipline, the rigor of what David Koepp was doing when he decided to show you the guys on the outside breaking in, exclusively from the inside. It may have been a mistake to smooth all of this stuff out. We went back on a computer to smooth out a lot of the movement. But I like that it looks so mechanical, it tends to look like it was made by a machine. There’s an exactitude there that precludes human involvement. I saw it as something without a personality. There’s no one there. There’s no one pushing a dolly, there’s no one pulling focus.”

Zodiac
A Cab Drives Down the Street

One could argue that the entirety of Zodiac is Fincher at his most masterfully mundane. After all, the film is essentially about a handful of middle-aged white guys sitting around talking. For the cab shot… just think about how much time, effort and money Fincher could have saved if he didn’t include that aerial shot. But that’s what makes David Fincher so goddamn cool, the man isn’t interested in saving time, effort, or money (within his budget), he’s interested in telling stories in ways we’ve never seen.

What Fincher Said: “The cab shot is one of those moments people seem to really remember in the movie. The idea here was to have this sense of detachment; God’s POV of looking down on something that he has no control over. And also, this way of being locked onto what’s happening and powerless to change it.”

A Blacked-Out Passage of Time

A lot of time passes in Zodiac, the biggest jump (aside from its epilogue) being the four years that pass between Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo talking at the Dirty Harry premiere, to Jake Gyllenhaal deciding he wants to reinvestigate the case on his own. But this particular passage of time is worth mentioning, simply because I’ve never seen anything like it.

The screen fades to black and stays that way for 52 whole seconds. Seven different songs fade in and out over the soundtrack, audibly blocked by actual news recordings of events at the time. It’s startling in its simplicity, and gives you perfect notice to the fact that the film is far from over.

What Fincher Said: “I wanted to have a real mass culture reference in transporting us forward four years. So the idea was to do this montage purely of audio, of different songs. And to finally take the movie from mono to stereo, since six-track stereo only really came on the scene with Star Wars. I wanted to open up the surrounds and kind of stretch the audience forward and let them know that the movie is not over, in fact, in some ways, this is the mid point, which I’m sure elicited groans from test audiences.”

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
A Couple Laze in Their Living Room

When Benjamin Button and his long lost love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), are finally the same age, they decide to buy a duplex and spend their days lounging on their living room floor.

With a bed mattress placed snuggly in the middle of the room, we watch with glee as Benjamin and Daisy create a life together – making food, making love, making memories. It’s easily my favorite sequence in the film, heightened by an utter lack of creative flourish. Essentially, it’s just a handful of cameras, locked in place, and two actors swirling around, convincing us that it’s all real.
What Fincher Said: “We shot this on a sound stage so there’s blue screens out the windows everywhere, and one of the interesting things was originally it was this giant motion control, this big camera move that circled around the whole stage. And then I started thinking that [this time period] was kind of the beginning of situation comedy, so we ended up cutting all these holes on the set and poking five cameras in and locking the cameras off, rolling and just saying, “Go.” We’d change the lighting and say, “Okay, it’s night time, you’re going to bed,” and we’d roll. We wouldn’t tell them what to do, they’d come and inhabit the set. It worked out in this weird I Love Lucy way.”

The Social Network
A Few Gentleman of Harvard Compete in a Boat Race

I appreciate that people might consider the Henley Royal Regatta the Super Bowl of boat racing (Fincher’s words), but before seeing The Social Network, I hadn’t the slightest clue what the Henley Royal Regatta even was.

And then there it is, midway through the film, a boat racing scene of astonishing technical achievement. I don’t have the slightest damn clue how Fincher pulled this Henley Royal Regatta sequence off. The focus is so sharp but so oddly soft, wide shots look like the whole scene was achieved using miniature models, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ music blares away thrillingly, the camera pans this way and that, the editing is perfectly precise – it’s a dazzling achievement that, to put it succinctly, could only be executed at the hands of David Fincher.
What Fincher Said: “So this was one of those sequences where the only time we could shoot it was July 4, 2010. It was literally five to six weeks before we had to finish the movie. The movie had to be done so we could get it in theaters, and [the Henley Royal Regatta] were incredibly helpful to us and made it all possible.

“One of the reasons it was done in this faux, swing and tilting lens board style was because all of the close-ups of the Winklevosses and the Dutch rowing were done in Eton on a man made lake that doesn’t look anything like Henley. [It] just has green grass, but we would shoot the close-ups of all the people and then we had to matte in still photographs that we’d shot at Henley. There was a team of 20-35 artists who toiled around the clock to finish that sequence so we could get the movie done. And they did a great job.”

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
A Girl Sits on Her Floor

Shortly after Lisbeth Salander is sexually victimized for the first time by her new legal guardian, Fincher invades her life for the briefest, but most striking of moments. We fade in as the camera quickly moves up to Lisbeth from behind, as she sits on the floor, heat lamp sweating in front of her. She sits there, smoking, thinking, and in one graceful move, the camera flips upside down and holds her inverted face in the frame. It’s a very short sequence, but one that clues us in on the fact that this girl is going to get her goddamn revenge.

What Fincher Said: “We wanted to shoot a scene when she’s plotting her revenge of Bjurman and I wanted the idea that her world literally gets turned upside down. I like the idea of taking a technodolly and just flying over the top of her head and seeing her face as you see her eyes darting around and she’s lost in vindictive fantasy.”



33 comments:

  1. I love this.. man, I love this list so much and every time I watch Zodiac love it more and more. And I never realized but I think Fincher is my current favorite director because he hasn't failed me yet. And he has most movies in my Top 50 list. Such talent.

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    1. Nice! So happy you like the post. Fincher is just incredible, isn't he? He's as important to American film as any filmmaker of his generation. The man never misses.

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  2. Excellent post, I've always thought that scene in se7en was amazing.

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    1. Thanks! It's such a eery, yet oddly poignant, scene. Great stuff.

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  3. Great post, man... Can't wait for Gone Girl!

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  4. Love that Dragon Tattoo scene, it's such a great trick with upside down shot, very memorable. It's like yet another way of letting us know that Lisbeth is not an ordinary girl and her mind works in a unique way.

    That scene from Se7en in library when Air plays in the background is so hauntingly beautiful.

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    1. It's one of my favorite moments in Dragon Tattoo, for sure. It takes such balls for a filmmaker to decide to capture a moment like that upside down. So fucking cool.

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  5. Great post! This is one of the great aspects of Fincher's approach to storytelling. He seems thoroughly enthralled with procedure. Not just the routines of detectives and investigators, but the routines of ordinary people. They're the things most of us never think about, but Fincher has a way of making them fascinating to us, too.

    Zodiac is a perfect example of this and it's one of many reasons why it's my favorite Fincher film. That opening, in which we follow the Zodiac letter from the mailroom up to the daily budget meeting is fantastic. Having sat through many, many budget meetings because of my work, I can say Fincher nailed the personalities and the procedures of a newsroom.

    I also agree that The Game is tremendously under-rated. Same with Panic Room--that panning shot through the home is just magnificent. Granted, when compared to the rest of Fincher's filmography, the latter film ends up near the bottom of the list but still a great film.

    I don't dig shameless self promotion, but I wrapped up my year end citations. I'd love it if you had a look. Cheers!

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    1. Thanks man! One of the reasons I love Zodiac so much is because it's so true to that newsroom setting. I was a newspaper beat reporter for a few years, and like you said, those personalities in Zodiac are so spot on. There's a I'm-so-good-I-can-do-whatever-the-fuck-I-want Paul Avery in every newsroom.

      Also really pleased to hear your praise for The Game and Panic Room. Not as good as other Fincher flicks, but definitely both still great.

      I'll give your post a read ASAP!

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    2. Thanks for giving it a read, Alex! The blog has mostly become an annual viewing list for friends and co-workers, although it's big in Japan (and Ukraine and Sri Lanka) if stats are to be believed. I completely lack the wherewithal of folks like you to make it a routine.

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    3. My pleasure! It was a great read. I do wish you blogged more, but I completely get what you mean. I've been blogging a lot less over these past few months. Made my primary focus the production of my film. But if I have a free moment here and there, I do find relaxation in writing about flicks. Either way, loved your post!

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  6. I dare say those green desk lamps were put to even better effect in Network

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    1. Ohhh I like that. I think I may agree with you.

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  7. Oh, this is a fucking great post. I was entranced by that cab scene in Zodiac. Especially the Royal Regatta w/ the Reznor/Ross take on "In the Hall of the Mountain King" piece.

    It's among the reasons why Fincher is one of the best filmmakers working today as he can find something beautiful in something mundane as the news of Reznor/Ross contributing the score for the next film has me even more excited.

    Especially as I'm still very upset over what happened at the Grammys this past Sunday which only added to the furor over the results of WWE's Royal Rumble.

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    1. Thanks man, really appreciate you reading. I'm so pumped that Reznor and Ross are scoring Gone Girl. They add so much to Fincher's complex and grim worlds.

      Wrestling with theVoid! That's fucking awesome! Man, so impressive how much content you put out there on a daily basis.

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  8. Ah, Alex. This is why I love And So It Begins... so much. This post rocks. The elements of film that we too often take for granted. And you're so right that Fincher is a master of these. Like you say, "Zodiac" IS making the mundane dramatic. It's a whole movie of it! That's such a significant accomplishment. And as the years have gone by, I realize what has lingered with me the most about "Seven" is those little mundane things - the green lamps, the rain beating on the windshield, the wine in the water glass, etc.

    Also, don't you think Michael Mann is a master of these moments too? I think of Pacino & Crowe sending faxes in "The Insider" - faxes!!! - and how suspenseful it felt.

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    1. Wow Nick, thanks so much man. That really means a lot. So happy you like the post. I honestly hadn't thought about Mann in this way, but you're so right. He makes the act of opening a bottle of beer a grim extension of violence in Heat, and The Insider... man, that's his magnum opus of masterful mundane. I rewatched that movie two weeks ago and it's just perfect. One of my favorite Mann's, for sure.

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  9. *cries* I want to be David Fincher. He has such a cool style, it is just so fluid and yes, he does make the mundane very cool. The Henley regatta scene is probably one of my favourite scenes from The Social Network. That was such a masterfully made film, the camera just glides through it so effortlessly. And the scene you pointed out from Fight Club...that's pretty much the scene that describes most people's lives. So perfect. Great post!

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    1. Thanks! I wouldn't mind being him either, ha. Although I would NEVER have the stones to make an actor do 90 takes of one scene. But hey, the man knows what he wants and he gets it, and we're all better off for it! That Henley scene in TSN is so perfect. And considering he did it in such a crunch for time... it makes it even more remarkable.

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  10. I love this post! Fincher is god. I think visually, he's my favourite filmmaker. I love how "cool" his movies are. Like these shots almost seem effortless but there's obviously a great amount of thought put into it. This is why when people bitch about his numerous takes, I just want them to shut up because he clearly has a vision in his head, without which none of these can work.

    I remember listening to The Social Network's cast commentary and Eisenberg said something like he couldn't believe he was in a film that had a sequence like the Henley Reggata one.

    And of course, I adore everything Fight Club. That scene is so funny and so revealing.

    I've always loved the Se7en scene. As untidy as I am in real life, I just love it when things are all ordered in movies and those lamps are so beautiful.

    The Panic Room scene is uber creepy. I really like that film. I don't get why others don't.

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    1. I just realised the word "cool" is in your title. Clearly, I'm still asleep.

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    2. Ha, it's all good. The man is super cool.

      Yeah, it's hard to bitch about the number of takes he requires because, you know, a Fincher film looks like a Fincher film, and that's a goddamn beautiful thing.

      I love that you're such a Fincher fan. The man is cool personified.

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  11. Alex, you're so right on with this post. Fincher uses this approach to such great effect, which is a main reason he's films feel differently than you'd expect. Zodiac in particular really benefits from his stylistic moves. It rarely seems like it's such designed to look cool, and you don't always notice it consciously either.

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    1. Exactly! Zodiac is so stylized, but all of its stylizations are restrained. Watching the Making Of docs on the DVD really shows you how much the man put into that film. So exquisitely detailed. Thanks so much for reading, Dan.

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  12. In a world of "go, go, go", fast cuts and flashing frames, Fincher is amazing at bringing it all back down to the details. You really used some great examples here, Alex, of how he makes us slow down and pay attention to the particulars. "Se7en" was always a personal favorite though all of his work has such a distinct feel to it. Makes me think it wouldn't be a bad idea for all of us to do a real-life David Fincher take every now and then....just to see what we're missing.

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    1. I LOVE that Fincher so often neglects the "go, go, go" attitude of filmmaking. He really does allow for time, which is so rare for modern, somewhat big budget films. And I love your notion of us in real life slowing down a little bit. Really, what do we miss?

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  13. I think the rowing scene from The Social Network is the most interesting scene of the entire film. And it's just some guys… rowing. I absolutely agree with every word here, and good health to our best man David Fincher!

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    1. It's definitely a visual stunner, isn't it? And yeah... just guys rowing. Insane how compelling he made it!

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  14. Excellent write-up man! I really need to rewatch some of these, and I haven't even seen The Game yet.

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    1. Thanks buddy! The Game is so damn good. Overlooked only because it was sandwiched between two massive sensations. But a very, very fine film indeed.

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  15. Love the Social Network! A truly excellent film.

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