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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”