A few months ago, David Fincher was having a problem with his new movie. This in itself wasn’t especially surprising, as Fincher’s productions seem to attract crises of the cosmic-joke variety, be they midshoot injuries (Se7en), last-minute casting switcheroos (Panic Room), or on-the-fly script rewrites (Alien3). Despite the director’s meticulous planning—he can spend years preparing for a film—something usually goes awry. He’s used to it. “All movies are a trial,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s war.”
But this latest battle was unique. In a roundabout way, it had to do with ABBA.
For much of the past year, Fincher has been filming The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, his roughly $100 million adaptation of the macabre Swedish mystery that centers on a punk-hacker heroine with distinctive skin art. On one of the first nights of shooting, Fincher and his crew were in Sweden, filming a murder scene that takes place alongside a gloomy dock. But after a night’s work, Fincher didn’t have the shot he wanted, and the film’s ultratight schedule meant he wouldn’t be able to return for months.
When Fincher began planning the reshoot, he learned that the property had been sold to one of the guys in ABBA. Apparently, the new owner—either Benny or Bj\0xF6rn, it’s not really clear—wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of having his evening stroll interrupted by a simulated drowning, and he refused to let the crew come back. Rather than find a new location or make do with the footage he had, Fincher decided to build his own Swedish dock.
Which is why, on a late-summer afternoon, we’re standing on a Los Angeles soundstage, examining a replica of a rural-Scandinavia mise-en-scène: mossy rocks, foliage-fat trees, and—perched high above the docks, turtlenecking out of the woods—a squat, deceptively cozy faux cottage. Like most sets, it looks a bit weird naked. But once the lights hit and the smoke drifts in, we are suddenly in the land of stunted summers and moderately high suicide rates.
The mass murder and hate-sex in Dragon Tattoo is proof that your mom has been reading some weird stuff lately.
As usual, though, Fincher is not satisfied. He stands in the middle of the stage, arms folded, a coffee stirrer clenched in his teeth. He’s 49 and trim, dressed in dark jeans, a gray polo, and sneakers, his mouth framed by a neat turf of mostly salty salt-and-pepper whiskers. He then starts pacing the set, calmly relaying what needs to be changed, tune-ups that range from the subtle to the barely perceptible: a branch that’s sagging a few inches too low; a pair of lightbulbs with mismatched wattages; a patch of leaves that needs to be a little bit darker.
Most viewers won’t notice the way the pebbles are scattered or how high the watermarks rise on the fake rocks. But Fincher will. Even in an industry full of control freaks, Fincher stands out as obsessive—a guy who will scrutinize and engineer every element in the frame until the images on the screen fit the ones in his head. Sometimes that means repainting a few leaves; sometimes it means doing 50, 60, even 100 takes of a single scene.
Dragon Tattoo is Fincher’s ninth film in two decades. And while the movies often focus on dark-hearted subjects—madness (Se7en), paranoia (The Game), nihilism (Fight Club), greed (Panic Room), obsession (Zodiac), and betrayal (The Social Network)—they’re always beautiful to look at. Each is packed with so much careful detail—physical, aural, spatial—while also being so clean and composed that he’s earned his own fanboy-bestowed sobriquet: Fincheresque.
Like middle class and pornography, the term is know-it-when-you-see-it elastic, but it’s usually pinned on a scene that’s darkly lit, darkly themed, and eerily beautiful. Think of the flashlights sabering through a shut-in’s filthy apartment in Se7en or the skyscrapers exploding and folding like glass accordions at the end of Fight Club.
Moments like these have established Fincher as one of Hollywood’s few accessible auteurs, a guy who can make commercially viable movies without 2s in their title and who never sacrifices his artful cynicism for phony uplift. “There aren’t a whole lot of directors trying to find the balance between commerce and—loath as I am to say it—art,” Se7en writer Andrew Kevin Walker says. “Somehow, he manages to make something incredibly handcrafted and heartfelt on a big budget.”
But Fincher’s bleak yet captivating visions might also be why, despite all his success, he’s never had an Inception-size box-office smash. Even a movie like Se7en, which pulled in $300 million worldwide, had the aura of a cult hit, if only because it felt weird to enthuse openly about a movie in which a pregnant woman’s decapitated head is stuffed into a box. “My whole career has been pervy books, pervy scripts,” Fincher says, only half kidding. “It wasn’t so much about finding a niche. It just didn’t seem to me like there was any need to be doing more of what everyone else was doing.” It’s not that Fincher’s films aren’t beloved—they are—it’s just that sometimes it take a while for audiences to come around to them. It’s as if Fincher lives in the near future, releasing movies a year or two before the world is ready for them.