“I really like the pounding on the floor,” says David Fincher. “This time, maybe check around, then pound the living shit out of it.” Michael Douglas stands face to face with Fincher, panting slightly. Douglas cradles a briefcase that’s taken quite a beating during previous takes. It’s scuffed, scarred, a bit bent, but definitely still locked shut, just as the props department designed it to be.
The location is a vacant office building in downtown Los Angeles, on the set of The Game, in which Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a businessman who falls victim to a bizarre plan too devious to give away here. This mind-bender (due in the fall) is the first movie Fincher has directed since his 1995 thriller, Seven, which starred Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman and became a blockbuster, winning him the right to do things his way. By most accounts, Fincher, now 34, has played his own rebel game since his early days as a top stud of commercial work (beginning with a public-service announcement for the American Cancer Society that featured a fetus smoking a cigarette) and then videos (Madonna’s “Vogue,” Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun”). For three years, he turned down feature-directing offers before jumping in on Alien3, in 1990. When the Fox studio, in his view, butchered Alien3 late in the production cycle, Fincher vowed to never again cede control. “David has a very strong hand running the set,” says Douglas. “Everybody’s always a little wary. Still, I like to tease him, give him a little zetz here and there. He has that talent where you feel like you’ll do anything for him. He really is the captain of the ship — the admiral.”
Right now, the admiral — dressed in his standard outfit of khakis and sweatshirt with a baseball cap pulled low over his unblinking, curiously vulnerable eyes — is talking to Douglas about that briefcase that won’t open. Douglas’ last take included nearly a dozen kung-fu-ish whacks of the case against a stone bench, followed by a full-on kick to the case. “I quit smoking 24 hours ago,” Douglas says, prompting a crew member to mutter, “That’s why he needs this.”
Venting has given way to pain. “It beats the shit out of your hand,” says Douglas evenly, “but I’ll be happy to keep doing it.” Fincher nods slowly, his practiced reserve shading into an almost undetectable trace of amusement. “This time,” he instructs, returning to the video monitor, “get it open.” Douglas, nostrils and eyes flared, takes a couple of beats to absorb this. But when he’s called to action, he does full justice to what the crew (in homage to the ape-and-bone business in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) is now dubbing the Dawn of Man scene. The case finally cracks open behind one clasp. Douglas, now panting like a boar, struts back to the camera, hands the case to the prop master, turns on his heel to leave and stops. Jaw set, eyes hooded, but with a formal dignity that is answered in kind, he shakes hands with Fincher.
“We shake hands,” says Douglas moments later while guiltily lighting up a smoke, then rearranging an ice pack for his hand. “It’s like a mutual respect thing. If there’s any possible question of either one of us getting testy, we just like to acknowledge that there’s nothing personal going on.”
Fincher makes no apologies for taking his time to get the shot right. “A director’s job is to feel like everything that they’re doing is worth the amount of money, worth the cost of human life and blood, sweat and tears,” he says. “I had a meeting once with a famous commercial director who was running off to direct a movie, and he wanted me to join his company. He said, ‘I’m going off to do this movie.’ I said, ‘Well, what is it?’ ‘Oh, it’s this cop thing.’ I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t ever want to be in a situation where I’m going off to do some ‘cop thing.’ “
Fincher, who can speak in articulate floods, pauses. He has stated his dislike for the cult of talkative — or, more precisely, self-promoting — directors. But during a long wait while a stuck elevator is fixed, he muses, impatiently eyeing the engineers. “That’s the job,” he says. “That’s what it is. Doing cool stuff like designing shots is 1 percent of your life. The other 99 percent is holding everything together while there’s total fucking chaos, maximizing the amount of hours that you have in order to get stuff, pulling shit out of your ass to fix things, being able to work on your toes. It’s not all about going [framing a shot with his hands], ‘We’ll do this, and then we’ll do that.’ People go, ‘How easy, you just do that.’ Well, now do it with a fucking Teamsters strike, with 150 people who are exhausted, who think that everything that you’re doing is, you know, gilding a lily — ‘You don’t need that shot.’ I love when people say that.”
“He will push,” says Douglas. “He’ll keep on shooting in the hope that something new or different might happen. I’ll start kvetching a little bit, give him a dead eye, and he just blows me off. I appreciate and admire that. He’s not intimidated by anybody or anything.”
Some 70 days into a 92-day shoot on The Game, Fincher seems in command of something more like a pirate ship than the kind of behemoth vessels Hollywood is built to support. After the grimly stylish Alien3 and the startling Seven, the film community is already starting to talk about something called “a Fincher movie.” As with Martin Scorsese or Kubrick movies, the phrase is a kind of code that warns film-goers to bring their full attention and a stiff upper lip — and to expect commensurate rewards.
The Game should not disappoint. Via an opening sequence that unspools as grainy home-movie footage, the audience meets 7-year-old Nicholas clutching infant brother Conrad (played as an adult by Sean Penn) and standing before his strangely remote father. In a series of flashbacks, we see the father’s plunge off the roof of the same San Francisco mansion that Nicholas presently inhabits as a lonely divorcé shut off from life and his own emotions, generally aloof but ruthless in business. (“So, you’re all alone in the House of Pain?” his brother asks him, to which Nicholas replies, “I redecorated.”) On Nicholas’ 48th birthday — his father had killed himself when he was 48 — Conrad gives him a gift certificate for a game designed by the mysterious Consumer Recreation Services. The game becomes a descent into what is really Nicholas’ own customized hell, replete with characters who may or may not be real. They include a contrary but attractive waitress, played by Deborah Kara Unger (Crash), and a spookily blasé executive, played by James Rebhorn.
“I was concerned,” says Douglas, “whether we’d give a shit about a rich, bored, emotionally removed man, a modern-day Scrooge.” Fincher, less elegantly, sees the Scrooge theme, too: “It’s about a guy who’s a fucking asshole who gets his shit reoriented. If we can make enough of the flashbacks and they work well, the audience will see why he’s been so cut off.”
A key script change, says Fincher, was making Nicholas and Conrad brothers, not just longtime buddies. “As brothers, they naturally carry all this stuff into every scene: respect or disrespect. Then you ask, ‘Does Conrad fuck him over to save him?’
If so, it’s a curious salvation — not the kind that studio chiefs design. Fincher’s own success with Seven and the lessons of a year when the offbeat indies often outran studio movies have given him a sense of liberation. “It’s an incredibly interesting time,” says Fincher. “You’re going to have the opportunity to make more Trainspottings because of Trainspotting. You have the opportunity to make more Pulp Fictions because of Pulp Fiction. The vernacular changes.”
It’s a little after sunrise in the Mexican border town of Mexicali, and the exhaust from The Game‘s heavy trucks fights it out with the uglier organic smells from whatever’s recently been dumped near today’s sandpit of a location. The New River — a sump of mercury and chicken parts — borders the land where a cemetery has been installed. Out of one large, smashed crypt emerges a dazed-looking Douglas, hair matted, white linen suit begrimed. In character as Nicholas, he staggers toward a toothless Mexican woman, asking where he is but getting only an uncomprehending, pitiless stare. On the third take, she casually spits, which makes Fincher smile. “She’s 96,” he says. “We found her here in town.”
A growling wind machine sends dust blowing past Douglas, who, like the crew that came in via a predawn charter flight, seems as disoriented as his character. “What thus far in this movie,” Fincher asks rhetorically, “has set us up for Mexicali? Nothing.” He watches Douglas turn away from the black-clad crone and stumble off. “I’m just trying to stay out of the way of it, just let the action, not the director, tell the story.”
Fincher peers into the long hood that wraps around his video monitor, watching the dust-blown Nicholas: “He’s learning that the way he’s used to dealing with the world is no longer appropriate. He has to learn to be a little bit more obsequious.”
For an ascending auteur, Fincher’s got a fair amount of humility to go with his resolve: “Martin Scorsese said something really important to me. He said, ‘Remember the mistakes that you make are as important a part of your style as the things that you do well.’ At a certain point you’ve just got to commit to something.”
Fincher has always aimed toward movies. He even lives in a storybook Hollywood compound near the historic mansion once owned by Charlie Chaplin and later by C.B. DeMille. Behind these walls, he can play with his 2-year-old daughter (from a former marriage, to photographer Donya Fiorentino). But, says Douglas, “David lives and breathes movies. He doesn’t have any hobbies. He is consumed by film.” Raised in California’s Marin County, the son of Life magazine reporter Jack Fincher and a mom who worked at a methadone maintenance clinic, Fincher skipped college to work at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic. He learned everything, from pulling apart cameras to shooting background mattes to computer savvy. “My attitude is: Take the camera out of the box and work as hard as you can to tell your story as simply as possible,” says Fincher. “You know, the best analogy for moviemaking is you’re doing a watercolor from three blocks away through a telescope, with 40 people holding the brush, and you have a walkie-talkie.”
Though the crew is setting up wind machines, the Mexicali dust is blowing around on its own, bringing a sulfurous smell that is perhaps what makes Fincher wrinkle his nose as he continues: “I’d love some day to be able to make a movie that, whether it gets cheered or cut into mandolin picks, I would be able to go, ‘This is what I had in my mind.’ I used to draw a lot when I was a kid — I could literally sit down at 4 or 5 years old and draw for eight hours. I wanted to learn how. I got to be about 9 or 10 years old, and I stopped because I just couldn’t get what I had in my head out onto paper so that people could see what I had in my head. It wasn’t satisfying enough. Of course, I gave it up for something infinitely more difficult: making movies.”