David Fincher’s Bizarro ‘Game’
“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.”