David Fincher’s Bizarro ‘Game’
“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.”
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