An Interview with David Fincher

At the age of nineteen, David Fincher launched his film career working as an assistant cameraman for Industrial Light & Magic. In 1983, he shifted to Los Angeles to direct TV commercials and music videos for companies like Adidas, AT&T, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Pepsi, and Nike.

Additionally, Fincher has worked with various artists like Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, and A Perfect Circle on music videos. In 1987, he co-created Propaganda Films alongside Dominic Sena, Greg Gold, and Nigel Dick.

As a motion-picture director, his portfolio includes works such as Panic Room, Fight Club, The Game, Se7en, Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. His upcoming project, The Social Network, is set to be released this month.

Mark Romanek hails from Chicago. He has directed many acclaimed music videos for a variety of artists such as Fiona Apple, Beck, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Coldplay, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth. His feature film, One Hour Photo, featuring Robin Williams, premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and received the Prix du Public, Prix Premiere, and the Prix du Jury at the 2002 Deauville American Film Festival. His newest movie, Never Let Me Go, is set to be released this month.

In 1990, Fincher and Romanek encountered each other when the latter was employed by Satellite Films. Satellite Films was a subsidiary of Propaganda Films, where Fincher was a renowned music video director. During the first week of August 2010, they conversed over the phone in relation to the _Believer.


Does Mark Romanek ever find pleasure in his own work?

The answer from David Fincher to the question was a definitive “No.”

MR commented on how quickly the response was given.

Certainly not! However, I do appreciate your efforts, so I take some comfort in that.

MR: What aspect of your job do you take pleasure in?

DF expressed that they take pleasure in the process of reading a script, casting, rehearsing and discussing what the project could be. However, they expressed a dislike of everything that comes after.

MR inquired whether I had an aversion to editing.

DF suggested that one way to look at it was this:

I have a great affinity for the process of editing.

In regards to editing, one can’t help but laugh at how it can’t be any worse than the dailies.

To me, editing is one of the few processes that still holds some of the enchantment that I experienced when I initially started making films in Super 8.

Is that true?

I still experience a thrill when I put together Shot A, filmed in September, with Shot B, filmed in February, to form a third thing entirely. It’s an exciting and amazing process that I truly enjoy.

DF: That is indeed accurate. That’s the mysterious nature of it. You never know if it’s going to work out. It’s like, we are going to cut from the shot of someone’s gaze towards the focus-puller to check if their eyelashes are falling off and place it right after the most relevant question being posed to that character.

We just hope no one will notice that piece of footage was captured while driving the car back to its starting point. [Laughing] I do like that. But it is definitely nerve-wracking.

MR expressed their enthusiasm for the editing process, noting that it was meditative and peaceful compared to the chaos of shooting. They described the experience of being in the dark editing room, noting how they have to be dragged out because they enjoy it so much. There is no ambivalence in their attitude toward editing; they simply love it.

DF: Absolutely. I’m in full agreement. It seems pretty great. Plus, it has a creative element to it, without too many other factors to consider. And the hours are reasonable, which is always a plus. Generally speaking, those who do this type of work for a living are usually the most chill people on the job. So once you get to the editing process, it’s like a professional foot massage. People will state things like, “No need to stress, we have ten weeks to make this work.” As opposed to, “You have two hours to select which four shots are essential for the film, you won’t be able to keep them all.”


MR and I have been acquainted for nearly two decades now. Yet, I have never asked him a series of questions that I would find intriguing, as it may seem odd. But in this particular situation, I can finally inquire.

DF: Alright. In that case, I’ll just echo your idea back to you and query the same. [Chuckling]

MR: Alright. Had you gone through The Accidental Billionaires before you encountered Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay?

DF stated that he does not believe the book was delivered prior to the script. He recollects that the book was in galleys after he expressed interest in the movie. He was enamored with Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation and had read the Rolling Stone article, as well as a couple of other pieces, but he is unable to recall them. It all began with Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal getting in touch and informing him that they had something he had to read that weekend, as they were eager to make the movie and wanted to know his opinion.

MR: So, you had a chance to look over the script and it was something you enjoyed. What happened then?

DF was interested in how the story portrayed aspects from John Hughes’ films, as well as modern business practices. He was fascinated by the idea that seventy-five years ago, creating something that would be in every household nationwide would have required a lot of resources, whereas this guy was able to make something in his dorm room.

He noted the accelerated speed with which this could go from a working prototype to being on hundreds of people’s desktops in just a few weeks, and now it is on five hundred million people’s desktops.

He enjoyed the banter, and the friendship and commingling of dreams, as well as the story of how that devolved. But what he was really interested in was the idea of this new business model, where you build something in today’s software world and it never really leaves the shelf as it is constantly being improved upon with feedback from the consumer base.

MR stated that the occurrence, individual, group, incident was a representation of a major alteration in the way fortunes are earned and companies are created.

DF: Business operations need to adjust now that we have access to speedy, efficient technology. It is possible to build something and get it out there rapidly, allowing service providers to have ties with a huge number of people.

MR: The macro-social thing you mentioned is vast, however, I understand the movie is captivating from an emotional perspective. What is the…

I’m praying it’s true.

MR was interested in the human factor of the situation.

DF spoke to a unique experience of those in the early days of Propaganda Films. It was a gathering of creative and hardworking individuals with the shared goal of changing the way people think. Their work was representative of a generation of filmmakers who wanted to demonstrate that music videos weren’t only an afterthought of TV commercials or movies. Propaganda was an environment for these millennials with their laptops, backpacks and scooters to challenge the existing paradigm.

MR: It just dawned on me as you were discussing this concept that forming tribes is something that appears quite frequently in your work. It never occurred to me until now, but it seems like you’re referring to young men creating their own group.

DF: Affirmative. Absolutely.

Certainly, Fight Club fits the bill. The cast of Alien3 can be seen as a kind of collective, and the same goes for the people in Panic Room.

Sure, replied the speaker.

MR: May I inquire about something else? To me, your movies are incredibly well-crafted pieces of art, not just in the current era, but some of the most masterfully created films of all time.

DF: Wow, buddy. Come on now.

MR: Is darkness something that is inherently good to you? I have an admiration for the lack of light and the use of properly motivated light. In my films, I have made darkness my own in the same way that Calvin Klein has with sex.

[Chuckling] And young adults.

MR inquired as to why it was of utmost importance to have the area dimly illuminated for you.

I’m not sure, buddy. That’s my interpretation of the world. Possibly, my vision has become worse and this requires further investigation.

MR suggested that he was capable of providing the answer to the question.

Yes, affirmed DF.

MR proposed that for ninety-five years, films have been over-exposed in terms of light. He suggested that the way he lights his films is actually much closer to reality, but we’ve grown accustomed to all the too-bright visuals.

DF expressed their frustration when they see someone alter their work for television or on set. They don’t have a mission statement for how it should all look, but they know that if they take the time to add a light in that corner, it will make a difference.

MR: Instead of attempting to grab people’s attention through flashy and vibrant displays, a more discreet approach can be taken. Drawing people in by creating a more subtle atmosphere is similar to the way someone would whisper to get someone’s attention. This allows for a sense of nonchalance.


DF commented that it was remarkable that I, someone with high expectations, came across a book I adored, a screenwriter I greatly admired, and the timing of it all was perfect. It’s practically a fairytale.

MR stated that it was a joyful experience. He was sent plenty of scripts, yet they weren’t satisfactory. He was looking out for something of high quality, something he could really get into.

DF: Yes, something to really generate a passion for.

MR declared that he was an avid reader of Kazuo Ishiguro, thus the chance to direct one of his books was an offer too good to pass up. As far as he was concerned, there was no other script or project that could have compared. Consequently, it was an easy decision to make.

When looking at the topic, it was evident that there wouldn’t be an abundance of funds to throw around. Thus, it was necessary to be meticulous and precise in the execution.

Making a low-budget movie is a nerve-wracking experience. It’s a worry that a fantastic idea won’t be able to be brought to life due to the lack of resources.

It’s an issue that can’t be avoided, and can’t be forgotten; it must be addressed, yet the time to do so may not be available. In a sense, it’s more of a concern than something going wrong, and that’s what makes it such a daunting task. However, the challenge is what makes it such an enjoyable job, with all the unexpected good and bad surprises that happen each day.

DF: I’m continually stunned by the conversations I can have with the writer about what we want viewers to take away from the film, without getting too preachy. Then, when it comes time to shoot, all sorts of issues arise: the generator breaks, everyone stands around for an hour, and I’m completely drained.

I almost forget about the subtle details we discussed before. But then, listening to someone else talk about the movie, I realise that the thing we were sure didn’t make it into the movie is there after all. It’s so strange how I thought I’d cut it, or that the actor rushed it, or that it wasn’t highlighted enough…

MR spoke of the difficulty of his job, which involved managing the physical elements like malfunctioning generators, location issues, uncooperative weather, union regulations and absent cranes. Simultaneously, he was also required to craft something special out of the intangible, abstract things.

Performance art is an area of focus.

MR discussed a combination of elements that make his job both uncomfortable and fascinating. He described it as a blend of filigree, frisson, nuance, alchemy, and intuition.

DF commented that art is an amazing form of expression.

MR: One of the things I have come to understand from a contemporary perspective when it comes to film directing is that one must sometimes step back and allow the process to take its own course. It has a life of its own with its own flow, and attempting to control it will likely be unsuccessful. It is like trying to surf a wave: either you must try to ride it, let it pass, or capture it. It is an intriguing concept.

DF discussed the notion of authorship in movie-making, in contrast to other forms of art. He noted that it is the pressure put on the creative team that brings out the best ideas, likening it to a form of Darwinism.

He then pointed out that close-ups can be particularly revealing, as the camera can pick up on the small mistakes or improvisations made by crew members that create a unique moment. He described it as a situation where the author of the original novel has no idea of how the screenplay will be executed, and the screenwriter has given the filmmakers a chance to make the right kind of mistake.

Finally, he concluded that the result is a unique form of art that is unlike anything else.

MR: We may be drawn to the idea of using a simple form of expression, like writing poetry with only a legal pad and a #2 pencil, however, it is the complexity of film-making that truly gives us a thrill. Even though it’s a lot of work, it is something that we enjoy.

DF: Yeah. A lot of things can and do go wrong. It’s not just luck, but luck often plays a role. Some luck can be planned, you know. You can create a situation where people can find something that works. Making a movie is quite exhausting because of the excitement you feel when you take a contribution from someone else and you build on it. Those moments are thrilling, but they require a lot of brainpower to think in multiple directions at once.

MR remarked that performing is an exhausting task, both mentally and physically. If the script requires an emotional response, then the performer is also taxing their heart and soul. At the end of a long week, no words can accurately portray the exhaustion felt by the actor.

DF mentioned feeling too tired to stay awake yet too buzzed to sleep, something he never encountered in commercials or videos. He was always anxious about disappointing others. He described it as “horrible.” He found himself having trouble falling into a deep sleep when he gets a day off, because he was suddenly presented with a new element that alters what he had planned to do and “puts topspin on the third act.”

At times of despair, I turn to drugs for comfort.

DF: That’s it! Excedrin PM is the answer.


MR inquired, “I’ve only made two actual films. I did make a third one, but that wouldn’t count. How many films have you created? I heard you had made around nine or ten?”.

No, that is not the case.

MR inquired as to how many films the individual had produced.

The answer is seven.

MR asked, “Is that all? Just seven?”

Yes, that is correct.

MR: Interesting! Since they’re so wealthy and abundant, my inquiry is still completely relevant, which is to ask what do you feel you understand better and do better now on the seventh or eighth film than you did on the first and second movie? How have you improved in your craft?

DF contends that he is more serene and more confident in those around him compared to Kenny Turan. He felt exposed and vulnerable when shooting his first movie, which caused him to back off. However, he believes that the individual can be more open in conversations and give in to the vision of others. That being said, respect is necessary, even if you don’t like your partners.

He goes on to explain that while you may have a clear mental image of what you want your movie to be, it rarely turns out to be exactly as you envisioned it. He states that even those unexpected surprises that you must make do with end up being what makes your film unique.

MR suggested that if one picks a project with a good intention, when something unexpected like a Winnebago arrives, it could be the best thing ever. He further suggested to be open to these things and if something is going wrong, take a minute to consider if the universe is trying to suggest something new.

DF remarked that, by the time of his third movie, he had a greater sense of maturity than he allowed himself during his first four or five films. Even today, he stated that he is just beginning to understand the complexities of directing. Each of the movies that he has made have been distinct in terms of the process.

MR: The experience of coming together to create something can vary each time. Sometimes it’s a smooth process with everyone being positive and supportive, while other times it can be difficult. What I’ve learned over the last few years is the importance of having confidence in the outcome. It’s OK to let others have their input and contributions as it could open up new possibilities and help to keep the crew motivated, knowing that they are working with you and not for you.

DF: Absolutely, and not in a phony manner. Not like, we need to give them an ego boost. It’s when you can look at somebody and say, Wow, that’s incredible.

MR: It’s a positive thing to accept that people want to contribute. Refusing something due to it not being the exact style or shade you imagined is not a wise choice. Therefore, it’s best to embrace it.

No matter how entertaining it might be, DF does not think it is a good idea.

MR: [Chuckles] You come to understand the significance of certain elements and the insignificance of others. It requires watching a good number of movies to gain that insight.

DF mentioned that beginning with a great book and screenwriter is ideal, and then engaging in dialogue with them to create an attractive offer for talented performers. Ultimately, one does not need to do much else.

MR: You won’t have to exert a lot of effort.

Once you’ve finished, you should move aside.

MR agreed that something of worth and excellence was being acquired through the procedure.

MR declared that the splitting of the atom had been achieved.

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