When I interviewed Larry Knapp last October about the newly released book of David Fincher interviews he edited, the transcript I posted was only a small fraction of our talk. In editing the interview, I decided to focus mostly on the parts of our conversation that explicitly dealt with his book and Fincher’s career. Larry and I both lamented that our favorite parts of the discussion had ended up on the “cutting room floor” — especially digressions involving Quentin Tarantino, the decadent side of the auteur theory, cinematic postmodernism and how Fincher is and is not like Alfred Hitchcock. (This last aspect looks particularly interesting in light of the recent announcement that Fincher will remake Strangers on a Train.) So here, ladies and gentlemen, are the provocative “outtakes” of our interview:
MGS: I think of Zodiac as a corrective to Se7en in a way — even though I don’t think David Fincher necessarily thinks of Se7en as anything that needs to be corrected. But it functions that way in the sense that in the Nineties there was this whole idea that the serial killer — it was really The Silence of the Lambs that introduced this idea — that the serial killer is an almost God-like figure. You know, Hannibal Lecter almost had super-powers in a way and even though he was the “villain,” viewers were supposed to be in awe of those powers . . .
LK: But that’s because American culture has become monstrous and so we naturally begin to identify with these omnipotent, gothic figures who are like a comic inversion of Nietzche or something.
MGS: And Natural Born Killers is the apotheosis of that.
LK: Absolutely. They’re kind of just nakedly revealing what’s at the heart of the American experience, which is something very pathological and hostile and anti-social and destructive. And we’re carrying it around with us but we’re not acknowledging it. And that’s why Woody Harrelson feels the need to give that lecture to Robert Downey Jr., you know? “How many times do I have to say this before you get it?”
MGS: And Se7en is in the tradition of that in a way because Kevin Spacey is . . .
LK: Oh, no, no, no. You know what Kevin Spacey is? He’s the ultimate slacker. It’s the slacker as gothic monster. What does he do all day? He’s writing in his journal, he’s hanging’ out. That’s a slacker, man. It’s a Grand Guignol Clerks.
MGS: True, true, but we’re also supposed to think he’s a genius and he’s supposed to inspire awe, and something about that strikes me as dubious. I was glad to see Zodiac avoid all of that by not dealing with that type of character. Zodiac is mostly about decent, ordinary, hard-working people — especially the cops played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards.
LK: Yeah, but you know what? I really think that Zodiac is about the fact that it’s not serial killers that fascinate people as much as what it does to the social fabric, and how people relate to each other — so it’s the after-effect. That’s why again it’s only for the first 20 minutes (that you see the murders) because it’s really about how people process it and make sense of it — or fail to make sense of it. That matters more than the actual person or entity who’s responsible for it. And again that’s why you don’t catch him and charge him and imprison him and execute him. The damage is already done.
MGS: But, on the other hand, Fincher could’ve made a whole film out of that first 26 minutes. And that’s what he did with Se7en in a way. Zodiac is more interesting to me because it’s about what happened afterwards, for years afterwards.
LK: It’s also about rotary telephones and early fax machines . . .
MGS: Exactly! It’s a film about information, you know? It’s made from a 21st century perspective, the Information Age, and it’s about the characters’ inability to share information in the Seventies.
. . .
LK: Fincher isn’t at the same level of self-aggrandizement (as Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith) . . .
MGS: Even though he’s obviously very articulate and witty and smart . . .
LK: I’m sure he can be very difficult to be around and very sure of himself — probably as egotistical as anyone else — but he doesn’t channel that into that need to be hip, that need to be the center of attention, that is one of Quentin Tarantino’s great failings. I once listened to an interview Tarantino gave on Sirius for Django Unchained, which is a really frustrating movie . . .
LK: And Jamie Foxx, he has a series, “Foxhole” or whatever, and he interviewed Quentin Tarantino. So it was already as obsequious as you can get. Because he’s like, “You’re the greatest filmmaker of your generation,” you know? “I gotta make you look good so I look good.” Tarantino, I mean, I’ve never heard someone so freaking high on the most mundane details of a film. Everything according to him was brilliantly executed. Like everything about Django Unchained was peerless. The sheer myopic self-regard, it was so overbearing I turned it off. I was like, “You are an asshole in a way that I cannot enjoy.” You know?
MGS: Oh yeah, his performance in Django Unchained was, for me, the straw that broke the camel’s back. That bad Australian accent!
LK: And you being from North Carolina, which is more southern than where I’m from, in Virginia — although, again, I’m from the Commonwealth of Virginia and that’s where Robert E. Lee came from, you know, and all of the people that matter; the Civil War began and ended in Virginia, thank-you-very-much. But when you watch what Tarantino did to southern culture and folklore, it’s just disgusting. He has no clue what he’s doing. And he’s from Tennessee too. I mean, he was born there. He should know better.
MGS: Well, yeah, but it’s really a movie about movies.
LK: Yeah, but Mandingo or The Skin Game is not where you go to get a sense of how things operated! You know what? It’s no different from Inglourious Basterds.
MGS: Right, which is also a movie about movies.
LK: Which didn’t upset me as much because I’m not Jewish. I know a lot of Jewish people who were like, “What the hell is this?” But then I knew some other Jewish people who were like, “You know what? I like these macho Jews.” Because Jews wouldn’t present themselves as thugs.
MGS: Well, as Tarantino himself said, it’s a spaghetti western that uses World War II iconography. It’s meant to be a cartoon and I enjoyed it on that level. But I agree, Django is more offensive.
LK: But you can’t imagine Fincher making something like that.
MGS: No, and I think Fincher is more like a craftsman. For him, it’s all about the work. And he’s incredibly precise as a technician. For him, the mise-en-scene is everything. And whatever sense you get of his personality comes from the formal perfection you see in his work. So, in a way, when you talk about him, all there is to talk about is the work itself.
LK: But shouldn’t that be the foundation of any auteur?
MGS: Absolutely. I mean, I think Tarantino represents the “auteur theory” taken to a kind of decadent extreme. The decadence of somebody saying, “Okay, I want to be an auteur. Now what can I do to be perceived that way?” People become directors today for the same reason people have always wanted to become actors, because they want to be famous. There’s a great story: before he made Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino took some Sundance workshop to learn how to direct a movie — this was after he had written the script but before he began pre-production. And he met Terry Gilliam at this workshop and he said to Gilliam, “Every time I see one of your movies, I get that ‘Terry Gilliam feeling.’ How do you do that?”
MGS: And that tells you everything you need to know about Tarantino: in his very first film, he was already thinking about, “What can I do to create Quentin Tarantino trademarks?” And that’s why in his first three films you see all of these really gratuitous trademarks (car-trunk p.o.v. shots, “Big Kahuna” burgers, etc.).
LK: But they work really well.
MGS: They do. That’s his best work. But the desire to be regarded as a famous director is written all over those films in a way that it’s not in, say, Alien 3, Se7en and The Game.
LK: But this is also the two views of Gen-X. Because Gen-X does have this sort of Tarantino-ish quality to it, which is a total immersion in pop culture without any real profound engagement with it at the same time. It’s more superficial.
MGS: Right. Tarantino and Rodriguez, especially, are the ones who say, “Okay, I’m gonna make a film and it’s gonna be a mash-up of everything I love from when I was a kid. All of the grindhouse films of my youth — I’m gonna make a mix-tape where I just throw it all together.”
LK: A mix-tape is a perfect analogy for that. Kevin Smith does the same thing too.
MGS: And that can be clever and enjoyable but it’s also kind of a dead end after you’ve seen it so many times.
LK: Well, that’s the whole problem with postmodernism. When it’s just a surface reflection of another surface reflection of something else in front of a mirror, eventually, yes, there is a dislocation. There is a decentered-ness that prevents you from being significant or poignant or anything. And I feel like with Fincher, he has Gen-X qualities in terms of quoting some things occasionally. Wasn’t it Brad Pitt who came up with the “Run, Forrest, run” that’s in Fight Club?
MGS: Oh, I don’t know.
LK: For some reason I remember it was Brad Pitt who came up with that. But then Fincher said, “Do it.” So there’s your little postmodern toss — but it’s appropriate. It’s staged properly. You always feel like with Fincher that he knows just as much as Tarantino knows about pop culture. But he is still a narrative filmmaker, a very traditional filmmaker, who feels that he must create not a — as you say — mix-tape with highs and lows and just a lot of scattered business here and there. But rather a very whole and complete, aesthetically rich, narrative film that does not require that you have this Simpsons-like knowledge of pop culture. So it goes back to very traditional Hollywood storytelling values. And that’s why I think he’s going back to that tradition of using novels as source material for a lot of his work.
MGS: Well, you know what’s interesting to me? Zodiac is based on two non-fiction books by Robert Graysmith. I’ve read the first one and it is poorly written. It’s like yellow journalism. I mean, it is not good. And I’ve never read The Accidental Billionaires, the source of The Social Network, but I would be surprised if that were any better, and I thought perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that my two favorite Fincher films were based on non-fiction . . .
LK: But again this goes into that idea that — Eastwood is like this too, by the way. Eastwood never wrote a script. Sometimes the best filmmaker knows, “You know what? I’ve got enough to contend with casting it, building the sets, figuring out the look of it, and how the film comes together.” If you have the right set up and you have the right performers — and Fincher really intuitively understands what he’s doing — you don’t have to be the quote-unquote author of the script at all. Some of the material I’ve read about Gone Girl, I mean he really got inside that book. He inhabited that book. He understood it. But then he understood it for what he could do with film, film form. How he could condense it and reproduce it as a film regardless of its status as a novel. So maybe this is how it works: his aesthetic instincts — you know, his temperament, his eye, his immersion in it — need that outside narrative material to focus. That he doesn’t need to create it, all he needs is something to create from.
MGS: But he needs to feel some kind of connection to it, I agree with you. I didn’t like Gone Girl, the book. It reminded me of what Godard said about Contempt: “It’s a nice vulgar novel for a train journey.” But when I read it I thought, “This could make a great movie.” Because it’s full of interesting sociological insights into men and women in the 21st century, in the internet age . . .
LK: And it’s post-recession . . .
MGS: Yeah, that’s a huge part of it.
LK: Which is a Gen-X thing.
MGS: The whole closed-down mall thing, and the fact that it’s taking place over the 4th of July weekend, it’s clearly meant to be a statement about America. And I hope he’s emphasizing that aspect of it. Because where I had a problem with it was on the level of character. The character psychology I thought was a little unbelievable.
MGS: Yeah, especially after the twist is revealed. The first half of it I thought was incredibly suspenseful and then, after the twist, I thought this is getting so far-fetched and so ridiculous that I got annoyed with it — in a way that I don’t think I will with the film. In a 300-page book if I find something implausible, it’s hard-to-swallow but in a two-hour movie, it’s not.
LK: But it may make a huge difference to see it represented and performed as opposed to narrated.
MGS: That’s true.
LK: Ben Affleck’s expressions may be more expressive than even her writing.
MGS: And I think that’s good casting, by the way.
LK: Yeah, it is. I thought he was older. Then I looked it up. He’s only about 40. So he’s only about four or five years away from the character’s age and he can play a little younger.
MGS: Early on, she describes the character of Nick as being like a “rich-kid villain in an 80s movie.” And as soon as I read that I thought, “Man, did he cast Ben Affleck based on that phrase?” Because that phrase sounds like Ben Affleck.
LK: This is really wonderful when you have a director where you can anticipate his instincts and you know that it’s a good project for him. And it’s just fun to anticipate it for a change. “What’s he gonna do?”
MGS: How is he going to approach the diary chapters? How’s he gonna translate that?
LK: Those are flashbacks. And by the way, I think she wants you annoyed with the “literary” Amy for half the book.
MGS: When I say “implausible,” here’s what I mean: Amy was a genius to pull off this perfect crime. But I think she acted really stupid afterwards by allowing herself to talk to those people . . .
LK: Oh, come on, bro. You’re not getting it! This is the whole problem with her — that she executes it and that’s all she has. And once that’s done, that’s why she goes right back to Nick. Because it’s kind of like, “Well, I did it. Now I need to . . . torture him some more.” It seems like her character — from the way it’s described with her encounters with all the people she met throughout her life — she seems to go from one act of pathological betrayal and control to another. So that’s like the only thing that seems to allow her to function. So it almost makes sense that she would suddenly find herself penniless, robbed, because then she has to connive her way out of another situation with the wealthy ex-boyfriend of hers. In a sense, she executes her murder so well that she cannot come up with anything close to that ever again. So it’s the weirdest love story because she realizes, “Well, I’ll just stay with Nick because I’m never going to do this like this again. I’ll just enjoy torturing him.” And meanwhile he’s like, “I just have to keep leading her on until I can . . .” Right? Which is a really evil, wicked Gen-X view of marriage.
MGS: Oh, I fully get that it’s a twisted love story with an ironic “happy ending.” I just don’t like the way the character psychology is tailored to fit the plot. I wish it had been the other way around — that the plot served the characters. I also don’t buy that they could’ve been married for five years and he could have been so oblivious to the fact that she had been not just pathological but psychotic for practically her whole life. But, like I said, I think the problems I have with it are problems that I won’t have when I see it on the screen. The director that Fincher reminds me of the most is Hitchcock and I think Hitchcock’s films are also implausible . . .
LK: I don’t see Hitchcock as much. In terms of the aesthetics and the immersion in it, yeah, but I don’t feel like Fincher’s as interested in manipulation as much. He can manipulate, and he does it quite often but I feel like there’s more of an inquisitive spirit in Fincher — discovering things — that is not in Hitchcock. Hitchcock has a very fixed view of things by the time he’s making those great films in the early Fifties.
MGS: You don’t think Vertigo is an inquisitive film?
LK: I think Vertigo is a confession by Hitchcock that he is one fucked up dude, okay? And he’s being very honest with us. That’s where he reminds me of Tarantino. That’s one of the things I like about Tarantino. Tarantino is not ashamed to confess: “I am a mess.” He’s not married, he doesn’t have any kids. He’s a complete misogynist, he’s got racist issues. And you know what? He does not give a shit.
MGS: He throws it all up there on the screen.
LK: And I actually admire him for it. I think that Death Proof is brilliant with the rape-as-car-crash collision — where body parts are flying all over the place. No man has ever exposed himself like this. Man, I mean, I wouldn’t be willing to let myself be displayed like that. And he plays a grungy, pretty despicable guy in that movie. It’s like, “Wow, good for you. This level of honesty redeems you. This makes you more interesting.”
MGS: He’s honest about his obsessions.
LK: Even Hitchcock wasn’t as honest. I mean Vertigo? And then he makes Marnie?
MGS: Which is more twisted.
LK: Well, kind of equally fucked up. And then he gets to — what is that one in the early Seventies with the necktie killings?
LK: Frenzy. Oh my God, Frenzy is like a dirty-old-man movie! This guy never got laid enough or never got the chance to lash out at a woman. Hitchcock was one repressed, frustrated, demented guy and I just don’t get that with Fincher. I get the feeling that Fincher is much more comfortable with himself and that what Fincher is fascinated by is how American culture is not willing to look the abyss in the eye — or not willing to own up to any phobias, fears, or anxieties that define our daily existence. I feel like with Fincher, that’s his task. It’s like, “I’m gonna expose this because I feel like no one is even going near it.” Fight Club for me was such an important film about being a young professional in America — as a white male — and how American culture seemed to have given up on anything other than consumption. And that’s how I felt when I saw the film. As I wrote in the introduction, I saw the film with my wife and she loved the film because Brad Pitt was in it and he had his shirt off, so she was happy. But I’m like, “Oh my God, this is that bottomless rage I had when I had that job working for a software company.” This is it. Office Space gets it right too.
MGS: Oh, totally. (laughs)
LK: They work well together, those films. And that’s not what a Tarantino or a Hitchcock would do. They’re into more personal psycho-pathology, you know? I think that Fincher is more like De Palma. Because Brian De Palma borrowed from Hitchcock and he introduced the idea of the cinematic set-piece quotation but it’s a modernist quotation. Whenever De Palma does it, it’s to make you more aware of film language. I think if you watch a De Palma and don’t get excited by it then you really don’t understand form. Because I don’t think anyone got form as well as De Palma did — even Scorsese. Because Scorsese is like the Raging Bull of form: I don’t think he’s ever fully conscious of what he’s doing.
MGS: Right. De Palma takes a much more intellectual . . .
LK: Cerebral . . .
MGS: . . . approach whereas Scorsese is more instinctive . . .
LK: Right, which is fine too. But with De Palma, I feel like he’s using film to work his way through actual film language and how film operates: voyeurism, continuity, you name it, he messes with it. And then he’s thinking about how to use films to expose parts of American culture and society that are neglected or rejected. And that to me is more like Fincher.
MGS: When I say that Fincher reminds me of Hitchcock, I mean in the sense that Hitchcock took novels that he could connect to in some way — and he didn’t take great literature. Truffaut asked him if he would ever adapt Crime and Punishment and he said he wouldn’t because it’s a masterpiece and you can’t improve up on someone else’s masterpiece . . .
LK: Can I quibble with you here?
MGS: Yeah, go right ahead (laughs).
LK: I think that Hitchcock did not film Crime and Punishment because deep down he felt inferior to it.
MGS: Oh! (laughs)
LK: It makes him feel grandiose to take schlock — detective novels and thrillers — and then redeem them. Because that’s safer than taking Crime and Punishment and turning it into a movie because then there’ll be more scrutiny. Where like a Von Sternberg made Crime and Punishment — Von Sternberg was, I don’t think, very insecure — as far as we know about that guy. (laughs) I mean, he was like a Fincher with the studios. He was like, “Fuck you. I’m gonna film this with Marlene Dietrich using all these curtains and gauze and camels . . . and screw you.”
MGS: (laughs) But regardless of the intention, Hitchcock took potboilers and he turned them into masterpieces.
LK: He did but he’s very insincere about these things when he talks about them . . .
MGS: Psycho is not a good book! I’ve read it. It’s terrible.
LK: That’s fine . . .
MGS: The film is great. I’ve never read the book Vertigo is based on but I’m sure it’s the same thing. With Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’ve never read it, I’m sure it’s not good.
LK: It’s okay.
MGS: Right, but I don’t think he transcended the source material.
LK: It made no sense, when they (already) made a Swedish version, to set it in Sweden. I mean, right away, there are, as you say, implausibilities that make it just pointless. It’s like “You shot it in Sweden but nobody’s Swedish!” Except for . . . what’s his name?
MGS: Stellan Skarsgard.
LK: Yeah, he is, but he’s speaking English. There’s a Swedish one! I watched it — with the subtitles! It’s set there. I don’t understand why you’re reenacting it. And Noomi Rapace is so much more compelling than Mara. As much as I like Rooney Mara and her approach, there are so many other things to do. This doesn’t make since to redo this quickly.
MGS: It doesn’t need to exist.
LK: No, and that was the problem. Particularly as you get near the end. I’m like, “Oh, here we go. I know what’s gonna happen.” And I even mention in the introduction of David Fincher: Interviews you could argue that Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about the global 1% preying on the rest of us but the film isn’t as engaged as all the other films he’s made.
MGS: Right, he’s just fulfilling an assignment. On the level of mise-en-scene, it’s pleasurable to watch because he’s never going to half-ass anything. But my hope for Gone Girl is that he’ll find a way to connect with it that will reveal some of these disturbing truths about American life in the 21st century.
LK: Fair enough. Now let me ask you something: don’t you find it peculiar how much press it’s getting?
MGS: I do, yeah.
LK: What is going on? Is now the time when some people are awakening to Fincher’s status? Because I write in the introduction I already consider him the preeminent Gen-X filmmaker period. I have no problem saying that. I put him together with Tarantino. You know who Tarantino is? That dude you just love to hang out with but at the same time it’s like, “God, you need to get a life. You are a funny motherfucker but, damn, your life is a mess!”
MGS: Right. You have a love/hate relationship with his films.
LK: Right. I cannot dismiss him but at the same time it’s like, “Damn, couldn’t you do something other than this? You have talent! What the fuck is this? Why don’t you make a movie about a marriage? Oh, that’s right, you’re not married. I don’t think you understand what women even are.” But Fincher . . . I feel like maybe people are finally like, “Oh, we never really considered his work before.” I didn’t expect this much attention and this much of a groundswell of anticipation. I don’t remember this for any other Fincher film. You know, it’s odd in that way. But it feels almost old-fashioned, the amount of auteurist attention Fincher is getting. We haven’t seen this in a while. It’s refreshing. It’s like they’re privileging Fincher as an artist, as a filmmaker of merit, who deserves this much coverage and warrants this much anticipation and interest. It’s odd how these things play out, and now I’m perplexed and curious why now this is Fincher’s time, instead of the late 1990s.
MGS: Right. Well, hopefully, the film will live up to our expectations. (laughs)
David Fincher: Interviews can be ordered from amazon.com here.