In the past six years that I’ve taught film studies at the college level, I’ve been lucky to count some renowned scholars and authors among my colleagues. One of my fellow professors at Oakton Community College, Laurence Knapp, is the author of, among other books, the groundbreaking study Directed by Clint Eastwood (McFarland & Company), and the editor of the brand new David Fincher: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi), an essential read for Fincher fans. I recently sat down with Larry for a wide-ranging talk about his new book, particularly as it relates to Fincher’s evolution as a filmmaker, the “auteur theory,” and his expectations for the much hyped Gone Girl, which opens in wide release today.
MGS: How does one go about editing a book of interviews?
LK: My approach to a book of interviews is much like a documentary film. The essence of documentary is to find the right archival material that fits and that forms a narrative. So when I’m looking for interviews, I’m looking for interviews that dovetail together and form a narrative line that allows you to observe the filmmaker in his or her various stages of development. But, at the same time, you become conscious of certain themes or details that either the reporter brings up or that the director keeps mentioning. Most of the time it’s reporters. I read an interview for Gone Girl that was published in Playboy. And, most of the interview, the questions involved his upbringing, California . . .
MGS: George Lucas living down the street . . .
LK: George Lucas, starting out with Korty Films, and doing all these other things, and then Propaganda Films. So a good portion of the interview repeated all that same material that is in the book. But what’s interesting, when you read the earlier interviews, Fincher, the person — and just the sort of idiosyncratic childhood he had — that’s not the focus. It’s more like this idea of Fincher as the Phantom of the Opera or something. (Chuckles) Like this weird, dark figure who somehow or another made Alien 3 and Se7en and The Game. And it’s not until Fight Club that I feel like Fincher is starting to express himself more and share some of his ideas and views of the world and how he approaches filmmaking . . .
MGS: With Fight Club, you think?
LK: With Fight Club, yeah, I feel like he’s more willing to own it and to promote it because he’s very skittish being interviewed. Again I was reading these Gone Girl interviews and he seems so much more comfortable joking, and also he shares even more personal details that even I was unaware of in some of these recent interviews. It’s peculiar how this works with a filmmaker and his or her interaction with the media. It’s actually much more dynamic than you think. And you can actually create a documentary-like chronology that tells a story that merits the form of a book.
MGS: I was impressed by how diverse the interviews were. I felt like each interview brought out another side of him in a way. Was that something you were trying to do? For instance, there was one interview around the time of Panic Room where the guy who’s interviewing him is very laudatory of the film and then Fincher seems to turn around and really criticize it. He’s very self-deprecating and I feel like he’s almost doing that because the guy is praising him.
LK: The one from the Independent. You know, that’s the other thing that’s interesting about the book: I noticed that a lot of the British press understands and appreciates Fincher long before the American press. Lately, I’ve noticed journals like Empire and some other British periodicals to be a better source of material than the American publications. You still have Film Comment but . . .
MGS: Which he’s on the cover of right now.
LK: And I read the latest Film Comment interview with Amy Taubin, who’s in the book . . .
MGS: With the Fight Club interview from the Village Voice . . .
LK: And she’s a wonderful writer, and a critic as well. But I mean, is there really a go-to, somewhat-sophisticated film magazine that enables a journalist to conduct a lengthy and informative interview?
MGS: No, I think Film Comment is it for the United States. Sight & Sound I think is still good and he’s actually on the cover of that right now too.
LK: Yeah, I mean, I did intentionally pick things that work together and that I think emphasize different parts of Fincher. And again, people think, “Oh, all you did was collect a bunch of interviews.” But it actually is sometimes harder to try and figure out how to arrange that in a way that makes sense as a book than to just write my own critical piece about something.
MGS: I think he comes across in the book as a complex and fully rounded person. The interview for the Guardian was the one that I think the British Film Institute hosted where he’s in front of an audience and he’s cracking jokes throughout the whole thing. And I thought, “This is so different from every other interview,” because he’s got an audience and he’s trying to entertain them. As a teacher, I recognized that right away. That’s what you do when you have a crowd: you try and charm them.
MGS: You make them laugh so you know that they’re paying attention, which you don’t have to do in a one-on-one interview. That one interview kind of stuck out for me from all the others because he seemed so much more charming.
LK: Let me privilege your view of Fincher: I think that Zodiac allowed him to get out of his shell somehow. That was a pivotal film for him.
MGS: Zodiac was for me what Fight Club was for you. I saw Se7en when it first came out and I really liked it. Then I saw Fight Club and I liked it but I thought there was something a little dubious about it as a social critique. I liked it cinematically but I thought, you know, making fun of people for shopping at IKEA . . . I thought it worked cinematically and thought it worked as a homoerotic dark comedy about guys beating each other up. I liked it but I didn’t think it was a serious film. And then I missed Panic Room but when I saw Zodiac, I said, “Oh my God, this guy’s a genius.” So I thought he made a quantum leap with that film. And then I liked Benjamin Button a lot. I thought it was almost underrated. And then The Social Network is my second favorite. I think that’s a masterpiece as well.
LK: That’s my second favorite as well. But with Zodiac, I feel it’s his art film without him fully recognizing that, you know? ‘Cause I swear the film is really about just . . . time.
MGS: Time is the subject. Time and obsession.
LK: Time is what defines the obsession.
MGS: Exactly. It’s about the impact of time on obsession.
LK: And I love the ending. I love (Robert Graysmith) walking in there and he’s expecting this epiphany with — who’s the guy working in the hardware store?
MGS: Arthur Leigh Allen.
LK: Arhtur Leigh Allen. And there’s nothing. There’s no shared eyeline that causes him shivers. It’s just this empty experience that doesn’t give him any sense of . . .
MGS: Any closure.
MGS: The first time I saw Zodiac, I didn’t recognize its greatness. My wife showed it to me. I thought, “It’s pretty good,” but the ending of it bothered me. I mistakenly thought Fincher’s point-of-view was Graysmith’s point-of-view. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it and about six months later I watched it again and I took away the opposite message. I thought, “Oh my God, there’s so much critical distance between Fincher and the lead character.” At the end, that scene in the hardware store hit me like a ton of bricks. Arthur Leigh Allen asks Graysmith, “Can I help you with anything?,” and Graysmith says, “No.” And it’s such a profound moment because Allen is speaking as a hardware-store clerk but when Graysmith replies, “No,” it’s as if he’s saying, “There’s nothing you can say or do that’s gonna help me in any way, that’s gonna bring me any peace.” So I think the film is really critical of its protagonist in a way that is fascinating. ‘Cause it’s really about the three guys who are obsessed with the case. And, of the three, I think Mark Ruffalo’s character has the healthiest attitude: he’s able to separate his work life and his personal life. And, of course, Robert Downey, Jr.’s character goes off the deep end. (Chuckles) It destroys him.
LK: Yeah, I think the film is being critical and somewhat dispassionate towards the three protagonists. And I think it’s very clever to have the bookend with the victim at the end, and the idea that the only thing that persists is the trauma. It’s never resolved.
MGS: Which is kind of a recurring theme in Fincher’s work.
MGS: “Films that scar.”
LK: Films that scar! And bleed.
MGS: Which, by the way, it was nice to finally read that interview from 1996, Mark Salisbury’s “Seventh Hell.”
LK: You know, that piece is so important in Fincher scholarship. It really is the first major profile of Fincher that gives us insight into that stereotype of him as the “dark” film director. And “films that scar” gets quoted all the time. It’s like that has to be there. And Mark is a very nice fellow, very easy to work with. But, yeah, I think that film is also critical of narrative in general, how genre is expected to function (what is Zodiac — serial killer film? biopic? newspaper film? cop film?), and also American history. And, as I mention in the introduction in that book, I feel that it is one of the most Gen X of films. How we all feel about what’s happened to this country since we came of age in the late 70s. We’ve always had this weird feeling that there’s no ending and there’s no real coherent chain of events or point to anything. And, by the way, that theme is repeated in Benjamin Button.
MGS: Exactly. And that’s his other film where time is really the subject.
LK: A little bit more explicitly with the prologue. But it works, it’s fine. But if you think about Zodiac, I think I mention in the introduction that it’s L’avventura meets Silence of the Lambs. That it just feels like a meditation. And I feel like he’s recreating the feeling that some of us had who were born in the 60s of how things once existed. And I don’t think he’s really done that with any other film.
MGS: No, he hasn’t. And I think that’s because it’s his own childhood — not only the time but the place. Ultimately, Zodiac is about identity because the act of trying to solve these unsolved murders is how Graysmith has chosen to try and make sense of the past and his own life and to try and give them meaning. The more time goes by, the more obsessed he becomes.
LK: It is a generational statement about the late 60s. But I love the fact that you adore the film even though you were born in the mid 70s. When I watch Zodiac, it has that feeling I had when I was 10 or 11. The (Baby) Boomers always sort of present the 60s as the golden age when everything made sense but what Fincher’s saying is the opposite. It’s like with the Manson killings and Zodiac — that’s when things started to get weird.
MGS: The dark side of the counterculture, the randomness and the meaninglessness of it.
LK: And the serial killer does not become a cultural icon until that period. Suddenly the serial killer is not some nameless, faceless thing but part of our world, a pop figure of horror and dread that cannot be easily identified or apprehended. Zodiac ushers in such figures as the Son of Sam.
MGS: That’s what’s so unsettling about the film. All of the murders occur in the first 26 minutes and yet the film goes on for another two hours and 20 minutes!
LK: And it’s also authentic because they never figured out who did it.
MGS: Exactly. So, on the other hand, it has to end that way.
LK: He’s offering us a different view of how American civilization has functioned. That maybe we are — these last 30 or 40 years — in the beginning of the Great Decline, and this is what signaled it. And that’s why (Fincher) can’t let it go. He always goes on about his dad being oblivious of Zodiac’s threats — “You mean, you want me to ride the bus while there’s some crazed killer threatening to kidnap a school bus and kill all the kids?” But think about that, what kind of effect that has on somebody. It’s like, “Well, then there’s no one who can protect me or restore order.” I’m always glad when a film like that doesn’t find its audience. It really signifies how daring and creative it is, that he really is not concerned that he is leading the audience down a blind alley.
MGS: It didn’t find its audience right away.
LK: It never really did.
MGS: It seems like there’s a cult developing around it.
LK: Very few of my students mention it. If I bring it up, they don’t know it that well. But when you compare it to a film like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I just feel like, with that film, Fincher is playing it safe with a franchise. He’s just protecting his interests. And you can tell the difference.
MGS: I agree wholeheartedly. I had the opposite reaction to Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that I had to Zodiac. The first time I saw it, I really enjoyed it. I watched it a second time and I thought it was kind of tedious. It was like I got nothing out of watching it again.
LK: What else ya got, man?
MGS: So, what exactly do you think makes a David Fincher film a “David Fincher film?” I think he’s an unlikely candidate for a book in this Conversations with Filmmakers series in a lot of ways. He doesn’t fit the popular notion of an auteur. Unlike the other American directors who came up in the early-to-mid-90s, he doesn’t write his own scripts or put himself in his films, and he even says he hates giving interviews. Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith use their personas to market their films in a way that is more like what Hitchcock did.
LK: Well, they are celebrity auteurs and enjoy the attention. In fact, I think Kevin Smith enjoys speaking to film nerds or comic-book freaks at Comic-Con more than he does making films — although I just watched Cop Out and kind of liked it. The difference? Why Fincher stands out for me? Very simple: form equals content. Of all of them, no one understands film like David Fincher. David Fincher is your old-line, camera-as-pen auteur. He speaks through the plastic medium. Fincher uses mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound better than any of them. He is concerned with that more than he is with building a cult of celebrity or a cool profile with fans or the press. You get the sense that that’s what he is wholly concerned with: film as an aesthetic object. And also as a social one. He has a knack for picking material that resonates with his generation or with the audience at any given time.
MGS: Which is probably most true of Fight Club and The Social Network. Those were zeitgeist films.
LK: Although Gone Girl looks like it might be a shrewd . . . we’re both kind of careful with this because we’re not sure what it is yet — but, judging from the book, as soon as I started reading it, I’m like, “Oh, I know why he picked this.” And I like the fact that everyone’s really bugged out because it’s written by a woman who has the nerve to say that women can be frightening and dangerous. I’m like, “Here we go. This might be the female Fight Club.”
MGS: Some people have said the book is misogynist, which is ironic because I don’t think anyone would say that if it had been written by a man.
LK: Well, we are now — and Fincher is hip to this, this is the Gen-X thing — we are the first generation in which men and women are fairly equal. So there’s a lot more anxiety about what the roles are and how you’re supposed to conduct yourself. And I felt that really is what made that book compelling and that’s what attracted him to the book — the whole guise of the “cool girl” as a way of merely satisfying what she presumes the man wants her to be. And, for Gen X, I think we’ve navigated these very rapid changes in how couples function and how they communicate. And so it’s almost like this is more of a Gen Y thing than Gen X, because they have so much trouble with dating and having meaningful relationships. And knowing exactly who they are because they’re so broadcast, through social media, this whole idea of who they are, constant representation and re-representation on their terms. And it’s kind of an extension of that in the book with the whole Amazing Amy series and how she’s presented and how she has this sort of mediated view of herself. It’s part of her pathology. So even there I’m thinking, this is pretty timely and, again, this is Gen X. Boomers would not come up with this. They’re all about female liberation and equality — Women’s Lib and the feminists. But this is what happens when you pretty much have parity. All of a sudden, you look at each other and go, “What the hell? What’s next?” I think this could be extremely timely. Or it could piss the shit out of some people too. Because this is a dirty secret, this is the sacred cow, that women are just as despicable as men.
MGS: Of course.
LK: And one of the most sexist things is to assume that women are innately more refined or more settled or just more functional than men. That’s not true. They’re just as bad in a different way. And that’s what I feel like (Gillian Flynn) is bringing out. She has the guts to do it. Let’s face it: that main character, I mean, she makes the Kevin Spacey character in Se7en look like a pre-schooler. This is Fight Club for women. Because in Fight Club, the male psyche is all about frustrated desire and blunt-force trauma and self-destruction. A woman relies more on psychology and manipulation — not punches to the face and exploding office buildings. So I feel like this is very organic, it fits in with everything else Fincher has done and I’m actually looking forward to it regardless of how it turns out. This is a very savvy moment for Fincher. But again this, to me, as opposed to the Kevin Smiths and the Quentin Tarantinos, who spend more time trying to generate an adolescent fanbase, I feel like with Fincher, he is that old-school artist who’s like, “Here’s what I made. Here’s what I painted. Here’s what I staged and shot. Now you do the rest and interpret it.”