Opinions, Column

The Unyielding Drive Toward Perfection

David Fincher is an abhorrent nightmare to work with. Since he is the director of some impressive hits like Se7en, Fight Club, and The Social Network—films that have had significant cultural impact—that point is ignored, for the most part, by the general audience.

Look at Fincher’s most recent film, Gone Girl. Volumes of analysis have already been published on it, along with mostly positive critical reviews, and it has garnered consistent success at the box office. Gone Girl shows that Fincher has continued to improve his stylistic edge—the film gives audiences a disturbing story of crime and consequence, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel. Running at more than two hours, it feels like it goes by in one. Twenty-two years in the business hasn’t left Fincher with any rust.

But, he—as with many other perfectionist artists, people who work on everything from movies to books to cartoons to video games—is also difficult to work with. Do not be part of the general audience—do not ignore this point. For Fincher, and the perfectionists like him, there is a very specific way that the final product—the story or idea—is supposed to reach you. That kind of exactness takes time. And, to some degree, the final products are the final products because of the artists’ very basic need to achieve some meaning, purpose, existence.

Take the opening scene of The Social Network. We find Jesse Eisenberg’s and Rooney Mara’s characters ferociously trading passive aggressive comments in a cacophonous city bar. “You don’t have to study,” Jesse says in the final moments, to which Rooney shrieks, “Why do you keep saying I don’t have to study?” “Because you go to BU!” (Cue laughter and applause—even the big screen knows what the safety school of Boston is.)

That scene was shot 99 times. Let that sink in for a moment. It was not because the actors kept messing up lines that required them to redo the scene, but instead, that Fincher had them go through the dialogue 99 times, with ever-so-slight variations, until he was satisfied with the lighting, upward infliction of a single word, Jesse’s angst, and Rooney’s anger, among other things. Nine pages of dialogue, 99 times.

Perfection. Still, even Fincher pales in comparison to the most obtuse perfectionist filmmaker in history: Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick has directed numerous cinematic epics—2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, and The Shining—and was notorious for demanding hundreds of takes for the majority of his scenes. Steven Spielberg has said “nobody could shoot a better picture in history,” referring to Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, and I think the same of Fincher. Fincher’s filmmaking ability is so singularly phenomenal and unique that a viewer can distinguish his films based solely on his framing and score, and rumors of a new project of his bring excitement for how his craft will evolve and astonish. (Don’t be surprised if the highly stylized scenes of violence in Gone Girl—with soft fades to and from black during the most climatic moments, visually representing a rush of adrenaline—are soon replicated.)

Storytelling is more critically successful and emotionally impactful with a perfectionist approach. Combine 10 years of work and a young man’s angst, and you get Catcher in the Rye. Combine a five- and six-year development cycle and a game designer’s passion for storytelling, and you get BioShock and BioShock Infinite, respectively. Take 19 years of practice and a love for cartooning, and you get Calvin & Hobbes.

The concern with such an approach is that, after so much time of exhausting work and preparation, the material can be ill-received, and an individual or company can be left financially and emotionally bankrupt. If Fincher’s films started bombing because revenue couldn’t meet the production budgets, then, understandably, production companies would stop giving him money to fulfill his visions. Actors would start turning down roles in his films. Writers wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing him scripts.

The reward seems to outweigh the possible peril, though. Fincher was snubbed for an Oscar for his work on The Social Network in 2010, but he has a fantastic shot at winning one for Gone Girl. Even without an Oscar, his catalog of movies will be reveled in and studied for years to come, much in the way that entire film classes are dedicated to Kubrick’s work. J.D. Salinger, Ken Levine, Bill Watterson—people swear by these names and what they’ve done with practiced talent. Perfectionism has paid off in critical success.

Critical success. Yes, Gone Girl, according to most critics, is a terrific, unsettling portrait of married life, but it is a portrait painted by someone who is an abhorrent nightmare to work with. Ben Affleck will probably never collaborate with Fincher again, and how could anyone blame him? Many others before him—Jake Gyllenhaal, most notably—have vowed to avoid Fincher. Filming a movie with him is more trouble than it’s worth.

Critical success. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye went off like a double-barrel shotgun when it was released, but too much exposure caused Salinger to hide out for the second half of his life, still writing but not publishing. (Fingers are still crossed for postmortem literature.) Levine’s Irrational Games shut down last year, laying off 75 people, because Levine’s desire for perfection in storytelling has led him to want to work with a smaller group of people with a different focus. Watterson stopped publishing Calvin & Hobbes almost 20 years ago, because he believed that he had done what he could do with the strip, and fans are still clamoring for more, but Watterson has mostly withdrawn from the limelight.

The movies, literature, and video games—the entertainment—that comes out of the unfaltering dedication and scrupulous attention to the work—the perfection—has negative results on the individual, or on the participants, or, sometimes, on both. It takes as much as it gives—it drains as much as it enriches.

So why do it, if it looks as though the results cancel out when zooming out far enough? Because, for some—for Fincher, Kubrick, Salinger, Levine, Watterson—the need to engage in an art, even if it wrecks them, is the only way to survive. It is the only way to disrupt the vacuum into oblivion, to stop the drowning, and allow them to break the surface—even if it leaves them or someone else with a shiver up the spine, searching for the sun in the sky that will never come.

Featured Image by Merrick Morton / AP Photo

October 15, 2014

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “The Unyielding Drive Toward Perfection”

  1. This is somewhat hilarious given how many actors have been eager to work multiple times with Fincher — Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, Rooney Mara, Robin Wright, Jared Leto — and those, like Morgan Freeman and Jesse Eisenberg and Cate Blanchett, who have sung his praises and credited his technique as being effective. An “abhorrent nightmare to work with”? I think a lot of people who have actually worked with him would disagree.