David Fincher’s Impossible Eye

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Six years ago, after I contacted David Fincher and told him I wanted to write an article about how he makes movies, he invited me to his office to present my case in person and, while I was there, watch him get some work done. On an April afternoon, I arrived at the Hollywood Art Deco building that has long served as Fincher’s base of operations, where he was about to look at footage from his 10th feature film, “Gone Girl,” then in postproduction. We headed upstairs and found the editor Kirk Baxter assembling a scene. Fincher watched it once through, then asked Baxter to replay a five-second stretch. It was a seemingly simple tracking shot, the camera traveling alongside Ben Affleck as he entered a living room in violent disarray: overturned ottoman, shattered glass. The camera moved at the same speed as Affleck, gliding with unvarying smoothness, which is exactly how Fincher likes his shots to behave. Except that three seconds in, something was off. “There’s a bump,” he said.

No living director surpasses Fincher’s reputation for exactitude. Any account of his methods invariably mentions how many takes he likes to shoot, which can annoy him, not because this is inaccurate but because it abets a vision of him as a dictatorially fussy artiste. Fincher, who is 58, argues that this caricature misses the point: If you want to build worlds as engrossing as those he seeks to construct, then you need actors to push their performances into zones of fecund uncertainty, to shed all traces of what he calls “presentation.” And then you need them to give you options, all while hitting the exact same marks (which goes for the camera operators too) to ensure there will be no continuity errors when you cut the scene together. Getting all these stars to align before, say, Take No. 9 is possible but unlikely. “I get, He’s a perfectionist,” Fincher volunteered. “No. There’s just a difference between mediocre and acceptable.”

Baxter played the sequence again, and this time I spotted a little artifact of the camera operator’s hand — a hiccup before the shot came to rest. Jeff Cronenweth, the cinematographer on “Gone Girl” and several other Fincher features, told me later that Fincher stays vigilant for any distractions onscreen that might pull audiences off “the ride” he’s constructing. “It could be unconscious — you could come out of a movie that had 10 soft shots, meaning they’re out of focus, and say, ‘That was pretty good.’ But David’s thought process is to eliminate all of that — to fight to make sure that there aren’t any of those mistakes.” Brad Pitt, who has starred in three Fincher films, recalled times when they would “be doing a shot, and there would be the slightest imperceptible wiggle from the camera, and you could see Finch literally tense up — like, it physically hurts him.”

Fincher put an encouraging hand on Baxter’s shoulder: “Looks great otherwise,” he said. We returned to Fincher’s office, where fabric swatches suspended overhead softened the sun pouring in from a skylight. I hadn’t realized it, but Fincher was at something of a crossroads. “Gone Girl” was due out that October, and although he had adapted it with the author Gillian Flynn from her enormously popular thriller, the film’s commercial success was in no way guaranteed. His previous feature, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” — a lavish, lurid $90 million adaptation of another best seller, meant to kick off a trilogy — came in fourth at the box office on its opening holiday weekend, underperforming such competitors as “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.” The trilogy was put on ice.

Fincher had worked in Hollywood long enough to take this in relative stride. He was familiar with the business’s unpredictability, not to mention its venality. In recent years, though, studios had grown ever hungrier for blockbusters and ever less likely to finance the mid-budget movies Fincher excelled at, like his masterpiece, “Zodiac” (2007) or “The Social Network” (2010). Or, for that matter, an unmade project called “Mank,” the screenplay of which, written by Fincher’s journalist father, Jack, sat on a shelf in his office among Taschen tomes and other bric-a-brac. “Mank” told the story of how the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz came to write “Citizen Kane” (the landmark 1941 Orson Welles film, about a loosely fictionalized version of the American tycoon William Randolph Hearst) while slowly drinking himself to death.

ImageDavid Fincher on the set of “Zodiac.”
Credit…Mary Evans/Everett Collection

Fincher would later tell me that the idea for the film first arose “around ‘Alien 3,’” his first feature and a notorious fiasco. (He was the third director hired onto a beleaguered production, forced to start shooting before the movie had an ending and then shut out of the final edit — the result being a commercial bomb he is not alone in reviling.) In an ideal world, he said, he would have made “Mank” instead of “Alien 3,” “but I had to go off and slit my own throat in slow motion.” Over the years, Fincher kept his hopes for the movie alive, even as other jobs beckoned and financiers showed little appetite for a movie “about old movies that’s black and white that no one will understand.”

When “Gone Girl” came out, it would gross a monstrous $370 million — but by that point Fincher was done making movies, at least for a while. Directing the 2013 pilot of the Netflix series “House of Cards” inspired him to do more TV. He proposed that I anchor my profile to the big-budget remake of the dark British series “Utopia” that he was planning to direct for HBO. He also mentioned his desire to adapt “Mindhunter,” a true-crime book about the genesis of the F.B.I.’s psychological-profiling unit. This series would distill one of his career-long thematic preoccupations: the tension — and bleed — between forces of anarchy, violence and perversity on one side, and efforts to thwart, decode, taxonomize and otherwise control that chaos on the other.

But as the months turned into years, “Utopia” stalled in a budgetary impasse at HBO, and my article stalled along with it. In 2016, Fincher moved to Pittsburgh to oversee production on “Mindhunter,” and when I sent an email about visiting him there, I received no reply. He made two seasons — the first one good, the second one excellent — and then, by last year, was ready to return to moviemaking. “It sounds ridiculous, but I didn’t realize how all-encompassing showrunning was,” he told me this past March, the two of us in his office once again. “Ninety-hour weeks, and you never get ahead.” Netflix, he explained, invited him to tackle “ ‘something small that you’ve always wanted to do.’ I said, ‘I’ll send you this script.’ I didn’t tell them it was black and white. I didn’t tell them it was period.”

Somewhat to his surprise, they bit: “I said, ‘Really?’” And so he invited me back to Los Angeles as he worked to complete his 11th feature film — “Mank.”

“Mank” has deep reverberations with post-2016 America. It’s set in Hollywood at the tail end of the Great Depression, when Americans became destitute by the millions, grotesque wealth was concentrated among ruling classes determined to stifle a nascent socialist wave (there is a “fake news” subplot involving Upton Sinclair’s 1934 campaign for governor of California) and fascism loomed here and overseas. Against this backdrop, the film tells the story of how a “singularly great writer,” as Fincher characterized Mankiewicz, was “given cover by Orson Welles to drain his bile about the haves and the have-nots, and about Willie Hearst’s singular lack of empathy for the have-nots.”

Fincher shot the movie in and around Los Angeles with Gary Oldman in the title role, and by the time of my visit, he was three and a half weeks into a 10-week cut. “We went six days over — so this is what we have to work with,” he said. He spoke in a tone less of dismay and more of shrugging acceptance, exuding a calm that stood in contrast to the world outside his office walls. Just the day before, the spreading coronavirus had forced the N.B.A. to suspend its season, and panic was mounting. Every now and then, Fincher read news updates aloud from an iPad, but mostly he stayed focused on “Mank”-related tasks. (The following week, Fincher’s staff members would begin working remotely or in staggered shifts that allowed for distancing.)

Credit…Giselle Schmidt/Netflix

The significance of “Mank” for Fincher is multilayered. For one, he reveres “Citizen Kane.” “I don’t think it’s the greatest American movie ever made,” he said, “but it’s in the top three — and they made it in 1941.” (“The Godfather Part II” and “maybe ‘Chinatown’” round out his podium.) For another, Jack Fincher — whom David described as “the most important writer in my life, and not only the person who first introduced me to ‘Citizen Kane’ but the person who first introduced me to movies” — died in 2003 of pancreatic cancer, with the screenplay in its eighth draft.

“When Jack retired,” Fincher went on, “he said, I really want to write a screenplay.” Fincher encouraged him to reread “Raising Kane,” Pauline Kael’s 1971 tribute to Mankiewicz: “I said, Is there a movie in Mankiewicz pulling this thing out of the ether and laying it out for this movie brat to make? And Jack went off and wrote the script, and it was really good.” The only thing requiring much revision, he said, was that his father “never understood Hollywood’s inherent cynicism — he didn’t understand the magnetic pull for the sociopath that Hollywood has.”

Fincher has a wry sense of humor. You can read his affection for a wit like Mankiewicz’s through his own love of cutting remarks, which he delivers in a spirit of sporting fun. At one point, looking at old movie trailers together — he was planning to model promotional materials for “Mank” on them — we watched one for “Gone With the Wind,” during which Fincher remarked: “It’s just a soap opera, isn’t it? With a large staircase.”

He wore a white T-shirt under a gray cardigan, and among the items arranged neatly on his gray-stained wood desk were eight pairs of eyeglasses, a gold-edition Apple Watch given to him by Jony Ive, a packet of black adhesive webcam covers promising “privacy protection” and a notepad with DAVID FINCHER in block letters atop each page (another gift). As he spoke, his fingers wiped and dabbed at the surface in front of him, clearing away particles real and imagined in an absent-minded exercise of un-doodling. “I think he’s O.C.D., in a way,” the screenwriter Eric Roth, a friend and repeat collaborator of Fincher’s, told me later. “I love sitting at his desk and mucking with all his lenses and watching him wipe up the condensation from the Diet Coke I was just drinking.”

After a bit, Fincher made for a small screening room, where we met Eric Weidt, the colorist for “Mank,” who was charged with balancing its blacks, whites and grays to Fincher’s satisfaction. The rough conceit in crafting the movie’s look and sound, Fincher said, was: “What if this film was made concurrently with ‘Kane,’ and what if Welles had something to do with it?” Camera angles were low; focus was deep. Footage — shot with a monochrome sensor that Fincher first asked the digital-camera company RED to develop for him back in 2012 — would be treated to look like old film stock. Fincher’s longtime sound designer, Ren Klyce, would oversee a team of technicians as they analyzed the audio spectrum of films from the era and — in an elaborate process that included “rerecording the final mix in a theater to give it even more of an old-theater-sound feel,” as Ceán Chaffin, Fincher’s producing partner and wife, put it — worked to make “Mank” sound like them, too.

Fincher likes to fiddle with every last thing we see and hear in his films, seeking out new digital techniques with each project that allow him to fiddle on an increasingly granular scale. For “Mank,” he would creep through scenes a frame at a time — drawing clouds into open skies, multiplying roadside dust kicked up by passing cars, tweaking the brilliance of background street lamps so they didn’t give off the telltale (to him, if not to me) shine of the “modern metal-halide fixtures” they actually were. Knowing that he has this much power awaiting him in editing has made Fincher much looser on set than he used to be. He mentioned a scene at the end of “Mank” in which there were hairs coming out of Amanda Seyfried’s wig (she plays Marion Davies, the movie star and romantic companion to Hearst). Seyfried’s hair, he recalled, “crossed in front of her eyes, and they wanted to cut and run in. I said, ‘She’s giving us great stuff.’ ‘What about the hairs?’ ‘I can get rid of them later, trust me.’”

One of the most remarkable techniques Fincher has helped to pioneer is called shot stabilization. Since “The Social Network,” he has captured a frame as much as 20 percent larger than the one he needs for his final picture. This creates a buffer of excess visual information that allows him to digitally correct for the slightest trembles, lurches and late starts, erasing all imperfections from the camera movement. His shots come to represent the gliding, unmediated gaze of some impossible — and faintly malevolent — eye: “I want it to feel omniscient,” Fincher said.

Stabilization also allows Fincher and his editors to reframe entire shots after the fact and to construct seamless split-screen composites, suturing different takes into one. For a straightforward example of a stabilized Fincher shot, you can watch the “red band” trailer for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and note the ominous, tractor-beam smoothness with which the camera is drawn toward the Vanger mansion. But it’s an effect Fincher deploys on material as seemingly inconsequential as a character setting a drink on a table, and he wound up stabilizing every single shot in “Mank” — a film he calls “as labor intensive, on a pixel-by-pixel basis, as any Marvel movie.” Chaffin characterized his scrupulousness on “Mank” in affectionately needling terms: “David is such a freak,” she said, “he’s going to touch every frame.”

The fundamental formal pleasure of watching a Fincher film is that every last micron of the experience has been considered, and then reconsidered, with an abundance of love, skill and precision. Seated beside Weidt, Fincher scanned “Mank” for elements that either delighted (“I love the little edge-light under his ear hairs”) or irked him. When Fincher complained about the brilliance of a bit player’s collar, I remarked that his eye was traveling to details that audiences would most likely never notice. “Hopefully!” Fincher said, adding: “We’re trying to control where people’s eyes go, so they don’t end up looking at stuff that’s just going to confuse them. Which is the simplest way to describe what directing is: ‘How do I get them to look where I need them to look?’”

In films like “Fight Club” and “Panic Room,” Fincher used special effects to send his camera flying into refrigerator wiring and through coffeepot handles, and for this reason he is sometimes associated with a flashy, careening style. But Erik Messerschmidt, the cinematographer on “Mindhunter” and “Mank,” stressed how, since “Zodiac,” Fincher has leaned toward a “very classical” visual rule book whose fundamentals predate French New Wave and vérité. Fincher tends to eschew hand-held shots except in rare cases, and his camera typically moves only when an actor does — and at the same speed. Cronenweth told me that “in the majority of features,” Fincher’s rule is that if an actor “slides forward a bit, we slide with them. They adjust, we adjust. They stop, we stop. David’s very clever about designing movement to enhance a scene — not for the sake of movement, but to be that much more intimate with the characters.”

Credit…New Line Cinema/Everett Collection

Brad Pitt, who calls Fincher one of “the funniest [expletive] I’ve ever met,” often gets together with him for movie nights, during which, Pitt said, “He’ll be muttering the whole time: ‘That shot works. That’s a bad handoff. Why would you go to the insert of the glove there? Stabilize!’ It’s like watching a football game with Bill Belichick.” (Fincher described playing his favorite video game, Madden NFL, as “the only time I’m not thinking about movies.”) Another close friend is the filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who told me about visiting Fincher during postproduction on his 2002 thriller, “Panic Room.” Soderbergh described the scene this way: “David had a laser pointer out, and he was circling this one section of a wall in the upper part of the frame, saying, ‘That’s a quarter of a stop too bright.’ I had to leave the room. I had to go outside and take some deep breaths, because I thought, Oh, my God — to see like that? All the time? Everywhere? I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

I asked Soderbergh to name his favorite Fincher film, and he replied that choosing one was tough, but if he ranks them according to the one he rewatches most, the answer is “Panic Room.” This is an uncommon pick. The film — in which Jodie Foster fends off home invaders over the course of a single night — is a spring-loaded formal exercise, set almost entirely in one location, that offers no overarching points about human nature, or the limits of the knowable, or the sociopathic extremes of ambition, the way other Fincher films have done. And yet, Soderbergh argued: “I don’t know anybody else who would imagine executing something like that and then actually have the fortitude to do it. It makes my head hurt watching it. It makes my knees buckle.”

Credit…New Line Cinema/Everett Collection

Soderbergh was careful to praise more than Fincher’s formal mastery: “I think because people are blinded by his outsize visual dexterity, he doesn’t get enough credit for his understanding of story.” Several collaborators emphasized this point. Eric Roth, who wrote Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and helped finalize the script for “Mank,” told me that Fincher “understands narrative and the purpose of things in a script maybe more than I do.” Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote “Se7en” — Fincher’s shockingly dark serial-killer blockbuster — and has done uncredited work on other Fincher films, said, “If David wanted to take the time, he could write his movies himself.”

Discussing screenwriting at one point, Fincher said that “coming up with a great line is not actually the gift of the screenwriter. The gift is, When do they say it?” And, he added, “strategically deployed silence can be just as breathtaking.” One actor, Holt McCallany, who co-starred on “Mindhunter” as the F.B.I. agent Bill Tench, relayed a striking anecdote that illustrated this point. In the series’ second season, Tench has learned that while he was chasing serial killers in the field, his preadolescent son was involved in a heinous crime at home. The child stops speaking, his behavior continues to unsettle and Tench’s family life comes under severe strain. “My marriage is falling apart, and in this scene I’m trying to connect with my little boy at an ice-cream parlor,” McCallany said. “And during rehearsal, David said, ‘This is the moment that it hits you: This is what it’s going to be from now on. It’s not going to change.’”

This bleak interpretation “hadn’t occurred to me,” McCallany said. Fincher managed, with one note, to illuminate the show’s driving themes: the fallibility of authority, the folly of trying to build a bulwark against the inexplicable. “That’s what it means to be in the presence of a great director,” McCallany said. “Because what he said wasn’t in the lines.”

On his desk, beside his keyboard, Fincher keeps a black-and-white photograph of Jack at rest — on a sofa, hands clasped, eyes closed. It’s a shot that Fincher took in 1976, when he was just 14. “That’s why it’s out of focus,” he told me. Fincher was born in Denver, but when he was small, his parents moved to Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where Jack wrote for LIFE and other magazines and his wife, Claire, was a mental-health nurse at a drug-treatment facility called Marin Open House. (As it happens, she worked there for Charles Manson’s onetime parole officer, Roger Smith, a crucial figure in Manson counterhistories who became a Fincher family acquaintance.) Fincher has two sisters, the younger of whom, Emily, unknowingly abetted him in a prank that forecast his future interest in macabre showmanship: He once stole baby dolls from her room, packed them with “hamburger and ketchup,” as he recalled in an article in Interview, and then “threw them onto the freeway,” treating motorists to the spectacle of infants exploding on the asphalt.

Credit…From David Fincher

Fincher has described the touchy-feely pop-psychoanalytic atmosphere of Northern California in the 1970s — a time and place he vividly evokes in “Zodiac,” a film about the real-life serial killer who terrorized the Bay Area when Fincher was a kid — as one of “overindulgence.” “There was so much emphasis on, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Let’s dig deep on this,’” he once recalled, noting that he had “a handful of friends who were from Marin County at the same time, the same age group, and they were all very kind of sinister, dark, sardonic people.” Perhaps, he went on, the Zodiac — an epochal irruption of horror into the seemingly idyllic — “had something to do with that.”

The Bay was also a hotbed of moviemaking. “Shady Lane was shut down so Coppola could shoot ‘The Godfather,’” Fincher said. “Our next-door neighbor was George Lucas.” (The director bought a grand Victorian on the otherwise modest block.) More than any of these influences, though, it was Jack who sparked his son’s love of film. As a child, Jack “had a horrific, abusive relationship with his father,” Fincher told me. “He was a violent drunk, and so Jack was kind of babysat by the movies, given 15 cents and expected to disappear from Saturday at noon till 6. He fell in love, and he gifted me that love very early on: ‘There’s stuff you have to see.’” Fincher recalled being 7 and watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” in a trippy double bill with “Yellow Submarine”: “It’s one of my earliest film memories.”

Like Robert Graysmith, the amateur-sleuth protagonist of “Zodiac,” Jack once worked as a cartoonist, as did Fincher’s “favorite director growing up,” George Roy Hill, who made “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” “There’s a concision that comes when you’re limited to three panels to tell your story,” Fincher said. He drew his own cartoons and pored over the shot patterns in Jack’s copy of “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” In high school, having moved to Ashland, Ore., Fincher directed plays, worked as a projectionist at a second-run theater and put in part-time shifts on the production end of a local TV-news station. In his late teens, he decided to forgo college for a visual-effects job back in Northern California at Industrial Light & Magic, earning credits on “Return of the Jedi” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” It was an experience of productive demystification: The people behind “Star Wars” were not deities but fellow Bay dudes figuring things out through trial and error.

Credit…Paramount/Everett Collection

Whereas many would-be auteurs of the previous generation used B-​movies as their springboards, Fincher was among those who honed their skills in commercials and music videos. At 20, he directed his first ad, for the American Cancer Society: In a morbid wink to the end of “2001,” his camera reveals a fetus smoking a cigarette in the womb. The industry took notice. Fincher moved to Los Angeles, was a founder of an influential production company called Propaganda and, through his work for pop-culture megaliths like Nike and Madonna, helped to define the sleek and cheeky visual language of the era. (Among other MTV landmarks, he directed the videos for “Vogue” and George Michael’s “Freedom ’90.”)

The young Fincher drove to meetings in a 1989 Porsche 911 — a gift, he says, for the success of a music video — carrying himself with a confidence that could be polarizing. Brad Pitt told me that after his first meeting to discuss “Se7en” with Fincher, he “felt such a sense of relief and awe and love of film again.” By contrast, Steve Golin, a Hollywood producer and Propaganda founder, told Entertainment Weekly in 1997 that “when he started out, Dave was so arrogant it was unreal. He still has very little patience for people who are not as smart as he is, which is a lot of people.” Speaking to the same reporter, Fincher put it plainly: “A director needs to be tough. The work you do now is going to go on your headstone.”

In mid-April, with work on “Mank” now fully remote, I sat in on a Zoom call between Fincher and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, of Nine Inch Nails, who together have written the scores for every Fincher film since “The Social Network.” He’d given the duo no specific mandate, mentioning composers “as varied,” as he put it, as Bernard Herrmann and Ryuichi Sakamoto; they’d delivered a temporary score of period-appropriate music written for period-appropriate instrumentation.

Fincher’s reactions to these musical cues intertwined issues of character and narrative in surprising ways. We watched an early scene in which Mankiewicz’s wife, Sara, helps him into bed fully dressed and utterly sloshed. “I love that little thing you have here,” Fincher said, “because it doesn’t sound sad — it sounds lovely. Mankiewicz is sad enough. The music is about what their honeymoon or courtship was like, as opposed to what we’re seeing now, which is that this guy can’t go a night without getting absolutely bombed, and she’s left to clean up after him.”

Fincher phrased his notes less as demands and more as evocative abstractions: “The music’s a waterfall that clears into a mist here. …” At the end of the call, things turned logistical: How could the composers record an orchestra, given social distancing? “We’ll be searching for creative ways to make it work,” Reznor said. In the event, musicians would be recorded in isolation, then woven into a virtual ensemble.

A few weeks later, Fincher was on another video call, this time with the actor Tom Pelphrey, who plays Mankiewicz’s fellow-screenwriter brother, Joe. Pelphrey was in a New York recording studio for a session of automated dialogue replacement, or A.D.R., the process by which actors rerecord lines because of technical problems with the original sound or issues with the original performance.

Fincher paid special attention to a scene in the Paramount writer’s room, in which Joe speaks in broken phrases to a stenographer: Wait what if — give me a sec — just below that — oh, we already had that — doesn’t matter, OK, let’s move on — hand me a pencil — try having this here, and then — we could lose this whole passage and go straight to the — where did you put the — you just showed it to me — God damn studio pagination!

Pelphrey gave it a go. “Good,” Fincher said. “You’re getting a little glottal-stopped with your chin down; give me a tiny bit more projection.” Pelphrey tried another. Then another. “Nice,” Fincher said, then offered a note about Joe’s state of mind: “When you get to ‘God damn studio pagination,’ it’s — this is the business you’ve chosen. You hate that you have to deal with it. But it’s 750 bucks a week in the middle of the Depression.” Pelphrey nodded and tried a few more, for nine takes in all — during which, it emerged, this dialogue would be virtually inaudible in the final mix, with Joe off to the side of a scene that did not concern him.

Credit…Netflix

For scenes set at The San Francisco Chronicle in “Zodiac,” Fincher instructed his prop master to print front-to-back reproductions of the newspaper — accurate, down to the page, to the days depicted in certain close-ups — even though these were never more than glimpsed onscreen. It occurred to me that I’d just witnessed the sonic equivalent of Fincher-caliber set dressing. “It’s going to be subliminal,” Fincher told Pelphrey. “You’re just giving us the sense of geniuses at play.”

Some collaborators thrill to Fincher’s meticulousness. Rashida Jones told me that, on “The Social Network,” Fincher broke a “bad habit” she had developed of showing up to acting gigs toting a “set of tricks that I knew ‘worked’” — autopilot moves that passed muster in the past. “I think I got through one take before David took me aside, identified every single trick and told me to knock it off.” Amanda Seyfried compared Fincher’s repeated takes to working in theater, where an actor discovered new things in the same material night in, night out. Fincher’s set “felt more like that than anything else I’ve done,” she said. Rooney Mara, who acted in “The Social Network” and starred in “Dragon Tattoo,” put it this way: “There were lots of times I wanted to do things differently, or had my own idea about the way something should be — and if it’s a better idea, he has no ego about that,” but “generally, people just don’t have better ideas than him.”

Eric Roth complimented Fincher effusively for several minutes, then said, “OK, let’s get to what he’s an [expletive] about. He’s a taskmaster to a fault, and he’ll argue to the death with you. He’s a prosecutor — he makes me so uncomfortable. ‘Why would you write that? Why would you think that makes sense?’ Finally, I say, ‘Asked and answered!’” Fincher’s way of dealing with people can rankle, Roth added, “but he’s as loyal as the day is long, he’ll support you and he knows what he wants — in Hollywood, that’s an incredible thing.”

Fincher’s sets can get tense. He has acknowledged that on “Panic Room” — a film whose every last shot he designed using previsualization software before ever stepping on to the set — the cinematographer Darius Khondji was reduced to working as a “light-meter jockey.” Khondji quit the production partway through. Jake Gyllenhaal, a star of “Zodiac,” told this paper in 2007 that Fincher “paints with people” and called it “tough to be a color.”

When I asked Fincher what happened with Gyllenhaal on that film, he described an “extremely simple” situation: “Jake was in the unenviable position of being very young and having a lot of people vie for his attention, while working for someone who does not allow you to take a day off. I believe you have to have everything out of your peripheral vision.” But “I think Jake’s philosophy was informed by — look, he’d made a bunch of movies, even as a child, but I don’t think he’d ever been asked to concentrate on minutiae, and I think he was very distracted. He had a lot of people whispering that ‘Jarhead’” — a 2005 war movie starring Gyllenhaal — “was going to be this massive movie and put him in this other league, and every weekend he was being pulled to go to the Santa Barbara film festival and the Palm Springs film festival and the [expletive] Catalina film festival. And when he’d show up for work, he was very scattered.” He had “his managers and his silly agents who were all coming to his trailer at lunch to talk to him about the cover of GQ and this and that,” Fincher said, adding, “He was being nibbled to death by ducks, and not particularly smart ducks. They got in his vision, and it was hard for him to hit the fastball.”

Fincher said that tensions had mostly dissipated by the end of production and that Gyllenhaal had since apologized — “not that I needed an apology.” (I contacted Gyllenhaal for an interview, but a representative let me know the actor was “kindly passing” on my request.) Fincher added: “I don’t want to make excuses for my behavior. There are definitely times when I can be confrontational if I see someone slacking. People go through rough patches all the time. I do. So I try to be compassionate about it. But. It’s: Four. Hundred. Thousand. Dollars. A day. And we might not get a chance to come back and do it again.”

He moved to his fundamental point. “I tell actors all the time: I’m not going to cut around your hangover, I’m not going to cut around your dog dying, I’m not going to cut around the fact that you just fired your agent or your agent just fired you,” he said. “Once you get here, the only thing I care about is, Did we tell the story?”

In September, I drove to Marin County to see “Mank” in a theater at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, where Fincher had spent three weeks in the sound-mixing facilities. I was not allowed to join him, because of Skywalker’s Covid-19 rules, and when I proposed that we meet nearby for a walk around his childhood neighborhood, Fincher dismissed this idea as “too twee.” I took a seat alone in the theater, considering my strange fortune in being one of the only people who would see “Mank” this way — the film will stream on Netflix as of Dec. 4, but the pandemic had significantly derailed plans for a theatrical run.

I emerged from the theater beneath skies tinged orange by raging California wildfires. A few hours later, my phone buzzed with a message: “So? (It’s Fincher).” I replied that I loved it and that we would talk about it more in person. The following Monday, I traveled to Los Angeles to see Fincher one more time. We sat at a picnic table behind his office, where he followed up on his text message: What did I think of Hearst — was the movie unfair to him? What did I make of the final scene between Mank and Davies? What about the script — did it feel like a patchwork of scenes or was it cohesive? Fincher was eager to hear others’ thoughts, he explained, because “I’ve probably seen this movie all the way through 120 times now.”

I had found “Mank” bittersweet and unexpectedly moving. It’s a deeply sympathetic portrait of an artist in the throes of a creative crisis (Am I content to phone it in?) that becomes a moral crisis (Given what I’ve seen firsthand about how the wealthy exploit the poor, am I complicit if I don’t take a side?). This story of a self-destructive man rising, however haltingly, to the occasion nestles in and breaks away from Fincher’s body of work in compelling ways. He has often pitted agents of anarchy and upheaval (serial killers, tech “disrupters”) against those of institutional control (law enforcement, Harvard), and you can watch “Mank” in this light — except here it’s the bomb-throwing hero screenwriter who represents the would-be forces of upheaval, taking his best shot at Hearst and the cruel hegemonies he embodies.

While the script is sympathetic to Mankiewicz in this showdown, it is not triumphalist. “Mank” raises difficult questions about the ultimate ability of art to change society: Hearst effectively crushed Welles’s movie upon release, and even though “Kane” became legendary for its unflattering depiction of Hearst, it never posed a real threat to his power. All the same, the film might surprise those expecting something nastier from Fincher, who, with the exception of “Benjamin Button,” has typically favored the scabrous over the poignant. With all this in mind, I brought up a mystery that Steven Soderbergh raised while discussing Fincher with me: “To draw a line from ‘Se7en’ and say, the same guy is going to make a two-hour character study of a writer wrestling with the fact that he’s betrayed his talents? That’s two different universes.” In 2003, of course, Jack Fincher died. Until then, Fincher has said, for all the death depicted in his films, he had “never actually experienced what it is to be with someone when they breathe their last breath.” That experience clearly inflected “Benjamin Button,” a fantastical film about how we move in and out of phase with the people we love, en route to our graves. “Zodiac” has an obvious autobiographical element, too. Invoking this seeming change, post-2003, in Fincher’s “emotional relationship to stories,” I said, “This may be facile, but to what extent is it useful to think about your father’s death —”

“I think that would be facile,” Fincher interjected. He conceded that Jack hadn’t much cared for films like “Se7en” (at first) and “Fight Club” (at all), but he emphasized that “I’m not doing this for anybody. I go where my curiosity takes me.” Curiosity naturally shifts with age, and also, he reminded me, he initially wanted to make “Mank” in the early ’90s. It was more fruitful, he suggested, to look at how advancements in technology had allowed him to tell more ambitious stories, such as one like “Button,” in which a man ages in reverse: “I had the horsepower to now think in terms of ‘What do you want to do,’ as opposed to ‘What are you capable of?’”

Also, there was the matter of the market: “A lot of your early work is about feeding people,” Fincher said. “There’s a part of you that’s just trying to have a shingle on the door that’s going to provide sustenance for the people you love and work with — and at a certain point, that was no longer an issue.”

We put on masks and went inside, where Fincher played me a cut of a forthcoming “Mank” trailer. In a clever touch, he had set it to the aria from “Salammbô,” the fictitious opera from “Citizen Kane.” With “Mank” close to done, I asked him whether he was already thinking about his next project. “No,” Fincher replied. “I don’t have anything that I’m going, ‘Oh, God, why did you not get that made?’” He gestured to his bookshelves. “It’s an interesting thing,” he said. “ ‘Mank’ has been on that top shelf for so long — and now that shelf’s clean.”

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