David Fincher stops halfway into a biscuit. He looks deep in thought. “Enough bitching from me,” he says. “I’ve bitched so much. I’m embarrassed. Right now I’m going to focus on getting more of these cookies.”
What's he doing now? Is that a smile? I've encountered the Seven director before, but I've never seen him look quite so chipper. Maybe it's because there's no way that his incoming adaptation of the bestselling pot-boiler Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as warring marrieds, won't do boffo box-office.
Or maybe it's because it's a mischievous, wilfully provocative picture. Working from a screenplay by the book's author, Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl ditches the he said/she said gender tussle of the book in favour of an altogether grimmer view of human relations. By the reckoning of Fincher's film, marriage is a nerve-wrecking set of hostage negotiations and all women are bunny-boiling psychopaths. Really?
“I think it has a very realistic view of marriage,” he says, grinning. “Particularly if the participants have duped themselves into a pact that they are not mature enough to enter into. For me it’s a study of narcissism. Not in terms of self-love. But as in: ‘This is the me that I want you to see. And I am going to vigorously protect that edifice. And no one is going to keep me from my happiness.’ And, of course, nobody takes into account that the other person might be doing the exact same thing.”
He sips his coffee and pauses for thought. “I’m not out to get this holy institute of marriage. But I come from a country that has a 52 per cent divorce rate.”
The Colorado-born director of Fight Club and Zodiac is generally perceived as a purveyor of gloom, a chap who makes films about psychopaths and dangerous delusions. His work is black in theme and aspect. Campus life has seldom seemed as joyless and sunless as it does in The Social Network.
Conversely, there are few obscuring shadows. It is, rather, as if Fincher has learned to see and thrive, mole-like, without light – notwithstanding the crisp images set against darkness that alert us to his involvement.
“People ask me all the time: ‘Why are you so cynical?’ And I always think: ‘Why are you so Pollyanna?’”
In 1962, David Andrew Fincher was born to Claire, a mental- health nurse who worked with drug addicts, and Howard Kelly Fincher, a bureau chief for Life magazine. Aged seven, he saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and promptly started shooting his own short films on 8mm.
He worked for Industrial Light and Magic and produced several notable commercials, including a spot for the American Cancer Society featuring a foetus smoking a cigarette, before joining Propaganda Films, the sometime home of Antoine Fuqua, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Mark Romanek.
Fincher, the director of Madonna's Vogue and countless other promos, misses music videos, even now. "We would start on a Monday, sell the concept by Tuesday, pre-produce Wednesday through Friday. Shoot on Saturday and Sunday. Edit Monday to Friday. And the next Monday it was on TV. There was no editorial oversight. I'm being only a little facetious. I got video ideas kicked back. A lot, as you can imagine, but the process was too fast for censorship. I don't think that time will be back. There's way too much risk in offending people now."
In 1992, Alien 3 ought to have marked Fincher's graduation into feature films. But the studio dismantled and reworked the film without his consent and he was quick to disown the picture. In recent weeks he has made similarly sniffy noises about The Game, his 1997 thriller featuring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. He shakes his head and exhales.
“Listen. I understand the role that I’ve been cast in. I understand how re-contextualising some of the things I say can provide people with a sword-wielding knight errant to the corporate world of Hollywood. But it would be entirely disingenuous for me to play along.”
So, contrary to recent reports, he's not mortified by The Game's very existence? "I'm not embarrassed of The Game. But it probably wasn't ready. And I've since learned that you can't work backward from an outcome. Ever. You have to work forward from character and bring him through the things that are in his way and then get somewhere that has an air of inevitability. The Game doesn't have that. It's not Michael's fault. It's not Sean's fault. It's mine."
By some strange twist of fate, Fincher's best-reviewed films – Zodiac and Fight Club – were box-office failures. "There's no way not to be hurt when they stay away in droves. Zodiac was a pretty good movie. And you get the call from the studio and they go: 'What can we say? People hate it. They're just not coming.' Ultimately isn't it about the journey not the destination? As glib and rainbow as that sounds."
He insists that he’s not some spendthrift auteur. The bottom line matters to him, even if it hasn’t always been kind.
"I'm sure a lot of studio people are warned: David Fincher will attempt to talk you into something that will never find audience, something that interests only him. I want people to make money on my movies. I like shareholders. As proud as I am of Zodiac as a film, it's embarrassing that I went in there and said that I really think this story is worth $60 million. I'm not the guy sitting at home laughing. People trusted me. I take that responsibility seriously."
He doesn't read about his films. Ever. Not the brickbats. Not the rave notices. Why? "For someone who is opinionated and outspoken – and I am – I'm also incredibly thin skinned." Yet many of the post-classical Hollywood films that he cites as major influences – Days of Heaven, Jaws, The Graduate, Mad Max 2, Paper Moon – were promoted or indeed shaped by prominent critics such as Pauline Kael.
"Yes. But the cinema of mid- and late-1960s on to 1980 resulted from a confluence of really interesting writers – a lot of them coming in from the blacklist – that were shaped by literature and who wrote character-centric films. Look now. Could Humphrey Bogart ever be a movie star now? Could Jack Nicholson? Would they make The Exorcist now? No. Things happen in The Exorcist that you can't even say in a Warners boardroom."
So what keeps him beating on against the tide?
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.” He smiles. “Movies have different lives. There’s the movie that we were on the set making. There’s the movie that we previewed for the uninitiated. There’s the movie we showed to audiences who have seen the teaser and trailer, but not the television spots. There’s the movie that the movie will become when it’s just a plastic disc in the bargain bin a few years from now.”
He shrugs: "Hey. Even Titanic wound up in the bargain bin."