Someone should make a movie about David Fincher. The filmmaker, who directed last year’s Oscar-nominated The Social Network as well as this year’s expected-to-be-Oscar-nominated The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is famously difficult and enigmatic. He reportedly made Jake Gyllenhaal do several Zodiac scenes with a high fever, filmed 90 takes of the opening scene in The Social Network, and his battles with studio bosses over his first feature film, Alien3 were so extreme Fincher tried to pull his name off the movie. He swears like a sailor, forms psychologically complex bonds with his actors (“It’s fucking weird,” Dragon Tattoo’s Daniel Craig said of his director’s relationship with costar Rooney Mara,) and makes elegant, creepy, emotional movies that satisfy everyone but him. He’s like the Keyser Soze of filmmaking except we know something about him.
Fincher grew up in Marin, California and reportedly lived down the street from George Lucas. He knew he wanted to be a filmmaker from a very early age but was disdainful of the soft-boiled artiness of film school, opting instead to learn from the dudes who actually make the cameras run and the lights work. Prioritizing technical skill came in handy since Fincher arrived in Hollywood in the early ’80s just in time for the special effects boom, which also coincided with the rise of MTV. While most people were still thinking of music videos as radio singles you could see, Fincher saw the future and cofounded Propaganda Films, which became a sort of prestigious post-doc program for prodigy filmmakers like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry; these auteurs-in-training honed their skills on commercials while making bank helping rock stars express themselves on camera.
Since then, Fincher has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most mythic filmmakers. A man who makes weird movies bankrolled by The Man, viewed by the masses, and adored by the critics. But he doesn’t do it alone. Throughout Fincher’s multi-decade long career he’s collected an assortment of trusted collaborators who help him deliver his singular vision. Here is his constellation of key players.
1. Jeff Cronenweth, cinematographer. The son of Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, his first gig as full-on DP was Fight Club and he’s since worked with Fincher on several films including Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network, both of which earned Cronenweth an Academy Award nomination for best cinematography. (He lost to Wally Pfister for Inception). Special Fincher-friendly skill: knows how to get the dimly lit, close-up, long shot, which makes everything feel intimate and unsettled. Like many Fincher collaborators, Cronenweth is also a top-tier commercials DP. See his work on Audi’s “Footsteps” below.
2. Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, editors. “People will say there are a million ways to shoot a scene,” Fincher has reportedly said. “But I don’t think so. I think there’s two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.” Editing the work of a man with that attitude can’t be easy but this duo (Wall’s been with Fincher since 2002’s Panic Room, Baxter for the last few films) have it down. Their work on The Social Network won them the Academy Award and they’re nominated this year for Dragon Tattoo. Wall and Baxter are also A-List commercials editors–see below for Wall’s work on Heineken “Beer Run,” directed by Fincher and starring frequent collaborator Brad Pitt.
3. Donald Graham Burt: Production Designer. Fincher is one of the most meticulous directors in the business and every last detail of the production has to be curated to his satisfaction. Since the Zodiac era, Burt has been responsible for ensuring that everything from the motorcycle Pitt rides in Benjamin Button to the look of Zuckerberg’s dorm room to the type of dildo Mara uses in Dragon Tattoo synchs up with Fincher’s larger vision.
4. Ren Klyce: The less splashy side of film soundtracking is interstitial sound design, but on the Fincher films it’s key. As much as any filmmaker in the business the worlds he builds require complete sensory immersion, down to the low-grade hum of inter-scene noise. Klyce has provided the aural backdrop to every single Fincher feature except for Alien 3. He’s nominated this year for Best Sound Editing for Dragon Tattoo.
5. Laray Mayfield, Casting Director. Jared Leto as the pretty face Tyler Durden wants to ruin in Fight Club? Tilda Swinton as Brad Pitt’s seductress in Benjamin Button (that film’s best scene)? Recognizing the hidden vigilante feminist in Rooney Mara’s patrician face? This woman is a genius.
6. Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. The Reznor/Fincher bond goes all the way back to Se7en, when Fincher used a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” in the opening credits. (Fincher also directed the video for NIN’s 2005 single “Only.”) Like Fincher, Reznor is a violence-obsessed iconoclast who’s mellowed out without losing his edge. Last year Reznor and his soundtrack partner Ross won an Oscar for best Soundtrack for The Social Network and this year looped Karen O into the fold for work on Dragon Tattoo.
7. Brad Pitt. Back when the actor was still struggling to be considered more than a pretty boy romantic lead Fincher saw Pitt’s dark side, casting him in Se7en and Fight Club. (And later, Benjamin Button). The pair is slated to collaborate once again on The Killer, an adaptation of Alex Nolent’s graphic novel optioned by Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.
8. The Thomson Viper FilmStream camera. Fincher famously shot the first full-length feature film produced entirely as digital data when he used this camera to film 2006’s Zodiac–his coiled study of the hunt for the notorious San Francisco Bay Area serial killer in the 1970s. Fincher developed the technique in partial collaboration with longtime visual effects partner in crime Kevin Tod Haug. Digital filmmaking is now Fincher’s standard. It allows him to review scenes immediately after they’re shot, delete takes he dislikes on set, and eliminates reloading time, streamlining and tightening up his process.
9. Andrew Kevin Walker: screenwriter. Though the legendary Steven Zaillian (who’s written a completely bonkers number of powerful Hollywood scripts including Schindler’s List and American Gangster and Moneyball) did the Dragon Tattoo script, Fincher’s go-to scribe has often been Walker, who wrote Se7en while working at a Tower Records. He’s been a kind of right hand to Fincher, doing uncredited rewrites (allegedly) on Panic Room and Fight Club and The Game as well as occasionally appearing on screen when an extra body was needed. Walker also worked with Fincher on the legendary “BMW Films” series (see below) which Fincher had a big hand in bringing to life.
10. The title sequence. Kyle Cooper’s groundbreaking opener for Se7en changed everything for modern titles sequences and the director has worked to raise the bar since. From the taut breakup scene that opens The Social Network to the bullet’s-eye journey of Fight Club, to the molten obsidian shapes moving to Reznor/Ross’ cover of Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” featuring Karen O’s vocals, the first five minutes of every Fincher film show you exactly what kind of ride you’ve just gotten on.