Back in the early 1990s, an up-and-coming hotshot music video director by the name of David Fincher had a rather storied falling out with 20th Century Fox over his first feature film, a blockbuster sequel by the name of Alien³. Who would have thought that, twenty-plus years and a laundry list of hits later, he’d still have difficulty working with studios to make the films he wants to make?
In a recent interview with Little White Lies, David Fincher spoke candidly about making films with major studios, and why specifically his version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is unlikely to ever see the light of day.
“You get over $200 million… all motion picture companies have corporate culture and corporate anxieties,” Fincher acknowledged. “Once we got past the list of people we could cast as the different characters in the film … it became this bizarre endeavour to find which three names you could rub together to make platinum.” It seems that, despite the popularity and quality of the films he churns out, Fincher still has to fight tooth and nail to make the movies he wants to make.
After his bout with Fox over Alien³, Fincher fought with New Line Cinema to keep the original ending for Se7en intact. He did, at least mostly, with the compromise at the studio’s behest that he add footage at the very end of the film to make the conclusion just a touch less stark.
Then there was the ballooning budget of Fight Club, which had more than doubled to $50 million by the time filming started, and then wound up north of $60 million once all was said and done. One of the production companies threatened to pull funding, but Fincher convinced them to stick it out. Unfortunately, the film was poorly received by studio executives, who in turn failed to properly market the film, leading to dismal box office performance.
There was Sony balking on adding Zodiac to its production plate after insisting that it be no longer than 135 minutes; the final theatrical cut of the Warner-Paramount co-production runs more than 157 minutes, cut down from Fincher’s original version that ran over three hours long.
There was David Fincher butting heads with Sony’s Amy Pascal over casting for his adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, then an overall difficult production where the two butted heads throughout the filming process, and then they butted heads some more over Fincher’s demand that he control the marketing of the film. The adaptation was only a moderate success, and while Fincher insists the sequels could still be made, I have a hard time believing it will be him behind the lens if the films ever come to fruition.
Most recently, though, many of us will recall that Fincher was the director atop Sony’s list to direct Aaron Sorkin’s film about the late Steve Jobs. It seemed a perfect pairing, given the duo’s success on The Social Network, but when Fincher sought an upfront fee of $10 million, full creative and marketing control, and that the studio get Christian Bale to play Jobs, well, Pascal would no longer play ball.
Unfortunately, money drives the marketplace, and while David Fincher could undoubtedly do well making films on his own without the hindrance of studios or a need to appease the higher-ups, his forte is the middle-budget adult drama, which pretty much requires working within the studio system whether you like it or not. And that’s become harder and harder to do in today’s film landscape, which Fincher acknowledged as well during his sitdown with Little White Lies.
“Even if you could put up the $75 million it would take to make [The Godfather] today, and you could guarantee that it would be one of the greatest movies of all time, people would still go, ‘$75 million? I dunno man, that’s a lot of bread.'” Fincher continued: “There are realities to our business. The bottom has fallen out. Dramas that cost more than $20 million, you’re taking a big risk.”
The problem for Fincher is that, unlike most directors of adult drama, his allegiance isn’t to the studio (even though they finance and distribute the film), or to the audience (even though they watch the film), or even to his cast and crew (even though they help make the movie). Rather Fincher’s allegiance, as he says, is to the film, to the story and his vision instead of to the balance sheet — even if that means shooting 70-plus takes or demanding full creative control or fighting vehemently with the studio over a casting choice.
Fortunately, Fox coughed up the money for Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl, so while we may never see the acclaimed director’s version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, we will at least be seeing a new David Fincher film in just a couple of weeks — and early word is that it was worth it for the studio to hand the reins over to the acclaimed director.
And if Fox can come around on Fincher, it seems any studio can. After all, it was Fox who fought with the director over Alien³, and some 20 years later, it looks like they’ve ultimately realized that Fincher’s vision is worth keeping intact, no matter the cost or sacrifice.