Perfectionist director David Fincher's love-hate relationship with actors

Director David Fincher (with actor Neil Patrick Harris, who appears in Gone Girl) treats directing as a team effort. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Director David Fincher (with actor Neil Patrick Harris, who appears in Gone Girl) treats directing as a team effort. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
In Gone Girl, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike play a couple who appear to have a fairy-tale marriage, until she suddenly disappears. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
In Gone Girl, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike play a couple who appear to have a fairy-tale marriage, until she suddenly disappears. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

The Gone Girl director is a demanding perfectionist, which is why actors both love and hate to work with him

Director David Fincher is a beast of a perfectionist, known for making his actors reshoot their scenes dozens of times until he is satisfied, as he infamously required Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara to do - 98 times - for a six-minute sequence in The Social Network (2010).

While this relentless approach can upset some performers - among them Robert Downey Jr, who protested by leaving jars of his urine on the set of the 2007 movie Zodiac - the madness yields magic: From Se7en (1995) to The Social Network, Fincher's movies have grossed more than US$1.5 billion (S$1.9 billion) at the box office worldwide and enjoyed consistent critical acclaim, establishing him as a cinematic auteur with a striking visual style and approach to storytelling.

Oscar-nominated for directing The Social Network as well as 2008's The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, the 52-year-old is also credited with coaxing top-notch performances from his actors - which is why many still jump at a chance to work with him, as the stars of his much buzzed-about new film, Gone Girl, attest.

Speaking to Life! and other reporters at the New York Film Festival last week, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike flank their director and say that working with him has changed the way they see their other projects - even as they acknowledge his fearsome reputation.

In this story of a fairy-tale marriage gone wrong - an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn that is already tipped as an awards favourite - Affleck plays Nick Dunne, a man suspected of dark deeds after his wife Amy (Pike) goes missing.

The A-lister reveals that he put on hold his own career as a director (Argo, 2012; The Town, 2010) just so he could learn from the director behind Fight Club (1999) and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011).

"I've definitely, at this point in my career as an actor, decided that it's all about the director, really," says Affleck, 42, who helmed last year's Best Picture Oscar winner Argo and, with Matt Damon, had won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting (1997).

"I would have done the phone book with David… to get a chance to work with a guy I admire a great deal," he says as the bespectacled director sits next to him.

Affleck was, in fact, meant to be directing a film of his own - Live By Night - when he accepted the role in Gone Girl and, as Fincher tells it, "shut down his movie at Warner Bros and sent all the people he had hired home".

And he did as told because of his sheer admiration for the director.

"Before all my movies that I directed, I watched Se7en. It's the most perfectly, meticulously, Swiss-watch-made thing," he explains.

"And I thought, 'What kind of person makes a movie like this?'"

Fincher himself clarifies that his approach with actors is ultimately a collaborative one, even though this means far more takes - Gone Girl averaged 50 takes a scene, compared with the five to 10 that many directors typically require.

"I always feel it's a silly thing to talk about what you 'do' to actors. I don't think that you ever enter into the shepherding of something that's this expensive and this complicated without letting them know up front that we are all doing this together.

"The pressure that is on the set is there before the actors show up so that everyone is done," says Fincher, whom actor Jake Gyllenhaal has said would make him do dozens of takes for Zodiac only to delete 10 even before they left the set.

But the director says this is just "how many bites of the apple we give the people who are perfect for the part, to make it more concise, make it more human, make it less presentational".

So it is not so much about what is "inflicted" on the actors but that the whole crew and cast "are all doing this together and we have to all work as a ballet company - the boom operator, the dolly grip... everybody has to make it sing," says Fincher, who also worked on this film with his long-term girlfriend and producing partner Cean Chaffin.

And before anyone can ask whether this can mean cruel and unusual punishment for actors, a grinning Affleck cheekily volunteers that Fincher is, "in spite of his reputation, a very funny and nice guy, smart and sweet, not just a demon".

He adds that he "learnt a lot as a director just sort of standing next to David and watching what he did and why he did it".

Referring to Fincher's previous life as a musicvideo maker - he directed Madonna's Express Yourself and Vogue videos - Affleck adds that Fincher is one of the few film-makers who marries technical mastery with an understanding of actors.

"What's interesting is that there's this bifurcation with directors: there are the sort of technical, shooter, music-video/commercial guy and girl directors who sort of come from that world and speak that vocabulary and have that expertise, and on the other side of that line, your performance directors, your writer-directors, your actor-directors. And they tend to be two camps.

"David is the only guy who straddles both camps. He is genuinely an actor's director. And he's got one of the deepest and most proficient understandings of the technical aspect of film-making of anyone I have ever worked with. So he's got this engineer's mind and yet this taste of an artist. And I didn't think there was that film-maker out there, so I was really impressed by that duality."

Contrary to complaints by some other graduates of the Fincher School of Hard Knocks, Pike, 35, says she actually felt "no pressure" working with him.

"You feel like you have got the time and you feel that you have got somebody who is really, really watching.

"I remember walking into a house and the camera was looking at me from behind and David just said, 'You are not impressed enough'. And I thought, 'That's on the back of my head, and yet you see all that'."

Pike, who also starred in Hector And The Search For Happiness and A Long Way Down this year, adds that what she learnt from Fincher has made her cast a critical eye over her performances in other films, which she now brings a "post-Fincher" sensibility to.

"The other day, I was in London seeing a premiere of a film I did right before this and I just watched it thinking, 'Oh god, David sort of whipped that out of me'."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Gone Girl opens in Singapore on Oct 9.