Fincher doesn't have a huge volume of books written about him -- not yet that is. For with every new piece added to his impressive roster, I am sure (pop) cultural interest in this extraordinarily gifted director will steadily increase. Very modestly "Films that scar" hopes to be "just the next step" in the discussion and analysis of this grand contemporary master. Thankfully, the book's author, Mark Browning, took the time for a fincherfanatic interview.
"Films that scar" will be available in bookstores June 30 2010. You can pre-order it at amazon.com here.
And since the interview turned out at a decent length, for pure readability, you can download a PDF of the interview here.
fincherfanatic.com: Tell us about yourself: Who are you, what's your bio, what's your educational background in film & journalism – and of course, what was your first Fincher experience?
Mark Browning: Who am I? Well, philosophy aside, I’m a Brit, currently living in Germany, who watches an unhealthy amount of TV. By day, I’m a sometimes humble English teacher; by night, I morph Hong Kong Phooey-style into a writer. My interest in film stretches back, probably over 25 years and gradually through teaching, I started to take film more seriously (via Film/Media Studies), taking evening classes, then a Master’s degree and then a PhD, while working full-time. Eventually, people started to be interested in what I was writing and I had David Cronenberg – Author or Filmmaker? published in 2007. It sounds like a quiz question from daytime TV but it’s aimed at a serious-minded, academic readership. More accessible is Stephen King on the Big Screen (2009). I’ve just submitted the sequel, imaginatively titled Stephen King on the Small Screen, about King’s work on TV (Salem’s Lot, The Stand, etc…), which should be out next year sometime.
Probably, like lots of people, my first experience of Fincher’s work was unwitting, via pop videos in the 1980s. I tended to then, and still do now, “consume” a lot of my music via music TV. In the book, I wanted to include a more analytical approach to Fincher’s videos, which thus far, have not really received much detailed attention. It seems to me, in rather an unscientific way, that his best videos accompany that particular artist’s best songs or put another way, is it really possible to make a really good video from a terrible song? People often, rightly, criticise how awful most videos are, which is fair, but then so, at any given time, is a large proportion of popular music – even if that makes me sound a horrible reactionary. Music video can be an amazing form of expression but tragically, it all-too-often is not. I may not be a great Madonna fan but musically “Vogue” is as much a stand-out track as it is a powerful and memorable video. I’m no fan of Glee either but the recent attempt at a version of “Vogue” was more a reflection of Fincher’s achievement than Madonna’s. Think of Michel Gondry’s work with Massive Attack on “Protection” or any of his work with Björk, or Spike Jonze’s “Sabotage” for The Beastie Boys. This idea seems to hold true even for different tracks by the same artist/director – would we rather watch Billy Idol’s “LA Woman” or “Flesh For Fantasy”? They we're both directed by Fincher but the first is his take on Blade Runner, while the second is a confused Caligari-styled mess. See, I watch far too much TV.
fincherfanatic.com: I wonder: How did you find out all the titles of music videos and commercials David Fincher has worked on. The internet has only bits and pieces of his videography and Billy Idol's "Flesh for Fantasy", for example, never showed up on any of the listings I ran into.
Mark Browning: Credits for or intelligent comments upon music videos and commercials are really difficult to find, reflecting the low cultural status which they still both have. Both are commonly used as compilation material for cheap TV. I had a real problem tracking down the director of The Human League's Life on Your Own (1984), which I think is specifically influential on the look of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002). Anyway, short answer – this is one of the legacies of doing a PhD in this day and age. You are expected to find everything, no matter how small, that exists in the virtual world. The answer, and this is true with any Internet use, is cross-referencing, using Boolean strings – you know, searches with several terms separated by commas. You get quite radically-different outputs from different combinations. I'm currently going mad trying to track down details about Wes Anderson commercials, of which there are more than people think.
fincherfanatic.com: Like you've mentioned, you wrote other books in film analysis before, on Stephen King adaptations and David Cronenberg. What was your experience from working on these? Which is your favorite King adaptation?
Mark Browning: The Cronenberg piece grew out of my PhD, so my memories are mainly of poverty and frustration, as any doctoral candidates out there will know. It was actually a lot more fulfilling creatively than I expected. I discovered many writers and filmmakers, such as Clive Barker, whose work I grew to like and just expressing ideas that synthesised everything written on a range of topics and then come up with something original that added meaningfully to a body of knowledge. That was quite a challenge. The King adaptations meant a mountain of reading, which was OK and I think my conclusion still holds up pretty well.
fincherfanatic.com: My favorite King adaptation will have to be "The Shawshank Redemption".
Mark Browning: If you love Shawshank, read that book – it will change your mind.
fincherfanatic.com: What's your favorite?
Mark Browning: Probably Apt Pupil or The Mist for at least trying to do something different. Kubrick’s The Shining has moments and it's a good comparison to make with Mick Garris’ 1997 remake. I even have quite a soft-spot for the trashiness of Creepshow. For the book I’ve just finished, I’ve been watching It again. From behind the sofa. In parts, it’s about as good as seven-act-TV drama gets. And makes you look at Ronald McDonald in a whole new way.
fincherfanatic.com: So does your previous work correctly indicate you are drawn to darker material?
Mark Browning: Yep. Ask a closed question…
fincherfanatic.com: How's this for a closed question: Who's on your Top-5 list of directors, Top-5 movies?
Mark Browning: David Fincher, obviously. David Cronenberg, obviously. David Lynch – almost anyone called David, except Mr Hasselhoff, of course. John Carpenter, Stanley Kubrick, Chaplin. Oops, that’s 6. But not necessarily in this order.
Films tend to reflect or direct my mood at any given time, so this changes hour-to-hour. Generally, I like the best of any particular genre, especially those that seek to provoke a visceral response, so horror films that really do scare the **** out of you, romantic comedies that make you cry, comedies that make you laugh. Strangely enough, these are all genres that have very low critical status. Could it be that the critical Establishment are fearful of art that arouses a bodily response? Discuss.
Anyway, as of today… The Thing (1982 remake), Dead Ringers, The Life Aquatic (I think I’m on my own on this one), Betty Blue and A Clockwork Orange – again not necessarily in this order.
I think it was Oscar Wilde who once said, “the world is divided into two sorts of people: those who put people into categories and those who don’t”. Come to think of it, it may not have been Oscar.
fincherfanatic.com: When did you first have the idea to write a book on Fincher?
Mark Browning: I’ve admired his work for a long time and I began it in 2008 but by the 2009 Oscars, it just seemed crying out to be written. Fincher’s Benjamin Button was up against Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and it just seemed to me that it would be hard to imagine a greater contrast of directing styles and whether one could have made the other’s film (even supposing they had wanted to).
fincherfanatic.com: What's your angle in the book, what makes it different from other titles such as "Dark Eye" by James Swallow?
Mark Browning: Swallow’s book is a useful first step but a lot of it is descriptive in tone and fact-based, particularly linked to production. This is all helpful stuff but I wanted to push the debate a few stages further. My book looks afresh at the films themselves and tries to dig into them specifically. It’s the first book to consider Fincher’s videos analytically, compare Alien3 and Panic Room, consider what Fincher adds to the detective genre in Seven and Zodiac, how far Fincher is influenced by key figures like Brian De Palma and Hitchcock, and whether his films really are dark, as they are nearly always assumed to be – hence Swallow’s title. Fincher hasn’t really been discussed as an adaptor of literary fiction. This is routinely ignored in comments about Fight Club or Benjamin Button and there’s a chapter about game-playing in The Game and Fight Club, both very, very good films, in this writer’s opinion but both fatally-flawed.
I wouldn’t claim that my book is the last word on Fincher, just the next step or two.
fincherfanatic.com: How's your book structured, what's its central theme, and what can fans look forward to?
Mark Browning: The book is loosely-chronological but links films in pairs, some obvious, some less so.
There are chapters on pop videos, Alien3 and Panic Room, especially parallels between Ripley and Meg, Seven and Zodiac, especially the depth of characterisation and the importance of words – Fincher is a much more literary guy than he is usually given credit for, and Benjamin Button and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nothing about the not-so-Great Gatsby, I promise.
fincherfanatic.com: Did you have access to Fincher's management or to Fincher personally for your research?
Mark Browning: Nope. Again, ask a closed question. – OK. I’m afraid the more interviews you read with directors, I mean any directors, the more you come to the view of Timothy Corrigan in his very fine book Cinema Without Walls, in which he describes how the utterances of directors become just one more element in the marketing of a film. And he was writing before the explosion of DVD sales, with commentaries and more extras than should be legally allowed. If Fincher were to call me up and suggest we go out for a beer, I would probably find time to squeeze him into my busy life but the idea that directors are objective sources of piercingly original analysis, is just not true. I’m really not “dissing” the Finch – I’ve spent many hundreds of hours writing this book but there is quite a big problem with a large part of fan-boyism that assumes that artists are necessarily best placed to comment on their own work – it ain’t necessarily so. The analytical focus of this book, is very much the films themselves.
fincherfanatic.com: Talking about director's commentaries. I assume you have seen Fincher's commentary for "Chinatown". I have rarely heard a more interesting commentary, and I believe that is perfectly for the same reason you have given: When talking about their own films, directors rarely give away secrets or dissect what they were doing, which is why oftentimes they resort to talking about intentions or trivial anecdotes surrounding the production. Who would you bring in for a truly riveting DVD commentary? What did you think of the "Chinatown" one with Fincher?
Mark Browning: To be honest, I don't actually like the whole notion of DVD commentaries, especially by directors. I have respect for Cronenberg who resisted doing them at all. They really are just part of a marketing exercise, often for the persona of the director. On a more academic note, Catherine Grant has written some interesting things about DVD extras as a tool in manufacturing desired notions of authorship. I wouldn't say that directors necessarily have secrets to give away, just as deleted scenes offer the tantalising promise of a "real intention", alternative endings especially but 99 times out of 100, just represent a cut for the purposes of pace.
It is a notion that many people find hard to accept but the creator of an artwork does not necessarily have the desire or ability to analyse it particularly effectively. The cult of personality created by marketing, usually with the support of the director themsleves, repeatedly tells us that a single individual, the director, has unique control over the medium. This is highly questionable and it also does not mean that they have the critical tools to consider objectively what meaning or meanings their work has. Film criticism, academic or popular, is quite different from filmmaking and sometimes readers assume that written criticisms derive from personal inadequacy that writers can't make films. This may be true sometimes but if you can accept that the making and writing processes are different, there's no reason to assume that directors can write – or even talk sometimes – fluently and with precision about what they or others have made.
Sometimes a little objectivity can appear to be brought in by having others talking about a film they did not produce directly, such as James Ellroy on the Zodiac commentary. However, distribution companies will rarely allow objective, critical or downright negative comments to appear on DVDs. The same applies to written material – as with Kent Jones' essay on Button, the tone will be positive, verging on the rhapsodic. Ellroy is a lengthy acquaintance of Fincher and the two worked together on The Black Dahlia before the plug was pulled on it – hardly truly objective commentary.
With a gun to my head, if I had to chose someone to give potentially-interesting commentary, I would favour actors, since in Fincher's case, he usually works with experienced actors who have often directed and produced themselves, such as Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker or Michael Douglas – and not necessarily on the films in which they starred.
Fincher on Chinatown was interesting but that's more a reflection of the greatness of that film, which has quite a mountain written about it.
fincherfanatic.com: Will your book offer a more detailed glimpse at Fincher's creative process?
Mark Browning: In as far as anyone can but from the films, not from talking around them.
fincherfanatic.com: A description for your book reads, "The book also questions whether Fincher's films are really bleak or just part of an unconventional approach to filmmaking". That is a very interesting question. What opinion did you reach through your analysis? And do you describe this "unconventional approach" in your book?
Mark Browning: I personally find most of Fincher’s work, with the possible exception of Seven, to contain quite a significant comic element and also endings in particular which are far more ambiguous than most commentators suggest. The unconventionality of his approach comes from the technical precision with which he works and how he develops generic elements, such as killing the survivors at the beginning of Alien3 and the heroine at the end, subverting narrative expectations, like having the killer turn himself in with plenty of running time left in Seven, the sheer poetry of some of the dialogue in Fight Club “borrowed” from JG Ballard, the director-centred party pieces like the 3-minute long take in the middle of Panic Room… Read the book, there’s a whole mountain of stuff, I could put here.
fincherfanatic.com: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", "The Social Network" and recent rumors of Fincher directing "20.000 Leagues under the Sea" seem to indicate, Fincher is opening toward a broader, more popular mainstream audience. Do you agree with this assessment? What's your take on where Fincher is heading?
Mark Browning: I’m not sure he is getting more commercial – it could be that over time, more people recognize the talent he has. The “cream rises to the top” is a cliché but I’d like to believe that sometimes it’s true. It depends very much what he does with the latter two films. A pure plot description of Seven would not reflect the groundbreaking film we have – the treatment is everything. A Fincher adaptation of Jules Verne could be unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The Life Aquatic with David Fincher!
fincherfanatic.com: Which title of Fincher's long development list do you think is the best film Fincher never made?
Mark Browning: If I was being sarcastic, I might say Benjamin Button, which ducks some of the more interesting elements of Fitzgerald’s story. Unsarcastic answer: The Black Dahlia.
fincherfanatic.com: Did you learn anything about the upcoming "The Social Network"? Will it blend with Fincher's past filmography?
Mark Browning: One of the elements of the book is Fincher’s increasing focus on technology, possibly at the expense of developing engaging human characters. I hope, I’m wrong about this…
fincherfanatic.com: What's your personal favorite Fincher movie, commercial and music video – and for which reasons?
Mark Browning: Commercial has to be the late but very great Dennis Hopper in the Nike ads, especially “Referee”. “Like a man, man”. There are a tiny number of male actors who manage to achieve iconic status almost through sheer force of will – James Dean, with whom Hopper starred in Rebel Without a Cause, Jack Nicholson, Robert de Niro, Clint Eastwood – it is a fairly short list and he is definitely on it. At the moment, I’m preparing a book on George Clooney and wondering if he is on this list.
Film. I do like The Game, which so-nearly is really troubling and pushing at our sense of what reality is. Even though it is just plain silly at times, it does make you realise how few films have this level of ambition. Picking just one film is almost impossible. Jared Leto’s dialogue in Panic Room, Brad Pitt flying off the bike in Fight Club, opening the box in Seven – too many scenes to mention. Although, I’ve always thought that an empty box would have been a better twist. Video. Probably Loverboy’s Love Will Rise Again – just when you think Spinal Tap’s lost its relevance…
fincherfanatic.com: What's next for you? Are you working on a new book?
Mark Browning: Currently, I’m working on the first book on Wes Anderson, a thoughtful book about George Clooney – amazingly no-one has done this yet. And a study on Danny Boyle. It’s not a very admirable characteristic, but I get bored quite quickly and writing is a way for me to keep my brain from rotting away to nothing.
Mark Browning's "David Fincher: Films that scar"
will be available June 30.