Thankfully, in the last two decades Mr. Fincher has been asked a host of more refined and zealous questions as well, and Prof. Laurence F. Knapp has undertaken the task to compile the very best of those along with Fincher's responses into a must-order-a-special-book-shelf-for-this-one master volume — "David Fincher: Interviews" (from the Conversations With Filmmakers Series).
I am grateful to report Laurence Knapp agreed to an email-based fincherfanatic conversation — and here is what he had to say:
fincherfanatic: From your online-biography at Oakton Community College we can see you have a Ph. D. in Film Studies, focusing on contemporary and post-classical Hollywood cinema. You have written your dissertation on the question of authorship in filmmaking and intertextual reliance via the example of director Brian De Palma, and you have edited interview volumes on De Palma, Ridley Scott and now David Fincher. The subject matter in and of itself makes your Fincher book a definitive must-have for fans. But please do tell us a little more about how it came about. Was it more of a pragmatic, say, academic approach of wanting to collect interviews with a significant filmmaker or was there more to the idea — was there a personal dimension to your decision in putting this together?
Laurence F. Knapp: In the early 2000s I edited two volumes for the University Press of Mississippi: Brian De Palma: Interviews (2003) and Ridley Scott: Interviews (2005). Then the rigors of family life and my Ph.D. program in Film Studies at Northwestern University distracted me from embarking on another volume until several years ago when a former student of mine, Michael Jolls, a true cinephile, asked me why I had not attempted another volume. I could not come up with a reasonable explanation and immediately contacted the University Press of Mississippi for a list of available directors and noticed, much to my surprise, Fincher’s name unclaimed. Jolls served as my editorial assistant. I am a trained research professor, but one of my pet peeves is the surplus of arcane scholarship written for a miniscule number of scholars who share the same insular mindset and byzantine vocabulary. Their scholarship requires an advanced degree and years of exposure to decode and apprehend. What is lacking today in film studies—now that it has bifurcated into either esoteric theory or uninformed Web criticism—is material for the layperson, written in clear, descriptive prose for those who love film but will never frequent a graduate seminar at the University of Chicago. Film/media studies should be accessible to a wider readership, given its ubiquitous presence in American culture. Film is a primary way that we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. My academic specialty is film authorship. I love dense, academic treatises that explore the vagaries of personal expression and how filmmakers are interpolated by their culture’s ideology and the phenomenological details of historical time, space, and consciousness, but I also want to make authorship in its many forms accessible to everyone, whether that person be an intellectual, a journalist, a cinephile, a hipster, or just an old-fashioned film nut who DVR’s Turner Classic Movies on a weekly basis.
The Conversations with Filmmakers Series has a mandate—to preserve a collection of previously published (or posted) interviews for posterity. It is an essential critical resource for anyone researching an auteur for a monograph, a newspaper profile, or a term paper for an undergraduate film course. Interviews offer limitless insight into the chimera of film authorship, especially the director’s stated intention, which frequently may be at odds with his or her subconscious drives or impulses or the prevailing ideology that the filmmaker unknowingly channels and perpetuates. No director is fully aware of the breadth or significance of his or her work, even Fincher, despite his notorious work ethic and attention to detail. What’s also useful about collecting a group of interviews is to track how certain details from a filmmaker’s childhood and career become a continual reference point. In Fincher’s case, his interviewers keep referencing George Lucas and the troubled production of Alien3, despite Fincher’s growth as a master filmmaker. A high-profile director is identical to a star who cannot be separated from an iconic role or image—no matter how much that star or director grows and changes he or she must live up to the same, tired expectations and answer the same questions over and over and over. Part of the art (and fun) of reading interviews is to observe how a director like Fincher responds to the same incessant inquiries with wit and occasional umbrage.
What is your relationship with Fincher's works? Do you have a favorite? And what specifically fascinates you about Fincher?
As a first-wave Gen X’er born in 1965, I relate intensely to Fincher’s work. I consider him to be a key spokesman for my generation and era, as culturally significant as Kurt Cobain, Tupaq, or Douglas Coupland. Fincher represents the pinnacle of Generation X film expression, standing alongside P.T. Anderson, Sophia Coppola, and Quentin Tarantino. I taught a Generation X Authorship class in 2009. It quickly became apparent to me as we watched Slacker, Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, Reality Bites, and Boogie Nights that Fincher, with Se7en, had quietly articulated key Gen X tropes and anxieties with great insight and grace. Se7en is essentially a Gothic Clerks, with Kevin Spacey as the paradigmatic slacker, in vain search of an identity and a higher purpose. The Game revealed, with cunning wit, Gen X’s dislike of the Baby Boomers in the recognizable form of “greed is good” himself Michael Douglas (who even manages to fleece and betray Gen Y in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). If you want to grasp how much Gen X detests the children of the 1960s (it’s no accident the film is set in San Francisco), just observe how Douglas, the pampered Baby Boomer, born into wealth and privilege, dismisses his little brother, the hapless Gen X’er Sean Penn, who he perceives as a self-indulgent slacker. Fincher tortures Douglas for the amusement of his fellow X’ers—Douglas, the feckless, myopic Boomer, has to contend with the vagaries of the 1990s—the corporate infiltration and subterfuge, surveillance, paranoia, instant financial ruin, in short a ruthless, absurd world where the rules and assumptions of post-WWII America no longer apply. Welcome to the 1990s Boomers. And the 2000s. And the 2010s.
While Se7en and The Game offer evocative portraits of Gen X ennui and resentment, no one could have anticipated the cultural and aesthetic significance of Fight Club, arguably the greatest American film of the millennium. It is as important as Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey, a fearless bungee jump into the psyche of me and millions of other Gen X’ers and Y’ers. It’s a wry, yet blisteringly angry expose about growing up (or perhaps the word should be languishing) in the late 20th century under the shadow of late capitalism, cultural decay, and corporate hegemony. Advertising, materialism, and the neoliberal fetishization of individual wants and desires have reduced us to hapless consumers, wasting our best years lying comatose on the couch, remote absent-mindedly in hand. There really is nothing left to do but say fuck it and punch ourselves in the face. I remember seeing it with my wife in Skokie, IL and experiencing a near-religious sense of communion, as if finally someone understood my and my male peers’ pent-up hostility and desperation, the numbing realization that America only needed us, and wanted us, as consumers and debt instruments, and inert and passive ones at that. What do you do with the same frustration that drove Bob Dylan to go electric and repudiate his booing fans as liars, or Johnny Rotten to cover himself in garbage and snarl “Anarchy in the UK”? Make Fight Club. Fincher is careful to warn us that Tyler Durden, in the irresistible guise of Brad Pitt, is not the answer. He’s the conundrum of our age and its possible outcome (both John Doe and Tyler Durden would feel VERY comfortable in 2014 America) if we do not “wake up” like Neo in The Matrix and pull the cords of Starbucks, Apple, and VISA from our minds and bodies. Fight Club is ridiculously rich in formal play and ontological significance, a film that allows you to participate in a subjective crisis of self that could easily degenerate into Project Mayhem if you do not listen to Marla Singer and slide away from the narcissism and faux-hip Nietzsche-only-on-face-value nihilism that is Tyler Durden.
Panic Room and Zodiac capture the post-Fight Club languor of the 2000s, the post-9/11 false security of Jodie Foster’s aristocratic brownstone or the lingering dread of the 1960s, a country of faceless, nameless serial killers that lacks even the warped morality and sophistication of a sinister film like The Silence of the Lambs. With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher, like anyone who reaches his or her mid 40s, makes peace with mortality and, in true Gen X fashion, reduces life to an acerbic folk tale, in which existence is nothing but a cruel twist of fate with a pointless, yet bittersweet, end.
Throughout the 2000s, Fincher appeared to be in a reactive mode, still recovering from the epochal experience of making Fight Club. Then he did the unfathomable—he made The Social Network, a film that spoke to Gen Y as much as Fight Club resonated with Gen X. I earned a Masters in Film Studies from Boston University, so immediately I couldn’t believe that Aaron Sorkin allowed a snotty Harvard undergraduate to vilify my alma mater in the film’s opening scene. As I watched The Social Network it reminded me vividly of my time spent in Boston. As a Southerner (a Virginian to be exact) I was amused by a Yankee’s need to explicate and analyze everything in concise, almost mathematical, language, as opposed to a Southerner, who can rhapsodize about the essence of life itself using nothing but persiflage and a homespun analogy. Apart from the personal connection, I grasped ten minutes into the film that Fincher had crafted a film as timely and ingenuous as Fight Club, albeit for Gen Y. No fists flying or wild rubber-glove sex here, just young people pounding on keyboards. Here, as with Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Harmony Korine’s Brechtian satire Spring Breakers, Fincher found the right look, sound, and attitude for Gen Y’s wired, disembodied existence. All that really matters can be posted on your Facebook page.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, although a franchise film and somewhat redundant given the Swedish version and Noomi Rapace’s definitive performance, reflects Fincher’s exploration of Gen Y’s tenuous relationship with reality and social norms, from Rooney Mara’s autistic detachment and addiction to her laptop to the growing malaise of living in a hyper-capitalistic global economy run by psychopaths who never recovered from the Nazi atrocities of WWII.
What distinguishes Fincher from his chief rival Quentin Tarantino is his refusal to surrender to postmodernism and reduce his films into a meaningless palimpsest, an echo chamber of familiar voices, a mausoleum of projected and televised moments embalmed and taken out of context. Fincher is just as aware of pop culture as Tarantino but he’s unwilling to reduce life to a tongue-in-cheek Mexican standoff. The Social Network is an earnest attempt to make sense of life in the digital age; Django Unchained is the product of a lost soul overwhelmed by the detritus of self-referentiality.
Did you have a chance to meet Fincher in person?
No, I haven’t met Fincher. I’m very ambivalent about meeting any high-profile filmmakers. Frequently they are not that expressive and prefer that you read their films directly rather than pestering them with questions they have little interest in answering. A good filmmaker always insists that the film itself should do the talking, and Fincher’s films are voluble enough for me.
I am aware this is not what your book is about. But were you, at one point, ever considering to conduct a prolonged interview with David Fincher (say something like Cameron Crowe's »Conversations with Wilder«)? (Because that would also be one hell of a book)
Yes, I wouldn’t mind conducting a lengthy interview with Fincher, but I’m afraid that he couldn’t respond to my questions without being sarcastic. Why? Because a great filmmaker like Fincher or Clint Eastwood doesn’t spend a moment of their time pondering the structural meanings of their films. They function as active agents, problem solving and wrangling new projects. That’s their job, their calling, their instinct. My job, as a film scholar, is to mine the deep structure of their work. This is why an interview book is important. Besides, Nev Pierce has already conducted a half dozen or so masterful interviews with Fincher and has earned his trust and respect. That’s the man who should be the François Truffaut to Fincher’s Hitchcock.
Going through all these interviews, what do you consider some "unanswered questions"? What's the most interesting and promising question that Fincher has never been asked? Upon finalizing your book and with all these interviews in mind, what would you like to ask Fincher in a personal conversation?
The unanswered question for Fincher is, do you resent your audience? How exasperating is it that audiences are not properly trained to read and assess a film? Is the weak alliance between art and commerce reaching an impasse? Can a director working in Hollywood make use of the “genius of the system” without compromising his or her instincts or personal beliefs? Is Fincher one of the few auteurs to behave with impunity, while many of Fincher’s peers find themselves resorting to Kickstarter or other unorthodox forms of financing? Is this why Fincher made his industry-changing deal with Netflix? Is Fincher anticipating the decline of the feature film with House of Cards and the seriality of cable television and video streaming? Can Fincher fully express himself with a film, or is he compelled to keep working because there will always be a gap between intention and execution, cause and effect? If Fincher had unlimited time and resources would he be able to transcend his perfectionism and craft that ultimate shot he’s never been able to achieve? If so, would he move on to another medium or would he retire, having purged himself of his doubts and anxieties? What is the compulsion that drives him forward? Is he wholly responsible to himself and his associates, or does he feel a responsibility to his audience or his generation? With Fincher I sense that he cares about giving form to the zeitgeist and struggles to capture the spirit of our age and psyches, again unlike Tarantino, who is content to recycle his favorite films into vanity projects.
The Table of Contents
My favorite interview title will have to be "Precocious prankster who gets a thrill from tripping people up"
As I can glean from the table of contents you have collected a wide variety of interviews, spanning Fincher's entire feature film-making career. Did you end up with a specific list of criteria for which interviews to include as opposed to which not to compile; or was the approach more of an all-you-can-get-your-hands-on one?
It all depends on what you find and what you can get. A major problem is repetition. Each interviewer should offer another side of the director and allow him or her to frame how he or she wants his or her work to be received. Another concern is the filmography. Certain films will be popular with readers, which requires that you look far and wide for every existing interview, from obscure newspaper profiles to transcripts of speeches or radio appearances. With Fincher, because of his modest output I am able to include interviews for all of his films. I’m encountering a different scenario with the second edition of Ridley Scott: Interviews. I will have to drop at least seven or eight interviews from the first edition to accommodate such recent fare as Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, and The Counselor.
While sifting through the interviews and editing the book, did your view of Fincher change? Did you hit upon novel nuances to your understanding of Fincher as a character or of his works? Do you remember striking upon anything that was said that was surprising, enlightening or odd to you?
No, Fincher remains guarded in interviews, which I like. I think his films reveal his misgivings and mixed feelings more than any interview—Fincher may not be a corporate drone, but he’s a master of PR and protecting his reputation. You’ll never see him on TMZ. Unlike many directors, Fincher comes across as secure and well-adjusted. There’s no sign of the neuroses that Hitchcock displaced onto his films, or the self-congratulatory trickery of a Christopher Nolan. No, Fincher may gravitate toward “films that scar” and dark subject matter, but there are no indications, apart from Zodiac, which is arguably his most personal film, that cinema functions as therapy for him. He approaches it more like a technical endurance test.
With a degree in film studies, how do you think your view and perception of Fincher's films differs from the general audience? From that vantage point, what do you consider the predominant themes in Fincher's canon?
Anyone with a film degree is trained to identify aesthetic and cultural patterns that audiences may sense or recognize but only peripherally without clear understanding. Historical poetics, the study of style as a fluid formal discourse shaped by changes in technology and aesthetic taste, really helps with Fincher. His style is very nuanced, a product of Fincher’s natural appreciation of mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound. His themes come out of the narrative construction of his films, the foundation of which is character behavior and psychology—in Se7en, the audience is encouraged to be as circumspect as Morgan Freeman, as undisciplined as Brad Pitt, AND as eerily serene as John Doe. Fincher respects Aristotelian storytelling, but he tests the boundaries of subjective narration with Fight Club or unrestricted character knowledge in Zodiac. With Fight Club you get the thrill of sharing the head space of the Narrator, only to learn that he is an unreliable narrator—the price you pay when you sacrifice objective knowledge for subjective experience. With Zodiac Fincher privileges Jake Gyllenhaal as the narrative surrogate that gives the film causality and structure but allows his camera to move freely through time and space, offering unrestricted access to situations but no access into the minds of the characters, leaving us overwhelmed by evidence and conjecture but deprived of that one privileged head space moment that we, and Jake, need to solve the case and bring the grisly legacy of the 1960s into focus or perspective. All of Fincher’s films play with range and depth, deploying the camera to force us to observe the characters and to share their experiences. In Benjamin Button we spend a lot of time with the eponymous character but we are also encouraged to accept time as something immanent beyond Benjamin and ourselves. The Social Network plays with our identification with Mark Zuckerberg. We get hundreds of close-ups of him changing the world with his laptop, we hear his thoughts, we re-experience his life through the court testimony, but we are left with a strangely unapproachable person at the end, a millennial Charles Foster Kane, a man of apparent greatness who comes across as achingly vulnerable and commonplace.
As professor have you ever taught (or considered teaching) a »Fincher class«? If so, what would you discuss, and how do you / would you teach »Fincher, the subject«?
As mentioned, I have taught a Generation X class before. I welcome the opportunity to teach a Fincher/Tarantino seminar in the near future, or perhaps a Fincher/De Palma class. I’ve always felt that Fincher is as misanthropic and as formally schematic as De Palma, but because of Fincher’s upbringing (the Bay Area instead of Philadelphia) or generation (Gen X’ers are too jaded, melancholy, and overwhelmed by capitalism to openly resist the dominant order), Fincher does not share De Palma’s countercultural need to expose the cinematic artifice and contest and parody the prevailing ideology of postwar America. Fight Club is as contemptuous as Greetings, Phantom of the Paradise, or Body Double, but Fincher, like many Gen X’ers, doesn’t have it in him to risk a Blow Out, Casualties of War, or Redacted, or even an over-the-top film like Dressed to Kill, Scarface, or Femme Fatale. De Palma would never end Fight Club with two lovers holding hands. He would just blow up downtown Los Angeles and have Brad Pitt expose his penis and wave to the camera like Robert De Niro in Hi Mom!. Fight Club, in true Fincher fashion, prescribes my generation not to surrender to cynicism but to grow up, accept your significant other, and get married. That’s all the sanctuary you will get in this world. Worked for me.
Do you have any plans for Fincher related future projects? Or else, what are you currently working on?
No, although I would love to helm and edit a book reflecting the cultural status of Fight Club and how it anticipated the state of affairs Americans and other Westerners have been grappling with since 9/11 and the Great Recession. All of the half-truths and broken promises of neoliberal capitalism—still the uncontested dominant ideology of Fight Club in the late 1990s—are rapidly eroding, leaving us all feeling like the Narrator, seeking a shaman/power Id-demigod-demagogue like Tyler Durden to goad, shame, and burn us into emerging from our imprisonment in Neo’s Matrix. Poor Edward Norton finally realizes that Marla offers the only route to full adulthood, not Tyler with his glib designer, pretty-boy, Madison Avenue pseudo-fascist rebellion that only leads to fear, despair, and a bullet through the jaw.
I’m currently working on the second edition of Ridley Scott: Interviews, the first edition of Kevin Smith: Interviews, and a long-delayed article about Mickey Rourke’s tortured star text and how it reflects the Fight Club crisis of corporeal, working class masculinity in the late 20th century. Poor Mickey, a street kid who took Marlon Brando and James Dean’s surly Method posing seriously, reigns as the patron saint of unreconstructed American manhood. No actor has suffered on and off-screen as voluntarily as Mickey. Unlike Tom Cruise, who continues to flourish in a technocratic Hollywood, Mickey is the inveterate misfit, the actor who confuses performance with the boxing ring, leading him to eventually abandon acting for actual prize-fighting and to disfigure himself much more than the liminal Brad Pitt in Fight Club. I’m also working on the second edition of Directed by Clint Eastwood and a Generation X filmmakers encyclopedia.
I’m also training for a Tough Mudder race next spring. My wife just did it and I want to show her that I can eat mud and like it.
Mr. Knapp, thank you very much for the courtesy of your time and your very inspiring answers!
Everyone, make sure to pre-order "David Fincher: Interviews" now, set for release on August 1. By the way, if the hardcover price tag seems out of your range, do take note that a
paperback ebook version is on the way and should be available for order in August!
Author, Directed by Clint Eastwood (McFarland, 1996) (second edition coming)
Editor, Brian De Palma: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2003)
Editor, Ridley Scott: Interviews (UPM, 2005) (second edition slated for mid 2015)
Editor, David Fincher: Interviews (UPM, 2014)
Editor, Kevin Smith: Interviews (UPM, slated for 2015/6)