David Fincher, as Explained by the People Who Work With Him - The Ringer

Jul 12, 2021 10:58 AM
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On the cusp of the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs the next five days David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

In the early 1990s, Michael Alan Kahn worked as David Fincher’s first assistant director. Kahn had already paid his dues on Joel Silver productions like Die Hard, Hudson Hawk, and the first two Lethal Weapon sequels—big-budget action flicks made by big personalities whose off-camera tantrums rivaled the on-screen explosions. Fincher was coming off the failure of Alien 3, a film that the director still hates and hates talking about. As Fincher entered his 30s, he had returned to making music videos and commercials, two worlds where he’d earned a reputation first as a prodigy and then as a master. “When I linked up with David I immediately recognized that it was a whole different level,” says Kahn.

Not only was Fincher’s work inventive and distinct, it was meticulously constructed. Kahn remembers a series of spots they made for Heineken. They had two days to film four tableaus of the bottle in different environments, including one on an airplane. “You’d start from scratch and [Fincher] would spend five hours and 57 minutes dressing the fuselage, dressing the background, moving the background around, putting the bottle right in place, finessing the light so it felt like you were in flight, the right amount of spritz on the bottle, the right amount of napkin,” says Kahn. “Every aspect of every aspect was considered and perfected. Then he would roll the camera for three minutes, and that was lunch and that one was done. It was an amazing thing to watch because you see a blank frame and then you see him paint, basically.”

But trying to realize the vision of one man—and a man as doggedly obsessive as David Fincher—could be a double-edged sword, especially when the director moved back to filmmaking. Shortly after production began on 1995’s Se7en, “I had one of those moments where I looked around and I appreciated where I was,” says Kahn. Fincher had often admitted to Kahn how badly he wanted another chance to make a movie. “I went up to Fincher and I said, ‘Look at this! Look! It’s here! We’re here! You did it! We’re shooting a movie! There’s Morgan Freeman. There Brad [Pitt]. There’s Kevin Spacey. … Isn’t this amazing? Isn’t this wonderful? This is what you wanted.’ And he looked at me as though I were from outer space and said, ‘No, it’s awful.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Why is it awful?’ And he said, and I mean sincerely, ‘Because now I have to get what’s in my head out of all you cretins.’” Early in his career, Fincher already knew that no matter how an entire film unspooled in his brain, actually turning it into a reality would require him to make an endless amount of compromises, most of which only he would perceive. But that hasn’t stopped him from fighting his way toward his version of a flawless end product.

Throughout Fincher’s 40-year career, from his time as a teenage production assistant in Marin County to his upcoming 11th feature, Mank, he’s established himself as one of his generation’s most talented, and most emulated, filmmakers. He’s also become notorious for his singular style of making films. He’s gained a reputation as a demanding director who is never satisfied and doesn’t suffer fools, and seems to have little interest in being likable. But of course the full story is more complicated. During interviews with more than a dozen cast and crew members—ranging from those who have worked with him consistently since his earliest days as a director, to those who were part of a single project—he was called “exacting,” “razor-sharp focused,” “intense,” “tough,” “extremely observant,” “very articulate,” and “relentless.” Some also admitted that “there are times he can be a dick,” that he was “difficult,” “condescending,” and “a bit of a bully.” But he was also described as “very self-depreciating,” “so witty,” “fucking hilarious,” “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” “very generous,” and “my dearest, dearest friend.”

Nobody says making a Fincher film is easy. Most say it’s worth it.

Alamy Stock Photo David Fincher on the set of The Game (1997)


David Fincher was born in Denver, but his family came to the Northern California town of San Anselmo during the mid-1960s, when he was a young child. George Lucas—who soon moved onto Fincher’s street—shot THX 1138 and American Graffiti nearby, while directors Francis Ford Coppola, Philip Kaufman, and Michael Ritchie also lived in the area. His family relocated to Ashland, Oregon, when he was in high school, but Fincher came back to the region after graduating. Though he already knew he wanted to be a director, instead of enrolling in film school he took a PA job at the small independent studio Korty Films and then got a low-level position at Lucas’s visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic. “The culture was already, ‘We’re not in Hollywood anymore, we are trying things differently,’” says Eric Dachs, who was raised in the Bay Area a couple decades later and worked as an assistant sound designer on Panic Room. “My sense is that [Fincher] was already naturally predisposed to that way of working anyway, which is, ‘I don’t care what the other approach is, I have my way I’m going to do this, and I have a high degree of conviction in it.’”

During the early 1980s, Fincher moved to Los Angeles, where he embraced music videos and proved himself to be a standout with his innovative-at-the-time clips for Rick Springfield and the Motels. In 1986, he became one of the founding partners in the production company Propaganda Films. Celebrated for their cutting-edge work and a roster that would grow to include upstarts like Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, and Antoine Fuqua by the 1990s, Fincher remained Propaganda’s top talent. “You could tell all the little directors were in awe of him, most of the producers were scared to death of him,” says Kevin Tod Haug, who would become the visual effects supervisor on Fincher’s films The Game, Fight Club, and Panic Room.

After directing ad campaigns for Nike and classic videos including Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun,” and George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90,” 20th Century Fox offered Fincher the third Alien film when he was 27 years old. With a reported budget of $50 million, it was the most expensive movie ever given to someone so young. The studio had already sunk millions into screenplay development and sets, and had lost their original choice for a director, Vincent Ward. Production began without a finished script and a crew that Fincher largely hadn’t used before, and whose loyalties he questioned. It was a legendarily contentious process that went over schedule and over budget, and found Fincher constantly clashing with the studio.

As he rebuilt his career through more music videos and commercials after the debacle of Alien 3, Fincher began leaning more on young, ambitious crew members from the Propaganda sphere. Just out of college, Angus Wall managed the production company’s archive when Fincher tapped him to cut three spots for Nike’s Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood campaign after his usual editor, James Haygood, had a family emergency. The first time Wall worked on a Fincher movie was editing the unsettling title sequence for Se7en. Seventeen years later, he won back-to-back Best Film Editing Academy Awards for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “Sometimes in a craft you can become the collection of your tricks. When you become a collection of your tricks, you’re dead, you’re kind of over from a developmental, creative standpoint,” says Wall. “So I think he always liked working with people who may not have known what the fuck they were doing all the time, or even some of time, but were willing to learn and listen and work really hard.”

Laray Mayfield met Fincher on her first day in Los Angeles when he was 22 years old. At the time she was dating the director David Hogan and had come out from Nashville to visit him. When Propaganda started, they hired her to set up the rented office space and she soon became Fincher’s assistant. He eventually encouraged Mayfield to start a casting agency for commercials and music videos, since that had been part of her responsibilities for him and was something she excelled at. Though she turned down his offers to work on his first three movies for various reasons, she took the position as casting director on Fight Club, a huge leap for her career. Incredulous film industry veterans she had to deal with would ask her who she was and how she got the job. “It was horrifying and horrible most of the time because I was like, Oh my God, I can’t quit, because that would be very disappointing to Dave. I don’t want to get fired, because that would be humiliating to me. So we’re on Hollywood Boulevard, maybe I should just go throw myself in front of a bus. If I got hurt, that would be OK,” says Mayfield. “I overcame the urge to do that on a daily basis.” She’s now been the casting director on every Fincher project since Fight Club, helping elevate the careers of actors including Rooney Mara, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, and Taraji P. Henson. She’s also expanded her circle of clients, including casting the recently released Antebellum, Spring Breakers, and all of Netflix’s Marvel series.

Fincher came to rely on Ceán Chaffin, his producer and longtime partner, to find talent for his crews from within the Propaganda orbit. Though Fincher already had a harsh reputation, nobody turned down the invitation to be a part of his circle. “Those were the cool kids,” says Haug, who had worked on Romanek’s videos for Madonna’s “Bedtime Stories” and “Scream” by Michael and Janet Jackson before being tapped for The Game. “When Ceán asked me to come work on a movie with Fincher, there was no question that was the right thing to do, no matter how difficult it was going to be. If you were that timid, you weren’t at Propaganda to start with. You leaped in with both feet.”

Alamy Stock Photo David Fincher on the set of Panic Room (2002)


Following his experience on Alien 3, Fincher never made another film without first constructing an intricate understanding of what he wanted it to be. While some directors make movies fueled by spontaneity, Fincher fixates on precision. “We used to call him the Watchmaker, because everything had to fit together perfectly,” says Patrick Fugit, the actor best known for starring in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, who later portrayed Officer James Gilpin in Gone Girl.

When working on a movie, a director is forced to answer hundreds of questions and make hundreds of choices each day. While these demands can be paralyzing for some, Fincher seems particularly equipped for it, because he clearly knows what he wants. “David is nothing but decisive,” says Arthur Max, a veteran of Ridley Scott projects for more than 20 years who was the production designer on Se7en and Panic Room. “You know exactly where you stand with him. He either improves and embellishes or wants more. Or he’ll just kick it down the stairs.”

From the start of a film, Fincher establishes his parameters with his crew, and then he puts it on them to execute those ideas. “He sets up certain rules of the game, and you have to stay within those rules or you get a red card or a yellow card for going out of bounds,” says Max. “And that goes for everybody in the crew. It has to do with the power of the movie and the atmosphere. In Se7en he described it very succinctly: ‘This is a world that’s fucked up and nothing works.’

“Everything had to have a patina of neglect in every aspect, and I loved that,” he continues. “You almost wear a designer’s whistle and if somebody did something that was too bright—a red or too rich a green—you blow the whistle and say, ‘Yellow that down and make it gloomier and put some more floor wax on it.’”

Casey Storm came up through the rambunctious world of Jonze’s music videos and films before Fincher hired him as the costume designer on Zodiac. For a relatively short sequence in the film set during a screening of Dirty Harry for members of the San Francisco Police Department, Storm dressed 600 extras in period clothes down to their shoes, even though most of them would be filmed only from the waist up. Yet time and budget were never an issue, unlike on many other sets. “[Fincher] and the producers would give you enough leash to do what you wanted, but also enough leash to hang yourself,” he says. “They gave you everything you asked for so there was no excuse to not have everything be exactly right. I got that pressure working there, but it never felt like a burden. It felt like an inspiration to live up to.”

Fincher hates inefficiency and distractions on his sets. Filmmaking to him isn’t a glamorous job, or a particularly fun one. All energy at all times should be focused on doing the best job possible. “We’re here to do work and we’re here to do something special, and we have the opportunity to do that,” says Bob Wagner, who has worked as a first assistant director or second assistant director on six of Fincher’s films. “If it’s about the paycheck, if it’s about the wrap party, if it’s about the crew gift, you know what? Eff off. That’s Fincher’s approach, and I agree with that.”

Getty Images David Fincher on the set of Fight Club (1999)


While Fincher’s indefatigable pursuit appeals to some, Haug says it has its limitations. “Directors break into these two categories; the polite way to put it is the connoisseurs and the visionaries,” he says. “In my head, they’re shoppers and miserable fucks. Honestly, visionaries see this thing and they can never get it out of their head and onto the screen. They’re just frustrated as hell all the time because they are not getting what they want. The shopper types, the connoisseur guys, if they have good taste, it’s much more fun to work with them, because you learn what their taste is and you can give it to them. They’re happy, you’re happy, everybody goes away happy. Fincher was never happy with anything he did.”

As Fincher himself put it during a 2014 interview with Playboy, “If you didn’t get hugged enough as a kid, you won’t find what you’re looking for from me. That’s not my gig and I’m not attuned to it.” Instead, Kahn says, if you’re looking for encouragement or praise from Fincher, you learn to recognize it in other ways: “If you know him, you can look him in his eye and know that he’s pleased, and that’s enough.”

That said, unlike some directors (and film producers and agents and executives, and so on), Fincher doesn’t take out his frustrations on production assistants and runners simply because he can get away with doling out abuse to low-level workers. His most famous battles have come with the people at the studios who fund and distribute his movies. “The further up the food chain you are, the harder you get the truth,” says Wall. “So if you’re a film exec and you’re working with him, he’s going to savage you because people up the food chain are making more money, they have more responsibility, and they should carry that. I never saw him speak badly to someone who was below him who was carrying their weight.”

As he’s aged, Fincher’s sets have become less combustible. He’s no less determined, but he’s learned some restraint. “He’s got a normal maturity pattern,” says Peter Mavromates, who has been the postproduction supervisor on six of Fincher’s films, as well as a coproducer on House of Cards and Mindhunter. “He probably had a reputation as being hard on the set, and in that respect I think he’s mellowed and is more confident and calmer about stuff. I think the thing that was true then and is true today is that he is relentless in wanting to improve everything to the very, very last second that he can.”

For Fincher, there’s nothing about filmmaking that can’t or shouldn’t be fixed to address the needs of the director. The industry’s accepted, outdated conventions have always bothered him because of how they impede his process and waste time. During the making of 2002’s Panic Room, Eric Dachs was working under Ren Klyce, the sound designer who has the longest history with Fincher out of anybody from his crews. “We had gone to record some effects on the set when they were still shooting,” says Dachs. “My interaction with [Fincher] at that point was to just to shut the fuck up and stay in the corner and not get in the way and sort of watch him from afar.”

Since the different sound department teams were spread around the country in different offices, they had to rely on an already arcane faxing system to make sure each group was up to date with the latest notes. Dachs wrote a rudimentary software program so they could stay in sync with each other electronically. After Klyce told Fincher about the prototype, the director checked it out for a couple minutes during a break as he worked on the film’s sound mix. Fincher didn’t say much and Dachs figured he’d blown his opportunity to impress him. A few months later, Fincher summoned Dachs to Los Angeles to talk about his program and how it could be used to dispense his directions more efficiently. “He does have a brain where when somebody shows them a new process—like they pull a widget maker out of a box and then there’s a manual for the widget maker and it tells you what the widget maker does and how it makes it—he goes to that demo and understands what’s in that manual,” says Mavromates. “When he walks away, he’s got 30 different things in his head to do with that widget maker that the manufacturer did not intend.”

Dachs soon launched PIX System, which has become a secure way for productions to internally share media. Following Fincher’s early adoption of PIX on Zodiac and his continued in-depth consultations with the company to improve their products, its use has spread among filmmakers and studios. In 2019, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences gave PIX Studios a Technical Achievement Award. “David has always been the guy who got it before everybody else,” Dachs says. “[He] could see down the road of what this could do for not only his own process, but what those who adopt a similar methodology could do for the industry.”

But there are still limitations to how much control a director can exert over a movie. At least for now, you still need humans, not just computers and robots. When making Panic Room, Fincher built an entire five-story Upper West Side townhouse with a functioning elevator on a soundstage in California’s Manhattan Beach. Before production began, he shot and edited a previsualization—a technique usually reserved for complex action sequences—of the entire film. He conceived Panic Room more like a mathematical equation, or an animated film with real-life actors and real-life crew members. And then the real-life problems mounted. Nicole Kidman, the film’s star, dropped out because of a knee injury. She was replaced by Jodie Foster, whose pregnancy had to be hidden during filming. He fired Darius Khondji, his cinematographer who shot Se7en, in the middle of filming. Being stuck on the same set day after day became emotionally oppressive. “It just started getting on you,” says Wagner. “I think more people can relate to that now with this whole quarantine thing. It was a quarantine of a movie.” Fincher hasn’t made a film since then that’s felt as cold or claustrophobic.

David Fincher on the set of Alien 3 (1992) Corbis via Getty Images


The most common refrain about Fincher is that he thinks he can do any crew member’s job better than them, and that in reality, he probably could. Similar descriptions have been made about individuals ranging from James Cameron to President Obama. But Haug pushes back on this assessment, explaining that Fincher wants his team to be his “power steering,” not his Replicants. “It’s not so much he believes he can do everything, it’s more that unless he can’t imagine doing it as well as you are, he can’t imagine why you should be there,” he says. “If he can imagine he can do the job as good as you are doing, what the fuck are you doing there?” This is part of the reason why Fincher likes postproduction more than filming. The team is much smaller, about 15 people rather than 300—which means he’s less likely to encounter someone he thinks can’t hack it.

In 2003, young screenwriter James Vanderbilt had three of his scripts get made into films: Darkness Falls, Basic, and The Rundown. In meetings with agents and development executives, he’d tell them that his dream project was to adapt Robert Graysmith’s investigation Zodiac, which he read while in high school. After Disney gave up its rights after years in development, Phoenix Pictures optioned it so Vanderbilt could write a script based on the book and its follow-up, Zodiac Unmasked, as well as interviews he conducted with the author. They sent it to Fincher, but figured he probably wouldn’t want to do another serial killer movie. They didn’t know that Fincher had grown up in the area when the Zodiac Killer taunted the police and Northern California newspapers and threatened to shoot up school buses full of children, so they were surprised when the director expressed interest. He may have also been drawn to the movie because it’s really about obsession. Still, Vanderbilt doubted that it would make it to production with him. “[Fincher] dates a lot, but he doesn’t get married very often,” he says, alluding to the long list of movies and TV shows the director has been attached to but never made. Fincher, though, went all in on Zodiac, telling Vanderbilt that they should approach it like journalists. They immersed themselves in the history for a year and a half before they returned to the screenplay. “No one told us to stop, so we just didn’t,” says Vanderbilt.

George Drakoulias, the film’s music supervisor, remembers visiting Fincher’s office when Zodiac was in preproduction. “The whole bottom floor was just research: books and evidence, transcripts, documents, photographs,” he says. “It was a little frightening, especially given the subject and how deep he had gone into the research.”

Graysmith used some pseudonyms in his book, since he implicated individuals as being possible murderers, but Fincher was determined to use only real names, which meant verifying everything with at least two sources. Vanderbilt and Fincher would travel to San Francisco and spend days talking with the cops who’d worked the case when it happened, those who had taken it up in later years, and the two survivors of the killer’s attacks. The shooting script swelled to 202 pages, the depiction of Graysmith shifted, they introduced uncertainties about Zodiac’s criminal capabilities, and Fincher encouraged Vanderbilt to abandon contrived plot conventions like Jake Gyllenhaal’s and Mark Ruffalo’s characters meeting early in the film. “I had had three movies made at this point,” says Vanderbilt. “One was about a killer tooth fairy, one was a John Travolta–Samuel L. Jackson movie that I describe as ‘the one they did together that wasn’t Pulp Fiction,’ and one was The Rundown, which I love, but is the Rock’s second action movie. Doing a serial-killer procedural with David Fincher was a very different world to be in.”

Major studio features often bring on at least one new screenwriter for a pass at the script before a film is made, and at the time Fincher even shared office space with Andrew Kevin Walker, the screenwriter of Se7en. Vanderbilt felt like he kept seeing the man who would eventually take his job walk by, but he remained the sole author on Zodiac until the end. “David just expects everyone to be good at their job,” he says. “He wanted me to be the writer. He wasn’t the guy who wanted to come in and tell you how he wanted the scene. He wanted you to go figure out the scene. If he felt it didn’t work, he’d tell you he felt it didn’t work and he’d give you a suggestion. I’ve worked with directors who want to rewrite the script themselves through you, but don’t know how to. This wasn’t that process at all.”

Fincher is known for being particularly hard on his camera and lighting departments, even to the point of talking to an operator through a camera move step-by-step during filming if it’s not being executed perfectly. In other areas, he’s more likely to take advice or accept recommendations. When Drakoulias was helping him select the music for Zodiac, his film with the most jukebox-y soundtrack, Fincher knew he wanted to use Donovan’s eerie 1968 single “Hurdy Gurdy Man” for the first murder. He temporarily included “All Is Loneliness” by Janis Joplin’s group Big Brother & The Holding Company for the movie’s opening sequence as fireworks exploded over the town of Vallejo. “It was kind of a dark, creepy, weird thing,” says Drakoulias. “I was like, ‘You’re going to see these two kids get murdered in a few minutes and everybody’s tense coming into the theater as it is because of the subject matter.’ I thought we should maybe try and misdirect them or at least let the audience settle in.” Fincher conceded and took Drakoulias’s suggestion of Three Dog Night’s more melancholy “Easy to Be Hard.”

When New Line Cinema’s Robert Shaye introduced Fincher to Howard Shore to score his film Se7en, the composer already had done Silence of the Lambs and worked with director David Cronenberg, but he hadn’t won his three Academy Awards for his work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy yet. Fincher would go on to use him again on both The Game and Panic Room. Shore recalls their interactions as incredibly straightforward, almost classical in their arrangement. “He was very generous, very egalitarian with me. Very open to everything I was doing,” says the now 73-year-old. “He would come to the sessions, he would watch everything and listen to everything. At the end of the day he would shake hands, say thank you, and go home.”

Even when Fincher does exert his incredible command over all the micro elements that make up a film, he can still struggle with its larger, macro issues. Douglas Urbanski—Gary Oldman’s producing partner, an occasional conservative talk show host, and a gregarious raconteur—has known Fincher for years. (He says that in the early ’90s, Oldman and Phil Joanou, a director Urbanski was managing at the time, were offered Se7en. They unanimously turned it down because the script was so grim.) Urbanski is a producer on the upcoming Mank, but a decade ago, Fincher had him play Harvard University president Larry Summers in The Social Network. Before the cast was finalized, Urbanski took part in a table read of Aaron Sorkin’s script. “I remember David following me to my car and he said, ‘Do you think anybody will want to make this movie or want to see this movie?’” says Urbanski. “A few weeks into the shooting of it, David was on the East Coast. I wrote him an email. I said, ‘How’s it going?’ And he wrote me back an email that said, in essence, ‘I’m not sure what movie I’m making.’”

While Fincher’s filmography has been characterized as distant, dark, a little perverted, hyper-stylized, special-effects driven, and fixated on death, Urbanski believes that the director deserves more credit for the chances he takes. Mank is the latest departure for Fincher. The film about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the dyspeptic screenwriter of Citizen Kane, was shot in black and white in the style of movies from the 1930s and comes from a script that Fincher commissioned his journalist father, Jack, to write before his death in 2003. “David goes out on a diving board over the Grand Canyon,” Urbanski says. “He plays in a really, really dangerous area, meaning he goes outside of his comfort zone, outside of his skill set.”

Columbia TriStar Marketing Group David Fincher on set of The Social Network (2010)


Fincher is probably most infamous for the amount of takes he shoots of each setup. While directors usually average fewer than 10 takes, but may get up to around 15, Fincher operates in a range between 25 and 65. There are times when he goes over 100. Asking the stars of his films about the amount of takes he required of them has now become a standard question from journalists. In a recent interview with Collider, Amanda Seyfried estimated that for one scene in Mank she did 200 takes.

Such demands can be rough on actors. After filming Zodiac, Jake Gyllenhaal was open about his frustrations with Fincher’s style and Robert Downey Jr. (maybe) joked to The New York Times, “I just decided, aside from several times I wanted to garrote him, that I was going to give him what he wanted. I think I’m a perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags.”

While part of the reasoning behind Fincher’s approach is to strip away the performance in each actor’s performance in order to reach something more genuine, it’s not always about them. He might need another take becomes he’s fixated on something like an askew strand of hair, a distracting extra, a problem with a special effect, or some other technical problem. In a 2006 Fight Club retrospective piece for Total Film, Helena Bonham Carter quipped, “As long as the camera’s moving, don’t even start acting until take twelve!”

While Fincher’s number of takes may dwarf those of other directors, he’s often able to accomplish them in the same amount of time because of the complete control and lack of distraction he needs on his sets. “The thing that happens on a normal production is that as soon as the assistant director yells ‘Cut!’ chaos erupts on set,” says Will Dearborn, a camera operator on Mank and the second season of Mindhunter. “People are resetting props and people start their conversations back up and there’s all this blither-blather. The amount of time in between takes is more than the time that you’re actually shooting. That becomes a real impediment for someone like David, who relies upon being able to evolve the shot or the concept or whatever he’s trying to get from that performance. Every single take he’s pushing the ball further down the field. He needs to get that number of takes because he can only push it a little bit each time. And he’s very patient about it.”

Wall says that in the end, he didn’t always use the final take of the day while putting together Fincher’s films, but he did have to devise a special system that’s been passed on to subsequent editors “that allowed me to sleep at night knowing that I had a mechanism in place so I knew I was getting all the best stuff.” Editors typically look at all the takes of a scene in chronological order from first to last before selecting the best one. Wall would instead look at the starred take, Fincher’s favorite from the day of shooting, and then use that as the gauge against all the other takes. Next he would look at all of Fincher’s circled takes in descending chronological order, then all the other takes from last to first. But not only does Fincher shoot many takes, he shoots long ones, so Wall would often have to break up a scene into separate beats and order them with his system, then pick the best one from each subsection. “You may take a line from take 38, you may take a line from take 13, you may take a line from take 17, and you put the scene together with the best performances and camera work from the body of media you’re pulling from,” says Wall. Fincher shot the five-minute, verbally acrobatic opening scene of The Social Network, in which Mark Zuckerberg gets dumped, in a procession of single takes. It took Wall three weeks to edit it into a masterpiece.

Despite his reputation and what he requires of actors, Mayfield says they’re never at a loss for people who want to work with him. Most are open to the challenge. “He’s very much an actor’s director,” she says. Reflecting on his time making Gone Girl, Fugit says, “I knew David as a very collaborative, a very sensitive observer. By ‘sensitive’ I mean his sensors are very attuned to any subtle shifts that you make in your contribution.”

Despite all of Fincher’s technical prowess, on set he gets along better with the cast than the crew. But that doesn’t mean he’ll coddle his actors, no matter how famous they are. “On mine and Kim Dickinson’s first day, we realized that overshooting or undershooting our marks was not going to be acceptable,” says Fugit. “Some actors are like, ‘Fuck your marks, I’ll do whatever I want,’ but that’s obviously not the case when we’re dealing with film and composition, and David Fincher is very specific about composition.”

But Fugit adds that Gone Girl was one of the funniest sets he’d ever been on. In between takes, Fincher would always have some dry joke to crack. It kept the mood jovial since they knew they’d have to be there for a while. As Urbanski says of performing in The Social Network, “I had more fun on those scenes than I’d probably have had riding my Jet Ski around Barbados.”

During an interview with Film Comment in 1999, Fincher called directing “a masochistic endeavor.” Still, he keeps making movies. Maybe it’s the collective pain that brings his crew together. “You’re so challenged and obsessed with the challenges he’s giving you, you kind of become numb to how unpleasant it can be,” says Dearborn.

Others see Fincher’s approach as an inspiration. “The main thing that I took away from him was that I’ve always had OCD traits,” says Storm. “On Zodiac, I think it was the first time that I was able to acknowledge that those OCD traits, while they might be kind of debilitating in some aspects of my life, in my work life they are a huge asset. They make me really good at that job. The obsession and the eye for detail, recognizing it in him and recognizing it in myself made me excited rather than challenged.” Storm is a director now, specializing in bizarre, comedic commercials. He admits that if a shot doesn’t feel right to him, he’ll keep filming takes long after the ad agency and client are happy.

Recently, the legend of the uncompromising genius has started to lose its luster in our society. We’ve begun to question whether the single-minded pursuit of excellence is worth all the collateral misery and self-doubt. Can greatness be achieved without making the people around you suffer? At the same time, no matter what level of difficulty a Fincher production presents, almost everyone who’s worked with him is quick to acknowledge that he’s brought the best out of them, and that having credits on his films has burnished their careers. Though that doesn’t mean they’re all clamoring to sign up for another turn. As Haug says, “He’s a great school to have graduated from.”