For those who believed that David Fincher’s previous movie, Mank, marked the start of a more sophisticated phase in his career, his latest work may come as a surprise. While Mank focused on the creation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and was a lavish and well-received tribute to old Hollywood (it received 10 Oscar nominations and won two), his new film, The Killer, is a gritty and violent hitman story based on a comic book. Fincher proudly declares, “I will always embrace my 12-year-old self and carry it with me throughout my filmmaking journey. I am not looking to become a more mature filmmaker.”
Instead of maturing, it seems that Fincher is enjoying himself – though in a very controlled, Fincher-esque manner. He appears to be in a laid-back state when we meet at a hotel in London. He looks well and is filled with cleverness and vigor, almost as if this is not the millionth interview he has conducted in his four-decade long career.
Despite being highly acclaimed and unique in the film industry, Fincher does not like to be labeled as an “auteur” or an artist. He rejects the idea that directors simply give instructions and then retreat to their trailers, and instead compares the process to puppeteering, childcare, and construction work. It involves a lot more physical work than people may realize.
However, when discussing The Killer, he states: “I didn’t want to approach it too seriously.” He characterizes the movie as similar to a well-made B-movie: streamlined, captivating, and unexpectedly humorous despite its intense action scenes. Michael Fassbender’s character, a lone assassin, is almost comical in his meticulousness, from his determinedly un-Bond wardrobe (“like a German tourist”) to his reusable collapsible cup for work assignments, to his chosen songs by The Smiths. But when his carefully laid out plans derail, he is forced to break his own rule of “anticipate, don’t improvise.”
Could we possibly be witnessing a hint of Fincher’s personal style in this film? He is known for his meticulous approach to filmmaking, often spending a lot of time on each shot and filming numerous takes, sometimes up to 100. In an interview, Fincher acknowledges similarities between his own methods and those of the protagonist in the film. He values technical precision and pays great attention to detail, which he finds interesting to observe in others. Fincher was even involved in the fine details of the subtitles, questioning the use of the word “chirping” and suggesting “birds chirp” instead. His goal was to create a sense of immediacy and subjectivity, allowing the audience to see the world through the protagonist’s perspective.
Was his strict policy of doing multiple takes slightly relaxed for this movie? “No,” he responds. “I have a professional standard and cannot deviate from it. I believe that the time spent in front of the camera with the actors is the most important aspect of our work. Everything else is irrelevant.”
He has high praise for Tilda Swinton, who had a difficult night-time scene in the snow. “We had to shoot that scene about 26 times,” he recalls. “It was quite complex. But she was so committed. It was freezing cold, probably around -15 degrees. She had warming packets in her pockets and looked like the Michelin man.”
Fassbender has shifted his focus from acting to his “first love”: motor racing. He has participated in the 24-hour Le Mans race for the past two years. Fincher approached him at a fortuitous time, as Fassbender had recently viewed Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 suspense film, Le Samouraï. Alain Delon’s calculated assassin character clearly influenced The Killer. According to Fincher, Fassbender expressed to his agent, “We should do something like that.” It appears that Fassbender was well-suited for the role. “We’re discussing someone who is precise and also able to connect emotionally,” he explains.
Director Fincher understands that the concept of highly skilled assassins taking out targets with long-range sniper rifles and effortlessly escaping is unrealistic. The Killer was based on a French graphic novel series written by Alexis “Matz” Nolent. Fincher explains, “We were creating a version of reality that exists beyond the typical, everyday world.” However, he was intrigued by the idea of individuals utilizing technology to remain disconnected and isolated from society. The main character, played by Michael Fassbender, takes advantage of digital advancements that allow us to conduct daily activities without interacting with others, such as shopping, eating, traveling, and banking. Yet, there was also an element of pure entertainment that attracted Fincher to the story. He elaborates, “I was drawn to the assassin as a means of creating tension and suspense.”
When he was a kid, he enjoyed reading comic books, but mostly he read American Cinematographer when he was 10 years old. This was during the 1970s, before the 1980s when there was a resurgence in comics thanks to writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Fincher notes that when Frank Miller was revamping Batman, he had already relocated to Hollywood.
In 1999, he presented his idea for a Spider-Man movie. Fincher’s version omitted the “bitten by a radioactive spider” element and instead focused on an adult Peter Parker. He recalls with amusement that the studio was not interested in his concept. They questioned why he would want to change the origin story, to which he responded, “Because it’s silly.” While the origin story holds significance for many, he personally found it unappealing. The project ultimately went to Sam Raimi.
Fincher’s career has always wavered between highbrow and pulpy. He didn’t go to film school, instead cutting his teeth in music videos, for Madonna (Vogue, Express Yourself), George Michael (Freedom! ’90) and Nine Inch Nails (whose members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have been regular Fincher collaborators since 2010’s The Social Network and got an Oscar nod for the Mank score). It gave Fincher his technical knowhow and eye for an arresting image.
After moving into feature films, his decisions have become unexpected. He often reminds me of this, saying, “How do you go from Fight Club to Panic Room?” Or, in other instances, the unsuccessful Alien 3 and the brilliantly dark Seven, or the trendy tech drama The Social Network and an unnecessary remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He seems to purposely reject the “auteur” title with his inconsistent choices.
“I struggle with that,” he admits. “Partly because a) I am not invested in it. But b) When I was creating Fight Club, critics were questioning my choices. Now, with projects like The Killer, they wonder why I am not following the same style as my previous, more significant films. It’s a lose-lose situation for me.”
However, there are certain recurring motifs in his writing, including troubled white men who feel like outcasts. These characters are frequently portrayed as violent (as seen in The Killer and Fight Club), or actively reject societal norms (Mank, The Social Network), and occasionally take on roles as serial killers (Seven, Zodiac, and the Netflix show Mindhunter).
“I truly believe that even the high school quarterback who is dating the homecoming queen cheerleader sees himself as an outsider. Who doesn’t feel like an outsider at some point?” he states. “This is where Tim Burton and I differ. Burton sees Edward Scissorhands as a rare exception, but for me, it’s relatable to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.”
The movie Fight Club holds a significant place in modern ideas of masculinity. Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, it discusses the feelings of boredom, impending irrelevance, and self-pity among white American men, and may have even influenced cultural trends. As Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, says to his followers: “I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential and I see it being wasted…a whole generation stuck in low-level jobs, enslaved by their white-collar jobs. Advertising makes us chase after material possessions we don’t truly need by working jobs we despise.”
The book Fight Club gained significance among a group of unhappy Caucasian males known as the “manosphere,” including “incels,” neo-Nazi workout groups, the Proud Boys (previously labeled as an “alt-right” fight club by the Southern Poverty Law Center), and men who openly advocate for misogyny and male superiority, such as Andrew Tate.
Fincher states that he cannot control how people interpret things. He explains that the current reception of Fight Club by the aggrieved manosphere is different from its initial box office flop in 1999 or its popularity on college campuses through DVD distribution. He acknowledges that language and symbols change over time. However, I mention that it has become a reference point for the far right. Fincher responds with slight frustration, saying it is just one of many terms used in their vocabulary.
What is his opinion on this matter? “Although we did not create it specifically for them, individuals may interpret it as they wish, much like viewing a Norman Rockwell piece or Picasso’s Guernica.”
He suggests that it could be a matter of perspective, but Fight Club clearly tapped into the theme of resentful and disempowered masculinity, right? He believes that it’s hard to believe that some people don’t see Tyler Durden as a negative influence. He doesn’t know how to respond or help those who can’t understand this.
Reworded: Fincher seems to have a preference for strong-willed, individualistic characters, particularly men, but also occasionally women, like in Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This aligns with his tendency to challenge and rebel against various systems. In 2011, Fincher made a significant move away from mainstream Hollywood by creating the first original content for a DVD subscription service called Netflix. This decision ultimately led to the groundbreaking success of House of Cards, which set the standard for the surge of streaming content with its renowned cast, high-quality production, and binge-watching release strategy. As a result, streaming has gained popularity while mid-budget Hollywood productions have suffered. Did Fincher anticipate this shift?
He was in the process of recuperating from the disappointment of Zodiac’s box office performance when he shared, “Zodiac doesn’t have a lot of plot; it’s more focused on the characters. After seeing it, I realized that asking an audience to sit through a three-hour movie about people may have been too much.” He began exploring scripts for limited series, specifically on HBO. In other words, shows consisting of 10 to 12 episodes instead of the traditional 20 to 30. He reflected, “I started to see it as an intriguing opportunity to work in a different setting.”
Netflix granted him the opportunity to take creative control, metaphorically speaking. He produced six seasons of House of Cards and then went on to work on two seasons of Mindhunter, a series about an FBI agent tracking a serial killer (Fincher served as an executive producer and directed seven episodes). Both Mank and The Killer were also projects for Netflix. Fincher is also involved in producing other content for the streaming platform, such as his adult animation anthology Love, Death & Robots.
Is he feeling responsible for the decline of cinema?
He chuckles. “No, not at all. I believe, at the very least, that what we have achieved is lowering the barrier between a movie plot and a longer-term commitment.”
He maintains that he is not a rebellious outsider, fighting against the establishment: “There is a lot of talk about me being a troublemaker within the system, but I have never approached my work with the mentality of creating something in defiance of those who are funding it.”
What is Fincher’s next project? The source material for The Killer spans 15 volumes, leaving the potential for a sequel or even a franchise. Fincher responds, “One would assume so.” However, he has stopped attempting to anticipate public demand. If any of his films were to receive a second installment, it would likely be The Social Network, considering all that has transpired with Zuckerberg, Facebook, and Meta. Fincher’s answer is elusive: “Aaron [Sorkin, the screenwriter] and I have discussed it, but…that’s a complex topic.”
He may have an idea of his plans, but he is keeping it to himself. However, there is a chance that he has no clue. He admits, “I am never sure of my destination and I enjoy being uncertain.”