David Fincher’s Impact on Audiences as Auteur and Director of Modern-Day Film Noir

Paper by Andrea Dehnke. Viewed on DVD.

David Fincher may not be a very well-known name, but he is the director behind some very well-known modern-day movies, some of which include Fight Club (1999), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The Social Network (2010), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). His dark style of filmmaking, both literally and thematically, permeates all of his cinematic works, as does his attention to detail. It is a combination of this dark style—known as film noir—and his directorial involvement as an auteur that so powerfully impacts viewers. Many audience members are so disturbed or unsettled by some of Fincher’s movies, that they interpret messages that were never there, or believe they’ve seen physical images that were never shown. This effect of getting into the viewer’s head and making such a strong impression is a personal goal of Fincher’s, and one that perhaps more directors should strive to achieve.

Fincher’s directorial style in all of his feature films can undoubtedly be described as film noir. The term itself translates to “black film” or dark cinema, and “was originally coined by French critics in 1946 to describe a series of cynical, atmospheric crime films produced in Hollywood during World War II that were noted for their brooding, distinctively shadowy visual style” (Biesen 89). Philip Kemp describes Fincher’s style as follows:
David Fincher is a devotee of darkness. Scene after scene in his films takes place in cramped, sparsely lit rooms where malignancy seems to hang in the air like ineradicable damp. For the shadows that pervade his films are moral and psychological no less than physical. Using darkness as a metaphor for evil and danger is hardly original—it is the entire basis of film noir, for a start—but Fincher brings to the banal equation a degree of emotional intensity that reinvigorates it. The darkness in his films is organic, the element in which his characters swim.

In all three of the films I will be discussing—Se7en (1995), Fight Club, and Zodiac (2007)—Fincher’s style of film noir is clearly evident. All three are literally and thematically darkened, either in the scene itself or in the underexposure of the film. Considering literal darkness first, in Se7en and Fight Club especially, the majority of scenes take place at nighttime, in the rain, or inside where the lights are dim, faulty, or completely broken. In an interview with The Guardian, Fincher talks about how this sort of darkness not only reflects the overall mood of Se7en, but also adds a realistic feel to it; “I thought it worked well; it could have been a little darker for me. But I just don’t like it in movies, when people are wandering around with flashlights, that you can see everything behind them” (Salisbury). For David Fincher, if the only light available in the scene is a flashlight, he wants the lighting of the room to reflect exactly that. For Fight Club, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth notes the choice of “heavily desaturated [sic] colors in all of the costuming, makeup and art direction” (Probst 1). In the DVD commentary version of the movie, Fincher mentions how certain scenes were darkened further to show the actor’s eyes less. Even when scenes were filmed during daylight, “the frame was often weighted with deeply shadowed areas” (3). In Zodiac, the dark lighting in the film was far less evident, but many dramatic scenes still occurred at night. In the first scene, it’s nighttime, before the Zodiac claims his first two victims, and a young couple is watching his Mustang from the safety of their own vehicle. As the two are turned around in their seats, fearfully waiting to see what the Zodiac will do, the top halves of their faces are obscured in shadow, adding to the suspense and impending violence.

As for Fincher’s thematic use of film noir in his movies, Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac all share similar themes of murder and violence. These similarities are very clear between Se7en and Zodiac; both movies center around two (although, briefly in Zodiac, the focus is on three) characters who are trying to catch a clue-dropping murderer. Both protagonists in the films are obsessed with catching the man, and in the end neither criminal is brought to justice. Fincher’s dramatic impact on audiences with his use of film noir goes so far as to make people think things were there that never were. For instance, Fincher states that many people insisted they saw more in Se7en than they really did:
I almost had a fist-fight with a woman at a Beverly Hills cocktail party because she said, “There is no need to make a stand in of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head to find in the box. You don’t need to see that.” And I said, “Well, we didn’t.” And she said, “Oh yes, you did.” So, the imagination, if properly primed, can do more than any army of makeup artists. That was always my thing: get people to fear it, get them to see it in their heads. (Salisbury)

Fight Club also faced similar misunderstandings. The theme doesn’t center on a serial killer like the other two films, but deals with dark themes of violence and anarchy. While Fincher actually considers his cult classic a black comedy instead of drama/thriller, many people walked away from Fight Club feeling quite disturbed. According to the DVD commentary, Fincher, Edward Norton, and Brad Pitt reflect on the movie’s poor reviews and box office showings. They were all in agreement that the movie was meant to be funny, almost as one big joke, but many critics saw it as incredibly violent and in support of fascist cults. The commentators laughed at the “fascist” scene in question, where Tyler Durden’s army of “space monkeys” begin robotically chanting “His name was Robert Paulson,” in a misunderstood response to the narrator’s chastising of them. The scene is so over-the-top ridiculous in the Space Monkeys’ fervent fellowship, that Fincher, Norton and Pitt wonder how it could have possibly been taken seriously. Another element that disturbed viewers about Fight Club was the gruesome fight scenes. In Edward Norton’s commentary, he points out that the blood and violence were not particularly in excess compared to other blockbusters that had come out in recent years, such as Braveheart (1995). Norton postulates that part of the reason people disliked the fist fights in the movie were due to the Foley sound effects of the punching. Instead of going with stereotypical pre-recorded punching sounds, Fincher had brand new punch sound effects created, ones that sounded far more real and painful. This new sound had a much more profound impact on audiences compared to the typical sound effects that virtually go unnoticed from overuse.

The second component of David Fincher’s powerful impact as a director lies in his role as an auteur. Normally, for a director to be an auteur, he or she must have control over numerous aspects of the filmmaking process, including lighting, clothing, setting etc. Emily R. Anderson makes a compelling argument that no single director can claim to be the only creative force in the filmmaking process:
This usage has become, of course, shorthand—one cannot possible [sic] list the hundreds of people actually responsible for creating a film. But auteurism does highlight our need to ascribe intentionality to someone or something, be it a director, a producer, or a studio. Because in film we have no single author, we create an entity—usually identified with the director’s name—to which we can attribute intention, the source of meaning. (81)

In the sense that Anderson writes, Fincher is the auteur in all his movies. He may not be the only person in the creative process, but he injects enough detail and personal style into his films to have a certain claim over them. For example, in Se7en, Fincher plays with diegetic and non-diegetic music, much like Stanley Kubrick had often done in his films. Morgan Freeman’s character walks into a library, and the security guards turn on music for him to listen to. While at first diegetic, the scene progresses into time lapses and cuts from Morgan Freeman to Brad Pitt’s character in his apartment, instantly turning the music into non-diegetic. Fincher’s auteurism is noted as well in Kevin Spacey’s character, who unveils himself to the detectives while covered in blood from his most recent victim. Later, Spacey is dressed is red scrubs. The prevalence of red on Spacey’s character could be either to draw more attention to his character, or have the color reflect his violent tendencies. Also in Se7en, the end credits take a unique twist by scrolling from the top of the screen to the bottom, instead of the usual vice-versa movement. The opening credits in Fight Club are unique as well, but in a much more meaningful way. Mack Hagood quotes and expands on Fincher’s reasoning for the sequence:
“The opening title sequence was supposed to be starting inside the fear center of Edward Norton’s brain. The electricity is like photoelectrical stimuli that are running through his brain. These are supposed to be impulses, fear-based impulses. We are changing scale the whole time so we’re starting at the size of a dendrite [and] we are pulling back through the frontal lobes, going through this black section where there are particles; we’ve left the brain and are going through the skull casing. This is inside the skull. . . . inside bone where apparently there is some fluid in, which I did not know. And then we pull out through this clogged pore.” The shot pulls back through this clogged pore between Edward Norton’s eyes to reveal his sweating face and the cocked gun in his mouth. Fincher explains that the entire string of electrical impulses seen is a response to “the sound of a gun being cocked that’s in your mouth, [in] the part of your brain that gets everything going, that realizes that you are fucked—we see all the thought processes, we see the synapses firing, we see the chemical electrical impulses that are the call to arms.” (116-117)

Fincher states in the DVD commentary that the CGI effects making up the opening credits were so detailed, and so important to him, that he proposed it to FOX as a separate budget to the film. Fight Club is inundated with countless other minute details like the credits. For instance, in scenes with Tyler and the narrator together, Tyler is usually out of focus, off to the side, or in the background entertaining himself. This is Fincher’s way of showcasing Tyler’s influence on the narrator. In the beginning scenes, Tyler is flashed on the screen in a single frame shot, just barely long enough for one to notice he’s there at all. In the commentary, Fincher notes that this is because Tyler is only on the narrator’s periphery at this point. Anderson describes Tyler’s first introduction to the film lasting more than a few frames:
Even more significant is an airport scene in which Jack, again in voiceover, asks, “If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” Just as he utters “different person,” Tyler moves into frame, and the camera leaves Jack to follow Tyler. (91)

This, coupled with the formerly mentioned cinematic effects, is a subtly clever hint to the audience that Tyler is, in fact, a production of the narrator’s imagination. Other Fincher-inspired details noted in the commentary include Marla overflowing her coffee while talking to the narrator, the “I see a lot of men…” line repeated first by the support group leader, then by Tyler; product placement during violent or crying scenes, and numerous continuous shots that track, pan and zoom all in one take.

Like Fight Club, Zodiac is also heavily influenced by Fincher’s style. Based on true events, Fincher took care to research and replicate the details on the characters and period it took place. Robert Graysmith says this on the director:
The old Chronicle newsroom was a city-block long. Everything was authentic—the light fixtures, old typewriters, the molding, the U-shaped copy desk. Everything worked—old phones, drinking fountains, elevators and pneumatic mail tube stations. The desk drawers were even stocked with Chronicle notepads and Eagle pencils. Yet who would know the difference all these years later if those details were wrong? David Fincher would. (Production Notes 26)
The music also had to be just right, with Fincher wanting a brand new original score (22). Zodiac was an important film in terms of technology, with David Fincher selecting the “Thomson Viper, an HD camera that records to drives instead of film or tape” (Marcks 8). The decision was revolutionary, and a sign of changing filming styles. “Fincher is the first Hollywood director to capture an entire feature film solely as data. Except for a few specialty shots, Zodiac never existed on film or videotape” (8). He liked the simplicity of the digital camera, how it required a smaller crew and undesirable footage could just be deleted (Salisbury). Since Zodiac’s filming in 2007, only a few directors have filmed entire feature films with digital cameras. Fincher was also innovative in Zodiac considering his use of insert shots, that is, brief cuts in scenes to show something in greater detail. Robert Hardy mentions, “These shots allow the audience an opportunity to examine the details for themselves, thus making the audience active participants in the case of the Zodiac killer.” The frequent use of insert shots in Zodiac give the film a more personal feel, and contribute greatly to impacting the audience.

David Fincher is not known for making feel-good movies. His name is not up there in the ranks with Hitchcock, Spielberg, or Scorsese. But Fincher’s films never fail to leave to a deep emotional impact on his audiences, whether it’s unsettlement or inspiring a different perspective. His talent as an auteur and master in film noir are what make his movies so powerful to viewers, and will hopefully be inspiration that other filmmakers can draw from. Paramount Pictures describes Fincher best in their Zodiac production notes:
Fincher is able to articulate things about human behavior and emotion cinematically that makes the characters and the world they inhabit so incredibly authentic. He can give the viewer that feeling, that they could be watching themselves up there, sinking down into the rabbit hole without realizing it. (7)

Works Cited

Anderson, Emily R. “Telling Stories: Unreliable Discourse, ‘Fight Club,’ and the Cinematic Narrator.” Journal of Narrative Theory 40.1 (2010): 80-107. Project MUSE. Web. 16 July 2014.

Biesen, Sheri Chinen. “Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (Review).” American Jewish History 96.1 (2010): 89-91. Project MUSE. Web. 20 July 2014.

Hagood, Mack. “Unpacking a Punch: Transduction and the Sound of Combat Foley in ‘Fight Club.’” Cinema Journal 53.4 (2014): 98-120. Project MUSE. Web. 20 July 2014.

Hardy, Robert. “Building Obsession & Paranoia in ‘Zodiac’: Fincher’s Masterful Use of the Insert Shot.” No Film School. 12 June 2014. Web. 21 July 2014.

Kemp, Philip. “David Fincher – Director.” Film Reference. Web. 14 July 2014.

Marcks, Greg. “The Future of Image Capture.” Film Quarterly 61.1 (2007): 8-9. JSTOR. Web. 20 July 2014.

Probst, Christopher. “Anarchy in the U.S.A.” American Cinematographer. November 1999. Web. 24 July 2014.

Salisbury, Mark. “David Fincher.” The Guardian. 18 January 2009. Web. 25 July 2014.

“Zodiac Production Notes.” Paramount Pictures Press Kit. 2007. Web. 24 July 2014.

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