I guess I am finally getting it: David Fincher's much-vaunted reputation for movie-making mastery. From Alien 3 (the worst of its series and a film Fincher has since disowned) and Seven (the first and possibly most successful of the autopsy-porn craze) through the tiresome, unedifying The Game to the genuinely bizarre Fight Club, uselessly mainstream Panic Room and his most interesting film till now Zodiac, Fincher (below) has proven himself adept at bringing a good deal of technical skill to other people's scripts. ("I'm not a writer," he told the audience during his impressive Q&A last night at NYC's Rose Hall in the Time Warner complex: scroll down for more on this).
With THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, from an Eric Roth screenplay via a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fincher has made one of the most consistently challenging films in a long while, the sort that can guide a thinking audience toward a new view of the world and its place in it. How much more can you ask of a movie? Fincher and Roth achieve this via their every-last-detail rendering of the movie's premise (which you no doubt already know): a baby, born physically old but developmentally new, works his way through life toward death. This is fantasy, of course, but in Fincher's hands, via thousands of minute touches, it look more like fact than do many true-life tales handled with less skill.
Fourteen years ago, Mr. Roth gave us the screenplay for Forrest Gump, the Oscar-winning film about life seen through the eyes of an "outsider" that was a good deal darker than admitted to by those who ridiculed it as sentimental claptrap. Forrest's feather and Benjamin's hummingbird have something in common, I think, as does the broad canvas of time periods and characters that the two films encompass. If the Academy this year votes Mr. Button the same Best Picture honor it bestowed upon Mr. Gump, we should not be surprised.
From its beginning in a hospital bed where an elderly Cate Blanchett lies dying, watched over by her daughter (Julia Ormond), Roth tells a tale filled with strangeness and beauty that draws us in. His main character, Benjamin, is necessarily something of a cipher, but the colorful, rich characters that surround him more than make up for his own lack. (You may be reminded a bit of the main character from the Jerzy Kosinski/Hal Ashby collaboration Being There.) Think of Benjamin as the "outsider" par excellence, for this young/old being forces us to experience everything we think we know -- from adoption and mothering to love and sex -- very differently. Ironies abound: A religious "healing" appears the result of the usual fulminating-preacher hypocrisy (for which the fellow is promptly punished); later, the movie turns even this on its ear. What looks like the old children's game of "you show me yours and I'll show you mine" is something else entirely. An exciting bohemian NYC party seen through Benjamin's eyes looks drab and useless.
I also want to comment on the movie's handling of its Black characters. The film is certainly not about color, yet due to its unique view of life coupled to spot-on dialog and especially fine performances from actors such as Taraji P. Henson and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, it offers one of the best examples I recall of color -- of all kinds -- disappearing into humanity.
My quibbles with the movie (and they are only that: this is by far the best mainstream film I've seen all year) have mostly to do with too many cuts back to that hospital room and the Ormond/Blanchett duo. As much as I appreciate the two actresses, these (often very short) scenes tear us away from the story at hand, which is much more interesting than that of the hospital room. After awhile, these random cuts seem almost silly. Toward the end, when Blanchett must take over the narrative duties, the change of focus to hospital room makes sense, but not up until that point. I suspect Fincher was asked to do this in order to placate less sophisticated viewers who need to be reminded of the Blanchett/Ormond characters' existence. I also found a certain "pivotal incident," as well as the scene leading up to it, a bit much. Since we can quickly figure out where the pre-scene is going, all its detail about coincidences piling up grows a little tiresome. But then Fincher smartly, subtly, contrives to show us what might have happened, rather than the incident itself. How clever, thought I! But then of course he shows us the incident, too. Well, as the director made clear during the Q&A, you can't please everyone. He's certainly pleased me enough that I shall recommend his film to everyone I know. (And if, below, I have misquoted either Fincher or Kent Jones, I hope they will forgive me, as I believe I've adhered to the "spirit" of what was said, even if I have occasionally screwed up the "letter.")
The Film Society of Lincoln Center, together with Paramount Pictures brought Mr. Fincher to NYC last night for a roughly one-hour talk, including filmed segments, followed by questions from the audience. Fincher seemed relatively at ease on stage, even though members of the audience in the rear and balcony had to call out several times, Speak Louder! ("I'm not an actor," the director reminded them.) The FSLC's associate director of programming Kent Jones hosted and introduced Fincher, leading off with a question about the "spark" that drives a director, the thing that first interests him in a project. "You must continue to check on the spark -- the thing, the goal -- along the way," Fincher explained. In this case, the spark had to do with the different kind of love that the film portrayed. "Being there for someone else, helping each other. This is easy to do at the beginning, when a baby is born, but much harder at the end of a life."
What he most liked about the script, Fincher told us, was how it took cliches, dramatics staples, and made them new: the passing of time and other seemingly trivial things. Jones commented on how much time seemed to go into the creating of every image in the film, to the point that every shot seemed crucial. Fincher replied that, after having made so many thrillers and dealing with the suspension of disbelief, it was good to work on a movie that was more organic -- having to search and find his way through it.
Jones noted that his son had remarked how much like Zodiac was Benjamin Button, as both deal with the passing of time. Fincher got an unexpected laugh with his rejoinder: "Benjamin has the higher body count."
Regarding his general philosophy of moviemaking, "You don't want to do the same shit over and over," Fincher told the audience. "If you can dream something, then you can film it. And with enough time and enough money, you can pretty much do everything."
How long did it take you to get to the point where the technical things were in place, Jones asked? "At the beginning, it took a half million dollar to get a single shot," Fincher explained, "and at that point the movie was shut down. When we tried again later, we found that the effects could be done better -- and more cheaply."
Around this point, the twosome beat a retreat (to eat more of that good cheese being offered backstage, they explained) while the audience was treated to a first look at The Making of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- a fast and rather technical view of some of the FX/CGI techniques that went into the filming. What the "Making of" film proved -- to this audience member, at least -- is that an amazing amount of The CC of BB is made up of FX, and yet the film never appears as such - a testament both to Fincher's skills and, as he says, what money can buy.
Following this came a highly technical (well, for some of us) discussion by Fincher of how the effects were created. "Old-age make-up used to be created in such a way that the recipients often looked like Ray Harryhausen monsters," he explained. Now, using computer scans and the like, much more realistic effects are possible. When Jones remarked that it must have been difficult for actor Brad Pitt to get into the rhythm of doing the sort of detail-heavy, special-effects work shown in the "Making of" short, Fincher allowed that he has often been charged with being a stickler for technical details. "But since it is my eye that is doing the assessing, if I want the viewer to respond in the same way, then the effects have to be correct." The director also talked about the visual relationship of characters to each other on screen and their relationship to the camera itself -- how even those shown in the rear of the frame need to be behaving properly. Sometimes, he explained, he'll take shot after shot, to correct -- or simply to experiment.
One of the most interesting -- and likely to be argued over -- sections of his talk came when Fincher told us that a film performance is made up not only of what we think of as "acting" per se. Instead, it is made up of many things, including the special effects (placing Pitt's face onto someone else's body, as shown in the "Making of"). This will no doubt come as a surprise to someone like Meryl Streep (or in fact, any of the actors -- Ms. Henson or Mr. Ali, for instance -- whose work in CC/BB entails more filmed "behavior" and less FX). It's this FX-heavy kind of "performance," I suspect, that can lose an actor an award come "Oscar" time to another whose on-screen emoting appears to come from the mind and heart, rather than the from effects lab.
(For the record, I am not advancing one type of performance over the other. Stage acting is not film acting, although I should think it might give live actors a bit more pleasure to be able to "perform" in front of the camera for more than split seconds at a time. To its credit, The CC of BB actually offers both types of performing -- in spades.)
Jones mentioned that the original Fitzgerald story was set in Baltimore. Did re-setting it in New Orleans change a lot? Interestingly enough, Fincher admitted to wanting Baltimore because that was what Fitzgerald had wanted. "Fortunately," he told us, "cooler heads prevailed." A location scout went to New Orleans and came back with some wonderful possibilities: buildings that looked both old and new, and in many different time periods. "New Orleans afforded us so much," Fincher enthused, "and shooting there post-Katrina meant that they were really happy to have us. The city is filled with people whose faces have real character, too. Not all the nose bobs you see regularly in L.A." (The director then drew another laugh with his anecdote about filming Zodiac, set in the late 1960s, and noticing one day how very well-endowed were most of the women extras on the set. It was a problem, he explained, because back then there were almost no breast implants. So all of this would look somehow wrong.
Jones asked about screenwriter Eric Roth's connection to the South. "He doesn't have any connection," Fincher assured us. "It's an obsession." The men then took another break as we watched the "gazebo" scene from CC/BB featuring Pitt and Blanchett. Afterwards, "Could one say that your film is about being 'out of sync'?" Jones asked, which led Fincher to expound a bit on his father, a journalist who was also something of a wallflower, not at all outgoing and always standing to the side. The director based his view of the Button character, he explained to us, somewhat on that of his dad.
The Fincher series that just ended its four-day run at the Walter Reade Theater included three films seminal to Fincher's movie-going experience, and Jones wanted to talk a bit about each: Mary Poppins, which was -- yes -- on a double bill with Fincher's Seven ("I saw it when I was three years old," was the director's response.); Chinatown, which Fincher called one of the five most perfect movies ever made. ("Everything came together here -- that cast, everything! How much of movie-making is also about luck!"); and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ("Perfect cast, screenplay, costumes, cinematography!" Fincher then mentioned The Sting, a pefectly OK movie that doesn't measure up to "Butch and Sundance." "If only Conrad Hall has photographed it!" Fincher mused.)
Around this point, questions from the floor were welcomed, and as usual, they ranged from interesting to embarrassing. To all of his questioners, Fincher was relatively gracious and as informative as possible, under the circumstances. The first of these, after praising Fincher as the best of just about everything, asked What one single piece of advice can you offer a young filmmaker who wants to attain your particular kind of visual quality? " I don't like a lot of light," the director explained. "Less light looks more like life." He then offered a telling anecdote about Ken Russell, Altered States, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and some missing furniture.
How do you choose what to keep in and what to take out of your films? "It helps to be a sociopath," Fincher told us, and then admitted that, regarding all his films, "When I see them now, there is stuff that makes my skin crawl. But at the time we made it, this was the best that all of us could do."
If we liked your other movies, does that mean we have to like this one? The director assured this nitwit questioner (he was young) that this was definitely not the case.
And the hummingbird is a symbol of...? "That was Eric's idea," the director informed us. "And I think it's something to do with his notion of... infinity. For me, I liked the idea of a two-ounce bird flying against 180-mile-per-hour winds!"
How did you get the studios to bankroll a movie this lengthy? "People don't give you money unless they want to. They liked the script. I think they wanted what we wanted.
When might you make a sequel to Seven? "I'd rather have cigarettes put out in my eyes."
Is there any specific message to this film? "I hope not. I have actually heard people walking out of the theatre and saying things like, 'What a wonderful story of how these two people were just meant for each other!' Which is almost the exact opposite of what we were trying to say. Maybe the message is "Youth is not wasted on the young. Our lives -- coming into the world as babies and growing old and dying -- is the best way we're built for, as cruel a joke as this may be. I wanted to make a movie that people could identify with, at least in pieces. We're all going to have to deal with these things, eventually."