By Tim Pelan
Twenty-one years on, David Fincher’s The Game (1997) has come to be seen as a prescient, schadenfreude look at the gulf between us and the “one percent,” delighting in the takedown of a privileged, modern-day Scrooge. There is plenty there to examine, but I also see it as a kind of step-sibling to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a privileged investment banker, divorced, rattling around his huge inherited luxury home, and in intermittent contact with his only remaining family, his black sheep brother Conrad (Sean Penn). Nicholas is turning 48, divorced, the same age his father was when he jumped to his death from the family home on his birthday, captured on cine-film flashback. Nicholas witnessed this devastating event and felt he had to grow up fast; he has long buried his feelings to achieve security, at the cost of his soul. “I move money from one place to another,” is how he glibly describes his asset-stripping business proclivities, not once thinking about the human cost to those he tramples on as he glides from car to glittering office building, his $2000 shoes barely touching the sidewalk. He’s a man so isolated he plays squash by himself, keeping people who may retain a vestige of affection for him at a remove. When Conrad gives him a gift certificate for Consumer Recreation Services (CRS), he is promised an experience that will blow his mind: “A profound life experience.” What he actually gets, after a battery of tests which he at first fails, then indignantly demands his money’s worth for, is a trip down the rabbit hole. CRS and Conrad aim to shake him out of his ultra-bored ennui, and expose him to the ragged realities of “real” life; each “kick” in his nightmare trip chipping further away at his unfeeling carapace.
“I specialize in a very specific type of insecurity. Subconscious Insecurity.” This play on Cobbs’ words to Saito in Inception could be the subtext to CRS exec Jim Feingold’s brief on The Game; “The Game is tailored specifically to each participant. Think of it as a great vacation, except you don’t go to it, it comes to you.” David Sterritt in his Criterion essay on the film describes CRS as “a funhouse mirror version of the film industry itself.” Fincher himself states, “He (Van Orton) doesn’t act like a movie star. he runs away, he flips out, he goes in and curses little old men. He knows exactly what’s going on and he has no idea what’s going on.” He is a kind of precursor to Inception’s Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy): Fischer’s subconscious may be trained and weaponized to be aware of attacks, but not to the dream levels Cobb will subject him to. Similarly, it is only for so long that Nicholas can believe he is the subject of a hostile takeover from a rival firm, as calamity piles upon calamity. The old-world, entitled buttresses of his life are stripped away with the ease with which he signs another asset stripping at the stroke of his pen. The seemingly impossible knocks him for six with escalating regularity, and we revel in each rug-pull. Both Conrad and a mysterious waitress, Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) steer him through the maze/dream levels, but are they really what or who they seem? Cinematographer Harris Savides draws inspiration from fellow DoP “Prince of Darkness” Gordon Willis, with Nicholas’ old money world of wood-paneled lounges, restaurants and exclusive clubs, bathed in rich mahogany and deep onyx leather upholstered shadow, then subtly overexposing the harsh lights of CRS HQ and the various “stages” his nightmare is enacted upon, “letting things get a bit wilder out in the real world.”
The film wittily plays with us and Nicholas. Early after he believes he has been turned down by CRS, he finds a creepy clown doll in his driveway, the very spot where his father plummeted to his death. After leaving it on a chair in his lounge, he switches on his TV. Real life commentator Daniel Schorr says, “A staggering 57 percent of American workers believe that there is a very real chance they will be unemployed in the next five to seven years.” He then turns directly to Nicholas and baldly states, “But what does that matter to a bloated millionaire fat cat like you?” The clown, of course, is a disguised camera, but how can a real person in a TV live broadcast be in on it? Is Nicholas drugged? Is he under right now, or just paranoid?
“The audience knows what you can do. The question is, what don’t you do?” Fincher muses in commentary. “Every time you underline something in a close-up the audience becomes aware of it, and they start to catalog those things, they know that this movie is going to have suspense and mystery, and you don’t want to exhaust that. So you have to be very cautious and careful when you do it. My tact on it was I wanted to present, in as wide a frame, and in as unloaded a situation point of view as possible… this is what’s going on, this is what this guy sees. And to experience the movie through Michael Douglas. And you have to be cautious of doing too much cinematic engineering.”
Douglas delivers one of his very best performances here, up there with Falling Down’s D-FENS. Nicholas has to start off as a blunted, slightly haunted Gordon Gekko type, gradually unraveling into a bedraggled, penniless, humbled 99 percenter, put through the wringer. We can laugh at his almost comic meltdown at the thought of shuffling through customs with the rest of the plebs, and pity him as he is “reborn” after being drugged, in a Mexican cemetery, reduced to selling his luxury watch for a taco and a ride home. Filmed in the Mexican border town of Mexicali where the production created the cemetery location next to the New River “a sump of mercury and chicken parts,” a toothless, weather-beaten old crone stares at him blankly, before casually spitting on the third take. She was a 96-year-old Fincher found locally. “He’s learning that the way he’s used to dealing with the world is no longer appropriate. He has to learn to be a little bit more obsequious,” Fincher noted.
CRS toys with Nicholas’ mind, the books in Christine’s shelves just hollow covers, the refrigerator empty. He discovers Feingold is an actor on TV. Yet he is driven to finish the game, kidnapping Christine and assaulting the CRS citadel, like Cobb and Fischer on the snowy mountain level hospital in Inception. The Game is Hitchcockian in its intricacy and off-handed dismissal of logic: we don’t question why Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill is directed to the middle of nowhere to be attacked by a crop-dusting aeroplane in North By Northwest, because it is a superb, left field sequence. How can CRS be everywhere (and everyone)? We don’t stop long enough to pick holes (it laughs at internet bores who do so), there is always a gun attack on Christine’s home, or Nicholas trapped in a taxi, the jolt of water as it plummets into the river another “kick” on his dream level journey to self-awareness, to keep us engaged. The playing of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit as Nicholas discovers his neon-graffitied mansion is another allusion to the “trip” he is on. Critics at the time of release drew comparison to other paranoid thrillers such as The Parallax View and Total Recall, which played with their protagonist’s perception of what is real or not. The film also alludes to The Wizard of Oz, when Nicholas has Feingold at his seeming mercy in the now vacant CRS set. “I don’t want money (back). I’m pulling back the curtain. I’m here to meet the wizard.”
In hindsight, Fincher believes the foot on the throttle approach was not enough, and that he didn’t work out how to wrap up the third act in a satisfactory manner. “I know what I like, and one thing I definitely like is not knowing where a movie is going. These days, though, it’s hard to get audiences to give themselves over. They want to see the whole movie in a 90-second trailer.”
It is a bold move to push Nicholas to the depths of despair, seemingly taking his own life in the same manner as his father, before reaching enlightenment. All it took Fischer, once he got past the guards, was a planted child’s windmill in his father’s safe. “I was concerned,” Douglas told Rolling Stone, “whether we’d give a shit about a rich, bored, emotionally removed man, a modern-day Scrooge.” Nicholas falls from the CRS roof through a breakaway glass atrium to a giant airbag beneath, achieving benediction through an inversion of traditional symbolism, joining his own 48th birthday party. As Cobb says in Inception, “Downwards is the only way forwards.” A relieved Conrad, who he had believed he’d shot, embraces him. “The purpose of The Game,” according to Fincher, “is to take your greatest fear, put it this close to your face, and say, ‘There, you’re still alive. It’s all right.’”
It would take a strong mind to come through the other side as Nicholas does, promising to split the bill with Conrad and intending to hook up with Christine after her next Game assignment. Brad Brevitt of ComingSoon.Net has an interesting alternate ending he’d find more plausible (and nihilistic), which aligns nicely with the ambiguous spinning top ending of Inception:
“Given the puzzling nature of the narrative, I would have rather seen the film fade to black as Nicholas was helped off the air bag, and before he speaks with his brother (whom he thought he’d just killed up on the roof). His eyes would blur as his brother came into view and soon we fade to black. Then, before the credits, the film picks up again, but only briefly. We see Nicholas with Deborah Kara Unger’s character at some unknown point in the future. They’re having a romantic dinner together and gazing into one another’s eyes happily. We don’t hear what they’re saying and the scene again fades to black and the credits roll.
This kind of ending serves several purposes, one is to continue the mystery and the question of whether or not Nicholas played the game or if the game is still playing him? Two, just how far into the future does the audience believe we’ve gone? Depending on the answer to the first question you can begin to question whether Nicholas actually got his comeuppance or if he successfully manipulated the game to get the result he wanted.”
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
In the video above, David Fincher on cinematography decisions.
Directed by David Fincher and photographed by Harris Savides, ASC, their 1997 feature The Game paid homage to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. “The Game is not a big action film,” the director told American Cinematographer. “It is much more of an intrigue movie. If the movie is about anything, it’s about loss of control. We wanted to create an experience for the audience that didn’t seem contrived, even though it is quite contrived.” The complete article on the making of The Game was featured in the September 1997 issue of AC. —AC Gallery: The Game
The third installment of The Directors Series’ examination into the films and career of director David Fincher, covering his streak of major, pop-culture-defining features during the late 90’s—The Game, Fight Club, and Panic Room.
Elvis Mitchell hosts director David Fincher, Sep 12, 1997.
David Fincher interview from Film and Video 13 (October 1997), by Iain Blair.
Of all the young hot shots who’ve emerged from the music video and commercial scene, director David Fincher seems the most likely to fulfill the promise once held by every contender and succeed as a major Hollywood director. After making his (reportedly unhappy) feature debut at the helm of Alien 3, Fincher hit his stride with the stylish dark thriller Se7en. Now he’s back with another twisted tale, The Game, which stars Michael Douglas as Nicholas Van Orton, a mega-rich but emotionally numb businessman whose brother Conrad, played by Sean Penn, involves him in a bizarre—and ultimately life-and-death—game of role playing that includes Christine, a sexy and mysterious waitress played by Deborah Unger.
Is it true that this script was pretty much fully developed six years ago, and that all that time since has been spent agonizing over the last three pages?
That’s true to an extent. Originally, Michael’s character kills Christine and that drives him over the edge and he throws himself off the building. And originally the guy who brings him the game was a college buddy, and those were the two elements we kept saying, “There’s not a big enough emotional hook here for what has to happen.” It had the whole father back story and the rest, but I didn’t see why killing this woman who’s lied to you at every turn would make you commit suicide. So it was more of a tone thing for me, a lot of little changes. For instance, Nicholas was more of a Gordin Gekko type, more of a player, and I liked the idea of him being more like Scrooge, this emotional miser cut off from the world.
How many drafts did you do?
So not that many.
It’s a lot for me. I have a very short attention span, coming from music video (laughs).
Michael Douglas is an accomplished filmmaker whose own company recently produced the blockbuster Face/Off. What kind of input did he have?
He’s a classic enabler. He gets off on people who have an opinion and point of view and passion for what they do, so when you go in and go, “No, it has to be this way because of that,” he likes that. He didn’t even have to hear the reason. He just wants to hear you say “No.” Because most of directing is just limiting choices. There are infinite choices you can make and with today’s technology you can do anything, so the question is deciding what it is you’re going to do. What helps the psychology of the storytelling.
What about Sean Penn, who’s also directed, and who’s got a reputation for doing it “my way or the highway”?
I didn’t run into any of that. He’s like, “OK, I’m here. Where do I go?” So you tell him, “OK, you come in, sit down and you guys do what you’re going to do at the table.” “Can I smoke?” “Yeah, but I don’t think we should see the cigarette before he says ‘I thought you quit.” ‘OK.’ So those are the only specific things we knew we wanted to do in a scene like that. The rest of it was, “It’s written very cold, play it even more distant.” It would have been a very different scene with another actor, because Sean gives you the feeling that he’s fucked up and he’s trying to ingratiate himself. A different actor would have probably been more like, “Well here I am and there’s no love lost and I’ve found this great thing.”
So he was very cooperative?
Yeah, I don’t know what anyone’s talking about.
He said you’re a true intellectual.
Hmm. That’s probably true, in that I’m more concerned with how things track in terms of the thinking on it as opposed to the emotional. I kind of leave that up to the high-priced talent.
Wasn’t Jodie Foster originally slated to play the Sean Penn role?
When she expressed interest we didn’t have Michael or a final script. She just wanted to be in it, and I said, “I think it’s a little distracting for the waitress to be played by a two-time Oscar winner.” So she called back and said, “What if I play the brother’s part? Would you rewrite it for me?” I thought that was very interesting, especially as I have two sisters, so that made sense to me. Of course, everyone else like Michael and Sean and producer Steve Golin have brothers, and when Michael and Sean got involved they’re all going, “How could you ever see it any other way? It’s definitely a brother battle.” So I said, “OK, I believe you.”
So where did the “Jodie as Michael Douglas’s daughter” idea come from?
We were looking for anything to make it work, but we never really did any work on the script in that sense. It never got that far because we got into some pretty severe scheduling problems with the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco. It was an enormously expensive location and we had to work around stuff they were doing. So if we’d been able to fit it in before she went off to do Contact, so she could do the three weeks that Sean did, we’d have had to have started shooting on the final scene with the air bags, and Michael didn’t feel comfortable with it. You’ve got to walk around in those loafers for at least a couple of days before you do a scene like that.
What were the main problems of pulling this off?
First, finding an actor who’d be able to play someone who’s so unlikeable. And then trying to cast the Sean Penn part, who to do that. It took a long time. Then it was a long, long shoot—over a hundred days—so it was a matter of keeping everyone’s morale up because everyone was exhausted. There were a lot of night shoots, a lot of locations, and it was just grueling. And intellectually really exhausting too, because everyone’s playing so many roles in it, so it was a question of keeping it all clear. Is Deborah playing the first lie of being the bad waitress? Or the second lie of being the girl who doesn’t know what’s going on? There are so many different lies going on it was difficult to keep track.
Because of the shifting nature of the film’s game, continuity must have been a nightmare.
And the script supervisor (Jamie Babbit) did a fantastic job. It was hard, but when you break things down so minutely in order to put a schedule together, it gets broken down to its cellular level so keeping it organized isn’t so tough. The most difficult thing was trying to keep focused on what the lie you’re telling at any given moment is. What’s the one that’s out front? What’s the one people are supposed to be concentrating on?
Did you ever consider shooting in continuity?
Yeah, but there wasn’t a chance. As it ended up, we shot the climactic air bag scene about three weeks in. But at least that gave us a couple of weeks to get up and running.
Like Se7en, this is intensely atmospheric and San Francisco is a major visual element. At what point do you start deciding on such elements?
It came out of a lot of discussion. The first thing is, why San Francisco? Because shooting there added probably $3 million just to go up there. So there was an enormous amount of pressure to bring the movie back to L.A. or take it to Chicago which is cheaper. So we said “OK” and started scouting Chicago, but there were no mansions in town. They were all too far away, with too much travel to his house, so it didn’t seem like it had the same storybook quality. It had the old money, but not the prettiness or magic. So then we looked at Seattle, and it just seemed like new money, and there wasn’t the same financial district. The script was written for San Francisco and we finally just decided, it’s a detective town, it’s an obsession town because of Vertigo and The Maltese Falcon, you’ve got all that history, let’s do it there.
Did you feel any pressure to equal the success of Se7en?
No, because that’d make you crazy and there’s no calculated way to do that. When we finished Se7en and showed it for the first time, the lights came on and three people whispered, “This is a disaster.” And somebody turned to me and said, “How could you take a perfectly good genre movie and turn it into a foreign film?”
Talk a bit about working with DP Harris Savides, who’s shot various videos and commercials for you.
I’ve worked with him for the past five or so years, whenever I can get him, because he’s incredibly in demand—probably the most soughtafter commercial cameraman in the world. I offered him Se7en but he’d just finished Heaven’s Prisoners with Phil Joanou and he said he never wanted to make a movie again. So then I got Darius Khondji but that was a real nightmare with visas. Anyhow, Harris did some second unit stuff for me on Se7en and then I got him for this. He’s very collaborative and always has great ideas. I didn’t storyboard a lot of it because things changed so often.
How important is music to your films?
I like to say that everything is 50 percent of the movie—the picture, the sound, the performances, the music—and hopefully it all adds up to more than 100 percent. I look at the shadows as being as important as the light, and the production design to be as telling as the costumes or acting. The actors are telling you this is their character, but the lamp should be telling you something else, and the tie they’re wearing should be telling you something.
Do you use music when you cut the film?
No, I don’t have any of it. I think we had just three cues when we previewed the movie.
This is the second film you’ve done with composer Howard Shore, who’s also scored such films as The Silence of the Lambs, Naked Lunch, and Mrs. Doubtfire.
He did a fantastic job on both this and Se7en, and in fact we used three cues from Se7en when we previewed it—a cue when Michael goes to Christine’s house, one at the Hotel Nikko scene, and one for the home movie sequence at the start. So I don’t think in terms of music. I make the film and then show it to Howard, and hopefully he’s a helluva lot smarter about it than you are, and he goes, “I want to do this,” and you just kind of go, “Fine.”
The film’s score and music is used in a very interesting way.
And it all ties in with how I approached making this movie. I said to myself, “Look, this isn’t about how it looks. It’s about whether or not you believe these people are lying to you. So cast the best people you can and present it as simply as possible.” It was a matter of creating a stage for these characters to simply tell you their stories, and then my job was to go, “OK, I believe that take.” I didn’t want it to feel like it was being engineered cinematically, with a close up of the keys or whatever. I didn’t want to underline stuff and have the ominous music cue come in, because I didn’t want people to feel like it’s a movie. We use a lot of tricks to imbalance the expectations of the movie-going experience. For instance, in the cab scene there’s no music. That was a very conscious decision as you expect music when it’s a big moment in a film. So when there isn’t, does that make it a movie or make it real?
So there’s a lot of manipulation going on.
Absolutely. There’s another music cue that goes all the way through as Michael’s character goes to the hotel and then to see his ex-wife and finally ends up in Chinatown, and which literally disappears on the frame where the carjacker comes in. So it’s as if the carjacker also carjacks the movie and interrupts everything that’s going on. So we were playing with all those ideas.
Do you still like shooting videos and commercials?
Absolutely. I did the Wallflowers’ “Sixth Avenue Heartache” while I was prepping The Game.
What do you still get out of it?
It’s fun. To me directing is creating a context for understanding, and music videos are an interesting manipulation, certainly for the Wallflowers because you’re creating a context for something that didn’t exist until then. The idea was, Let’s make a video that looks like liner notes from songs from The Band’s Music from Big Pink. Here’s a band that just got their guitarist eight months ago, so you’re trying to create an understanding for this style of music that might be considered anachronistic today, and you’re doing that through pictures that hopefully evoke some kind of emotional response.
Was Se7en’s success a vindication for you after the problems of Alien 3?
Not really. I’m in this for the long haul, for a career. Hitchcock made seventy-five movies, and six of them are amazing, while thirty-five no one will ever speak about again. Unfortunately we live in a day and age when it takes two years to make a movie. I guess I’m just slow, but I will never make seventy-five movies.
I always wanted to give a lecture at filmschools. You go in and you see all these fresh faces, and you say: ‘You! Stand up, tell me your story. Tell me what your film is going to be about.’ And they start, and you go: ‘Shut up and sit the fuck down!’ And if they do, you go: ‘You’re not ready.’ Because the film business is filled with shut-up and sit-the-fuck-down. You got to be able to tell your story in spite of sit-down and shut-the-fuck-up. If you are going to let something like that derail you, what hope do you have against transportation department? What hope do you have against development executives?” —David Fincher
Screenwriter must-read: John Brancato & Michael Ferris’ screenplay for The Game [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection in a new, restored digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Harris Savides, with original theatrical 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray edition. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Fincher’s The Game. Photographed by Tony Friedkin © Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films, A&B Producoes, Lda. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or click on the icon below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in