By Adam Buffery
It’s as close to a John Hughes movie as I can make. For me that was stepping outside my comfort zone by showing nerds in their natural habitat. People said, “Oh, you’re making a Facebook movie?” as if we were capitalizing on a trend or doing a Linda Blair Roller Boogie roller-disco movie after disco was dead. I was able to say to the studio, “There are no movie stars in this, just kids between 20 and 25.” It was incredibly fun and freeing to be able to just put the best people in those roles. —David Fincher
The 21st century computer-scribes who work behind the scenes behind the screens, creating culture and beauty with code, got an anti-hero to remember on the silver-screen in 2010 with David Fincher’s 8th feature film. From a once-in-a-generation, “holy shit” screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network is a movie about a 19-year-old Harvard student creating Facebook while losing the relationships in his life. It is an examination of a social outsider who built one of the biggest “clubs” the world’s ever seen, and it’s about the new age zooming past the old. It’s about ignorance in high places, that awkward moment when powerful hired officials prove they have no concept of what simple features of Facebook are in a hearing on Facebook security. It’s about a new language of coding that’s sweeping and running the globe, and about treating coding with the respect it deserves. It’s about coders being taken as seriously as writers, musicians, filmmakers, film producers, painters, costume-designers, photographers, and all other artists and creators. It’s about attaining power even though you’re socially anxious or awkward, and about finding that inner drive that helps you accomplish your goals. It’s about what happens when you lose your humility in your thirst for greatness, and about the fragility of the line between “passionate” and “ass-hole.” The Social Network is simultaneously about a seismic shift in the zeitgeist and your best friend getting your company in trouble for feeding his fraternity chicken a piece of chicken. It’s about creating and solidifying one’s identity, and everything and anything else that goes with what Fincher once jokingly referred to as “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies.”
The Social Network is a well-structured piece of melodrama that’s similar to Citizen Kane in its portrayal of a man’s costly rise to wealth and success, and is told with a Rashomon-like structure as it unfolds the origin myth of Facebook from varying perspectives. Along with Mark Zuckerberg’s story, we hear co-founder, CFO, and long-time best friend Eduardo Saverin’s story, who’s suing Mark for effectively cutting him out of the company, and we hear from the other suing party, the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra, Harvard men of crew who claim Mark stole their idea for Facebook. Sorkin opts to “print the legend” showing all three sides of this Facebook fiasco, largely in flashbacks. In an interview with ICG Magazine, Sorkin states, “I was given a 14-page proposal for the book (that would eventually become The Accidental Billionaires). The publisher was shopping it around for a movie deal. When I got to page three, I called my agent and I said I want to do this. It was the fastest I’ve said yes to any deal. I began working on the screenplay at the same time as (author) Ben Mezrich began working on the book. What I discovered was that there were a lot of different versions of the truth. Rather than pick one of them, I wanted to raise the idea that there were a lot of different versions of the truth and tell that story, and that’s how I came up with that Rashomon-quality structure.” In Mark Harris’ fantastic piece Inventing Facebook for NY Mag, Sorkin notes that he “didn’t get a look at any of the book until the screenplay was almost finished.”
It really didn’t have much at all to do with Facebook itself. I wasn’t on Facebook. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet, and social networking wasn’t really part of my life. But the story itself! There are elements of it that are as old as storytelling: friendship and loyalty, class, jealousy, betrayal—all those kinds of things that were being written about 4,000 years ago. It struck me as a great big classic story. And those classic elements were being applied to something incredibly contemporary. —Aaron Sorkin
Jesse Eisenberg, who Roger Ebert called a “heat-seeking missile” as Mark, nails the awkward air of the lonely billionaire whose smugness precedes him, and who’s self-assuredness has only ever hurt him but also made him the youngest billionaire ever. Initially, Fincher thought Jesse possessed a sweetness to him that they weren’t looking for, but ultimately Jesse’s audition ended up on his computer and he gave it a watch. Fincher loved it and showed it to Sorkin who said “well, our job’s done.” They had found their Mark in Jesse, who comes from a theater background and seemed born for Sorkin’s staccato-like dialogue. Fincher notes in his director’s commentary that in searching for Erica Albright, not her real name, he was “looking for Katherine Ross from The Graduate; I was looking for the one who got away.” He was right that Rooney would “make an awful lot of presence in a short amount of screen time,” as she stole everyone’s Heart-Emojis by capturing the fist-clenching, restrained fury of dealing with anyone as insufferable as Mark. “[Rooney]’s so capable in her subsequent vivisection,” praises Fincher.
Justin Timberlake beat out Jonah Hill for the role of Sean Parker, and Armie Hammer and Josh Pence, who played the Winklevoss twins Cameron and Tyler respectively, rowed 4-5 times a week in Marina del Ray prior to production. Armie’s face would be used to play both twins using face-replacement technology. The Social Network would prove to be a breakthrough for Rooney, Andrew, and Armie, and saw a pitch-perfect turn from Timberlake as a bro-ey Silicon Valley insider and memorable moments from Max Minghella as Divya Narendra.
The cast had three weeks of rehearsal with Sorkin and Fincher before shooting, sitting at a table reading the screenplay and discussing the intentions behind the words and scenes. Andrew Garfield described this table rehearsal in the documentary How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook: “It was very exacting, very open. We all felt free to query and question anything that was nagging at us, which was really nice. It was fascinating to be in a room with Aaron and David, and trying to gain a perspective of how the next 80 days were going to be, which was impossible to decipher, but it was a fun game to play.”
Of the now legendary first scene of the movie, a seesawed bar room word-duel between Zuckerberg and Erica, Fincher says in his director’s commentary for the film, “I like the first scene of the movie to inform the audience how much they have to pay attention. It’s probably 9 or 10 pages, that’s a pretty balls-out way to start a movie, I gotta give it to Aaron.” It was shot 99 times, from different angles, on location in Boston in a bar named The Thirsty Scholar, and it was shot early in the schedule, which Jesse said gave him confidence and a sense of relief moving forward.
While directing Rooney on the last line of that scene, Fincher says “I like the fact that you’re never loud, I just feel like the last thing ‘You’re an asshole,’ it should be almost the quietest thing that you say. So it’s like ‘I’m gonna leave you a little secret about yourself, that you should remember next time that you look at yourself in the mirror and that is ‘you’re an asshole.’”
A rejected Mark, head down and in his own zone, jogs his way through Harvard Square with his backpack hanging over his right shoulder, left hand entrenched in his oversized, grey GAP sweatshirt, and “Hand Covers Bruise” by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross starts searing its way through our ears. The song sounds like anxiety scraping against a razor’s edge, a slow-motion buzz-sawing of the frayed and frying feelings of the awkward nerd who’s just been told that dating him was like “dating a Stairmaster.” We’re listening to Mark’s gears grinding, and the lazer-focused spear of raw emotions that’s propelling him to his dorm. The pressurized noise of Mark’s pain is accompanied by a calming piano melody that sounds like a wound licking itself, and then a deep, low chord that sounds like the slow banging of a drum, a drum that’s solidifying and hardening something inside Mark. Fincher initially wanted to use “Beyond Belief” by Elvis Costello here, but we’re thankful he didn’t. As Sorkin puts it, starting The Social Network with “Hand Covers Bruise” signals to the audience “this isn’t your father’s college movie.” Fincher says of “Hand Covers Bruise,” “The notion was it has this sort of undercurrent of dissonant frustration.”
Erica dumping him is a wake-up call for Mark, a sort of call-to-arms, and he meets this breakup by craving some sort of reconciliatory action. He enters his dorm at Kirkland House, and almost as soon as he’s dropped his backpack, he’s flipped open his laptop, running LiveJournal—the early 2000s community site—turned on his monitor, and got himself a beer from the fridge. He’s home. Locked and loaded. After a split-second pause, Mark takes to the keys: “Erica Albright is a bitch.”
Mark goes from insulting Erica, fueled by the flames of rejection, to wishing he had something to take his mind off her. Somewhere to put the fire. Just like that, we see Mark go down a hacking hole, collecting images of girls from various university databases to create a game of “Who’s Hotter?”—the first iteration of Facebook called “FaceSmash.”
In his commentary track, Fincher says hacking is normally portrayed in movies as “caffeine fueled, self-important naughtiness, and I wanted it to be more playful than that,” describing Mark-the-hacker as more of a “graffiti artist” than “terrorist.” Mark’s blogging-narration guides us through his hacking with computer jargon, and this scene ends with the reassurance that Sorkin and Eisenberg are a match made in heaven, and there’s nothing, not even “modify that perl-script,” that they can’t make sing.
A 2017 Hollywood Reporter profile on Aaron Sorkin shows that his writing process hasn’t gotten easier over the years:
“I have two gears,” he says, puffing on a cigarette: “I’m stuck, I’ve got nothing, and I’ve already written the last thing I’m ever going to write,” and “It’s going well.” To get from the former to the latter, he relies on a succession of showers (as many as eight a day, each time a kind of do-over) and a mix of long walks or drives in which he acts out whatever scene he’s working through. Sorkin once was so absorbed role-playing a scene from The Newsroom that he lunged into a mirror in the sprawling Hollywood Hills home that he lives in alone and broke his nose.”
His parents would take him to plays when he was a kid, and that’s where he first discovered his love for dialogue. Sorkin’s percussive dialogue digs into your skull and stays there, like an ear-worm, because of the flow of his words and his use of dialogue as music. “It’s not just that dialogue sounds like music to me,” Sorkin says in his Masterclass, “it actually is music.” John Lennon once said that he doesn’t need to listen to Bob Dylan’s words to enjoy his music, that what he really digs is the sound of Bob. Sorkin’s writing operates on the same principal, relying on the sound and pace of his dialogue to elevate the words and scenes to a place of undeniable, feverish quote-ability reminiscent of screwball comedies and Film Noir of old.
Sorkin’s dialogue is a sort of sped-up Chinese water torture of words and rhythms, as the relentless and hammering drive wears you down, and it pairs so well with Reznor and Ross’s obsessive score and a “dating-you-is-like-dating-a-Stairmaster” character in Mark. To live in a Sorkin movie means to whip a vicious verbal wand and say exactly what’s on your mind at any given moment. There’s no stuttering in a Sorkin movie, and whereas a screenwriter like Paul Thomas Anderson may have his characters all speak individually and flip a word or two around in the wrong way, Sorkin’s characters are speaking scholars of the art of putting the right emphasis on the right syllable.
To the magic of Sorkin-ese, the punchy rhythm of the words is just as important as the biting wit. Each word is deliberate and each word is a note in his song, so to change any word would be to completely alter it all, requiring a restructuring of sorts. It’s the way that the characters feed off each other’s words and energies that give his scenes such a snowballing momentum, and what makes the movie so sonically addictive is the synthesis of Sorkin’s symphony of syllables and Reznor and Ross’ electronic coding-fuel.
David Fincher says of working with a Sorkin screenplay: “It’s exhausting, it’s hard, you know? Sorkin-ese isn’t for the faint of heart, cause you have to drill it and drill it and drill it. You don’t frame words—you just deliver the paragraph.”
As the ever-incisive Mark Harris wrote in his NY Mag piece, “Sorkin is fond of saying that when it comes to the drama behind Facebook’s creation, ‘fundamentally, you could tell the same story about the invention of a really good toaster.’ That’s one of the few unconvincing arguments he makes for the movie, which has the virtue of not being generic. In fact, it seems like a story Sorkin was born to tell. No American dramatic writer wrestles more consistently, or enthrallingly, with issues involving the remorseless hyperspeed of the communications profession. And Sorkin is one of a small handful whose mere name is enough to evoke an entire conversational style—jabbing, self-aware, propulsive. It’s the sound of characters whose minds and mouths work faster than those of the people around them, guys whose conversational aesthetic is, in Fincher’s phrase, ‘about the absolute total tonnage of words.’”
Sorkin: “There was gonna be no improvisation on this, you can’t do that with this kind of script it’s just a little too dense and language-oriented. There’s gotta be a precision of language while casualizing the language.”
Fincher and Sorkin found the rhythm of the movie by locking themselves in a room reading through the screenplay. Fincher brought out a tape recorder and told Aaron to read. Sorkin read the screenplay in 1 hour and 59 minutes and Fincher knew if they ran through it just as he read it, they could keep the movie at 2 hours. The flow in Sorkin’s head was to be the flow of the movie, to the T. The time constraint dictated the pace of the actor’s lines and the pace of the movie at large. We are reminded of Orson Welles’ quote “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations,” and this tightening time restraint was a sort of dare that Fincher met with his usual intensity and vigor. As Director of Photographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl) states in a DP/30 interview, “a lot of the direction was ‘that was great, do it faster.’ All of us, including [Fincher], were to serve the words, because the words were so fun to listen to.” Condensing a 162-page dialogue-heavy script into 2 hours, now that’s filmmaking. The budget of the movie was $40 million, Fincher’s least expensive movie after Se7en, which cost $33 million, and The Social Network made $224 million worldwide at the box office. It won three Oscars: Sorkin for Best Adapted Screenplay, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall for Best Editing, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for Best Original Score.
As a lifetime filmmaker and decision maker, Fincher knows the uncompromising push and pull of an idea that wants to be seen through to completion. Bulldozing whatever’s in his way to the get the job done, or as was Zuckerberg’s go-to catchphrase during the early days of Facebook, “go fast, break stuff.”
Fincher knows the protective side of Mark Zuckerberg that wants to maintain the coolness of Facebook at all costs. Zuckerberg is a man with a distinct vision, and in fighting for what he believed in he lost his closest friend. “You had one friend.” This passion and unflinching dedication, to the point of obsession, is something Fincher knows well. His experience as first-time director on Alien3 alone shows this competitive, uncompromising side of someone who pours it all into his creation.
Fincher would take on another coder in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with Rooney Mara, funnily enough, playing Lisbeth. Lisbeth is an even angrier key-clicker than the Harvard “Fuck-You Flip-Flops”-wearing dropout, and where Jesse captures the manic, mile-a-minute mouth-moving side of Zuckerberg’s geek-hood, Rooney, as Lisbeth, numbs everyone in her path with searing silence. Fincher pushes all the right buttons with these angry key-clickers, and he can identify with the whatever-it-takes, wickedly savvy outsiders in Lisbeth and Mark who create and crash whole digital worlds.
“Hand Covers Bruise” is used in two other tense moments in the movie: when the Winklevoss twins and Divya’s lawyer is pressing Mark if he deserves his full attention and Mark replies: “I think if your clients wanna sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have a right to give it a try, but there’s no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention, you have the minimum amount.” And then, one last time, when Eduardo and Mark’s friendship comes crashing down after Mark’s “one friend” and Facebook angel-investor found out his share of Facebook was diluted down to .03% behind his back. A scorching Eduardo tells Mark “You better lawyer up asshole. ‘Cause I’m not coming back for 30%, I’m coming back for everything.” Sean butts in, and Eduardo finally gets the upper-hand that’s alluded him throughout the movie, making Sean flinch from a fake-punch, and laying into him “I like standing next to you, Sean, it makes me look so tough.” Something is solidifying in Eduardo, as well.
We are left with an ending that shows Mark trying to contact Erica, as the completely lonely billionaire throws one last hope into the digital airwaves: a friend request. He clicks refresh, and refresh again, hoping that his billion-dollar invention will bing and notify him that his ex-girlfriend has squashed the past and accepted his offer of Online Friendship. On his online, his creation, his Facebook.
This ending, and the general implication of the movie that Zuckerberg made Facebook because of getting dumped, is the most obvious fabrication of the movie, but it also serves as a reminder that it is just that: a movie. A movie that sees a breakup in the first scene become a friend-request in the last, and a movie that, thanks to Fincher and Sorkin’s artful liberties in printing the legend, serves as a thrilling piece of 21st century folklore, rather than a tired, picture-framed biopic.
Sorkin responded to the idea that the ending lets Zuckerberg off the hook, in his interview with ICG: “Here’s what happened. For the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie he is an anti-hero. For the last five minutes, he’s a tragic hero and there’s a big difference. When I’m writing a character that’s not a good guy, I try to write like he’s making his case to God—why he should be allowed into heaven.” The last line of the movie is “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be,” bookending the movie with the question of whether or not Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole.
Almost a decade has passed since The Social Network’s US theatrical release on October 1, 2010, and all of the scandals surrounding Facebook that have surfaced over the years undoubtedly yank at the prospect of a sequel. About the possibility of a sequel, Sorkin recently said, “I know a lot more about Facebook in 2005 than I do in 2018, but I know enough to know that there should be a sequel. A lot of very interesting, dramatic stuff has happened since the movie ends with settling the lawsuit from the Winklevoss Twins and Eduardo Saverin… I’ve gotten more than one email from [Rudin] with an article attached saying, ‘Isn’t it time for a sequel?’” Sequel or no sequel, this modern classic will remain intact for generations of Screenwriters, Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, Actresses, and Actors to indulge in. It’s the rare, genuine gift of the Hollywood machine that fires on all cylinders. They don’t come around too often.
Born in 1990, Adam Buffery grew up on musicals, thanks to his Israeli mom and British dad, and wanted to be Gene Kelly after seeing ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ He would like to thank Spielberg and John Williams for giving him a lifetime fear of sharks. Adam’s favorite filmmaker is Paul Thomas Anderson. Read more »
“I was involved to the extent that I was keeping my fingers crossed! The script was only going to one director. David was everybody’s first choice and he got the script on a Friday afternoon. I heard from him in a matter of hours. He said, ‘We’ve never met, but I think we’re going to.’ For several weeks, we got together almost every day for a few hours. We went through the script page by page—we’d look at a line here and a line there—but the first draft and the shooting script were very similar. There were never many big changes. It was always small changes. He’s an absolutely fearless director. He did a beautiful job, as did (cinematographer) Jeff (Cronenweth, ASC).” —Aaron Sorkin
Screenwriter must-read: Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
The Social Network is one of the best films of the 2010s. Aaron Sorkin, a screenwriter famous for his dialogue, teamed up with visual director David Fincher to create a modern film with themes as old as story itself. Watch and learn how they did it, courtesy of Behind the Curtain.
Lessons from the Screenplay is a YouTube channel that analyzes movie scripts to examine exactly how and why they are so good at telling their stories.
Aaron Sorkin takes us through his career creating fast-talking characters and intricate stories.
Hosted by Kate Shaw, the Lucasfilm Speaker Series presents an in depth interview with Aaron Sorkin, acclaimed screenwriter of The Social Network. This interview was recorded at Lucasfilm headquarters in San Francisco on February 8, 2011.
This article, An Interview with David Fincher by Mark Romanek, originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Believer.
Fincher and Romanek first met in 1990, when Romanek was signed to Satellite Films. Satellite was a “boutique” division of Propaganda Films, where Fincher was a director, and a music-video legend. The two directors spoke by phone for the Believer in early August 2010.
I. “YOU JUST NEVER KNOW IF IT’S GONNA FLY.”
Do you ever enjoy your own work?
You answered that very quickly.
It’s an easy question to answer very quickly. No! But I enjoy your work, so I have a little solace.
What part of your work do you enjoy?
You know, I don’t want to sound glib, but I enjoy reading a script that you can see in your head, and then I enjoy the casting and I enjoy the rehearsal, and I enjoy all the meetings about what it should be, what it could be, what it might be. And then from that point on I hate every single thing about it.
You don’t like editing?
Well, let’s put it this way…
I love editing.
At least in editing you can’t make it any worse than the dailies. [Laughing]
See, editing to me is one of the only parts that retains some of the magic that I remember feeling when I first started making movies in Super 8.
Yeah, I still get kind of a charge out of putting Shot A that was shot in September next to Shot B that was shot in February. And it makes a whole different third thing. I still find that really fun and magical, that part of it.
It is, that’s true. That’s the magician part of it. You just never know if it’s gonna fly. It’s like, we’re going to cut from that look of the person looking over at the focus-puller to ask if their eyelash is coming off. We’re gonna put that right after the most poignant question that’s being asked of that character by the person next to them. And hope that people won’t realize that one piece of footage is shot for driving the car back to its start mark. [Laughing] I do like that. But it is so anxiety provoking.
Really? I find it really meditative and peaceful after the chaos and crisis management and hell of shooting. It’s just putting little pieces of film together in a quiet little dark room. I actually go through all of it to get into that little room, because I enjoy it so much. They have to tear me out of there because I think it’s so fun. There’s no ambivalence for me about that. I really love that part.
Yeah. I agree. It’s pretty cool. It seems very purely creative, too, without a lot of distractions. And you can keep reasonable hours, which is always nice. And usually the people who do that for a living are the calmest people in production, so by the time you get to editorial it’s like professional foot massage. The people are going to say, “No, no, no, no. We have ten weeks to figure this out. Don’t worry about it.” As opposed to “You have two hours to decide which of these four shots you absolutely have to have in this movie, because you are not going to get all of them.”
II. “THE WAY CALVIN KLEIN OWNS SEX, YOU OWN DARKNESS.”
You and I have known each other for, like, nineteen or twenty years. But there are a lot of questions I would be interested to ask you that, for whatever reason, I’ve never asked you. Because it would seem kind of strange. It would be corny to ask you. But in this context I can ask you.
OK. Well, then I’ll probably just take your line of thinking and ask you back. [Laughing]
OK. So had you read the book The Accidental Billionaires before you read Aaron Sorkin’s script?
No. I actually don’t think the book was delivered before the script. I remember hearing that the book was in galleys after I had said that I was interested in the movie. But I was smitten with Aaron Sorkin’s take on it, and I’d read the Rolling Stone article and I’d read a couple of other articles, which I’m a little too brain-dead to remember. But really, it started with Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal calling and saying, “We have something that you have to read this weekend, ’cause we are dying to make this and we want to know what you think.”
So you read the script and liked it, and then what?
Well, I was interested in sort of the John Hughes aspects of the story, you know, the teen-relationship kind of thing. But I was also interested in how it talked about modern business practices. Or maybe even standard business practices represented by Harvard in an information-age start-up, represented by Facebook. And just the notion that seventy-five years ago, if you wanted to make something that would be in every single household nationwide, you would’ve had to develop a factory or a workforce, a system by which you could make this thing. You would have to train people, and build spare parts for it, and build distribution outlets for it. You’d have to have done the Henry Ford model. But here’s this guy, not particularly being encouraged, kind of on the fringe of Harvard, developing this thing in his dorm room. I was interested in what it means to be able to go from a working prototype, something that you’re just talking about with your friends, and then three, four, five, six weeks later you’re on six hundred people’s desktops, and then six years later you’re on five hundred million people’s desktops. That to me was fascinating, that you have this three-hundred-year-old university as the backdrop to this thing that has moved so fast. Time is so accelerated in the foreground. And I like all the banter, and I like the notions of friendship and commingled dreams and aspirational teamwork, as well as the story about how that devolved. But I was really interested in the idea of the new business model, the notion that when you build something in today’s software world, it never really leaves the shelf. You’re building a relationship with a consumer base that is constantly giving you feedback as to how it could better work for them, so it’s like you never finish.
So this phenomenon, this event, this person, these people, this episode was emblematic of, like, a big shift in how fortunes are made and how businesses are created.
How business practices have to change. Now you have this technology that’s very fast and very facile, and you’re able to prototype in beta and create something. And it’s disseminated so quickly and it’s adopted so quickly, and as a service provider you have a relationship with hundreds of millions of people.
So what you’re describing is this kind of sweeping macro-social thing. But from what I understand, the film is super engrossing on an emotional level. So what’s the…
God, I hope so.
… what’s the human element?
Well, you have a tale you can relate to. In a weird way, it’s kind of like the early days of Propaganda Films. You can understand how these people, these creative, hardworking dreamers, all come under one roof and try to change the way people think. I certainly saw your work as emblematic of a generation of filmmakers that was trying to say, hey, music videos don’t have to be the redheaded stepchild of television commercials or films. They can be their own thing. If there had been a mission statement for Propaganda at that time, not to equate those two things, but it was the notion of all these kids in jeans with their laptops and their backpacks and their scooters, all coming to work at this place to tear a new asshole in this paradigm.
I just thought of something, listening to you talk about this, which is that the notion of these tribes of people getting together is something that shows up in your work a lot. And it never occurred to me until just now. But, you know, you’re talking about young men finding their tribe, basically.
And certainly Fight Club is that. And the crew of Alien3 is a tribe of sorts. And the guys in Panic Room.
Let me ask you one more question. I think your films are the most beautifully crafted films, not just in contemporary times, but they’re some of the most beautifully crafted films ever made.
Wow, dude. Please.
No, but what is it that’s innately good to you about darkness? I love darkness. I love not lighting too much, and lighting with completely motivated light and everything. But in your films you’ve made darkness… you’ve kind of owned it now. The way Calvin Klein owns sex, you own darkness.
[Laughing] And teenagers.
So why is it so essential to you that things be so beautifully under-lit?
I don’t know, man. That’s the way the world looks to me. Maybe I have glaucoma and I need to look into this.
I think I’m about to answer the question for you.
I just think that everything’s been over-lit for ninety-five years. And that, in a way, the way you light your films is the way things should really look. We’ve just become conditioned to think that all that horrible over-lit stuff is somehow normal.
I feel that way whenever I see somebody do a television spot for a movie that I did, and they make it all bright. Or on-set stills, I always feel like, wow, that just doesn’t look like human skin anymore, it doesn’t look like reflected light bouncing off a wall. I mean, I don’t have a mission statement for it, and I don’t want to be the kind of person who says this is what it should all look like. I just go, “Look, I know we could take another fifteen minutes and put a light in that corner, but it doesn’t seem necessary.”
III. “IT TRULY IS ABOUT CREATING THE KIND OF PRESSURE THAT SQUEEZES THE BEST IDEAS TO THE TOP.”
Well, there’s a nonchalance to not trying to show people everything, and grab people by the collar and say, look at this because it’s bright and poppy and you can see everything and it’s more graphic. What you’re doing is you’re making people lean forward and come to you. It’s like the lighting equivalent of whispering to get someone’s attention.
I want to talk about Never Let Me Go. It’s kind of an amazing thing, especially for somebody with standards as high as yours, that you found a book you loved, that there was a screenwriter you had immense respect for, and that it came your way at the time that it did. That’s kind of a happy story.
Yeah. It was a happy experience. You know, you’re sent a lot of scripts, and they’re not any good, and what you’re doing is you’re holding out for something of quality, something you can sink your teeth into.
Yeah. Something to fall in love with.
Yeah. And falling in love can be a rare thing. I’m a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, so the chance to direct one of his books is a great opportunity. And in my opinion, there was no better film script or project of this type anywhere in the world. It was a bit of a no-brainer in that sense.
Given the subject matter, though, it’s not as though there was going to be an enormous amount of money to spend. I mean, it was going to have to be very exquisitely and carefully done.
Yeah, but you enter into every movie with trepidation that you’re not going to have the resources to pull it off. It’s terrifying. When you’re making a somewhat low-budget movie, there’s nothing worse than a brilliant idea that you don’t have time to deal with. Because you can’t leave it. You can’t keep driving up the road and leave it lying in the ditch. You’ve got to pick it up, and you’ve got to examine it. But you may not have time. And in a way, on a tighter budget, a great idea is more terrifying than something going wrong, because you know that it’s going to fuck you up. What’s terrifying about it is what makes it such a great job, though. Because every day is an incredible challenge that’s filled with all these surprises, good and bad, you know?
Well, I’m always amazed at how you can have these very almost secret conversations with the writer about what you hope people will take away from the film. But you don’t want to overplay that, because you don’t want it to be preachy. So then you go and shoot, and you’re completely frazzled, and the generator breaks down, and everybody stands around for an hour, and you literally digest your colon, and are looking for some weapon to take your own life. By the time you cut the movie, you’ve given up on that thing you talked about, which would’ve been such a nice, interesting little filigree or frisson. And then one day you listen to somebody talking about the movie, and they talk about the thing that you were positive never made it into the movie. It’s such a weird thing when you go, I was sure that I cut it or that the actor rushed it or it didn’t get underlined enough…
You’re dealing with the most tangible, kind of prosaic things in the world, like generators breaking down, and locations crapping out, and the weather not cooperating, and union rules, and the crane that didn’t show up. And yet, at the same time, you’re expected to weave some sort of magic with the most esoteric, indefinable intangibles.
The filigree and the frisson, as you said, and the nuance of things. And the things that are alchemical. Intuition. And it’s a very uncomfortable blend of those things, sometimes. Which also makes it a really fascinating job.
Yeah. And a great art form.
One of the things that I’ve come to realize, which is sort of a new age approach to film directing, is that you’ve got to get out of the way of it sometimes. The whole thing takes on a life. It has a flow to it, and if you think you’re going to channel that in any sort of concrete way you’re really fooling yourself. And I’m making a million mixed metaphors in this conversation, but waves come up, and they’re not your waves. They’re a natural force. And you go, how am I going to surf this wave? Am I going to stand up early? Am I going to try to ride through the curl of this? Am I just going to let this wave pass by? It’s like there’s all these other forces that you have to corral or avoid or embrace. It’s fascinating.
It also, in a weird way, brings up this notion of authorship. The authorship of a moment as opposed to the authorship of a character arc, as opposed to the authorship of a perspective on how to best describe or dramatize something. And as autocratic as either of us is known to be, it truly is about creating the kind of pressure that squeezes the best ideas to the top. The Darwinism of creativity. So often you get into the close-ups, for example, and it’s odd that people aren’t getting exhausted, because they’re getting more and more conscious of the fact that the camera’s going to move in and be in a place where it’s going to be very unforgiving. And whereas you spent the whole morning shooting the masters and sort of finding the thing, now you’re marching in, in this concerted, militaristic fashion. And then you get to these moments, these odd little accidents, or turns of phrase, or people fuck up the dialogue, or they do something. And they rewrite the scene in this interesting, human way that you couldn’t force or plan or even probably articulate. You know, they find something in it. And I always find those moments to be really interesting. The author of the novel has no idea of what the situation that the carnival, the carnies, are going to be in when they’re trying to execute the screenplay. And the screenwriter has given you the greatest gift, which is he’s given you something that inspires somebody to make the right mistake. You can capture it in this kind of magic, and then all of a sudden it’s a by-product of five different disciplines and one superheated, super-collider, pressurized situation. Those are the moments where moviemaking is not like writing, and it’s not like the theater, and it’s not like performance art, and it’s not like sculpting. It’s truly its own discipline. There’s nothing else like it in those moments where you go, wow, here’s an intent that was probably never even thought of by the guy who wrote the book. And yet this person who may or may not have even read the source material has found this thing. That, for me, after the previsualization, is the most exciting part of the whole.
Sometimes you find yourself naïvely yearning for a form of expression that’s infinitely logistically simpler. Like I wish I were a poet with a legal pad and number two pencil, and that all I needed was a quiet room and a legal pad and a number two pencil and I could do my creativity. But if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s the complexity and the wrangling of the complexity of making a film that we probably get off on. Even though it’s unbelievably stressful and taxing.
Yeah. So many things can go wrong, and so many things do. And it’s not luck, you know. I mean, sometimes it’s luck or a percentage of it is luck, or a percentage of it is planning to get lucky. To create a situation where people could go, “OK, how about this? How about this?” One of the things that is so exhausting about making a movie is those moments when you get so excited by the stone soup, by what somebody else brought to the thing. And you go riff on that and you’re working that idea and you get home and you go, oh my god, my brain had to think of this in so many different directions at the same time. But those are the thrilling moments.
I think what’s so exhausting about it also is that you’re taxing your brain and you’re taxing your body. And if you’re engaged with a certain type of script or story, you’re taxing your heart and your soul; you’re taxing your emotions at the same time. You hit the bed at the end of a fiveor six-day week and no words can describe the vibrating exhaustion of it.
And also that thing that you have with a narrative, with a movie, where you go, I’m so tired I can’t possibly stay awake and I’m so buzzed that I can’t possibly sleep. I never found this on commercials or videos, as much as I was always afraid of failing or letting people down. It’s horrible. It’s like you have one day off and you can’t really fall into a deep sleep, ’cause you’re going, Wow, we just found this thing on Thursday and it affected what we did on Friday and now we have to change up ’cause I had thought Monday was gonna be real meat-andpotatoes shoe leather to get me from here to here, but now this new thing has been introduced and now I have to start to wonder what kind of topspin it puts on the third act and, you know…
I always turn to drugs at that point.
Exactly! There you go! Excedrin PM.
IV. “GIVE THE UNIVERSE SOME OF THE HEAVY LIFTING.”
I have a question I wanted to ask you. I’ve only really made the two films. I kind of technically made three, but the first one I don’t think is a real movie, so I’ve only made, like, two real movies. And I don’t know how many movies you’ve made, but you made, like, a good nine or ten movies, right?
How many movies have you made?
Really? They’re so rich and bountiful that I felt… my question still totally pertains, which is what do you think you know better and do better now on the seventh or eighth movie than you did on the first and second movie? Like, how are you better at what you do?
I would get a pretty stiff argument from Kenny Turan on this point, but I think I’m more relaxed. I’m more confident and trusting of those around me to want to make me look as good as I want to make them look good. I think initially, certainly after my first movie, I felt so much like I’d been hung out to dry, not so much by the English crew or the cast but certainly by the entire production part of it, that I kind of retreated. But I think that you get it. It feels to me like you kind of do this already. I think you’re a little bit more involving, or more open to a dialogue. I was talking to you about how many set-ups you were getting while you were shooting, and how you felt, and you were saying, there’s some stuff that I don’t like about this and I do like about this, but in conversations with this person or that person, I sort of felt like that was something that I could give in to. To not be so strident and belligerent about your vision—that’s a really hard thing. I think you’re lucky to get that on your second movie. You know, you don’t have to love all of your cocollaborators, but you do have to respect them. And when you do, when you realize that people bring stuff to the table that’s not necessarily your experience, but if you allow yourself to relate to it, it can enrich the buffet that you’re going to bring with you into the editing room. And it’s never what you thought it was going to be, anyway, you know what I mean? And I know you know that. It’s like, you have an idea in your head. You have the movie. You’ve cut it, you’ve scored it, and you know what it should be. And then you get there and you go, wait, when we were here to tech-scout this, there wasn’t a giant Winnebago parked over there, was there? And you have to kind of make do. OK, we’re going to pan left a little bit, go a little longer, we’ll bring in some bushes and let’s shoot through those. You’re kind of doing this thing to make it what it should have been. But you find that in a weird way, those are the things that make it what it is, and not like anything else.
Yeah. If you pick a project that has a kind of a positive intention behind wanting to come into existence, and when the Winnebago is parked there and it wasn’t there on the scout, then maybe the shooting through the bushes is the coolest thing ever. That Winnebago helped you arrive at that. Those things are the waves that come, and sometimes you have to be open to these things. My feeling is that if something’s going wrong, just stop for a minute and ask yourself if it’s not the universe making a suggestion to think about it in a new way.
And that’s the kind of maturity that you have going into your third movie that I didn’t really allow myself to have until I’d done four or five. Four or five movies in, even today, I find myself just now going, I think I know what this directing thing is. I think I’m starting to get an idea of how it comes together. Because for me, the process of every movie I’ve made has been so different.
Well, the gestalt is different every time. Sometimes things come together really quickly, and everybody’s rooting for it. And sometimes it’s a slog. But I think what you kind of naturally found, that I probably didn’t start feeling till four or five years ago, is that sense of confidence. It’s just a sense of, it’s OK to give the universe some of the heavy lifting. Or you may have wanted to do something a certain way, and someone suggests a different way to do it. You go, it’s just as good this way, and if I let that person have their contribution it’s not going to torpedo something fundamental about the film thematically. It’s not going to torpedo the purpose of that beat in the script narratively. So there’s no reason not to do it that way. And it has the added bonus of making you think about it differently. And that person gets to feel like they’ve really made a contribution that’s their own, and there’s no better motivator for your crew to know that they’re really making it with you, not for you.
Yeah, and not in a bullshit way. Not like, we gotta make them feel good about themselves. It’s when you can turn to somebody and say, Wow, awesome.
That’s why they’re there. They want to make a contribution. And when you can embrace it fully, and there’s no reason not to, it’s great. It’s not a good idea to reject something simply because it’s not the kind of dress you had in your head, or the color of the couch you had in your head.
No matter how much fun that might be.
Right. [Laughs] The main thing is, you start to really learn what counts and what doesn’t, what’s really important and what isn’t. It takes a lot of films to start to figure that out.
And it’s always good to start with a great book and a great screenwriter and to adapt it. And then to get into dialogue with them, to make the most beautiful bait for the most talented actors and actresses. And then and then you really don’t…
You don’t have to do a lot.
Then you get to get out of the way.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because there’s something of value and quality that you’re getting out of the way of. We solved it. We split the atom.
JEFF CRONENWETH, ASC
I think we came up with a visual quality which is naturalistic, so it won’t wrench you out of the very human drama, but also has a few bold, Expressionistic undertones and some subtle stylization, which acknowledges the hyper-reality of youth—especially within the isolation of the old Ivy League colleges. It’s important to remember the subjects of the story are still just kids finding their way in the world, and when you’re young and the world is still a party, it has a slightly unreal emotional amplification to it. David is a very visual director. He did a masterful job of telling an honest and straightforward story about the people who made Facebook, a reality in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It’s not just about where Facebook came from and how it evolved, it’s a story about friendships which led to betrayal and it raises a significant question about what’s fair and what isn’t fair. I believe The Social Network sheds some light and will provoke thinking about an important event which is still unfolding in our world today—without making judgements. —Jeff Cronenweth
A discussion of how the visuals support the dialogue and allow it remain the face of the movie. The filmmakers discuss shooting digitally, the importance of lighting and mood, and character reinforcement through the film’s visual scheme. Fincher and his director of photography discuss the film’s look, the low lighting, how the performances in many instances make the film cinematic, the unwillingness of Harvard to allow the company to shoot on campus, and the HD system selected to photograph the drama.
The Social Network—Ten Years Later, by The Royal Ocean Film Society.
DAVID FINCHER ON FILMMAKING
How does David Fincher make films? And what are his influences in that approach? What does making films mean to him?
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
The fifth installment of The Directors Series’ examination into the films and careers of director David Fincher, covering his recent quartet of hard-edged dramatic thrillers and further innovations with digital filmmaking technology.
A detailed look to the making of The Social Network along with the interviews from the cast and the crew including behind the scenes. Here are the quick links to the four parts of the behind the scenes documentary: Commencement; Boston; Los Angeles; The Lot.
“Nev Pierce, since the mid 2000s, has played the role of Truffaut to Fincher’s Hitchcock.”
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Fincher’s The Social Network. Photographed by Merrick Morton © Columbia Pictures, Relativity Media, Scott Rudin Productions, Michael De Luca Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
We’re running out of money and patience with being underfunded. 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