When Netflix handed David Fincher the keys to a $100-million production called “House of Cards,” nobody knew what was going to happen. Would the investment pay off? Would Fincher flounder or flourish in television? Is it still considered TV even if it never broadcasts over the cable pipes?
Consider me an accomplice to that success: over the course of a weekend, I watched the entire series — exactly what Netflix hoped would happen.
During the post-binge hangover, I tried to quench my thirst for more “House of Cards” by reading interviews with several key members of the production and I stumbled across one with David Fincher that was particularly revelatory.
During the course of this interview with Empire, Fincher drops hints here and there about what it’s like to work with him. And what we can glean from these brief insights are a few tips that will help your career for the long haul. One that, perhaps someday, gets you on a set run by Fincher himself.
(Side note: he’s always been a favorite director of mine — even if I’ve been unfair to him in the past — because he’s more open than most about the actual filmmaking process. For instance, there’s a behind-the-scenes moment from The Social Network blu-ray in which Fincher gets under the skin of a boom op for casting a shadow on the wall: “We can’t be having that shit,” he says emphatically.)
1. Medium Matters — But It’s Still Not an Excuse
Shooting for the iPad: it’s so odd. The monitors we use on set are bigger than that. When you think of the idea of this thing being crushed down to this tablet I do get wistful. But it also helps. You think “They’re not going to see that the focus pull was so late”.
Format matters. More people should acknowledge that. It’s easy to prove, too.
As a production designer, have you ever seen an “unreadable” sign in the background only to sit in a theater and spend the entire time dissecting each word of the sign?
Format and viewing medium makes a difference in more ways than we care to admit. We like to think the experience of watching a movie is similar whether you’re doing it on a phone, a tablet, a laptop, or a TV. But it’s not. And it affects our job.
As Fincher mentions, it can hide mistakes — like focus pulls, boom shadows, or set continuity.
But that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse to slack on the job. It’s not permission to assume mistakes will be hidden when the production only ends up on YouTube. A small-format production doesn’t grant you approval to skirt responsibilities.
It does, however, grant you leeway after the fact. It gives you the ability to stretch what was once impermissible into something that will be OK.
Fincher gives the example of a late focus pull: on the big screen, the lateness is glaringly obvious as we are subjected to a moment of blurry footage. On a phone with heavy compression though, you won’t even blink an eye.
2. It’s Your Job to Enable the Talent
I try to create an environment where – and there’s a lot of pressure on everybody – but I want there to be the least amount of pressure on the person who is performing. I would rather have the day be more excruciating for the focus-puller than it is for the person playing Francis. I want Kevin to be able to give himself over to a process that’s just, you know, playing dress-up.
And in order to do that I put pressure on everyone around them. I mean, we can’t be changing ties after take three: “Oops! This is the wrong tie for this scene because in the next one he’s in the car and he has the blue tie on.” I can’t have that.
I’ve written about the idea of the invisible camera assistant before, but Fincher encapsulates the concept perfectly in this excerpt. He wants to put all the pressure on his crew to be perfect so that the actors and actresses can feel free to perform — failures and all.
Fincher is more willing to accomodate talent over crew. Is Spacey having a hard time hitting his mark? Then ignore it. Tough shit for the focus-puller, but at least Kevin Spacey feels less pressure to nail the T-mark. Now he can lose himself completely into the role of Francis.
Is this fair? Maybe not, but that’s irrelevant. There’s a reason your name comes at the end of the movie, not at the beginning. That may be harsh, but I completely understand Fincher’s reasoning.
Basically, he demands crew adapt to the performance – not the other way around.
That’s something I find almost all directors want — though some won’t be so ruthless about it. But you’ll garner a lot of respect if you take this attitude upon yourself.
Are the performers tripping on the dolly track? Find another way to shoot the same move. Can you lift the track? Or adjust it?
It’s easy to get caught up in the chaos and time-crunch of a shoot and think your job is the most important. Often as below-the-line crew we (mistakenly) feel as if shooting the scene is just an obstacle between setups.
But the performance, the magic, the one take that’s “perfect” isn’t an obstacle — it’s the whole reason you’re there. If anything, the missed focus pulls, the dolly in the way, the light that needs a scrim, they’re the obstacles.
What I’m saying and what Fincher is getting at is the performance is what matters, and thus the performers must be enabled by the crew to put their best foot forward. If that means making your job harder as a crew member, then so be it.
3. Fincher Doesn’t Care that You’re Tired
I spent way too much money, I spent way too much time thinking about this. I spent way too much time coaxing and cajoling to get that. We can’t leave this until we have the moments that it’s going to take to make this work. We can’t. We’re doing everyone a disservice. You can’t allow it to exhaust you. You have to keep that focus and that concentration and you have to get what you need.
I mean I have thrown the flag and called it on account of rain: I’ve had situations where you say, “This person is too tired to continue, so…” I’ve had situations where you have an actor and you realise, “They’re not there anymore. We’re going to have to pick this up some other time.” But for the most part… You’re doing it for the fucking Blu-ray, man. Blu-ray is forever.
I mean, part of what you get paid to do is to ignore the discomfort of those around you, because you have to go, “I get it! But I didn’t fly Stellan Skarsgård all the way here and put him up in a hotel and make him learn 18 pages of stuff only to say, “Oh, OK, that’s pretty good, let’s move on!’” I came here to juice that! I came here to squeeze that. And I came here to see what else is there.
This quote came during a part in the interview where Empire mentioned that, while they were visiting the set, the day went very long and a lot of the crew wanted to go home.
They asked if Fincher cared.
There are days in the film industry that suck. Days that definitely feel like work. And those are usually the days that drag on for 15 hours or more. You’re tired, cranky, and could give two shits if there’s more coverage needed because all you want is your bed.
But Fincher raises a good point: the blu-ray is forever. Maybe you don’t care that there’s more coverage needed, but he has to go into the edit bay and squeeze out a scene that’s OK for people to watch over and over again.
So, which is a higher priority for the director: you getting sleep or the perpetuity of his art?
Yeah, you’re on the wrong end of that one.
We all are, though. As below-the-line crew, we’re sometimes treated like grunts in boot camp and the drill sergeant doesn’t care.
That may sound harsh, but ultimately what Fincher is doing is looking out for everyone by holding out. By not giving in to a crew that wants to go home, Fincher is upholding the integrity of his project and making sure the end result is something you’ll be proud of 8 months down the line when you’ve forgotten about the 4 hours of sleep you missed.
(That said, keeping a crew long past 12 hours consistently is inexcusable and shows a lack of discipline and planning. There are proven safety and health risks involved with over-working and I do not condone testing those limits.)
The caveat, of course, is that the production is worth working your ass off for. Not every director is David Fincher and not every production is worth slaving an extra 6 hours on. That’s unavoidable.
But even if you feel that way, the director will still believe they’re doing God’s work. You should be mentally prepared for this.
A director or a producer may sympathize, apologize, and feel terrible for keeping a crew long past the 10 or 12-hour mark, but like Fincher is saying, they spend way too much money to leave an incomplete project. So while you check your watch one more time, you have to at least be aware that you aren’t going home until the director feels like it’s time to go home.
You don’t have to like that, but you do have to learn to live with it.
4. Sometimes You Work More than You Have to
In fact, interestingly enough, that scene that you’re talking about, the take we used was four takes before the end. And I said, “That was really great. I don’t think we’ll get better than that… but I want you to try.” And we shot more takes after that and didn’t use them. But that was the thing. We got it. It all worked.
“One more for safety” is a phrase all crew are accustomed to hearing after nailing a great shot. The camera hit its marks, the actor nailed their lines, and the lighting looked beautiful, but, just in case, you’re going to try and recreate that magic.
Fincher is just confirming what crew have known in their heads every time they hear a director beg for “just one more” take: it’s probably not going to get better.
Most of the time, these additional takes go downhill. The variations don’t play right, they don’t have the same timing, or the stars don’t align. Still, as a creative, it’s hard to move on when there’s the fleeting pursuit of perfection.
What this translates to is more work for the crew. It means another exhausting 2 minutes of shouldering that Steadicam or another stressful focus pull or fending off hunger for a few more minutes before lunch.
Yes, it’s true — the safety take can, in some regards, be deemed useless work. But that’s just the nature of working on a film set. You will have to do a lot of work that seems like “bullshit.”
What’s important to note in Fincher’s statement, however, is the ending: “it all worked.”
Though the extra effort may seem unnecessary, the director gets what they want. OK, so he technically got what he wanted before all the hooplah about 5 more takes, but if you lump the entire day together, the ends should justify the means. The extra takes are what give a director solace to move on, both physically and mentally, to the next scene. Without indulging those neuroses, one could argue the rest of the film suffers.
It’s Machiavellian to add extra work to an already overworked crew, but a director is like a race horse with blinders focused on the finish line.
Plain and simple: don’t be surprised to find yourself doing extra work when working below the line.
5. Keep on Rolling When There’s a Bump in the Track
There are times when there’s a bump in the track or a boom mic comes in, and it distracts you for a second, and then you go, you can hear it through your headphones, “We’re rolling”. It’s rolling, we’re falling downhill. We’re working. And those are times when the bumps in the track, the boom mic and shit, doesn’t matter.
When things get rough — whether it’s because you’ve missed a focus pull or you’re tired from a long day — take solace in the fact that sometimes the rough patches don’t matter. This works on all level of a film production:
- Messed up moments in a scene can be skipped in an edit
- A minor mistake on set will be forgotten in a day if handled appropriately
- A scuff-up with a producer can be smoothed over with drinks
Don’t get distracted with the stuff that, ultimately, doesn’t matter. Like Fincher says, you’re working. There is no time to stop and ruminate on what has happened. You have to push forward, find a solution, fix it, and keep going.
So you buzzed the focus? Get it back in focus for the remainder of the scene.
So you got heated at a crew member and exchanged some words? Apologize and make amends.
You’d be surprised how many mistakes do take place on a film set and how often they are just smoothed over or worked around. God knows I’ve shouldered my fair share of screw-ups.
But I never let them get to me. I took responsibility and then found a solution.
You have to going.
You have to keep rolling.
You have to keep falling downhill.
In Fincher We Trust
Not every director is going to be like David Fincher. In fact, most won’t. They won’t have the same work ethic, the same attitudes, nor the same experiences that have led to what Fincher believes is the right way to run a set.
Still, what Fincher demands from his crew isn’t uncommon: a high skill level, positive attitude, relentless work ethic, and their trust in him.
So while you’ll encounter all sorts of flavors of directors, producers, and production personnel throughout your career, it’s not a bad idea to work towards the ideal of the type of crew member David Fincher would want to hire.
If you’re lucky, someday you may find yourself 18 hours deep in a shoot with David Fincher huddled in video village.