David Fincher's House of Cards

5 Below the Line Lessons from David Fincher’s House of Cards

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?

“House of Cards” is now Netflix’s most-watched title.

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 responses are some insights that, perhaps someday, help get 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 camera assistant, how often have you watched a focus pull on a 5″ onboard monitor thinking it was crisp and sharp only to cringe when it’s blown up on a 27″ monitor and actually a little buzzy?

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. It’s tough 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.

Basically, Fincher 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.

Is an actor constantly missing their mark? Don’t complain to the camera operator or the director, find a way to work around it without destroying the “flow” of the talent.

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.

Of course, there are always cases where crew need the talent to make concessions in order to get a shot (like using a dummy prop, cheating an eyeline, or walking over dolly track). The idea is that you do whatever is in your power to avoid those moments in order to give talent as much freedom to perform as possible.

3. Fincher Can’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.

He said, “Can’t care,” and then continued speaking into the quote at the top of this section.

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 this 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?

Sometimes you’re on the wrong end of that one.

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 on those occasions that he does. 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 to 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. I am mostly referring to the occasionally long working day.)

The caveat, of course, is that the production must be 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 or producer 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 – or be prepared to speak up against it and potentially walk away from the gig.

That said, this quote provides only a limited perspective on Fincher’s habits as a director. Just because he kept his crew late one day does not mean it’s a regular thing nor that he enjoys doing it. Based on some first-hand accounts, he values sticking to the standard 12-hour day which enables him to draw more water from a drying well of time when it’s sometimes needed (as was the case on the day Empire had visited).

4. Sometimes You Work Beyond the Best Take

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 sit through many takes that will seem unnecessary at times.

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.

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:

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.

So you slated a scene wrong? Make a note on the camera reports and don’t mess up again.

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/orensoffer Oren Soffer

    Amazing article. Indeed, in Fincher we trust. Great lessons to learn from the man. Thank you for applying them to our day-to-day experiences on set! I think it’s really important to keep things in proportion, and this articles does a fine job of summing it all up. Great work!

    Also, just wanted to say that I also binge-watched House of Cards a couple of weekends ago, and thought it was positively brilliant.

  • Izaiah Kane

    Great article. It’s a very tough love realization. When I get away from camera and direct I always hope these thoughts enter my crews head.

  • Robert

    I certainly know what 16+ hours feels like with Mr. Fincher. But, it does yield beauties like these: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsUsVbTj2AY

  • http://www.diyfilmschool.net/ DIYFilmSchool.net

    The big difference in terms of payoff for an extra-long day, as you pointed out, is that David Fincher is skilled and knows what he wants. Mustering up the morale for a first-timer or an indecisive director is another story.

    I haven’t seen House of Cards because I don’t have Netflix. The article mentions watching the show on an iPad a couple of times — is the show not available on XBOX Live or on Netflix’s own streaming service? If it is, chances are some people have watched it on a TV, so I’m not so sure Fincher’s leeway with focus and other mistakes is the best stance to have. Though, I suppose he makes up for it with cutting around a lot of the bumps and blemishes.

  • Matt F6

    This may fall on deaf ears or seem like whining, but it needs to be said.

    While I am a fan of Mr. Fincher, and have “binge-watched” the entire season of House of Cards, I must disagree on one aspect. Not caring if people are tired. 12hr days are often the standard work schedule on production. Many Indy productions stretch that to 16-18hr days.

    This is a safety issue.

    I know 4 people who have survived accidents caused by falling asleep driving home from set and one good fried died (sleep may or may not have been the cause). Enough time between the days for proper rest.

    We work in what can easily be described as a dangerous profession with explosives, fire, hydraulics, high voltage/amperage power, and heavy machinery. One false move can be the difference between “the perfect shot” and an ambulance ride. A good friend of mine (a career 1st AC) states “tired equals stupid, and stupid = dangerous.” The recent helicopter accident on set is another proof of how dangerous our sets can be.

    Please watch Haskell Wexler’s “Who Needs Sleep”, for more a more in depth view.

    • trayNTP

      The piece said that. Are you happy?

  • MARK11

    Totally get all of this from the Fincher Man. And I crewed on numerous indie features before, during and out of film school. But, I went to film school to be the best writer-director I could be…not to be the best grip I could be. Crew members have got to always realize they are there to support the director who has to get the best performs out of his-her acting talents. Crews that don’t like that have only a few choices…they can direct their own stuff and finally know what it’s like on the other side; they can crew for a director who wants it easy for everyone and then never get hired again; or they can find another line of work. I’ve been on too many crews where too many crews truly think they know how to direct better…and never have the guts to step up to the plate and take on that responsibility. They just love to bitch and expect the money people and director give them nothing but easy work and easy days. Good luck with that…just stay the hell away from me and my sets.

  • joe

    Re: number 2. I’ve heard dp’s/directors say things like ‘here’s your light. You don’t have to hit the mark, but if you don’t, you won’t be lit. Up to you.’ interesting to see how different minds work.

  • trayNTP

    Before you can be as tough as Fincher, remember that you have to earn your stripes first. If the excellency of your work follows you, crew members will be more willing to take your “assholelery.” If you’re just getting started or are plagued by bad product, trying to imitate Fincher’s demanding ways will lose you staff and end up being an albatross around your neck, when the word around town becomes how you think you know it all but know nothing.

    In other words, respect must be earned. Many of these guys have worked with directors more experienced than you. Give them a reason to follow you, and trust in you. Just hearing some of their experiences is good politicking, but still being confident enough to do your job as director when you disagree with them on things you feel passionately, will go a long way towards earning respect early on in your career, a general rule that applies everywhere.

  • Scott Squires

    Much of the overtime beyond 12 hours is tied to incorrectly scheduled projects. Should everyone suffer, including the quality of the work, because the producer decided to pencil in 1 day instead of 2 for a complex scene? All projects have time and budget constraints. The director, producer and others have agreed to do it within those constraints. Directing is always a compromise. And while things can come up, if the crew is consistently working more than 12 hr days then the producer and director are at fault. If the director requires more shooting time then he/she better be asking for and getting it ahead of time. An actor at the 18 hr mark is not giving their best performance no matter where they were flown in from.

    And as others have noted safety becomes a real concern not just for falling asleep on the way home but the long term effects of massive overtime are really bad for people based on latest studies. The Intl. Camera Guild just passed a resolution to avoid massive overtime. There’s a reason for that. We’re not at war. We’re not curing cancer. The world won’t end. The shot can be picked up the next day.