If there is a modern master of psychological thrillers and dramatic bio-pics, David Fincher is probably it. Notorious for averaging 50 takes per scene, Fincher is the director best known for films like The Social Network, Fight Club, Se7en, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Panic Room, Gone Girl, and Zodiac. A non-film school graduate, Fincher worked hard, and like many others, through perseverance, made a name for himself in Hollywood.
David Fincher was born August 28, 1962 in Denver, Colorado. His mother, Claire Mae, was a drug addiction mental health nurse and his father, Howard Kelly “Jack” Fincher, was a writer and bureau chief for Life magazine. At the age of two, Fincher’s family moved from Colorado to San Anselmo, California, a small town in Marin county, about 20 miles from San Francisco. This turned out to be a terrific decision for a young boy fascinated by filmmaking because one of their new neighbors turned out to be George Lucas.
At 8 years old, already taken aback by the world of film, a young Fincher watched a documentary about the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. For him, this was the defining moment where he realized how movies were made and the long, extensive, creative and logistical components that go into making something that before had felt so immediate. He had unveiled the curtain on “movie magic," but it didn’t squash his love for film. Rather, it sparked something deep inside of him. He has said, “I became obsessed with the idea of "How?" It was the ultimate magic trick. The notion that 24 still photographs are shown in such quick succession that movement is imparted from it — wow! And I thought that there would never be anything that would be as interesting as that to do with the rest of my life.”
At this age he was also gifted a Super 8 camera. This allowed a young and inspired Fincher to put into practice what he found so fascinating on screen. Looking at his filmmaking style now, his great care for framing and setting up the perfect shot, it is no surprise that Fincher got his start with a camera at such an early age.
A few years down the line, when he was in his teens, Fincher's family moved again, this time to the picturesque city of Ashland, Oregon. Despite moving to a different state, Fincher never lost sight of his ambitions. While in high school he did technical theater for after school productions, designing sets, programming light boards, and directing plays. Outside of school he also worked as a busboy, a frycook, a projectionist at a movie theater, and a production assistant at a television news station. All the while he was studying the work of his favorite filmmakers, notably Alfred Hitchock, Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, and David Lean.
Fincher worked hard throughout his teens, determined for a career in the industry. He graduated from Ashland High School around 1980. Dissimilar to a number of other filmmakers, Fincher is one of the few who did not attend film school or college for that matter. Instead, at only 18 he used his high school production experience to get him a job working at John Korty’s studio. And, only a few years later he used his relationship with George Lucas (his old neighbor from San Anselmo) to get a job working on one of Korty’s animated films Twice Upon a Time, as a visual effects producer.
George Lucas was impressed by his young friend’s abilities, so following his work on Korty’s animated project, Lucas offered Fincher a job at his visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic. This position gave Fincher the opportunities to work on Lucas’s Return of the Jedi as well as Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
As is the nature of the industry, one job begets another, and Fincher wound up in his first directorial role for an American Cancer Society commercial. His commercial was about anti-smoking, and it depicted a fetus smoking a cigarette. It was distrubing, but made a statement, and certainly garnered the attention of more Los Angeles producers, which almost immediately led to his next job as a director working on music videos for musician Rick Springfield.
Something interesting to note about Fincher is that starting in 1984, directing a Rick Springfield music video for the song Bop ‘Til You Drop, Fincher has basically directed at least one project a year up until 2014, amassing over 90 directorial credits. Over 50 of these credits were from 1984 to 1990, and they were short music videos for some of the biggest names in music. He directed music videos for Foreigner, Madonna, Billy Idol, Paula Abdul, Aerosmith, Sting, and George Michael. If over 50 directorial credits in 6 years isn’t proof of tenacity and a stellar work ethic, I don’t know what is. And, after 6 years of working himself into the ground, it finally paid off and he got his first big chance as a feature film director.
Fincher’s directorial debut was as the replacement for Vincent Ward in the 20th Century Fox horror flick, Alien 3, which was nominated for Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards. While it wasn’t a complete flop, Fincher was not proud of his achievement, later going on to disown the film from his repertoire.
Another 5 years passed after directing Alien 3. Fincher was back directing commercials and music videos for Nike, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Coca-Cola, and The Rolling Stones (to name a few). But, again, his hard work and persistence paid off as he was gifted a second opportunity at directing a feature film. This time he was directing Se7en, a thrilling tale of a serial killer, starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, and Gwyneth Paltrow. A true “Fincher” film, this movie was one of the highest grossing films of 95’, making over $320 million at the box office. Both critically and financially a huge success, this was Fincher’s real launching off point, and the rest is history.
After 15 years since graduating high school, and really 25 years since getting his first Super 8 camera and dreaming of making it as a film director, Fincher did just that...he made it in Hollywood.
Exploring many filmmakers and how they’ve made it to where they are, Fincher’s story is no different. It is a tale of desperation, ambition, passion, hard work, and really the crux of it all is not giving up. He used one job to get the next, to get the next, to get the next, and after over a decade of putting his nose to the grindstone, he had achieved his lifelong dream. That should be a great comfort to everyone. Fincher didn’t have loads of money to pay for film school. He wasn’t born and bred into a family of filmmakers. He made it as a filmmaker on his own volition. All that to say, if you want it bad enough, if being a filmmaker is really what you want, what are you waiting for?
Get out there, do it, and...
Always be writing.
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Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.