If you’re someone who subscribes to auteur theory – the idea that a film can be the perfect distillation of one director’s pure vision – then you probably consider David Fincher an auteur. But Fincher himself? He’s not really buying it.

It’s true that a David Fincher film is pretty unmistakable. Many of his movies share common themes of obsession, and there’s also an aesthetic that is very specifically “Fincher-esque” owing to his preferred style of cinematography and camera movement. But does that mean each David Fincher project is wholly David Fincher’s project?

As part of an excellent and lengthy Q&A about Fincher’s latest film Mank conducted by journalist Nev Pierce, Fincher explained why he doesn’t really buy into the idea of auteurism:

“I think anybody who knows anything, knows trying to get the troops to all face the same direction is fucking hard. And the notion that you’re going to be able to beautifully articulate for all of these different interests, educational backgrounds, generations, this entire group that’s separated by all these different personal experiences, and simply impart to them how you’d like to see it happen then sit back in your chair and watch it unfold…”

David Fincher Mank
Image via Netflix

Fincher compares the process of making a movie or TV show to a messy combination of brain surgery and demolition:

“As you well know, and as anybody who’s spent any time on a set knows, there’s a lot of sweat and swearing and trickery and manipulation, and you have to be equally good at blunt-force trauma as you are sculpting rice grains. It’s brain surgery, and interior house painting, and pouring a foundation, and child psychology. It’s all of those things happening simultaneously. It’s a very difficult thing for the uninitiated to imagine the kind of self-possessed douchebaggery that it takes to make it happen. And sometimes it happens by accident, and sometimes it happens by explicit fractal design. And sometimes somebody fucks up a line in the best possible way, and it changes the coverage and what that scene finally means.”

To this point, Fincher hits on possibly the best example of why auteur theory is bogus by dissecting the origin of the iconic line “You talking to me?” from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver:

“When you see Robert De Niro say, ‘You talking to me?’ That is part and parcel of the fabric of the way they were thinking about that movie, up until then. The fact that that line of dialogue had never been committed to paper via a typewriter, doesn’t make it any less of a perfect collaboration. The screenwriter, who may have not even been present for this, gave the actor and the director, everyone – the cinematographer, the boom operator, all of them – this kind of framework for understanding who Travis Bicke was. And in that moment, a bunch of frustrated, sweaty people are shooting in a fifth-floor walk-up, to try and give you an idea of who Travis Bickle is. And somebody goes, ‘I know, I’m gonna look in the mirror and I’m gonna… You’re gonna like it. Just roll.’ And you do it. And I’m sure Scorsese saw this moment and went, ‘Holy shit. That’s the treatise… That is the Travis Bickle experience!’ ‘You talking to me?’ Like, there is no better way to encapsulate what this guy is looking for. He’s looking to be respected. He doesn’t understand what that’s gonna take. That doesn’t mean that Robert De Niro wrote Taxi Driver. It doesn’t mean that Martin Scorsese is any less of a fucking genius for going, ‘Definitely print that take!’ You know what I mean?”

Image via Columbia Pictures

Fincher is quick to note that this kind of occurrence – improv that’s perfect — is rare, but it’s a testament to everyone involved in the making of that film working at the top of their game:

“All of that goodness accrues to everyone who was paying attention. And when you ask an actor to improv, more than nine times out of ten, it does not accrue to, ‘You talking to me?’ Sometimes, it’s dog shit, and you go, ‘Okay, I didn’t give you enough to work with’; or, ‘This moment isn’t about that’; or, ‘This moment actually plays just as a kind of withering look’. And we can move on. But, when an entity: writer, producer, director, cameraman, sound recordist, actor, stand-in, dolly grip, focus-puller – when that whole dynamic is cooking with gas, you’re gonna come up with these things. ‘You talking to me?’ should accrue to Paul Schrader. Even if he didn’t write it, it’s not about what he wrote, it’s about what he wrote around this that infused everyone with this intense understanding of what they were talking about. So, I don’t look at it and say, ‘Well, for one, brief shining moment, Robert De Niro should get a WGA card!’ That’s his job. The actor’s job is to be finding all of these impulses. That’s a guy who’s steeped in what he’s doing and what he’s bringing to this endeavor.”

The Social Network filmmaker brings it back around to comparing filmmaking to a messy process rather than an exacting one:

“So, I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t believe in auteurism, because I don’t ultimately feel that anyone can inform a moment so explicitly, that what everyone is in service to is simply that one person’s idea. I feel like moviemaking owes a lot more to demolition derby than it does to neurosurgery.”

Going further, Fincher explained what it would take – in his mind – to buy into the auteur theory:

“Auteurism could work if I’d ever seen anyone have the power to be able to perfectly explain what it is that they want, and then eighty-five other people to deliver on exactly what that is. And then you could definitely turn and point to that person. But if you’re a talented fucking sculptor, you’re gonna have hits, and you’re gonna have misses. And you’re gonna have stuff that you’re still trying to wrestle with, and it’s ultimately gonna be a process that involves a lot of people and a lot of dirt and a lot of waste-making. And, as we always say, ‘Movies are not finished – they’re abandoned.’”

Image via Netflix

He’s not wrong, and yet there is something to be said for filmmakers who are more successful at relaying their specific vision while remaining open to collaboration than others. Some films feel almost anonymous, as if the director didn’t have a strong opinion one way or another. That leads to a mishmash of a story that doesn’t quite gel, or character actions that are unmotivated, or lines of dialogue that feel out of place. So this isn’t all to say “the director doesn’t matter” – I think the director is a vital aspect of the moviemaking process. But I also agree with Fincher that it’s almost impossible for one person to force every single crew member to be in lockstep with his or her exact vision.

And as the Taxi Driver example proves, being open to collaboration within the bounds of the story and themes that the movie is tackling can result in pure brilliance. Who deserves the credit? Well, everyone kinda. But I can guarantee that moment doesn’t happen without De Niro, Schrader, or Scorsese involved. Moviemaking is alchemy, and with the right mix and a little elbow grease, sometimes you get magic.

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