In the early 1970s, when David Fincher was a boy growing up in Marin County on the north side of San Francisco Bay, he would take a bus to school every day. For six months the bus was tailed by police cars – a precaution against “the Zodiac”, a serial killer who stalked northern California for several years and, in a series of letters to local newspapers, threatened to target children on school buses. He was never caught.
It is unclear whether this unsettling early experience explains the dark, murderous themes that recur in the films Fincher has directed, from Se7en (1995), via Fight Club (1999) and The Social Network (2010) to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – though its influence on Zodiac (2007) is obvious. “It may have been when I first became aware of this notion of the aberrant thinker, thinning the herd,” he says with a wry smile, shortly after we meet in Off the Record, the basement bar and restaurant in the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington, DC.
There is darkness aplenty in his latest work, a 13-episode adaptation for Netflix, a subscription video service, of the 1990 hit BBC series House of Cards. Fincher’s version stars Kevin Spacey as a Machiavellian politician in a role first made famous by the late Ian Richardson. The action has been transposed from London to Washington, names have been changed – Spacey is Francis Underwood, rather than Urquhart – and the politics are American, not English. But the central theme of House of Cards is the same: spurned by his leader after being promised a more senior role, Underwood embarks on a relentless and ruthless quest for revenge.
With this in mind, we are eating in a fitting venue: short of dining in the West Wing staff canteen, it would be difficult to be any closer to the White House. Built in 1927, the Hay-Adams is a stone’s throw from the seat of political power and its basement bar is a favoured hang-out of journalists, lobbyists and members of Congress. Its walls are hung with framed caricatures of leading political figures: one has a studious Barack Obama mimicking Rodin’s “The Thinker”; in another a perfectly coiffed Mitt Romney looks admiringly in a hand-mirror only to see Paul Ryan staring back at him.
Fincher, wearing jeans, a grey cardigan and dark open-necked shirt, has arrived before me and is nursing a ginger ale. He has flown in from California for the glitzy Washington launch of the series in a few hours, when various political bigwigs will see the first two episodes of the show. He stifles a yawn. “I only had two hours’ sleep last night,” he says, explaining that he was up late working on a video. “So there’s a chance I might be interesting.”
A waiter in a waistcoat appears at our table and we study the menu. Fincher demurs when I ask if he will have a glass of wine, saying he has a headache. I happen to have some paracetamol with me and offer him one, which he accepts. He orders a Cobb salad “but without the blue cheese”; I choose steak salad and mineral water, and the waiter glides away.
Fincher, 50, says he didn’t have a burning interest in politics before making House of Cards but was fascinated with the original, particularly the breaking of the so-called narrative “fourth wall”, whereby Urquhart directly addresses the audience, involving it in his conspiracies. “I loved the idea of lessons with Machiavelli. That’s what I loved about Ian Richardson. He was wry and had great wit in the way that he skewered people.”
He puts the conceit to good use with Spacey who, in the southern drawl of a congressman from South Carolina, confides to the camera while walking through a crowded ballroom; he whispers asides while other characters are talking to him, and punctuates a dull conversation with two bores with an arched eyebrow and a snap of a salt dispenser that sounds like a gunshot.
Fincher is a demanding director, with a reputation in Hollywood for meticulous attention to detail and willingness to shoot take after take – often, to the chagrin of his actors – until he gets the shot or performance that he wants. This does not deter them from returning for more: he works with a tight-knit circle of writers and actors and has made three films with Brad Pitt (this is his second project with Spacey). He clearly got what he wanted from Spacey, who delivers one of his best performances in years. “Like taking candy from babies,” Fincher says of Spacey’s suitability for the role. “When I first read the script I thought: if not him, who could do this? There’s no one else.”
As is the way with Hollywood-helmed TV series, Fincher, who is also the executive producer of House of Cards, directed the first two episodes and chose the directors for the remaining nine, who have maintained the look and pace of the show, which shares the shadows and muted colour palette of Fincher’s earlier work. Why the departure from film? “I wanted to try to do something in TV. It’s not exactly TV,” he says, acknowledging that only Netflix and its subscribers will be able to watch the series (the company bought the series for an estimated $100m from Media Rights Capital, which negotiated with Michael Dobbs, the Conservative politician who wrote the original). “Well, the form of it is like TV. It’s episodic. We call it ... ” He pauses, cracking another smile worthy of Spacey’s Underwood, “ ‘streaming episodic content’.”
Netflix is making all 13 episodes available at once – they were simultaneously released in the 40 countries the company operates in on Friday. Won’t releasing all the episodes spoil the tension? “I’m all for it.” Viewers have got used to binge-viewing TV shows, he says: he discovered Breaking Bad, the acclaimed series about a New Mexico chemistry teacher who becomes a drugs kingpin, that way.
The salads arrive and we start eating, Fincher pinching an endive leaf and using it to scoop up chunks of tomato. He says the post-production process is radically different from anything he was used to. “It’s been exhausting. If you’re making a show that’s available to viewers on the same day ... you have to experience it in the way that they might.” That meant [at least once] watching all 13 hours at one sitting.
The son of a journalist and nurse, Fincher says his interest in film was sparked by his father taking him as a small boy to see a re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. “I was eight, maybe 10 years old. I knew The Birds and Psycho but I didn’t know The Lady Vanishes or Rebecca. I knew Universal Studios-era Hitchcock ... ” In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart’s wheelchair-bound LB “Jeff” Jeffries suspects that his neighbour Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has been up to no good. “I’m watching it with my dad and seeing Lars Thorwald go out in the middle of the night with a giant suitcase. I remember watching this scene and turning to my dad and whispering, ‘He cut her up and put her in the suitcase.’
“The notion that someone would solve a problem by butchering their spouse was completely outside any realm of experience that I had. And yet I had been taken by the tide and was experiencing that shocking, fantastic thing that happens when a movie works. When you go ... ” He takes a deep breath: “Ohhhhhh.”
He once told another interviewer that he didn’t know how much movies should entertain: he was more interested in movies that scar. “I was talking about Se7en,” he explains. The unconventional ending to Se7en, in which – spoiler alert – one of the characters discovers the head of his murdered, pregnant wife in a box, is one of the more brutal and devastating finales in cinema – and was initially resisted by the studio that released the movie. But Fincher held his ground. “I’m sure Rear Window affected in some way what I liked about reading the Se7en script,” he says. “One of the things that most interested me is that I know how many pages are in it because I’m holding it, and I know there are 15 pages left. John Doe comes in and gives himself up and he’s covered in blood. And I’m thinking: how do you resolve this? This can’t happen. In terms of the structure and in terms of the anxiety that provokes in the audience ... all bets are off. It’s literally not what [the audience] signed up for. You’re supposed to behave in a certain way.”
Though Fincher’s childhood experience of Rear Window convinced him that he wanted to work in Hollywood, there was already plenty of film-making taking place around him in Marin County. He grew up in a middle-class family but their neighbours were some of Hollywood’s biggest names. “George Lucas was my neighbour, Francis Coppola was shooting The Godfather [nearby] in Shady Lane. There was a lot of film around.”
Lucas, who had not yet made Star Wars, was then embarking on his film career. “I was walking down the street one day with a friend of mine and saw a crew setting up lights for American Graffiti. We saw these old [Ford] Thunderbirds driving around. And then the movie came out. They found a part of a street in Petaluma that looked 10 years old and were able to transport an audience back in time with wardrobe, the hairstyles. To see that happen ... was unbelievable.” And fortunate, I say. Imagine if he had been raised in Idaho instead of Marin County. “I’d be a rancher. I’d be delivering calves now.”
When he was 14 his parents moved to Oregon but three years later the 17-year-old Fincher returned to California, where he stayed with a friend and his mother, and, unusually for a film director of his generation, did not attend film school. Within two years, however, he had found himself a job working for Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, where he was part of the crew that made Return of the Jedi (1983).
We have demolished our salads and the waiter is hovering. I look hopefully at the menu again and ask if Fincher will join me for a glass of wine. The paracetamol seems to have worked. “You know what, I’m going to drink heavily this evening so I will get something kind of light,” he says. He settles on a glass of Pinot Grigio and an espresso; I choose a glass of Viognier.
I ask him how he went from a production job into directing at such a young age. “I thought about going to college. I was a cliché ... I wanted to be Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. I wanted to go to USC [the University of Southern California] but I was never a very good student and didn’t have the grades to get in.”
His practical experience seemed to work, though. After his job at ILM he moved to Los Angeles where a new industry – music videos – had been created, seemingly overnight. Fincher’s early training helped. “In grade school and middle school, they had film classes. And I took them all. At the beginning of every year they would give you a 45[rpm] single and you would have to make a film to it. By 1981, I’m sitting around my apartment and all of a sudden there’s this thing called MTV. And when I saw MTV I thought: ‘I actually know how to do this. I know how to produce something that is four minutes long.’ Doing my first couple people kept asking me: ‘What makes you think you can do this?’ And I said, ‘Well. I’ve been doing this for 10 years.’ ”
He further honed his craft making commercials for brands such as Nike, Adidas and Budweiser, as well as music videos for a range of acts, among them Nine Inch Nails, the Rolling Stones and Madonna (he directed her videos for “Vogue” and “Express Yourself”). In the halcyon days of music video he was a dominant force: in 1990 he received three of the four nominations in the best director category at the MTV Awards. After that, he went on to features and although he had a miserable experience making Alien 3 (1992) – the studio meddled and he could not get the light or colours that he wanted – he has not looked back. “I could not get the screen to be black,” he recalls. “I couldn’t get the creature to come out of the shadows unseen.”
It’s an obstacle he overcame years ago, creating a unique visual style that is as present in House of Cards, where the malevolent Underwood is often cloaked in darkness, as it is in his other work.
An executive has come to collect him but before he leaves I want to know how he has managed to make films that are so often unsettling within the rigid constraints of the Hollywood studio system. “What the studios are doing is having a diversified portfolio. They’re going to do some stuff that’s going to get some high-fives for its weekend grosses. And they’re going to do some stuff to get you some nods from the Golden Globes.”
Fincher’s films have made money, grossing $1.77bn worldwide, according to BoxOfficeMojo, which tracks box office performance. They have also earned critical acclaim: Fincher won the Golden Globe for The Social Network in 2011, a movie most critics expected to scoop the best picture Oscar at the Academy Awards (it lost out to The King’s Speech). “No movie is made with the intention of losing money. The ones that are good are as much a by-product of luck as they are of effort. It takes a lot of things coming together, you know? You’re running around a field with a jar trying to catch lightning.” He gets up to leave; I tell him to enjoy the screening. “Yes, the huge event,” he deadpans. “As a special treat we’re going to show you all 13 hours.”
There is a lot riding on House of Cards. It is the most expensive internet series ever produced and for Netflix it is a big bet that audiences are embracing a new way to judge drama, choosing online viewing over traditional TV.
Judging by the early critical response, Netflix and Fincher have a hit on their hands. Later, I see him at the after-party. Michael Dobbs, who wrote the original BBC series is there, as are Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and the other stars of Fincher’s version, fending off well-wishers and mingling with Washington politicos. And there is Fincher, now changed into a sharp suit, Hollywood’s own dark prince, holding court.
Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent
Off the Record
The Hay-Adams Hotel, Washington, DC
1 Steak salad $17
1 Cobb Salad $17
1 Ginger Ale $5.50
1 Mineral water $4.50
1 Espresso $6
1 Pinot Grigio $16
1 Viognier $10
Total, including service $99.60