The job of the film director is interesting in a lot of ways and differs really depending on where you are in the world. The role of the director is essentially to make sure every aspect of a film is put together in a certain way to add weight to the film’s overall theme yet, most people that enjoy watching films do not really understand to what extent the director is involved in each department. Of course, this extent varies from director to director and even country to country where in Europe the director is respected as the auteur of the film and given complete artistic responsibility while in the United States those controlling the money are in charge of large artistic decisions. While most see a film because they like the actor or actress in the film, the director of the film has more to do with the film. Like anything else, there are always arguments as to who the best is or even what makes someone the best at something. But for this argument lets just focus on one of the more prolific directors of the last twenty years, David Fincher, a director who has perfected tricking his audience into believing what ever information he puts on screen and then pulling the rug out from under them.
When an audience watches a film the only information that they receive about what is going on is from the film itself. Sure, most filmgoers often have an idea about the premise of the film before they go see it but for the most part they go in blind and it is up to the director to navigate them throw the shadows and unveil the story to them. Inherently because films are told in this way, the director has a lot of control over what the audience is thinking at a given point during the film. The great directors in cinema are able to make the audience bend to their will whenever they choose, while the bad ones leave the audience walking out of the theater unsure what the film’s story was. The concept of manipulating the audience’s perception has been explored as far back as 1920 in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and is apparent through good directors in good films such as Hitchcock in Vertigo and bad directors in bad films with Shyamalan in The Village. For the most part, these types of films revolve around a twist in the end that takes all of the audience’s preconceived notions about the world in the film and shatters them so they can show the audience in the final moments of the film what has really been going on. While being able to manipulate your audience alone is difficult, being able to pull of a twist ending is even more difficult. But by walking through David Fincher’s career we can observe the pitfalls he feel into and how since then he has been able to master the technique and take traits from it to increase aspects of his other films.
Fincher’s directorial debut is marked by the lackluster third installment of the Alien franchise. While it is Fincher’s first film, it does not offer us a lot of insight into his directing style as he was forced to fit the film into the franchises niche. However, three years later with the release of Se7en Fincher’s direction becomes more apparent. In the context of Fincher’s later films it makes a lot of sense for a detective thriller to be his first film. In order for a twist to work in a film, the audience cannot be expecting it, for if they expect it then they lose interest and get angry at the characters for being dumb and not realizing the twist until later in the film. In order to make sure the twist is not apparent, a director must lead the audience down a different trail by dropping clues throughout the film while leaving behind clues that suggest a different trail only after the twist in the film is revealed. This way the twist does not come out of left field and can make sense to the audience. Now as mentioned, by making Se7en, a crime film where the audience analyzes every bit of evidence like the detectives in the film, Fincher had concocted the perfect experiment. As a result after making the film and gauging audience reactions to various parts in the film, Fincher was able to build a database on how audiences reacted when they learned information about the film’s stories and characters and in what ways information should be revealed.
After Se7en, Fincher had learned a great deal about how audience’s view films and about how you can reveal certain information to the audience in order for them to come to certain conclusions. Fincher then decided to put the data that he gathered to the test and play with the audience’s notion of understood reality by pulling of multiple twists in the final moments of his next film, The Game. The basic premise of The Game is that the main character has entered into a game to make his life more exciting even though he does not know what the game is. For the duration of the film the main character struggles with finding out what is going on and whether or not the game is for his enjoyment or if he was a victim in a crime. During the course of these events the audience is also trying to decipher the mystery based on the evidence and events of the film, but after the film offers ample evidence to support one idea and then flips for the fourth time the audience loses interest by the films final twist during the climax. The reason that Fincher lost control over his audience towards the end of the film even though he made sure to include evidence that would lead them down specific trains of thoughts is because by the second twist the audience’s guard was up and they were waiting for a twist at the end therefore allowing any outcome in the film to not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, Fincher would redeem himself in his next film by combining the information that he learned in his previous films to finally play the audience like a fiddle.
Fresh off of the twist of Bruce Willis being dead the whole time in The Sixth Sense, audiences in 1999 were looking for the next film that would be able to mess with their sense of reality. Less then seven weeks later Fincher would answer their call with a film based of a Chuck Palaniuk novel of the same name, Fight Club. In this film Fincher was able to maintain the audiences attention the entire film with its edgy dialogue and anti-establishment attitude that was all the rage in the nineties so that by the end of the film he was able to punch back with the twist they never thought to even look for. Now the reason that the Tyler Durden being the narrator twist works so well in the film is that the entirety of the film up until this is revealed makes sense to the audience and is not just some incoherent story that hinges on the reveal to make sense. By giving the audience an entertaining film and not relying on the twist in the end like The Game the audience was not in constant wait for a large twist to save the day and as a result knocks the audience off its feet.
Once a director is able to accomplish this type of storytelling they tend to try to stick with it and attempt the same action in their next film as a result this type of filmmaking becomes a gimmick and synonymous with their name much like M Night. Shyamalan (who I have referenced three times now in this article) causing audiences to always be on the look out for a twist no matter how good the director is at masking it. However, instead of falling down this path Fincher was able to extrapolate some of the element that he uses to craft this concept and instead use them to enrich traditional storytelling. This aspect is much more apparent in his more recent character driven films such as The Curios Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. While previously other twist centered filmmakers were being regulated to story driven films Fincher is able to do these character driven films because in the same way he learned how to reveal crucial details about a film’s plot to sway the audience’s opinion he was able to do so with characters.
In a filmmaking landscape where audiences seem to value or underestimate the power the director over a film Fincher is excelling in making his audience feel however he pleases. While most think that the job of the director is to just show the audience an actor reading his lines in a clear way Fincher is meticulously composing every part of his shot so that the actors, props, and dialogue all contribute to some ultimate meaning that the audience is not aware of in the moment. Interestingly enough, a director whose style is not easily identifiable visually like many of the great directors in film history the way he directs is a clear textbook example of what all directors should strive to do.
Thank you for visiting Celluloid Cinema. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.