David Fincher has something of a reputation. It goes back to the earliest days of his movie career, to Seven—even before. He’s infamously exacting, requiring his actors to perform endless takes. Sometimes well into the triple digits. Rumor has it that Jake Gyllenhaal is still scarred.
In the 61-year-old’s latest movie The Killer, which opens in limited release this Friday and hits Netflix on November 10th, Michael Fassbender portrays a meticulous hitman who obsesses over every… single… detail. He, like his movie’s director, is exhaustive. Exhaustingly so. He’ll take days on a job. He narrates the virtues of patience like a self-help tape stuck on repeat. Sound familiar? Some critics think so, detecting a whiff of self-deprecation in the air.
It seems a totally reasonable, and legitimate, observation. But does Fincher see the parallel? “No,” he tells GQ. “But I can see why the weak-minded…” He stops himself from finishing that sentence with a wry chuckle. Maybe he’s getting softer.
In many ways, The Killer is natural territory for this maestro of the macabre, best known to most for his grislier thrillers—including Seven, his they-didn’t-get-it-at-the-time masterwork Zodiac, and the prematurely canned Netflix psychodrama Mindhunter. (Oh, and a bloody-knuckled little ‘90s flick called Fight Club.)
Nevertheless, it’s a sharp left turn from his last feature, the deeply personal Herman J. Mankiewicz biopic Mank, written by his dad Jack, who passed away in 2003. “I’ve always liked B-movies,” Fincher says of the shift to this relatively restrained genre exercise. “And Fight Club to Panic Room, what’s that about? I don’t know, it’s kind of where your interests take you. And I spend a lot of time developing three or four things for every one thing I end up doing.”
The result is an eminently re-watchable revenge movie, morbid and sardonic and wickedly funny, the latter of which hasn’t been highlighted nearly enough in early press. Think John Wick, if Keanu Reeves was a sociopath with a penchant for bucket hats, Amazon and inadvertently xenophobic quips about Germans. Oh, and if he loved The Smiths. Especially “How Soon is Now.”
In a hotel room on one of October’s last sunny days, Fincher spoke to GQ all about The Killer, his feelings about AI, and why one of his (many) canned projects would’ve been “a lot” like The Last of Us.
GQ: I saw Fight Club last night.
David Fincher: I haven’t seen it in 20 years. And I don’t want to.
Do you have an aversion to watching your old movies?
No— yes. It’s like looking at your grade school pictures, or something. “Yeah, I was there.”
For The Killer, you grabbed Michael Fassbender in the racing off-season, right?
Yeah, you have to. I don’t know that it was difficult. I think we had to rush a couple of things, because we had a five-and-a-half month window, and it was an 80-day schedule because there was a lot of travel. So it was a question of the Venn diagram of when he’s available, when we can get the production together, and when it’s not hurricane season.
Did Erik [Messerschmidt, cinematographer on The Killer] then know that he was going to shoot Ferrari?
No. [Laughs.] I honestly can’t remember if they ever talked about it, maybe at some point.
Why The Smiths for Killer’s meditation tape?
I always knew that I wanted to use “How Soon is Now?” because I love the guitar. And I love the idea of somebody going, “what Johnny Marr is doing here is my meditation.” I just thought it was amusing. But originally, we had an entire soundtrack that was Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, full-on pre-goth. It was really cool, and really interesting, but you kept asking yourself, “Is he a music critic?”
But as we went along, you would find out that a song’s publishing was split amongst two or three different parties who are no longer speaking, and blah, blah, blah. And every time a song would drop out, we would replace it with The Smiths. “This Charming Man,” and so on. Every single time it was The Smiths, it was both sardonic, and raw. Trent [Reznor] was a big part of this: we kept thinking, what do we want to say about this guy?
I love the idea of a guy who has a mixtape to go and kill people. But if we have all of these disparate musical influences, are we missing an opportunity to see into this guy is? So The Smiths became a kind of stained glass window into who this guy was.
Was it a budgetary challenge to get that catalogue?
Well, I’m not gonna say it was cheap. But it shouldn’t be. That’s a major body of work.
Did you have to get permission from some of the commercial bodies that appear in the film: Amazon, WeWork, McDonalds?
Amazon gave us that Amazon “wall,” and they were great about it. We were shooting in Chicago, and they’d just been asked to remove one. It was an Amazon delivery kiosk that was along a park, or something. So we came in.
The commercial elements were Andy [Kevin Walker’s] wry interpretation of the modern assassin. It was very much about how do we have him interface with as many services and technologies today that would make it believable that somebody would be like, I don’t know, I don’t think there was a guy here, I don’t remember seeing anyone…
I didn’t even realize that there was a McDonalds in Paris that was a hole in a wall that you could buy off your iPhone. And the WeWork space is… no longer under construction.
Aside from The Killer, I’m interested in your thoughts — as an early embracer of other new movie technologies — on AI.
I think AI’s a really powerful tool. And for my money, I have not heard an AI Beatles song that compares to “Eleanor Rigby.” So until somebody plays an AI song that knocks me out… maybe that’s just where we’re at now, and I may be eating my words in a year, but I think ultimately, the thing that we respond to in poetry, and writing, and songwriting, and photography, is the personal bent. The thing that’s making it…
Maybe it’s a little trite to say that.
Well, you know. I have friends who are photographic geniuses playing with AI. And you look at it, and it always looks like sort of a low-rent version of Roger Deakins. And I understand what AI is pulling from in order to make this.
But I’ve also seen short films that are made by people who embrace what is ineffective and plastic about AI, and have made short films that are really moving, touching, and interesting, but it’s obviously AI. Until the point of time that somebody shows me something that I go — [he slaps his chest] — “Oh my god, that breaks my heart,” and then they say, “Oh, well, as it turns out, this was somebody talking into a microphone, and this is the film that came out,” I’m not that worried about it.
As it relates to actors… look, we had a few lines of dialogue in The Killer that we had looped but we couldn’t get right, with Michael, so he said it into an iPhone in an environment that was not conducive to being used as a voiceover, and we could take it and process it through the hours of voiceover that we had, and spit back out, and it was clean, and it was the music of his voice. And that’s incredibly handy to have.
Lastly, I’m a big fan of the original book, so I have to ask you about your ideas for the canned World War Z sequel.
Well, it was a little like The Last of Us. I’m glad that we didn’t do what we were doing, because The Last of Us has a lot more real estate to explore the same stuff. In our title sequence, we were going to use the little parasite… they used it in their title sequence, and in that wonderful opening with the Dick Cavett, David Frost-style talk show.
Was it a closer adaptation of the original book?
No, no. But there is some talk of doing that.