One of the most challenging aspects of storytelling is showing a character thinking. It might sound like a straightforward task, but think about what you look like while studying. Ever watched someone complete a puzzle? It’s a quiet, meditative task marked by trial and error. In reality, there’s remarkably little head-scratching or furrowed brows. Visually, it’s rather unimpressive.
So how does a creator reveal thinking—poring over material, investigative work, head-buried-in-clues research—without absolutely boring the audience? How does a director reinvent frustration, the false lead, the maddening search, particularly over a two-hour film?
David Fincher has made a career of chronicling that very process.
Not only has Fincher produced some of the most haunting detective sequences in film—Se7en, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—but you’d be unlikely to find criticism calling his films boring. He’s a master at tension-building and unapologetic about his resolutions. Perhaps this is why so many of his characters fall prey to their own obsessive madness. The unraveling of a character is something Fincher portrays with patience and deliberateness.
Of course, it’s possible Fincher is actually driving actors mad. After all, he’s infamous for demanding take after take—The Social Network’s opening sequence notably required 99 takes. But Fincher is calculated about this method. He described his reasoning in an interview with Timeout by saying, “We’re doing another one because I think that there’s a mistake that will be made—somewhere down the line once everyone gets bored—that will be more like human behavior than everything being offering up now.”
This relentlessness towards capturing authentic human behavior is perhaps what makes these thinking sequences so intriguing, and such integral parts to Fincher’s work. In Se7en, Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) are called to the gluttony crime scene. Upon their arrival inside the house, the detectives are limited to the use of flashlights. Fincher doesn’t cheat here, either; it’s dark. The audience can see what the detectives see through the scope of their flashlights and no more.
This technique, along with Howard Shore’s eerie soundtrack, is remarkable at building tension. The house becomes claustrophobic. The clutter and disarray is even more pressing because you have no idea what’s looming at the edges of the frame. And in a four-minute scene with limited dialogue, you see how Somerset and Mills really work. Somerset catches a glimpse of something curious and pauses, cocks his head to the side, and bends underneath the table. The camera follows the beam of his flashlight and then cuts away to Somerset looking at Mills. Mills understands the request and points his own flashlight to follow Somerset’s. Here they finally confirm that their scene is a homicide, for now Fincher uncovers the bound ankles and wrists of the gluttony victim. Piece-by-piece, the details are revealed. We learn at the pace the detectives do, and that indeed demands incredible patience from Fincher, as well as an understanding of how lighting and framing narrows his audience’s focus to exactly the pinpoint he’s aiming for.
Fincher’s inspiration for this may have come from the 70s thriller, Klute. In an interview with the Guardian, Fincher says, “I like this sequence in Klute where Donald Sutherland goes after a sound and he’s chasing somebody who may or may not be on the roof, and he runs upstairs, and the whole thing’s lit with a flashlight. And you look at that and you know that’s what it’s like to be running around with just a flashlight, because there are times when you just can’t see anything. I like that kind of movie.”
Fincher has other tools for that methodically slow reveal, too. In Zodiac, police slowly unveil tiny fragments of each crime scene. Given the spread of homicides across multiple California counties, police bureaus must work together, sharing evidence the other department doesn’t have. In this way, the audience builds a collective of fragments—a boot print, the origin of the Zodiac symbol, the ambidextrous nature of the killer’s handwriting. This slow buildup leads to a momentous pivot when, nearly halfway through the film, the inspectors finally interview Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch).
In this scene, set in an industrial break room with plastic chairs and vending machines, Inspectors Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), along with Sgt. Mulanax (Elias Koteas) sit across from Allen for a seemingly innocuous discussion. As they speak with him, the inspectors start to uncover clues. The trick is how to alert the audience to these recognitions without revealing the alarm or excitement the characters themselves must feel. Here before them is a man revealing one connection to the murders after another, raising the detectives’ suspicion with each new detail. But of course, the detectives can’t communicate this to their suspect, nor can they share this with one another during the interview. So how does Fincher clue us to follow along?
It starts with a framed boot as Allen crosses his legs and Mulanax recognizes the print and size. He pauses, the shot lingers on his furrowed brow rather than Armstrong, who is speaking. Next we see Toschi watching Allen, turning his head to the side as he catches the suspect fingering his watch. When he later requests to see the watch, we see it’s the Zodiac model with the logo their suspect loves to include. The detectives share glances with one another—knowing looks that tell us they’re all on the same page.
Finally, before Allen is poised to leave, Fincher captures the three detectives staring at Allen as the shot rests behind Allen’s back. Their casual interest has been replaced by suspicion—Malanax looks uncomfortable, Armstrong looks incredulous as he stares up from his notepad, and Toschi looks pleased at having caught his suspect in such a precarious situation.
When Allen finally leaves, the audience doesn’t need a detailed rundown of all the clues connecting him to the murders. Fincher has brought us along every step of the way. So when Toschi announces, “Does anyone think this suspect warrants further investigation?” we’re all in on the joke. He’s our favorite suspect and the excitement is palpable.
To understand exactly how much planning and thinking Fincher puts into these shots, examine one of the critical moments of discovery in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Here, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) are investigating the same group of murders from separate angles. Blomkvist has just acquired an important photo from the day of Harriet’s disappearance and returns to his cottage to piece together clues from this photo with evidence Salander has uncovered about the victims. He holds the photo next to one of the victim’s pictures, and here Fincher focuses on Blomkvist’s study of the photographs. We don’t see what he’s looking at, only his interest. Then, he holds the photos at another angle while the camera zooms in on the details that interest him. Now we see—emblems on the suspect’s clothing matches that of the victim’s. Blomkvist has made an important connection and we saw it right along with him even though no dialogue was ever uttered.
Meanwhile, Salander is poring over the Vangers’ company records. She’s surrounded by hundreds of clippings, but each time she makes a connection, the camera snaps between the text she’s pointing at, her careful study of the material she’s looking at, and the words she then types into her computer. Once she moves away from the table, the camera once again zooms in across the cluttered desk, a list of dates, to the spreadsheet on her computer. She’s come to the same realization Blomkvist has even though they haven’t been able to communicate.
Fincher’s choreography of these scenes over Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ foreboding electronic soundtrack heightens the pacing and tension of a sequence that could otherwise be dreadfully dull. After all, there is almost no dialogue in the span of ten minutes while the pair researches. Yet Fincher is able to deliver a sequence that creates an imminent sense of danger, for the suspect Blomkvist and Salander have just uncovered is at their doorstep.
To accomplish this meeting of actors and calculated lens work, Fincher must communicate a plan to his actors. He must both watch his characters react and direct his actors, while removing any elements of staging. He describes this act as a kind of collaborative ballet, saying “…it is about choreography, where the eye of the audience finds that person and that person is revealed and they come forward and say their line. All those things in concert.” He builds layer upon layer with his actors, his cinematographer, even his composers. “Where are the people, where do the people have to go, what do they have to do, what’s my relationship to them?” Perhaps it’s him asking this question over and over again that makes the movement of his camera so seamless with the blocking of his story. It’s a symphony he’s composed quite carefully.
This process of discovery might be his ultimate storytelling tool, given that Fincher seems so uninterested with neat resolutions. In an interview with The Telegraph, Fincher was asked about his “unsatisfying” endings to which he replied, “You know I don’t try to piss people off, right? It’s just always been the right thing to do.”
Indeed, it’s just always been the right thing to do.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures