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Projections Movie Blog


David ‘Forty Takes’ Fincher seeks perfection from his actors

Dennis King Modified: May 15, 2013 at 12:19 pm •  Published: December 20, 2011


NEW YORK – Director David Fincher is notorious among actors as a demanding, hard-driving perfectionist.

Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig
Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig

For actors who’ve worked with him on such films as “Fight Club,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Social Network” and the much-anticipated American remake of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Fincher is known for shooting numerous (some say endless) takes of a single scene in search of just the right nuance of performance and production.

During press interviews for “Dragon Tattoo,” Fincher and cast members joked about his well-deserved reputation as a stylish perfectionist and offered some insights into the director’s demanding methods.

“I like people who like to work the way I like to work,” Fincher said of his casting decisions. “And there are people who share an unspoken understanding and way of communicating that’s easy. Sometimes people freak out when you shoot 40 takes or something, and they are sort of looking at you like, ‘what did I do wrong?’

“No it’s not wrong; we’re going to try something different,” he said he explains. “I like certain people’s energies, and you think this person could work well in this situation. Hopefully, you’re not going to the well for the same thing every time.”

Stellan Skarsgard, who plays the wealthy Vanger family scion in “Dragon Tattoo,” told of his own experience with Fincher’s work ethic.

“For instance, I have a five-minute monologue, which is very hard to get right, and we rehearsed it and we talked it over with (screenwriter) Steve Zaillian and it was a work in progress,” Skarsgard said. “Working with David you get a lot of chances to get it right. You get about 40 takes.

“And he does push you,” Skarsgard continued. “It’s not that he says, ‘I want the scene to be played this way’ and tells you how to do it. But after a couple of takes he pushes you one way, and then he pushes you in another way and then you push yourself in a third way and hopefully you come up with a lot of different colors in the same scene, which gives the director the options to calibrate your performance afterwards. That’s my hope that the director can calibrate my performance.”

“You don’t really think about it after a while,” said Rooney Mara who has the demanding role of Lisbeth Salander. “It’s all very exaggerated and dramatized. I think our average take count was much less than that.”

“Thirty-five,” her co-star Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist) mock whispered. “You don’t count. You really don’t count.”

“Unless it’s an insert shot, you really don’t think about it,” Mara said. “Then that can be quite frustrating.”

But, the actors are asked, does each successive take get better or worse?

“Sometimes you get worse and worse,” Craig said.

“Usually you get worse in the middle and then better,” said Mara.

“When someone throws a lot a money at you to do this, you’re there to get it right,” Craig said. “Things get frustrating in a work day, but there are lots of other things to get frustrated about, and then lots of sort of triumphs at the end of the day.”

The veteran Christopher Plummer, who plays wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger, said he understands and applauds Fincher’s demanding regimen.

“It’s funny that great directors – there are very few of them – know how to cast right,” Plummer said. “(David) casts right so that half his job is done. He obviously trusts his cast, otherwise why did he hire them? And because the job is half done the atmosphere on the set is so easy and so relaxed and so free that he lets you improvise whatever you want and then he just puts the cream on top. He just says, ‘that’s fine but let’s try it this way.’

“And the takes, the endless takes, are not really endless in the sense that he knows exactly what he wants and changes each take so it’s absolutely different,” Plummer said. “Some directors do take after take because they simply don’t know what they want. In his case his always he has the camera totally ready so you don’t hang about waiting, which is half the misery of doing many takes. He’s also great fun to work with because he has an enormous sense of humor. So he can be teased as well as us.”