If David Fincher has his way, date night trips to see his new film Gone Girl will turn into an arguments about spousal secrecy on the drive home.
“I hope so — but I hope they are civil!” the director says from Los Angeles, as he prepares for the Oct. 3 release of his screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling mystery thriller. (The movie will first open the New York Film Festival on Friday.)
Much to Fincher’s fascination, test screenings have already indicated a divide in reactions to Gone Girl’scentral married couple, often but not always along gender lines: some people identify with Ben Affleck’s besieged Nick while others side with Rosamund Pike’s vanished Amy.
“I’ve been mostly surprised by the people who say, ‘You know, I kind of understand what he was thinking. I sort of felt for him.’ And then you’ll come across women who’ll say they don’t feel anything particular abnormal about (Amy’s) response to some of the behaviour.
“So it’s a divisive movie in that way. There is a moment in the movie where a secondary character arrives and the screening room splits right down the middle.”
Also of great interest to Fincher is the audience reaction to the film’s dark humour, which includes many sardonic comments about relationships and married life.
“Yes! They look around and people go, ‘Uh oh, I better not be the only person in this row laughing!’”
Gone Girl, which Flynn also wrote the screenplay for, gives up its many secrets by degree. Amy’s sudden disappearance from her affluent Missouri home one hot July day, foul play suspected, spark both a missing person’s search and a witch hunt. Nick professes to be blameless, but town gossips and tabloid journalists think his good ol’ boy smile indicates a guilty mind.
Parallel narratives reveal there’s a lot more going on, a situation Fincher summarizes as “a husband with a lot of secrets in a marriage with a lot of secrets.”
It’s grist for the mill of this 52-year-old filmmaker, one not often given to talking about his work in the press, who loves puzzle stories. His work as a film director, which he began in earnest after an early career making videos for Madonna, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, is shot through with thrillers of deep secrets and devilish clues: Se7en, The Game, Zodiac and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo among them.
Small wonder that he admits, after some prodding from me, that the filmmakers he most admires all make movies rich in character and intrigue: Roman Polanski, Jonathan Glazer and the late Alfred Hitchcock.
Gone Girl was special for Fincher, though, because it was about more than putting together the jigsaw pieces.
“What makes this story interesting is this marriage and this couple and what’s going on between them … I haven’t seen this kind of look at the dark, soft underbelly of marriage before.
“And as we dig deeper, I could come at it from this angle and this angle. And all of a sudden, you start to spin the thing in the light in three dimensions and you see something a little darker than maybe what you had planned.”
There’s a huge public fascination with Gone Girl, something the director explains by way of a song by Tom Waits.
“It’s that wonderful Tom Waits song, ‘What’s He Building?’ Fincher says, lowering his voice into a Waits cadence as he recites some of the lyrics: “What’s he building in there? / Power tools in the middle of the night / What’s he building in there?”
He’s delighted with how Flynn transformed her Gone Girl prose into a screenplay, adding little touches like the Mastermind game that teasingly makes an appearance. He thought at first that the book would resist filming.
“I thought she did it with great zeal and great wit. I read the book and I thought, I can’t imagine that someone could get a script out of this. You have to throw away 350 pages. And then I read the first draft and I thought, wow, this is good.
“Gillian is honest about her prurient interest in what people are up to in the weird house at the end of the cul-de-sac. And I think that her gift is that she came up with a wonderfully absurd way to explore all of these layers of a married couple’s interpersonal relationship. She was able to throw the 10,000-watt magnified glare of the 24-hour cable news cycle at it.
“There is something out of the ordinary that trips up this wanton and voracious interest in this couple and then it shows you how absurd it is that any relationship could withstand this kind of scrutiny.”
Casting Ben Affleck for the key role of Nick Dunne may have seemed at first as a leap of faith, since Affleck is best known for his heroic and comedic roles, including, oddly enough, a Kevin Smith comedy titled Chasing Amy.
Fincher wanted someone who not only knew how to act, but who also knew what it feels like to be in the hostile glare of the public eye. Affleck has taken fan-boy heat over his roles in Daredevil and the upcoming Batman reboot, and he was subject to much gossip for his one-time relationship with pop diva Jennifer Lopez.
“We needed someone who understood what it’s like to be put through the wood chipper of public scrutiny,” Fincher says.
A more unusual choice, perhaps, was actor/director Tyler Perry for the role of scheming defence lawyer Tanner Bolt. Perry is a superstar when he puts on a dress to play a trash-talking matron in his Madea franchise, but he’s had far less success in dramatic roles.
“I met Tyler years ago and I really liked him,” Fincher says, explaining how he departed from the book’s logic a bit for this casting choice.
“I felt like one of the things that was hard for me in the book was that Tanner felt like Alec Baldwin from Malice. There’s a brusqueness and a sleaziness to that character and I felt we couldn’t have that.
“I needed a talk-show host. I needed a calming authority who could say (to Nick), ‘You’re going to get 10 million viewers and this is public relations, this is no longer about guilt or innocence.’ I needed someone who could articulate that and who was a presence.
“The thing I love about Tyler as an actor is that he’s completely present. He watches everyone in the room and their behaviour. He has a wonderful voice and a wonderful manner. When he tells you which way is up, you just naturally believe him. He’s just that guy.”
It appears almost nothing was left to chance in the filming of Gone Girl, no surprise to anyone who has followed Fincher’s work. He’ll reshoot a scene dozens of times to get the look and feel exactly to his satisfaction.
He will admit, though, to lacking final say over one aspect of the film: the festival it premiered at. Gone Girl skipped TIFF earlier this month and is instead having its world premiere at the New York Film Festival (Sept. 26 — Oct. 12).
“It would have been nice (to go to TIFF),” Fincher says.
“NYFF was partially about them and it was partially about us. It was very hard to spring Ben from his stately manor, so that was far as we could take him (New York). We worked it out, those were the dates, the only three days in a row that he could give up. So that’s where we ended up.”
It was a rare instance where Fincher wasn’t in complete command of one of his movies.