As his new film gets ready to hit Netflix, the legendary director talks to Nick Chen about The Smiths, Michael Fassbender, and the similarities between directors and hitmen
To prove the catchiness of “Unhappy Birthday” by The Smiths, David Fincher sings to me the opening refrain with a huge grin. For our conversation, the 61-year-old director of feel-bad fare like Se7en, Zodiac, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is in surprisingly good spirits. Or bad spirits, given the miserabilist nature of The Smiths.
In Fincher’s sleek, bleak thriller The Killer, his second feature for Netflix, there are 11 killer songs by The Smiths on the soundtrack. An unnamed hitman (Michael Fassbender) – simply The Killer, in the credits – calms his nerves when operating a sniper rifle by listening to “How Soon Is Now?”, the tremolo reverberating through his earphones. “That guitar shouldn’t be comforting, because it’s sinister,” says Fincher, speaking in Ham Yard Hotel during the London Film Festival. “But to me, it’s comforting. We originally had Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. [Trent] Reznor was like, ‘Every time we use The Smiths, it’s just funny.’”
After the black-and-white seriousness of Mank, Fincher has returned to the kind of big-screen, popcorn fun he delivered in Gone Girl – except it also mischievously isn’t. Adapted from a French graphic novel, The Killer is less of a John Wick-esque, gun-toting adventure and more observing an assassin do admin to bypass security measures. He shuffles through paperwork to identify home addresses, and fills in endless forms to join a victim’s gym. To remain faceless, he picks up Amazon purchases from a locker and eats at a McDonald’s that doesn’t involve entering a building. If it weren’t too meta, he’d wind down by using someone else’s password to stream Fincher’s House of Cards on Netflix.
The Killer’s routine collapses, though, when he mistakenly shoots the wrong person. Up to then, a droll voiceover narrates each frame as if he’s a lifestyle guru for hitmen: “Only fight the battle you’re paid to fight.” Running off, his narration is gradually replaced by Reznor and Atticus Ross’s ominous score. “The first 16 minutes are putting the camera inside his orbital socket,” Fincher explains. “It’s regal in terms of over-the-shoulders and POVs. The camera is staid and gliding. When he misses, it gets handheld to show his wall is crumbling. Part of his wall is his measured movement through space, but it’s also his mantra. Certain lines no longer apply.”
Even though he’s never had an official screenwriting credit, Fincher is one of the filmmakers most commonly regarded today as an auteur. His precise, meaningful camera movements are instantly recognisable, whether it’s a tracking shot through a coffee maker in Panic Room or the music video for Madonna’s “Vogue”, and he punches up all his scripts anyway: a behind-the-scenes documentary on The Social Network reveals footage of the three weeks Fincher spent dissecting the dialogue with Aaron Sorkin, the latter routinely being rewritten.
Fincher also has fun toying with movie language. For instance, when The Killer initially shoots the wrong person, it’s preceded by “How Soon Is Now?” blasting at full volume to indicate when we’re in his headspace, or via tinny sound bleeding from his earphones to suggest the opposite. One moment, we’re in the mind of a world-class assassin; the next, we’re observing a loner who’s sleeping in an abandoned WeWork office in Paris as the window is opposite his target’s hotel. By switching back and forth every few seconds, it unnerves the viewer who’s used to film soundtracks playing at a consistent volume, and it conveys the hitman’s loss of concentration. “The song interrupts, lyrically, what’s going on,” adds Fincher. “‘I am human and I need to be loved.’ You better be conscious of what image that’s occurring over.”
After fleeing Paris and asking WWJWBD (What Would John Wilkes Booth Do?), The Killer returns to his home in the Dominican Republic, only to find that his partner has been hospitalised – payback for the botched job. His subsequent revenge involves tracking down those who wronged him. One of them is The Expert, a hitwoman played by Tilda Swinton. “He’s got to meet the Ghost of Christmas Has Yet to Come,” says Fincher. “A samurai meets the other samurai on the road. You need someone who fell to Earth. Someone who’s not normal. If you have a problem with a character, call Tilda.”
Even if there’s an ultra-violent, head-smashing brawl between The Killer and The Brute (Sala Baker) that ends amidst explosions, the most memorable set-piece is Swinton and Fassbender drinking whiskey in a public restaurant. Beneath the table, The Killer points a gun in her direction. As in The Social Network, Fincher proves he can shoot conversations like action sequences. “That’s a fucking nine-page scene where they’re not going anywhere, and she’s not going to try and run. She’s accepted her fate.” In the scene, Swinton has 99 per cent of the dialogue. “It’s so funny! People are expecting Pacino and De Niro [in Heat]. It’s just one guy sitting there, taking it all in.”
I comment on the incongruity of Fassbender, a natural movie star, depicting someone who blends into the background. “Really?” says Fincher, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t know. He’s strangely approachable.” He cites Fassbender in Prometheus. “That’s a role he’s not asked to do much of anything, but you can tell he’s invested in it. I felt we needed that, even if I knew that for 80 days I would be going, ‘Less. Less. Even less.’”
The script was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, who penned Se7en and did uncredited rewrites on Fight Club, The Game, and other Fincher films. By chance, Fincher has recently been working on a 4K remaster of Se7en. He chuckles when I ask if it was a moment for reflection. “Unfortunately, I’ve not learned anything about myself.” Even in conjunction with The Killer? He thinks. “I realised a lot of my shooting overscale, and oversampling 8K, and doing stabilisation or repositioning within a centre-cut aspect ratio – that was a reaction to problems I had on Se7en in terms of framing.”
He explains that 8K allows him to erase large portions of the image. “A lot of camera operators are taught that when someone drops their chin, they’re supposed to account for that.” He mimics going up and down with a camera. “I’m never going to shoot that type of close-up. I don’t believe in it. It makes me aware psychologically that there’s a camera operator. If somebody moves, and the camera goes over there, I go, ‘What’s with that guy?’” He’s not a fan of shaky cameras, then? “It’s this coat-of-interior-house-paint idea of ‘look, it’s verité’. It’s never worked for me.”
Evidently, Fincher has firm ideas of what a “David Fincher movie” should look like, and The Killer also happens to be about a white, male perfectionist who, with his telescopic equipment, takes aim to capture that one perfect shot. When time is up and I’m packing up my belongings, I blurt out my observation that he appears to have directed a film about filmmaking.
“Look, the notion of a sniper is that you have to have a pre-ordained knowledge of what you want to accomplish,” says Fincher. “It relies on a lot of specialised technology. The stakes are high. You get one shot at it. Yeah, in respect, it’s probably…” He sighs. “It’s a little dime-store psychology.” Heading to the door, I admit I saved it for the end as I was too embarrassed to mention it earlier. “OK,” he says, laughing. “Now you can slink out!”
The Killer is out in select cinemas now, and will stream on Netflix from November 10