A lot of films are coming out this week. Too many. One of the most highly anticipated of these upcoming releases is David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s a film which, to be honest, most people wouldn’t be all that excited about if it wasn’t for the name attached. Fincher is one of the very best directors working today, and seeing him return to serial killer drama, even if it’s a remake, is certainly something worth getting excited about. I very much liked the film, though I do think it suffers from certain problems derived from the source material. (You can read my review of the film over at Sound on Sight .) Now that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is finally coming out, I think it’s time to see what we can look forward to from Fincher in the near future, as well as take stock of his success as a director.
In terms of future projects, nothing is too clear at the moment. Fincher has signed on to direct the pilot episode of Netflix’s first original series, House of Cards. Beyond that, the firmest attachment seems to be to Disney’s attempt at a new version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Fincher has also been named for several other projects including an adaptation of Charles Burns’ graphic novel, Black Hole. Whether any of these projects actually happen is up in the air. Adding further complication is the fact that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is actually the first in a series of books, and Sony Pictures has every intention of making both sequels with Fincher at the helm.
I love Fincher, but I am legitimately hoping Dragon Tattoo is something of a flop, or at least a small enough success that no sequels get made. First of all, I’ve seen the Swedish adaptation of the second novel in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and it was terrible. Now, I’m guessing this is partly because it was a bad adaptation, but I can’t shake the feeling that the source novel just isn’t good enough. And for all I’ve heard, the third book and film are a step even further down. Apparently Fincher is having doubts about attaching himself to two more films in this series. At a press conference over the weekend, Fincher had some choice quotes on the issue.
“The second two books are very much one story and it doesn’t seem prudent to me to go to Sweden for a year, come back for a year. Put out the second one. Go to Sweden for a year. Come back for a year.”
“Do I want to see a sequel for this? I would be happy for everyone involved as that would mean a lot of people went to see it and enjoyed it. Do I need to see a sequel? No, there’s a little bit of an emotional cliffhanger at the end, but the story is complete.”
“I haven’t given the second and third books near enough scrutiny to be able to comment on [them],” he elaborated his statement. “I’ve seen Steven [Zaillian]’s script for the second one and it’s really good.”
Why would anyone want to see Fincher doing two more films in a series he is already expressing his lack of interest in? In fact, judging by certain directorial choices in Dragon Tattoo, like the opening credits sequence, Fincher didn’t seem all that enthralled by much of the material in the first film to begin with. If it takes a failure at the box office to stop Fincher from getting stuck with a crappy franchise in frigid Sweden, so be it. I’d much rather see Fincher go off to do other things, even if those other things include a weirdly unfaithful, $200 million version of a classic Jules Verne novel.
I think it’s also prudent to take a look at what Fincher’s career has been like up to this point. I’d say that the moment that defined his entire career came right at the outset. Alien3 was Fincher’s first film and in my opinion it set the young director on a special kind of anti-studio path. While he works with studios, he is clearly very independently minded, and he doesn’t care for the pressures that go along with regular studio filmmaking. His approach has been fruitful but inconsistent. Sure, we got Fight Club and Zodiac and The Social Network, but we also got Panic Room, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and now The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. None of these are bad films by any means, but they present us with a director who is above the material he is often given. Why does he take it? Well, because he needs to. Fincher has to do projects like Dragon Tattoo in order to win studio executive support.
Just compare this pattern with that which another brilliant modern director has managed. Christopher Nolan broke out with his indie film, Memento. Warner Bros. made a deal with him to direct their remake of a Scandinavian thriller, Insomnia. Nolan didn’t have to do it. He could have gone to any number of studios, or even stuck to making smaller films like Memento for at least a little while longer. But his ambitions, as evidenced by Inception, required the kind of money and resources only studios could provide. He took the Insomnia project on, made a very good film, and used that new relationship with Warner Bros. to pitch his vision for a new Batman film. That could have been the end of it, but Nolan was shrewd. He saw the critical and commercial success of and used his leverage to get Warner Bros to go in with Touchstone on The Prestige. Then he did The Dark Knight and forced Warner Bros into producing Inception before he would sign on for a third Batman film. Forget Soderbergh, Nolan is the ultimate embodiment of the “one for you, one for me” technique. It’s a relationship that’s become incredibly successful for both studio and director and it shows no signs of slowing down yet.
Now, Fincher isn’t in quite the same position since he doesn’t write his own material. Still, I strongly suspect that he’s trying to find a way to gain the kind of traction in Hollywood that would allow him to do the kinds of projects he wants to do, the way he wants to do them, and with as little studio pressure as possible. He wants the kind of power Nolan has. He deserves it, too. But he needs the kind of financial success that Nolan had with the Batman franchise in order to have that sort of leverage. Sadly, his name alone just isn’t enough to sell a studio on a movie at this point. Few directors’ names are. Maybe only Spielberg and Cameron. Nolan’s name isn’t the most recognizable name in the world amongst the mainstream, but at least Warner Bros can stick “from the director of The Dark Knight and Inception” on the poster for any film he does in the future and it will get butts in seats. Fincher needs that kind of leverage.
Maybe if Dragon Tattoo is some kind of enormous runaway hit, Fincher will achieve that. But I suspect that if it does well it will only do well enough to greenlight a sequel rather than turn Fincher into a “butts in seats” sort of name, at least when it comes to mainstream moviegoers. Where Fincher goes from here is hard to say, and a lot of his future will be determined by just how well The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does. Fincher has been paying his dues ever since Alien3; hopefully he finds proper creative stability in the Hollywood system sooner rather than later. And hopefully it doesn’t take a couple of mediocre sequels he doesn’t want to make in order for that to happen.
(While I’m at it, let me also make a plea for everyone to go watch Zodiac. It’s a masterwork. If you haven’t seen it you simply must. If you have already seen it… Go watch it again!)