While you may or may not appreciate Netflix or think its films should qualify for Oscars, it’s hard to deny the streaming service’s appeal for up-and-coming, disenfranchised, and/or disaffected filmmakers. But while there’s an egalitarian aspect to its distribution model that has made it a powerful force for indies, Netflix also has plenty of qualities to attract a certain kind of established screen director. One whose famously meticulous process and idiosyncratic stylings have instigated conflicts between art and commerce that led to several projects’ cancellations. One like David Fincher.
If there’s an A-list filmmaker made for the buzzword “disruptive,” it’s the guy who warned us about Mark Zuckerberg and managed to give shitty dude bait Fight Club such a good adaptation that people are still missing its point two decades later. I mean, he mocked his studio notes to the New York Times. He’s a little off-putting, a little difficult, and a little punk (or, at least, what passes for punk when you’re operating entirely within the machine of big business). Netflix is also difficult, powerful, and tends to solve problems by throwing more money at them. In other words, Netflix, with its “how do you do, fellow kids?” branding, outrageous (and/or bogus) performance claims, and unfathomable marketing schemes, is the perfect fit for Fincher—which is presumably why that’s where he’s done his only work on TV.
With the new anthology series Love, Death & Robots (which he executive produced) to add to a resume that includes House of Cards and Mindhunter, Fincher has made the streaming service his escape hatch from the world of movies: He can produce shows, direct the important stuff, and then move on without too much pressure.
Love, Death & Robots is the next step in his quest to end “22-minute and 48-minute” TV, something the heads of Netflix agree with, and his approach was to find his disaffected peers in the animation industry—those “people that don’t want to do talking-animal films.” His co-creator, Tim Miller (of Deadpool fame), had a more direct impact on the entries, doing passes on all the scripts, but with their equal billing, the series has used Fincher to show off its bona fides. Netflix knows what they have and Fincher knows what he wants. His managerial approach for the series mirrors the one he demands from his bosses: “Tell us how it’s going to work and tell us why you made these decisions, and then you let people do what they do.”
Fincher has tried doing TV elsewhere. He had a big deal with HBO. Three series: Utopia, Shakedown, and Videosyncrazy. None of them ever made it to HBO. The first to fall was sci-fi thriller Utopia (now headed to Amazon) in 2015, when the budget wasn’t just an issue, it was the only issue. “I thought we had really, really good scripts and a great cast,” Fincher said, “and you know it came down to $9 million… In the end, when you actually kind of lay it all out, $9 million in the scheme of things doesn’t sound like a huge discrepancy between what we wanted to do and what they wanted to pay for.” (If a quote doesn’t have a petty kiss-off—and receipts—it’s probably not from Fincher.)
Fincher wanted Utopia to be shot chronologically—something that would add to the visceral desperation of its protagonists as they flee a shadowy organization—on top of his usual dedication to hardcore detail. If you’re a newbie to TV and film production, filming chronologically is a gigantic hassle that effectively erases lots of time- and money-saving tactics in the service of narrative and tonal integrity. So HBO said no. Fincher said fine, I’ll take my TV elsewhere. Mindhunter (originally set up at HBO) hit Netflix the next year. The rest of the deal sank: Shakedown and Videosyncrazy were scrapped soon after, and since neither had the IP of Utopia, neither has been resurrected.
So we only have Netflix when we want to observe Fincher’s TV. House of Cards, even with political-thriller content that other series would shove in nice, cheap boardrooms and rented offices, is decadent. Production costs for House of Cards’ first season were more than $63 million, and, even though figuring out the cost per episode is more complicated than averaging it out, it stands to reason that Fincher’s two episodes cost about $9.7 million total. That’s about as much as a sixth-season Game of Thrones episode, and those have dragons.
But Fincher is at Netflix specifically because he doesn’t need dragons to command A-list budgetary respect. “I see Netflix as people who are bold enough and interested enough to build a playground between film and television,” Fincher said. “And that playground can be a safe haven for adult drama, which has been squeezed out of the multiplex.” There may be an idealistic drive behind Fincher’s turn to TV, but there’s also a selfish one: “I’m 55 years old. I want to be directing stuff, not auditioning it,” he says in the same interview. And that means looking for a place where the green light never turns off.
Mindhunter’s budget is a better-kept secret than House of Cards’, but it has a similar aesthetic richness, taking the Zodiac route by amplifying the potentially mundane to such intensity that it becomes sublime. We’re talking “shooting a nine-minute take 75 times” intense. That’s more 11 hours—for a single take. But they got it right, and like much of Fincher’s meticulously-produced filmography, people loved it. Fincher delayed the filming of World War Z 2 (which has since been canceled due to, surprise, budgetary concerns) for Mindhunter, perhaps because directing a fantastical genre movie where everyone keeps telling you “no” is a lot less fun than directing a grounded crime drama where “yes” is all you hear.
With few limitations to resources and little creative oversight compared to a studio or network that might, say, cancel a high-profile sequel right before production, being an A-lister or a Z-lister in Netflix’s sandbox seems like a breath of fresh air. The streaming platform offers a unique relationship to creatives on opposite ends of the budgetary spectrum: Netflix can act as an angel investor for filmmakers and creators who wouldn’t get support for their tiny projects because they’re not white, straight, male, and/or commercial—but it also has all the “fuck you” money it needs when its all-stars want to flex.
That’s a luxury for some, but a necessity for Fincher. Netflix is (so far) the only platform to put up with him long enough to produce actual episodes with his name attached, as my boss so eloquently put it, and as TV’s Wild West slowly calms down and streamers realize they can only throw money at one or two big-time moneymakers (hello, upcoming Lord of the Rings Amazon series), perhaps Fincher will move along as well. Back to films? Producing more Love, Death & Robots-esque, hit-or-miss shorts created and sold with a countercultural edge, harkening to his days at the head of Propaganda Films? Or will he find a VR company willing to finance his eccentricity for the prestige of his billing? Until he has a real TV flop, he can kick this can down the road. But when the streaming wars settle, the money dries up, and the creative freedoms restrict, don’t be surprised if Fincher goes his own way—yet again.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.