Publisher: Abrams Books
Release Date: November 23, 2021
A Conversation with Adam Nayman
“David Fincher: Mind Games” is the third in a series of three books (The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together and Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks are the other two) that focuses on various contemporary auteurs. His latest is the most significant book currently available that offers any sort of “definitive critical and visual survey of the incredible works” of David Fincher. It discusses each of his features — including Alien 3, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and Mank — but also discusses other works such as various commercials, music videos, and especially House of Cards and Mindhunter. Each chapter weaves production history with original critical analysis and is beautifully illustrated with behind-the-scenes photography, still-frames, and original illustrations. Better yet, Mind Games also features interviews with Fincher’s frequent collaborators — including Jeff Cronenweth, Angus Wall, Laray Mayfield, Holt McCallany, Howard Shore and Erik Messerschmidt. One of the more interesting aspects of this text is that Adam Nayman eschews a chronological approach in favor of grouping Fincher’s films around “themes of procedure, imprisonment, paranoia, prestige, and relationship dynamics.” The marketing materials claim that the book is “styled as an investigation into a filmmaker obsessed with investigation,” and that is a pretty deft way to sum it up. The director’s fanbase is certain to find the book an essential addition to their bookshelves.
In addition to The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together and Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, Adam Nayman is a contributing editor to Cinema Scope. Needless to say, we are honored that he agreed to discuss this excellent new book with us.
CL: Thanks for taking the time to discuss your new book with us during these busy days! Could you tell us how it all began for you? When did you first become interested in cinema, and how did you begin writing about it?
AN: I grew up in a household filled with books by Pauline Kael. My mother Evelyne is a movie fan and instilled a passion for cinema as well as for cinema appreciation. By the time I was eleven or twelve, I’d inhaled a decade’s worth of Roger Ebert ‘Movie Yearbooks’ and moved on to Danny Peary’s ‘Cult Movies’ guides. I also picked up used copies of ‘Midnight Movies’ and ‘Cronenberg on Cronenberg’ and started trying to write my own reviews, diaristically, but in a similar vein. In seventh grade, I convinced my teacher to let me do a collection of movie reviews as an independent assignment and turned it in with pride. She couldn’t believe how many of the movies in there were things she hadn’t seen or heard of. In high school, I volunteered to review movies for my school paper and did the same in university, after which I bridged into professional work.
CL: You’ve written about so many different directors. Does any particular filmmaker stand out as your favorite of all time? Who has made the biggest impression on you?
AN: I think the answer to that question changes over time, but it’s not as if each new candidate cancels out their predecessor. The first movie to completely hold me in any kind of thoughtful, grown-up way was The Manchurian Candidate, and the way John Frankenheimer synthesized horror and drama with satire made an indelible impression on me. I’m always interested in anything that feels hallucinatory in the same purposeful, deconstructable way. After that, in my teens, I think the filmmakers who captured my imagination most were the ones who went to different kinds of extremes — not only Lynch and Cronenberg (who offered illicit, intellectual stimulation) but also long, slow, spacious minimalism: I cottoned on to Tarkovsky and Tarr. My favorite living, working filmmaker is Claire Denis, for her boldness and refusal of categories, and obviously I’m fond of the directors I’ve written books on as well — the Coens most of all, for some of the same reasons I loved The Manchurian Candidate (and I wish they would remake it).
CL: Is there a single film that is of special importance for you?
AN: The answer to this question will always be Jaws. The reasons are pretty much self-evident, but one bit of context I’ll offer is that it was the first time I remember my mother hesitating before letting me watch something; that little hesitation, and the excitement of her going through with it as the cassette slid into the VCR, is one of the great memories of my childhood.
CL: Those paying attention might notice that this new book about David Fincher follows two similar volumes about the work of various auteurs. How was this series born — or were these books even conceived of as a series? How do you choose which filmmakers to cover?
AN: The Coens book came out of a very spontaneous and fortunate series of circumstances made possible by my connection to the UK film magazine “Little White Lies.” The series was born out of a relationship between LWL and the US publisher Abrams, specifically between two guys in London — David Jenkins and Clive Wilson — and an editor in New York named Eric Klopfer. The concept was always a kind of thorough, essayistic “auteurist” overview that melded big-format pictorial criticism. While it took a while to figure out the flow, the layout, and the relationships between images and text, it came together really well, and did really well. The Anderson book was a logical sequel that constituted a challenge insofar as I’m more ambivalent about the filmmaker — a fan, for sure, but with reservations that I don’t have about the Coens. Fincher represents an even deeper level of ambivalence, which means that the books keep getting harder even though certain features of the format — and the workflow — are the same.
CL: That’s interesting because each of the books inspire an enthusiastic appreciation for the filmmakers and their work. How do these volumes differ from similar books?
AN: That’s not for me to say, although if you read them carefully, you’ll see how much I try to acknowledge, cite and build upon existing criticism and reception. I always read a lot of books — and articles, and press kits, and blog posts, and so on — before I write, and also as I’m writing, and as I’m editing.
CL: How does David Fincher stand apart from his contemporaries, and what are the qualities that define him as an artist?
AN: He’s a brilliant technician, and I think there’s a tension between his adroitness with a certain kind of imagery — sleek, cool, edgy, seductiveness—and the cautionary themes of the scripts he works with. So many of his movies are about iconcolastic confidence men in a marketplace of ideas: his serial killers and cult figureheads are all trying to promote ideology through mass media forms. Given Fincher’s background in advertising, these narratives can’t help but feel double-edged, and trying to locate the relationship between his showmanship and his worldview — where they align, where they diverge, and whether they contradict one another in helpless or productive ways — is what the book is about.
CL: Do you have a favorite David Fincher film?
AN: I think Zodiac is an almost perfectly written, directed, acted, shot, and edited movie that is then somehow more than the sum of its parts — more than almost perfect, I guess, and probably better even than a “perfect” movie insofar as its little flaws and frustrations place the brilliant bits in context. I think it’s one of the richest, densest, and most re-watchable American movies ever made.
CL: I agree completely. It might be my Fincher-favorite as well. I find that my appreciation for it only grows with each viewing, and I always see something new. I experience it differently every time that I watch it.
This new volume is structured differently than a lot of similar career-spanning volumes as most tend to discuss films in a chronological manner. Could you discuss the structure of “Mind Games,” and tell us why you decided to present the information in this manner?
AN: I experimented with a non-chronological approach in my PTA book, and thought Fincher lent himself well to a dossier approach: different tendencies and themes, enumerated and filed like a psychological profile. So those themes/topics were: procedural structure; entrapment; paranoia; an existential relationship to history and time; a satirical relationship to gender and romance. The connections go in other directions as well, of course, but this arrangement seemed to make sense and helped me elide clichés about his career. The exception to the structure was Mank, which got stuck in at the end as a kind of bookend — a way of beginning and ending in a present tense.
CL: Have any aspects of Fincher’s work changed or evolved throughout his career?
AN: He’s somehow become simultaneously speedier and more contemplative: notwithstanding the odd ricketiness of Mank, he’s a filmmaker who locates clarity in momentum. I don’t think of the early films as being especially fast no matter how intricately they were edited. Now, he just powers through everything – narrative, character development, world-building, set-ups payoffs. The sheer amount of information (and data) that is still conveyed — lucidly — by this approach strikes me as remarkable. In other ways, he’s very much the same director he was at the beginning, and the juvenile or playful elements of the first movies still work in the context of his style, but they’re also more purposeful and refined. Seven is a movie that works brilliantly in a pulp-fiction context; Gone Girl is sort of about that pulp fiction context, without sacrificing entertainment value or craftsmanship.
CL: Were there any unique challenges to covering the career of David Fincher that you didn’t face when writing about other artists?
AN: Just trying to find a language to describe such a clean, precise, lucid aesthetic, and to sidestep the clichés around his reputation — to say something that’s not simply about perfectionism, or control, or confidence, etc.
CL: Do you have a favorite out of the books that you have written so far?
AN: I’ve never been happier than I was after finishing my first book for ECW Press, about Showgirls: that felt like a victory over something.
CL: Can readers expect similar volumes on other auteurs in the future?
AN: One can only hope.