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'The Game' Spins Into David Fincher's Control

Movies: The 34-year-old director of the new Michael Douglas thriller is called intense, manipulative, arrogant--and talented.

September 17, 1997|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Moments before David Fincher is supposed to take the stage and field questions after a screening of his new PolyGram film, "The Game," at the Directors Guild, the director eyes the crowded screening room and disappears, heading for the bathroom. When his return seems overdue, a PolyGram executive jokes, "Maybe he's in there throwing up."

If there's anything Fincher loathes, it's being in the spotlight. Intensely media-shy, he won't sit for a photo session and is uncomfortable, but cordial, giving an interview. He has boyish features, with the impatient air of a rush-hour driver caught in a slow lane of traffic. He scoffs at the media's celebrity worship of film directors.

"I'm not interested in reading stories about directors," he says one night, sipping iced tea at the Cha^teau Marmont. "I think the last time I cared what a film director had to say was when I was a kid, reading what Steven Spielberg said in Time magazine about 'Jaws.' "

For Fincher, the spotlight belongs on the actors. But sometimes the spotlight catches the guy behind the camera, especially if he's a natural-born director like Fincher. At 34, he's emerged as one of our era's most dazzling visual stylists, having directed three Hollywood films, a raft of splashy TV commercials and some of the most distinctive rock videos of the MTV era. Fincher's forte is noir-style pop chic, whether it's his Charles Barkley on Broadway Nike ad, his scruffy on-the-town portrait of the Wallflowers in "Sixth Avenue Heartache" or his sleek, George Hurrell-style adoration of Madonna in "Vogue" and "Bad Girl."

His films offer equally ravishing visual images, but you need good night vision to spot them. "Alien3," "Seven" and "The Game" all portray dark, subterranean worlds cloaked in grime and shadows. In "Seven," a thriller about cops hunting a serial killer, the detectives are always shining flashlights into inky-black darkness, a trick Fincher first used in his "Janie's Got a Gun" Aerosmith video.

Though he's a superstar in advertising and MTV circles, he hasn't scored with most film critics. "The Game," which took in $14.3 million in its opening weekend, has earned mixed reviews, but "Alien3" and "Seven" were dismissed as murky and pretentious. The Washington Post's Rita Kempley found "Seven" so dark that she wondered, "Is it art or did Fincher just forget to pay the electric bill?" Despite the snubs, "Seven" was a huge box-office hit.

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Made on a $70-million budget, "The Game" is a nightmarish, "Twilight Zone"-style thrill ride. Fincher describes it as "Scrooge by way of 'Mission: Impossible.' " It stars Michael Douglas as a ruthless tycoon whose ultra-controlled life gets a nasty jolt when his brother, played by Sean Penn, persuades him to sign up for a custom-designed psychological warfare game. When the game spins out of control, Douglas begins to wonder if he's been lured into a high-stakes con that might cost him his life. After a chance encounter with an irascible waitress, played by Deborah Kara Unger, Douglas thinks he's found a faithful ally. But maybe she's playing a devious role in the game, too.

Detractors dismiss the surprising ending as farfetched, a complaint that elicits a tart Fincher response: "Is it any more farfetched than John Malkovich on top of a runaway firetruck in 'Con Air'?" He is also unmoved by concerns that Douglas' character--and for that matter, much of the movie--comes across so cold and controlling that it's hard to sympathize with his predicament. "I find people who are cold and aloof, and wear it on their sleeve, very likable," he says. "What could be more honest?"

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Of course, to hear Fincher's friends and associates tell it, Douglas' character isn't so different from the director himself, whom they describe as intense, controlling, manipulative, arrogant and--oh, yes--extraordinarily talented. "You have your hands full with David--he's very clever and manipulative," says "The Game" producer Steve Golin, who founded Propaganda Films with Fincher in 1986 and recently signed Fincher to a new long-term production deal.

"There's a part of that Douglas character that David really relates to. He's anal and fastidious, which can be incredibly infuriating. If you came into his office and played with something on his desk, and didn't put it back in precisely the right place, he'd go nuts and have to move it to the exact spot where it was originally. So you can imagine what he's like when he's making a movie."

When Fincher was shooting "Seven," he would often respond to a stray noise on the set by yelling, "Shut the [expletive] up. . . . Please!"

"David is smart and glib, but he backs it all up," says "Seven" producer Arnold Kopelson. "He's not a waffler. He's always prepared, decisive and he has the greatest knowledge of the medium of anyone I've worked with since Oliver Stone."

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