There was a time when David Fincher's career threatened to derail. Following his 2002 home-invasion thriller Panic Room, he dropped out of skateboard film Lords of Dogtown and Tom Cruise vehicle Mission: Impossible III. He toyed with numerous other projects – including an adaptation of Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama – but nothing came to fruition. "Making movies is hard," he shrugs. "It takes a long time." Already known for his Kubrick-like fastidiousness, Fincher seemed afraid to commit to anything less than the perfect project.
Still, Fincher knows more than most that patience is a virtue. Arriving just 18 months after Zodiac, his meticulous 2007 true-life serial-killer tale that finally returned him to directing, comes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. A nigh-on three-hour epic meditation on life, death and all the bits in between, and all of a sudden Fincher is looking prolific. "I know," he grins, when we meet in Berlin. "And I have nothing new to say!"
Yet, with Benjamin Button marking a significant new chapter in his career, this couldn't be further from the truth. No longer the punk provocateur, Fincher has grown up with a film about growing young.
The film has already grossed more than $100m in the US,becoming Fincher's most commercially successful film to date, eclipsing his previous personal best, set by 1995's Se7en. Better still, this sensually made adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's short story about a man who is born old and ages backwards, has been embraced by the industry. It leads the pack at this year's Oscars, with 13 nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, a prize Fincher is also up for at next Sunday's Baftas – the first time he's even been nominated for either award.
Having lost out at the Golden Globes, when Benjamin Button didn't score with one of its five nominations, Fincher seems unmoved by such back-slapping. "It's a great thing to make movies," he says. "Awards are just icing on the cake." Perhaps he's all too aware of just how fickle Hollywood is. So "hellish" was his time battling with executives on his 1992 debut Alien 3, he famously stated that he'd rather get colon cancer than make another studio movie. Then there was the critical roasting he got over 1999's Fight Club, his nihilistic examination of millennial angst (the late Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker claimed it was "anti-God").
This time, it's hardcore Fincher fans who might feel outraged as the director goes touchy-feely. Beginning at the end of the First World War, it's a whimsical slice of magic realism as its protagonist (played by Brad Pitt) is born with the body of an octogenarian and grows younger by the day.
Though technically groundbreaking, with Pitt's facial features grafted on to a body double in these early scenes, it's a far cry from the grim aesthetic and grisly themes of Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac. Fincher remains unapologetic: "I don't mind an experience that's emotional if it sneaks up on you. I just don't like it when it announces itself, when you see it coming from the first act."
The script landed on Fincher's desk as far back as 1992, and, unlike all the others that have fallen by the wayside, it was one he couldn't let go. "I read it and it made me cry. I recognised so many of the people in the movie, I thought, 'It would be nice to make this movie.'" Nice? This coming from the man who put Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box in Se7en, brutalised Jared Leto's face in Fight Club and terrorised Jodie Foster in Panic Room? Detractors are already sharpening their knives: the BBC's Mark Kermode recently sniffing that the film was "Forrest Gump with A-levels", a reference to the fact that it was co-written by Gump scribe Eric Roth.
Yet this fails to take into account the profoundly tragic dimension of Benjamin's dilemma, as he falls for Daisy (Cate Blanchett), a young ballerina he meets when he's a wizened old man. Eventually, as he ages backwards and she forwards, they pass each other in years and fall under each other's spell. "Would you still love me if I were old and saggy?" she asks. "Would you still love me if I were young and had acne?" he replies. Still, their problems are much more than cosmetic, as the ageing Daisy must contend with a lover approaching adolescence in reverse. As Fincher puts it, "There isn't a happily ever after."
Now 46, his hair and goatee a delicate shade of grey, Fincher admits that notions of mortality were swirling through his mind when he first read Roth's script. He was reminded of his father, Jack Fincher, a former Life magazine reporter who died five years ago. "I remember the experience of being there when he breathed his last breath," he says. "It was incredibly profound. When you lose someone who helped form you in lots of ways, who is your 'true north', you lose the barometer of your life. You're no longer trying to please someone, or you're no longer reacting against something. In many ways, you're truly alone."
Not that he is entirely. He's now with Ceá*Chaffin, who has produced every film he's made since his 1997 sophomore effort, The Game. He also has one 14-year-old daughter, Phelix Imogen, from his five-year marriage to model Donya Fiorentino, which ended in 1995. Born in Denver, Colorado, Fincher was raised in California and moved to Oregon in his teens, by which point he was already showing signs of his huge talent. In high-school, he was producing a local television news show. By 19, he had a job working for George Lucas's company, Industrial Light and Magic, helping create visual effects for 1983's Star Wars episode, Return of the Jedi.
If that sounds commercial, his early work in music videos and ad spots was just as mainstream. Nike and Pepsi, Madonna and Michael Jackson all got the Fincher treatment. He helped form promo outfit Propaganda Films, a breeding ground for a certain type of brash-and-flash director. In 1998, the now-defunct Premiere magazine ran a shot of Fincher with fellow Propaganda employees, asking, 'Do these men represent the future of Hollywood film-making – or the death of it?' Pictured with Simon West (Tomb Raider), Dominic Sena (Gone in Sixty Seconds) and Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor), Fincher looked guilty by association.
Today, dressed in a grey striped shirt and grey-and-black check jacket, looking more accountant than auteur, Fincher is no longer the cocky promo director – if he ever was. Quietly spoken and highly articulate, he may come across as rather cold in person but there's something mischievous about him. "It's fun to be that misunderstood," he says.
While Fincher is next planning a biopic of Al Capone's nemesis Eliot Ness, which will no doubt make the fans breathe easier, he claims Benjamin Button is perfectly in keeping with the pattern of his career. "I look forward to doing things I haven't done before. I'm contrary by nature. As soon as somebody tells me it can't be done, I'm like, 'Why do you say that?'"
Even after the success of Benjamin Button, he retains a healthy disrespect for the industry. "The opening weekend has never been of interest to me," he says. "Yes, it's very satisfying to have movies that open to giant [box-office] numbers in the dick-measuring contest that is Hollywood. It's a nice thing that you know that this movie is going to be an enormous profit machine. But look at Wizard of Oz – that tanked when it opened and it's worth a billion dollars. Citizen Kane almost didn't open [due to the influential William Randolph Hearst's dislike of the subject matter]. I'm not saying my movies are on that classic level, but hopefully that's what you're trying to do." Still, if it sweeps the Oscars next month, its place in cinema history is assured.
'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (12A) opens on Friday
Topsy turvy: More stories in which time runs backwards
I Haven't Dreamed of Flying For a While (2008)
Mutsuko is 67 when businessman Taura meets her. The next time, she's in her forties, then her twenties... before eventually she is just a child in Taichi Yamada's deeply moving, albeit typically inexplicable, love story
Stuart: A Life Backwards (2005)
Alexander Masters adroitly retraces the troubled life of homeless man Stuart Shorter to somehow create sympathy for a drug-addled, alcoholic, violently sociopathic, hostage-taking thief in a remarkable biography
Christopher Nolan's classy psychological thriller mixes forward and reverse chronology to leave the audience as bewildered as lead actor Guy Pearce, an insurance fraud investigator with amnesia trying to piece together who raped and killed his wife
Harold Pinter plays out a seven-year illicit love affair in reverse, from its miserable demise to its first kiss, thus forewarning the audience of every deceit in a drama that reveals the corrosive nature of duplicity