David Fincher: "Awards are just icing on the cake"

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

Memento (2000)

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

Betrayal (1978)

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

Robert Epstein

Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital