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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club that later became synonymous with Hillsborough has dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor