Film: Precocious prankster who gets a thrill from tripping people up

David Fincher is associated with the making of relentless, dark thrillers like `Seven'. Although his latest film `The Game' has its playful moments, Ryan Gilbey finds its director revelling in its depths of illusion
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Brussels is not the brightest of places. This we know. Pea-green and cadaver-grey, it spurns all but the most resilient tourists. The director, David Fincher, is here to promote his latest film, and if his last two are any indication of the man's outlook and temperament, then Brussels should suit him down to the ground. We are not talking knockabout fun for all the family. His first feature, Alien 3, was like being locked in Strangeways prison for two hours, although it now feels like a Radio One roadshow compared to last year's follow-up, Seven. That film is the reason why at least three people in your social circle still sleep with the light on. Ask around.

Those acquaintances will be relieved to hear that The Game, Fincher's latest thriller, is less hazardous to your well-being. Which is not to say that it's an easy ride. But it is an enjoyable one. Michael Douglas plays the arrogant tycoon who enters into "the game", a real-life adventure tailored to fit the life and challenge the weaknesses of the fat cat who has everything. What it does for Douglas is disrupt the San Francisco he knows and challenge the validity of everything from the city's emergency services to his own ethical beliefs. From the moment his signature dries on the consent form, the basic principles of his world collapse. It's something like Woody Allen's joke about the man whose sister tells him that he's really a dwarf. "Everything in the house has been made to scale," she reveals. "You are only 48 inches tall."

However, Brussels has not been amused by The Game. "The reaction here has been interesting," says Fincher. As expected, "interesting" turns out to be a euphemism for "hostile and bewildered". "A couple of people here have said: `So you made a really good movie last time. Why would you go and make a movie like this?' People who don't like to be tricked by the films they watch tend to hate The Game."

The film is a hybrid of morality tale and conspiracy thriller, with enough little practical jokes to have Jeremy Beadle running for the exit crying tears of blood. On a literal level, we know that nothing which happens in the picture is real - because we're watching it on a cinema screen. But in the world of the film itself, we must determine whether the illusion has gone off the rails, like Westworld, or if the chaos is all part of a carefully orchestrated facade. It is likely to leave you in need of a quiet lie-down.

Both The Game and Seven suggest that, like Hitchcock, Fincher derives a lot of pleasure from wrongfooting the audience. "Those films have gimmicks in them which challenge the responsibility of the storyteller in the venue of a motion picture theatre," he explains. "For me, the best trick in Seven was the killer showing up on page 95. 'Cos you sit there in a movie theatre and go: `What? This doesn't happen! You don't chase somebody for this long only for them to go and give themselves up. Woah, something really bad's gonna happen now'. You didn't know if you were in the third act, at the end of the second act, or halfway through.

"There are a couple of good gimmicks in The Game. You spend the first 30 pages of the script establishing how rich this guy is. Then he goes: `Why are they doing this to me?' Duh. And there's lots of red herrings that your brain naturally catalogues because you don't know what will turn out to be relevant. Movies usually make a pact with the audience that says: We're going to play it straight; what we show you is going to add up. But we don't do that. In that respect, it's about movies and how movies dole out information.'

At just 34 years old, Fincher has quickly established himself as one of the American cinema's most precious and precocious talents. But you don't get that far without ruffling corporate feathers. Fincher knew the way he wanted things done right from the start. By the age of 18, the young Californian was a Lucasfilm employee, working on Return of the Jedi among other things, before landing a job in the music video division of "a really shitty commercial company". The company prevented its promo directors from straying into its commercials wing, which didn't irk Fincher too much because the output was pretty pathetic - breakfast cereals, models holding bars of soap next to their face, all that nonsense. And then they rubbed him up the wrong way.

"They said to me: `You have to make a commitment to doing lower-budget videos because that's where the industry's going", he recalls. "I just sort of lost it with them. I thought: `You guys are morons if you can't see that the music business is ego-driven, and that if there's lucre out there, there's gonna be some to spend on how to package and market these artists'."

In his frustration, he co-founded Propaganda Films in 1986. "Basically you'd set the tone for what people wanted to see with music videos, then sell the ideas back to commercial companies for ten times the money - `We did this video and we can tell you exactly how much it's going to cost to do it for your client and their stupid soft drink'." His client list provides unequivocal proof that he wasn't some arrogant college kid bluffing his way into the executive bathrooms of the rich and famous. There were commercials for Nike, Coca-Cola, Chanel. And promos for Madonna, the best of which was Express Yourself, the one that looked like Metropolis re-made in the style of gay porn.

He remains convinced about what makes a good music video. "The best ones don't tell the story of the song, but offer an alternative way of thinking about what's being sung. They're jumping-off points for other ideas, things which, while being singular, don't become the definitive interpretation."

Fincher hasn't lost his admiration for the modern music video. While the immaculate production design and constant sense of foreboding in his films recalls the best work of Walter Hill or Alan Rudolph, the kinetic, disorientating style hints at his own past. "Music videos are probably the most creative film-making being done right now," he says boldly. "They're also close to true directing - creating context for the understanding of an idea. I still feel that films are nowhere near as abstract as they could or should be, and I know there's an audience out there who would understand those abstractions. It's too bad so many movies end up being so literal."

As our conversation draws to a close, I try asking Fincher about his experience on Alien 3, a notoriously difficult production during which the director was rumoured to be all but exchanging gunfire with representatives of 20th Century Fox. In no time at all I discover why the subject rarely gets discussed in interviews.

Is it true that Fox were unhappy with the film's bleakness?

"Oh yeah."

Is that an understatement?

"Oh yeah."

Did you get a lot of flak?

"Oh yeah."

Finally, he chooses to elaborate. A bit. "I was contracturally obliged to be there, yet no one wanted me to be doing it. It was a bad situation." He pauses. "But I learned a lot," he says, his dry laughter bristling with sarcasm. "My motto is: I just do my work and try to live it down."

`The Game' is reviewed on page 10