At the tender age of 27, David Fincher was granted control of a blockbuster movie.
Until that moment, the highlights of the young film-maker's showreel were a clutch of well-regarded music videos for Madonna, and a deliciously controversial ad for the American Cancer Society in which a foetus drags on a cigarette. He'd never directed a feature film. Alien 3, meanwhile, was the latest instalment of a wildly successful sci-fi franchise, previously piloted by Ridley Scott and James Cameron. With a budget of $60m (£38m), it was the most expensive directorial debut ever. For Fincher, that would come to be a dubious honour.
Other directors had already deserted the project; the script was on its nth rewrite, and the studio was determined to have its own way in the editing room. So unpleasant was the experience, and so dissatisfying its final product, that by the time Fincher's moody curio finally reached the screen in 1992, he was telling interviewers he might never make a movie again.
Many wondered if Fincher would be a suitable fit for his eighth and most recent film, The Social Network, when he was announced as its director. Released in the UK next week, the film is now considered the favourite in a number of Oscar categories. The true-ish story of Harvard nerd Mark Zuckerberg and his creation, a little website named Facebook.com, it sounds a world away from the rain-lashed streets of Se7en (1995) and the anarchic violence of Fight Club (1999).
Yet, in the light of Fincher's brutal experience on Alien 3, one can understand how he might empathise with Zuckerberg: a twentysomething at the helm of a £20bn company, pricked by the condescension of Harvard's elite. "I know very subjectively what it's like," said Fincher recently, "to be ... sitting in a room full of adults who are all talking about how cute your passion for your vision is and how angry that makes you."
In all the talk of The Social Network's flexibility with facts, and the whipcrack dialogue of its screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, Fincher's involvement feels as if it's been under-reported. But perhaps that's because the director has turned in a film of elegance and wit without recourse to his signature visual pyrotechnics. Even when he exchanged murderous mayhem for romance in his last film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), what most excited filmgoers beforehand was the CGI-aided reverse-ageing process, which transformed Brad Pitt from gnarled newborn to pensionable infant.
And yet, beneath its superficial differences with the rest of his work, The Social Network fits some of Fincher's pet themes. Fight Club and 1997's The Game, for example, dwelt on the growing distance between modern existence and man's primal instincts. In the former, Pitt's Tyler Durden brought physical violence back to the lives of sense-dulled office drones by organising amateur brawls in basements. In the latter, Sean Penn's character returned the spark of life to his zombie-like banker brother, played by Michael Douglas, by paying for his comfortable lifestyle to be upended by a series of fraught and elaborate hoaxes. The irony at the heart of The Social Network is Zuckerberg's unerring ability to distance himself from real relationships, just as he creates the ultimate virtual tool for maintaining them.
Fincher is currently filming the US adaptation of Stieg Larsson's Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the director's fondness for serial killers and the obsessives who pursue them was evident in Se7en and 2007's Zodiac. Not much there to match Zuckerberg's story, you might think, but according to Jesse Eisenberg, who plays the Facebook boss, Fincher told him to study Robert De Niro's performance in Taxi Driver as preparation for the role.
At the end of Fight Club, the film's protagonists blow up Los Angeles's banking district in an attempt to destroy the world's financial records. Zuckerberg and his colleagues, on the other hand, create a social network fit for 500 million users and counting: two very different revolutions. Yet at the heart of both films is a mutually destructive relationship between two malfunctioning males: Durden and his nameless alter ego (played by Ed Norton); Zuckerberg and his former best friend Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield). Fight Club chimed with the disaffection of the consumerist 1990s; The Social Network with the alienated web generation of the last decade.
Fincher was born in Colorado in August 1962, to Claire, a mental health nurse, and Howard, a bureau chief for Life magazine. The family moved to Marin County in northern California when David was a toddler. During his early school years there was much playground talk of the "Zodiac killer", a serial murderer whose crimes terrorised the Bay Area in the late 1960s and would later be the subject of Zodiac. After the killer wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle threatening to kill schoolchildren, Fincher noticed his school bus being tailed by police vehicles.
He saw his first film aged three: Mary Poppins, the influence of which is difficult to discern in his work. It was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (another violent male partnership), five years later, that first inspired him to make movies. He was given his first 8mm camera for his eighth birthday and began producing shorts in his backyard.
As a high school student, Fincher watched George Lucas shoot American Graffiti on the streets of San Rafael, Marin County, and one of his first jobs in Hollywood was for Lucas's special effects studio, Industrial Light and Magic, earning him credits on Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In 1984, he was hired to direct his first TV commercial, the still-arresting "smoking foetus".
MTV had been launched in 1981, and Fincher had the good fortune to come of age in the era of the blockbuster music video. Joining the roster for video production company Propaganda films put him in the company of other future Hollywood directors such as Mark Romanek, Michel Gondry, Neil LaBute and Michael Bay. Fincher made his first promo, for Rick Springfield's "Dance the World Away", in 1984. By the end of the decade he had worked with Sting, Aerosmith, George Michael and Madonna, for whom he made the "Vogue" video among others.
Many now gloss over Alien 3 and skip straight to Se7en when discussing Fincher's films. That bruising first encounter with the Hollywood studio machine almost put him off feature film-making for good, but it also taught him a valuable lesson: to maintain a perfectionist's control of his projects, however big a budget the studio has invested. He shot the opening scene of The Social Network (budget $50m), an eight-minute dialogue between Zuckerberg and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, 99 times. "David Fincher is a perfectionist," Eisenberg told The New York Times. "You hear people who work tirelessly, meticulously to get what they are after, but David is the real thing."
The film now considered Fincher's defining work was, at first, a controversial flop. Fight Club bombed at the box office and was described by some critics as repulsive and irresponsible. A huge hit on DVD, however, it's now a cult classic. "Some people go to the movies to be reminded that everything's OK," says the director. "I don't make those kinds of movies. That, to me, is a lie. Everything's not OK."
Fight Club came out in the watershed year of 1999/2000, when a number of other so-called "Hollywood auteurs" – Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan – were also hitting their stride. Like them, Fincher was that formerly rare thing: a distinctive film-maker whom studios trust to spend their money wisely. To judge by The Social Network, he remains a sound investment.
A life in brief
Born: 28 August 1962, Denver, Colorado.
Family: Raised in Marin County, California, by Claire, a mental health nurse, and Howard Fincher, a bureau chief for Life. Married Donya Fiorentino in 1990; they had a daughter before divorcing in 1995. His current partner, Ceán Chaffin, has produced a number of his films.
Education: After Ashland High School in Oregon, he got a job loading cameras for Korty Films.
Career: His dark, stylistic thrillers include Fight Club and Se7en. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button gave him his first Oscar nomination for Best Director. He is currently filming the US adaptation of Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
He says: "I don't know how much movies should entertain. To me, I'm always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about Jaws is the fact that I've never gone swimming in the ocean again."
They say: "Glibly speaking, David Fincher is a perfectionist. You hear about people who work tirelessly, meticulously to get what they are after, but David is the real thing." Jesse Eisenberg, star of The Social Network