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David Fincher Exclusive: The Making Of House Of Cards
The director talks process, politics and not knowing...

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The latest issue of Empire (March 2013, issue 285) includes an exclusive set visit to House Of Cards, detailing the making of the sly political drama, which has premiered to great acclaim on the streaming site Netflix.

Empire spent four days on set in Baltimore with David Fincher - as he directed the first two episodes - and then interviewed him a couple of times back in Los Angeles, while he oversaw the series as executive producer. Below is an extended extract from one of those interviews, conducted in his Hollywood offices in October, 2012. Fincher talks about the inception of the show, working with other directors, and the essential qualities of his cast. He also goes into detail about his process on set and how he has changed, as a director, over the years.

The show was still being shot and there are some minor spoilers. But, really, you should have watched it by now.

David Fincher Exclusive: The Making Of House Of Cards

Had you seen the BBC series before you were approached with this?
I hadn't. Josh Donen, who I was looking for producing projects with, called me and said, "Have you ever seen this British television show?" So I saw it and you see Ian Richardson and just go, "Wow - how much fun is this?!" It's just so much fun, this idea, and it's so simple and so direct. The breaking of the fourth wall creates such an interesting and immediate relationship with the audience. The way it was structured was very smart. Meeting him at his lowest point and watching him gain traction as he begins to move all the pieces on the chess board. So I saw it and said, "This is pretty great... but I don't know how to take it out of parliamentary politics and move it to the US. I don't know where it should take place."

I had read Farragut North - the play - years ago, when it was making the rounds in Hollywood. I thought it was good, but I didn't realise it was Ides of March, and I read Ides Of March and thought, "How do I know this?" And Josh said, "Beau Willimon would like to come in and sort of pitch this world."

So he came in and said, "I see this and I see this. And this is how I see it transposes itself, but here is where I want to take it..." We started talking about the notion of politics for the sake of politics. Any kind of system that has this much money and there's absolute power corrupting absolutely. You know what [the author of the novel, Michael] Dobbs is talking about at the time: how - very much in the same way as Hollywood - perceived reality is reality. It has little or nothing to do with what is really going on. It's about whose righteous indignation can be stoked at any given moment; all of the corollary and ancillary disappointments and ego gratification. And heroes are made and heroes are vanquished and villains are made and villains are resurrected as heroes. And it was very smart. And the thing that Beau was talking about seemed like a very interesting and wholly American take on it. It definitely had this unbridled capitalistic bent: the appetites were very American.

So he wrote the first episode and you shopped it around?
"We took it around to a lot of networks and they all loved it and they all were interested, but nobody wanted to commit to 13 episodes."
We took it around to a lot of networks and they all loved it and they all were interested, but nobody wanted to commit to 13 episodes. So we were kind of dead in the water. In my infinite hubris, I was: "Why not? If we're gonna do it you may as well do 13." Because it's so much work. It's 100 hours a week to do a shit job. I mean there are things that I will definitely never be able to get done the way that I would want it to be. (And that happens on $150million movies.)

But television: you are in a gigantic boat that doesn't turn and you are going over the waterfall. For nine months. And you can pretend that you can steer this thing, or you've set it up so that, when it finally hits, the water is deep enough. But it is unlike anything I've ever experienced. It's so much oversight and so nuanced. It requires so many collaborators at every conceivable level. You pretty much have to get five pages done every day. The question becomes, "How good can I get it? I'd really like to step outside, but we can't. We don't have greenscreen, we don't have this, we can't do that today... If we add that piece we'll never get it by lunch." You're constantly thinking "Story, story, story. Narrative, narrative, narrative." "Do I need this? What do I have to have? How do I change this up?" That aspect of it is both daunting and frustrating and also incredibly exciting. It turns you into a group of people trying to put on a show. You really do become a cheerleader. I find myself, when I watch dailies of episodes I didn't direct, I'm rooting for Kristen [Connolly, who plays Christina Gallagher]. "Kristen killed this scene!" Because it's like summer camp: all of your new friends that you went through that thing that was so intense with. I spent a good two/three months in Baltimore. It was like going on location for a movie. So that aspect of it was really amazing.

Who are the other directors?
Joel Schumacher, James Foley, Charles McDougall, Carl Franklin - awesome - and now Allen Coulter. Jamie did the first two after me and then he just did [episode] nine. It's such a great thing. I didn't know Charles' work until they started pumping me with DVDs saying "You should see this director". I didn't know who he was, but I recognised, "I remember this show. I loved this!" And Allen's work I knew because I loved his George Reeves movie [Hollywoodland]. And Carl: One False Move and Devil In A Blue Dress. Same thing with Jamie; there aren't that many movies out there from plays that are as good as Glengarry Glen Ross. He put it over the left field wall with that one. That's tough material. All these guys...

Joel has been a friend of mine for over 30 years. It happened that it was possible. I mean Allen Coulter doesn't really play a designated hitter. He shoots pilots. Charles: the same thing. We were lucky to get these guys. It's been really interesting being behind that other desk.

You see things everyday as they come in?
Every day.

Is Kirk Baxter [one of Fincher's regular editors] cutting them all?
No, there are three editors.

Are they working with the directors or with you?
No. I mean, I give notes on stuff, but I hired all of these guys by saying, my standard line is: "I hope you'll think about it if I have a note but, trust me, I know how to go fuck myself." The thing is, I would only want to work with people who are showing up to show off. I want directors to be able to come in and tear it up. It's not about just creating: filling hours of shelf space. It's not about filling a vast depository of megabits. I want people to have a sense of pride. I want people to come away going, "Wow, I got to do whatever I thought was right." I would never tell a director he should be over here. "Dude I wanna see where you'd go with it!"

I had a nice letter from Michael Dobbs, talking about the loss of his "baby" and it's true: I'm picking up from where the show ended 20 years ago. So, I said to him, "It's all our baby now and we take its development really seriously. We want to see it." And there are some odd ideas about. Beau does have some conventional ideas about television drama but then he shows up with an episode where you say: "Try it." There's this whole episode that takes place at this library that has been dedicated to Kevin's character. I would tease him and say "We're not doing Hot Lips rolling in a jeep and having a concussion. We can do that in the 18th year." But he's pushing. He's doing his thing. We're trying to do what we think is interesting. We're trying, and that's the fun part.

And he's hiring writers for the second season?
Yeah. We have a second season. We hope. Unless they tell us, "We think it would be so much better if we stopped now. It'll be so much more dramatic." But, yeah, we've already started thinking about season two.

Will you direct?
I'd love to. I really like it. I love this cast. Except for maybe two people. No, I'm teasing.

Is the script locked when you come to shoot?
No. A lot of times with read-throughs the directors come and say, "I don't like this. I don't get this." My attitude is [locking the script is] like saying to an actor, "You can make this work!" You're just teeing yourself up for heartbreak. You have to go, "Tell me why. What is it you see? What do you connect to?"

Do you rewrite on set?
There have been days like that. There have been. Hideously.

Ted Sarandos [Netflix's Chief Content Officer] said, "It's not a case of Fincher adapting to television, it's about television adapting to Fincher..."
I don't know. Certainly for the first two episodes... But no, look, it's television adapting to Carl Franklin unleashed. And it's not as if the directors show up and have four months lead-time and say, "I'd really like to do an episode in zero gravity" and you say "Great, let's work that in!" It's that they have a script and they say "This seems like bullshit to me. I don't know how to make this work." Then you scramble to make it as good as it can be.

What television do you enjoy?
I like Breaking Bad a lot. Haven't seen it recently. I liked the first couple of seasons. I TiVo'd that. I liked a lot of mid-term Sopranos. I liked the little moments, as opposed to the killing of that character or the killing of that character. I don't watch that much TV. I watched a lot when I was a kid. I like the notion of getting to know a character over longer periods of time. I like the evolution of that. I think there's something very personal about the relationship that an audience develops with somebody that they spend two or three years with, rather than two or three hours. That part of it is interesting to me.

David Fincher Exclusive: The Making Of House Of Cards
Fincher with his cast at the London premiere of House of Cards. (L-R) Beau Willimon, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, David Fincher and Kevin Spacey

Could you see yourself doing a movie for Netflix?
Making a movie that doesn't get to the theatre? I don't think it's a movie if you do that. For me a movie has always been the theatrical experience, going into a sensory-deprivation environment with more people than you could healthily know in your social life. Strangers. And having the lights go out and having the lights go up on a portal that gives you insight and entertainment and controls what you hear and see for two hours. That communal experience is a movie to me. That's half of the experience.

Often people say to me, I'm not sure if they're just trying to be snide but, "I like your movies better at home theatre." And you ask "Why?". And they say "It's a more subtle transaction. I feel you make movies for DVD viewing, movies to be seen again and again." That is true, but I hope on the first go round that it can play in a 45-foot screen and it can play to 500 people in proximity. But downstream of that I'm happy to make a Blu-ray or to make a high definition experience for people who have a 12-foot screen in their home. I actually like the relationship of... it's almost novelistic. Reading fiction you can set it down, go have a sandwich and think about it. You pick up your book. Read a couple of chapters, go for a swim. I like that movies can have that relationship, but I feel that relationship is better, ultimately, downstream of the theatrical.

But I can see myself... there are movies I'd like to make that cost between $15million and £30million that if Netflix said, "We'd love to see what you'd do with this..." I'd devise it for home theatre, because it is a different thing. Shooting for the iPad: it's so odd. The monitors we use on set are bigger than that. When you think of the idea of this thing being crushed down to this tablet I do get wistful. But it also helps. You think "They're not going to see that the focus pull was so late".

In terms of politics, House Of Cards just seems more and more relevant...
The governing idea behind any bureaucracy is the funding of that bureaucracy, the perpetuation of that bureaucracy. Any group of homo sapiens, if they're united under an idea, believe that their protection of that ideal, or the furthering of that ideal, is as important as the ideal itself. It'll just happen. What interested me was Francis is... Francis is not amoral – actually, I guess he is amoral – but he’s apolitical. He's in it for the ground-acquisition of people like himself. He's not betrayed by a differing belief system. He's betrayed by politics. And his retribution is political. That was what was interesting to me: the idea of that arc. The thing that he couldn't forgive them was not what they did but the way that they did it.

"If we are students of the game and we have risen through the same ranks and hold the same things dear, then certainly, including me in the decision of how my career was not about to be furthered, at an earlier date, would have been wise." That's all he's saying. And he goes off. And what we see is someone who is not a grandmaster at political chess, but a guy who says, "While no one's looking, if this board was to fall off the table, that could further my agenda as much as having three moves ahead of the competition."

Maybe that's what makes him appealing...
The deliciousness of it is in its execution. I don't hate Francis Underwood. You can't help but pity him, but he's also so watchable.

If they'd included him in the decision not to make him Secretary of State...
Yeah. Or: he can't abide the fact that there's a different perception. He expects so much more from those around him. It's Machiavellian. It's the rules of court. It's the way that you aggregate power... it's Mean Girls. It's that simple. I remember watching - my daughter was 12 - and that's the first time the Mean Girls started to appear. You watched as they divided. You watched the ones who were capable of laser-guided doubt and seeping innuendo. You watch this thing happen. Because, I think, you say girls mature faster but they also have to test this stuff out. They've got to be prepared for boyfriends when they're 17. They have five years to work all these manipulations out. And they start on their friends! It was fascinating to watch because you go "That's so cruel. That's so cruel." And yet they haven't mastered it. They don't own it. They're just trying it. They're toying. You don't see this in 12 year old boys. You don't see this until their late 20s and they're in the work place and they begin to sort of understand. That's one of the things that I loved about what Dobbs and Beau did with it. You get to watch it. He sort of explains it to you: tells you where to look so you don't miss the flourish or you're not watching the flourish and miss the actual death knell. And Francis goes about it in a fairly sophisticated way - in most cases. Sometimes it's brutal and blunt force trauma.

The notion is that this is going to be the dance of a master. Someone who is going to go, "Watch how this works. Watch how what I just said strikes fear into the heart of the one person who cannot afford to be afraid at this moment." And I do think that's enjoyable, as sort of naughty.

It makes you complicit as well...
Of course. The nature of the complicity is the thing that is ultimately the most interesting because you're invested in a different way. It's not enough to watch somebody: it's that they take the time to explain, too. And the wit with which they do it. You have a different kind of appreciation. If we didn't get Kevin Spacey this show would not exist. We were writing scripts and we had a pilot but there was nobody that you were gonna get that would enjoy this in the right way. He's one of those actors. The verbal facility that he has, the ability to frame certain words within a conversation and the dexterity that he enjoys, you could say: "If he had said 'no', we wouldn't be doing this." And the same thing is true of Robin Wright, as well. I met with her in Stockholm and I remember saying, "I'd really like you to do it" but I really can't imagine what we would do if she said no. Holy shit! When we had our first read-through we had all the actors come in on this big horseshoe table. I said, "I want you all to know that every person at this table represents our first choice... So don't let us down." It's rare that you get that. Corey Stoll was one of those actors that read and we thought, "We love that, but he can't play Russo - he's too likeable." But why shouldn't Russo be likeable?

It's good that Corey is likeable...
Otherwise you'd hate her, you'd be going Kristen, "What the fuck? Ditch this douchebag!"

You've spoken before of essential qualities actors may require for certain characters - qualities you "can't beat out of them with a tyre iron", which is useful as the shoot drags on...
It's really useful. The thing you know about Corey Stoll is no matter how frustrated he gets with you, he doesn't want to be rude. The great thing about Russo is that... He makes a lot of mistakes and it's kind of based on some people that I've known. The sweetest of the drug-addled people with substance-abuse issues that I've had in my life, as frustrating as they are, when they have a little bit of charm, it's just hard to get mad at that them. That's how they get in so deep. Russo needed that.

Those people who have a million second chances because you just...
Because you just go "Come 'ere!" [mimes hug]. You need that and Corey Stoll has that.

With Michael Kelly, he is just focussed. You need to know that when Francis tells Stamper, "This has to be handled", you know it will be - 'cause he just told Michael Kelly to do it! It's that thing. In the case of Stamper, it's not that he's "Right, chief!" It's not that he looks like he'll do anything for you, it's that he looks competent - always. He's thinking about stuff, he's processing things, he's not afraid to say "I don't understand that". As an actor he's not afraid to say, "Run that by me again, I don't get what you're talking about". If you have an actor who's saying to you, "Uh, ok, well let's try it" and you realise they don't know what you're talking about, you can't have them play Doug Stamper. The guy who's playing him has to be able to say to you, "Go back to that thing you just said. How does that apply to this? I see. OK". And you know, "I've left it in good hands". You know what Francis knows, which is "It's taken care of". Those kind of things. You know, I think there are a lot of people who'll say "Oh, Fincher doesn't want to see actors step outside their comfort zone". It's not about that. There are just certain things that you have as a person that are going to help you play a character when you're exhausted and disorganised and been staying in a hotel room for six weeks. You're going to naturally have a certain percentage of default that's going to take you to something that has to be there.

And because people are one thing, doesn't mean they can't also be another...
It's like Kate Mara. Kate's utterly polite and completely driven. You go, okay, being polite doesn't help her at all to play Zoe. Being driven has to be there - has to.

On set, in the scene where Zoe does her first TV interview, you said it was the moment where you see the birth of her...
Yeah. You see her coalesce. And it was interesting because we played it both ways. The night we were shooting we shot it as somebody who was going, "Right right right, I got it, I got it, I got it..." It's Broadcast News. Or, the way we ended up using it, is "Uh, I don't know, I'm terrified, I'm not quite sure, I'm not ready, I'm not ready and, 'Well, hello America!'" And you see her overcome her fear. And I honestly couldn't tell her on the day: "You should play it like this." It was: "I don't know, really, I don't know which way is going to work best." The way that seemed to work most organically was to come from a place of doubt. And she played it both ways - we had both versions of it. But it's all the material that comes before it that informs that moment and oddly enough when you see the material that comes before it the best version of that moment is: she's not quite sure, she might be in over her head.

And you can make that choice because you've got those options...
It's interesting. And it's OK not to know. I used to be worried about that stuff. I used to be worried: "I better know the answer to that question!" Now it's, "I don't know. We'll have to see - I need you to do it both ways."

David Fincher Exclusive: The Making Of House Of Cards

Have you just become more comfortable saying that now, or is it because of being so established that you can afford to?
I think it's comfort. When you're 23 and you're asking actors to do this stuff and you're saying, "I don't know!" you're worried that they're going to be rats leaving a sinking ship. But it's also knowing... I think nobody knows. It's instinct. It's calculation. It's experience - it's all those things coming together. And I just think... The best way to earn somebody's trust is by being honest. You respect people, they'll respect you back. I try to create an environment where - and there's a lot of pressure on everybody - but I want there to be the least amount of pressure on the person who is performing. I would rather have the day be more excruciating for the focus-puller than it is for the person playing Francis. I want Kevin to be able to give himself over to a process that's just, you know, playing dress-up. And in order to do that I put pressure on everyone around them. I mean, we can't be changing ties after take three: "Oops! This is the wrong tie for this scene because in the next one he's in the car and he has the blue tie on." I can't have that.

Now, once the actors are there: now forget everything, because we're going to do this a bunch of times. And you're gonna make mistakes and that's what I want, because in those little moments of making something not quite right - or being able to know it so well you can just barrel through this section of it - that's, I think, what gives it its lived-in quality.

I think when I first started out I was probably more reticent to say "Fuck, I don't know". Now I'm more comfortable in situations. I know that I don't have to have the answer to that question; that part of it is going to be what they're going to show me. 'Cause there's the willing something into existence but then there's also the allowing for it to be great, allowing for somebody to go, "You know, I was just in the elevator on the way up here and there was a person in there saying this and all of a sudden I thought..." [clicks fingers] And you go "Oh, my God, that's fantastic. We have to use that!"

You want to leave yourself open to that stuff. You don't want it to just be like [raises voice], "Okay, remember we were on the stage, we chalked it out on the floor and you were here and then you said this and then you said that and then your voice went down at the end..." You don't want it to just be a puppet show. Ventriloquism is an amazing thing, but it's not acting. And when this performance becomes ventriloquism it's a bad thing. Or somebody aping something that you laughed at it in rehearsal. Now they're trying to get back to that. With Corey, he'll never fall into that trap. Because he knows it's gone. That's gone.

The night with Kate's TV spot, as it went on, there were plenty of people there who wanted to go home...
"I've never knowingly shot a scene that I thought was going to get cut out. If I thought something was going to be cut I wouldn't shoot that scene."
Oh, yeah.

And they're not being especially subtle about the fact they want to go home...
No.

Is it that you don't care or you've chosen not to care?
Can't care. I spent way too much money, I spent way too much time thinking about this. I spent way too much time coaxing and cajoling to get that. We can't leave this until we have the moments that it's going to take to make this work. We can't. We're doing everyone a disservice. You can't allow it to exhaust you. You have to keep that focus and that concentration and you have to get what you need.

I mean I have thrown the flag and called it on account of rain: I've had situations where you say, "This person is too tired to continue, so..." I've had situations where you have an actor and you realise, "They're not there anymore. We're going to have to pick this up some other time." But for the most part... You're doing it for the fucking Blu-ray, man. Blu-ray is forever.

It was interesting to see that you utilise people but you don't try to "fix" them...
You can't. You can just make their time worthwhile - just make their time be something that they're going to be proud of. That's all you can do because everything else is nonsense. All you can do is say, "Hey, I'm going to work as hard as I can to make sure nothing that you did on that day was for naught". I've never knowingly shot a scene that I thought was going to get cut out. If I thought something was going to be cut I wouldn't shoot that scene.

I've stayed 17 hours shooting scenes that I've ended up cutting. I've shot scenes twice and then cut them. Going, "I know it can be better, I know it can be better, I know it can be better," and then it can't and then you just end up going, "Well, the reason you can't get it better is because it doesn't have any place in this movie!" This is why I think directors become... This is why the reputation of the sociopath is an often misunderstood thing. I mean, part of what you get paid to do is to ignore the discomfort of those around you, because you have to go, "I get it! But I didn't fly Stellan Skarsgård all the way here and put him up in a hotel and make him learn 18 pages of stuff only to say, "Oh, OK, that's pretty good, let's move on!'" I came here to juice that! I came here to squeeze that. And I came here to see what else is there.

There was a scene with Corey Stoll and Kristen Connolly where he comes into the office late and out of it, where you did something like 26 takes. Did you articulate to yourself what you wanted in that scene?
Yeah, I knew that at the beginning. It's not a scene... It is a scene but mostly it's trying to do one shot. It's such a small thing. But what I wanted is he has to breeze through the door like "Hey!" He's been gone for a day, he looks like shit and he's trying to get into his office and she is stopping him. First on the grounds of "As the person who has to schedule you, when you are going to disappear for 24 hours, you need to let at least me know." But she's also his girlfriend and she's really concerned. So I wanted to go from the "Hey, you don't get to just..." energy to the "Good God, you're high at the workplace - which is double not cool because it shows you think we're all so stupid that we don't know that you're high! Not only does this show how stupid you are but it shows how stupid you think we are, which is almost unforgivable." And of course he says, "I don't have time for this. I don't have time for the entanglements of this." That was the thing. It has to be this progression into it. I was trying to find that thing where the camera move didn't feel like it knew where the scene was going.

Is how you convey your thoughts dependent on who you're conveying them to?
Yeah. Absolutely. But, also, you know that nobody, nobody - Daniel Day-Lewis, I don't give a fuck - nobody has the control over their face where they know what it is they just did. They have to just do it. And in a scene like that with two people, both have to do it at exactly the right time. And if it's playing as a "oner" it has to dovetail. You're not gonna go to another piece of coverage - it has to evolve. So in certain respects it's simple: you don't have to set the camera outside the door, you don't have to get a piece of coverage, you don't have to match. But what you want is to have a beginning, middle and end; a really defined middle, beginning and end. She saw this, then she saw that, and now she's trying, and he pushes her away.

Is there anything you've learnt from shooting this that you'll bring to your films?
Let's look at it this way: there are times, sitting behind a desk looking at someone else's dailies, hour after hour, makes you think "Fuck, what is the difference between this and that?" Usually what I find is you get to the last one and realise, "Oh, that's what they were building to: that's good." It's not often that you see a director shooting for pieces: "Nah, I got the beginning there, I got the middle with that one". You're looking for them - especially on the master - you're looking for them to put it all together.

I think it's probably made me a tad less precious. What does that mean? [laughs] So I'll shoot 92 takes instead of 100! I don't know. It's not a logic thing. If it was logical you'd put up a flowchart and say, "Here's where you want the process." You have to feel your way through it. You're gonna find this. There are times when there's a bump in the track or a boom mic comes in, and it distracts you for a second, and then you go, you can hear it through your headphones, "We're rolling". It's rolling, we're falling downhill. We're working. And those are times when the bumps in the track, the boom mic and shit, doesn't matter.

In fact, interestingly enough, that scene that you're talking about, the take we used was four takes before the end. And I said, "That was really great. I don't think we'll get better than that... but I want you to try." And we shot more takes after that and didn't use them. But that was the thing. We got it. It all worked. There was an inappropriate shadow at one point that we were trying to get rid of, but were unable to, because when you go from one shot to another, you walk into one source from another. But it's where that thing happened. We went back through looking for the one that fit in. We saw the last one and I said to Kirk, "The one before," and he said "Yes, much better performance." So we went for that. But it's that thing: "Can we? Please can we put it all together?" You do the best you can. Try and live it down.

House Of Cards is available on Netflix now.

Interview by Nev Pierce

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