David Fincher rarely gives interviews, but for the New York cover story on his new movie, The Social Network (which opens October 1), the director sat down with Mark Harris for a long, revealing chat. Only some of the conversation made it into the article, so we’re presenting their entire, in-depth talk in full below. What better way to inaugurate our new recurring feature, the Vulture Transcript: extended, revealing, and virtually uncut interviews with fascinating cultural figures. Here, Fincher dishes on the enormous difficulty of speeding up Aaron Sorkin’s motormouth text (“Faster. That was my only real direction.”), his surprising “enormous amount of empathy” for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and much much more.
I loved Aaron Sorkin’s script, which was 162 pages, and when I went to see a screening of The Social Network, I asked how long the movie was and they said, 116 or 118 minutes, and I thought, Oh, no, they’ve cut all the stuff I loved. But it all seems to be there.
No, we just simply said, faster. That was my only real direction — take a minute out of that!
I don’t believe that.
It’s kinda true. The characters in the movie are people who need to get to the end of their thoughts before they can really focus on what it is they meant to say. And in describing it to them that way — I mean, Jesse [Eisenberg, who plays Mark Zuckerberg] actually talks like that, he can do it — but a lot of people would come in and read and say, “Wait, what is he talking about at this point?” And I’d say, “There are people who need to work their way through the kelp beds of their own thought processes on their way to the exact idea they’ve been trying to fucking find, to get to this word and that’s the word that’s he’s actually been looking for.” And once they got that, they took to it like ducks.
It was kind of shocking to hear Jesse Eisenberg doing Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, because you suddenly realize this is what he was born to do.
We looked and looked and looked. We read every young actor in Hollywood. And it had been rumored on blogs and stuff that we were talking to Jesse Eisenberg. And you know, I hate to be told what to do by blogs, so I was like, “Yeah, we should probably see him but I don’t know if this is his thing … ” And he put himself on tape reading the first scene, and I remember getting this thing on my computer and opening this little QuickTime, and here’s this kid doing Sorkin: the first person that we’d heard who could do Sorkin better than Sorkin.
But was that a language that everyone in the movie kind of had to learn?
The studio initially said, “We don’t know what you’re gonna cut, but you’re gonna have to get it down to a reasonable time limit, you can’t shoot … ” I think it was 166 pages. And Aaron and I went back to the office and I took out my little iPhone and set it down and put the little stopwatch on and said, “Start reading.” And we went through it and he was done in an hour and 59 to two hours. And I called the studio and said, “No, we can do this, it’s gonna be about a two-hour movie.” They said, “You’re crazy.” And I said, “No, I think it can be done that way. If we do it the way that Aaron just spoke it, it’ll be two hours. It’s up to me to have dialogue that pre-laps scenes, and to be able to establish places as quickly as possible.” And when I opened this little QuickTime of Jesse Eisenberg, it was the first time I said, “We’re gonna be under two hours!” He can just flat-out fly. And you can see in his eyes that he is searching for the best way to articulate something in the middle of articulating two other things; he’s processing where he’s going.
Oftentimes, you’ll say to an actor that, you know, the notion of being present is not to be thinking of the next thing you’re going to say but to actually be listening. You know, a lot of people are trained to give you the “thoughtful” thing, but at the same time, they’re trying to process their next line. And Jesse can be half a page ahead, and in the now. I remember turning to Aaron and saying, “Okay, have we ever seen anything this good?” He just said, “That’s the guy.” We brought him out to LA and he came into my office and I said, “Hey, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” And he said, “Great, what do you want me to read? I’ve prepared three scenes.” And I said, “No, no, no. You got the job. We’re just having you here because we wanted to meet you and say hello, but you’re in the movie.” That’s the fun part — to be able to tell them you enjoy what they do.
The actors said the pace you set was really fast, but — and I know this isn’t your favorite topic — you are known for doing a lot of takes. So how was a fast pace even possible?
No, you know, I will normally trade helicopters and cranes and the incumbent extra technicians it takes to have toys like that for more hours, more time, more days. For $39 or $40 million, whatever it ended up costing, normally you’re going to get about 45 or 50 days of shooting. And we shot for 72 days, because we knew that was the kind of time it was going to take. You know, everybody had to know their lines, but we didn’t necessarily know where exactly the scene was going to take place until we found the locations. There was a lot of negotiation going on with Harvard and different places in and around Cambridge that we wanted to use. And things would fall apart at the last minute, so something that was supposed to take place walking down the sidewalk would take place in a cab.
We rehearsed the notion of overlap — we rehearsed the idea of talking over one another very pointedly. The opening scene of the movie [an extended conversation in which Zuckerberg is dumped by his girlfriend], which is nine pages in under five minutes — we had two days to shoot that. And the studio said, “That’s crazy.” First they said, “It’s one scene! You don’t need two days for one scene!” Then they said, “It’s nine pages! You can’t do nine pages in two days!” We said, “Okay, make up your mind, which one is it?” We got through most of the scene in the first day, and then the second day was just going in to pick up certain things in close-ups. We shot 99 takes.
Of just that scene?
Yeah. We put two cameras on it so that they could interrupt and talk right over each other. So it took an enormous amount of time to stage the background, probably close to the first half of the first day. And then we just started shooting. And then I would just go in and encourage them and say, “Here’s what you’re talking about here.” Or: “Try to talk about this.” Or: “Just get angry a little later.” And the two of them are such facile creatures, they would just play. I look at it this way: You’re gonna bring all this equipment, you’re gonna bring all these people, you’re gonna fly them all in and put them up in hotels, you’re gonna run all this cable, do all this stuff, hang these lights … Then the actors have to have their time to fall face-first into it. Rather than say, “Okay, we’ll do two, and let’s move on,” it seems like such a waste of talent to get somebody’s second or third or even fifth or sixth thought at something. Especially with this kind of dialogue, it really needs to seem to fall out of their subconscious. Because a lot of what Sorkin does is think out loud. So it has to look like thought.
One of the actors told me —
[Laughs.] Which one?
Two of them said interesting things about your process. Andrew Garfield [who plays Eduardo Saverin] said that you had them keep in mind that in any scene, anyone who’s talking always thinks he’s right. And Armie Hammer [who plays Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss] said that he thought the multiple takes were really helpful in ridding them of all of the things that they’d worked out in their heads that they thought were going to be their big moments the night before.
So many Oscars are won in the tub! I’m not, like, trying to psychologically remake people, but look, it’s an incredibly neurotic thing to want to do with one’s life. It’s incredibly hard to stand in front of a camera and be the focus of that attention and not be self-conscious. It makes you self-conscious, and to get beyond that self-consciousness, I absolutely want people to have their idea of what the scene is about, to have an idea of what their moment is. And then I want to take them through that process to a point where they’ve literally forgotten their own names. I want to take them past the point where they go, “But I had it all worked out.” If it’s still there but you’re doing it a little bit later or doing it a little bit flustered. You know, it’s an interesting thing: It happens very rarely, but invariably, when an actor’s in the middle of a take and they go, “Uh, hang on a sec, sorry, my fault, can we start again?” always it’s the best take. Always the best take before they cry uncle, before they go, “Wait a minute, I’ve lost my train of thought.” And I can show them on the monitor: “Look at you here, that is you at your most present, when you’re falling-down ill, like Dudley Moore in Arthur, ass-over-teakettle trying to remember where you were in the thing, that’s when you are stunning and real and amazing.” Little things happen. There’s this moment at the beginning of the movie where Rooney [Mara, who plays Zuckerberg’s girlfriend] interrupts him and says “Mark!” And Jesse did this thing where he leaned forward in a very prodding way and said “Erica!” Oddly condescending. She gets really pissed off — and he’d never done it before. It was kind of great. I went up to him and he said, “Do you want me to do it again?” And I said, “No, but I bet you it’s going in the movie.” That’s the kind of stuff you want to find.
Let’s go back to when you read the script. I feel like a lot of directors of your caliber, honestly, might have read it and said, “It’s great, but there’s not much for me to do here.” I’m fascinated that you saw interesting directorial challenges in it.
I think telling a good story is always an interesting directorial challenge. I read it and thought, “Oh my God, this is how I feel about the notion of the Internet and communication, and so much about the loneliness that characterizes much of modern interpersonal communication.” I also loved the idea of old-world business ethics put to the test by new-world ability to beta-test and iterate. I thought it was an amazing idea. Harvard is this 300-year-old institution built by people who understood business and innovation as: You find a place to cultivate a workforce and train them and create a factory or an assembly line, and you build a product and it comes out and everyone in this little village is rewarded by that. And that’s innovation. Then there’s this new world where somebody goes: If I’ve got DSL and enough Red Bull, I can prototype this thing! And then I can get it onto 650 desktops and then eight years later I can get in on 600 million desktops! That is a new paradigm.
The movie seems to put two different kinds of ruthlessness in competition with each other.
I don’t know. You said ruthlessness? I don’t know. I have an enormous amount of empathy for Zuckerberg. I felt like it was easy to do the Revenge of the Nerds version of this, but there was something more compelling about his wanting to do it his way. Because he was right. It shouldn’t be done using an advertising model. The ultimate communication tool needed to be devised by someone who doesn’t have the best communication skills. You see him with Lesley Stahl, you kind of go, “I’m not sure this guy should be speaking on his own behalf.” But I thought it was amazing that this was the guy who figured out how hundreds of millions of people would want to connect with each other. I thought that was a great, ironic notion. It may indeed be dramatic license, but I thought Aaron did it beautifully.
Do you mean dramatic license in terms of Sorkin’s decision to shape him as that kind of guy?
We know that Zuckerberg took out some of his vitriol on a woman in his blog, but I don’t know that he continues to pine for her today. As a director, it doesn’t seem to me that you should. There’s a lot of directors out there who think, Oh, this’ll be great, I’m gonna get to go to Rome. Or: This’ll be fun, I’ve never shot the London subways. Or whatever. But I was just looking for a story and I thought, Well, it’s not The Paper Chase and it’s not Breaking Away and it’s not Fight Club, but it’s a little bit of a lot of these things, and in an interesting way.
Aaron Sorkin told me that on the set, you were more insistent on the accuracy of small details than he was, that when there was push and pull between you, you wanted to hew closer to the record.
Well, I don’t know. I always think that if you have a bit of research, you can go, I think it’d be cooler if the person wore this. But if you have a photograph of him from that period of his life, you go, Really, a T-shirt over a dress shirt with a tie? That’s such an odd thing, and yet there’s something about that that speaks to who that person is. I feel like if you have something that in some way is real, it informs things in a different way. It’s easy to make stuff look good or slick or cohesive, but I also think that if you’re dealing with stuff that’s real … I mean, it broke my heart that we couldn’t shoot at Harvard. And yet by the time we were done with all the bureaucracy, I was happy to go to Johns Hopkins. They were so helpful. They were so much easier to deal with that I didn’t really care that it wasn’t the real Kirkland because it was such a pain in the ass to deal with. And in those cases you just go, “Well, they shot a lot of interiors of The Paper Chase at USC, so screw it.” But I do think reality informs things in a different way. Oftentimes it doesn’t make things as clean in terms of storytelling, but it’s almost always better in terms of character. Is [Sorkin] talking about the beer and stuff? [Indeed, there was a dispute over whether Zuckerberg should be drinking a beer or a screwdriver while he hacked into Harvard’s databases.]
He was. Small stuff like that.
Yeah, originally, he’d written this thing about making a screwdriver, and I was like, “That’s great, except we have a blog. And in the blog it says, ‘Here I am and I’m drinking Beck’s.’” It felt like, well, he’s a Beck’s guy. I liked what it said: A 19-year-old guy with a case of Beck’s in his dorm room. It doesn’t say the same thing as Smirnoff and OJ.
So were most of your disagreements on that scale rather than about, say, character?
We almost never disagreed about intent. Remember, Aaron comes from a world where he generates a kind of page count on a daily basis that I can’t even imagine, and he accomplishes an enormous amount. In his previous discipline, television, Aaron is used to thinking fast and making bold decisions. He works with a meat ax. The words are the important thing because it’s what you’re getting paid for. In television, you don’t have the time to pick gnat shit out of pepper. But in the movies, my whole thing is, everything that we put on the screen is going to be debated and scrutinized in some way. So it’s not even that there’s an opportunity here to do more. It’s that it’s incumbent upon us, if we’re going to put a prop next to somebody’s hand and they’re going to do three pages of dialogue with it, that prop is going to get a lot more important than it would in a two-page scene on television. It’s going to be seen and scrutinized more, so we need to make sure it’s not saying something we don’t want it to say or undercutting anything about the environment or where they are in their head space.
Do you feel comfortable with the idea that people will walk out at the end of this movie with differing opinions about whether Mark Zuckerberg is a good guy or a tragic hero or a bad guy? You’ve left a lot of room for people to disagree with the Rashida Jones character’s assessment of Mark as someone who’s not an asshole but is trying so hard to be. Some people will watch the movie and say, “No, actually, he’s an asshole.”
Look, it’s not my intention to crucify Mark Zuckerberg. Mark Zuckerberg is a guy who accomplished an enormous amount at a very, very young age. And I, not in the same way, not in the same world, but I know what it’s like to be 21 years old and trying to direct a $60 million movie and sitting in a room full of grown-ups who think you’re just so cute, but they’re not about to give you control of anything. It’s just, “Great — look how passionate he is!” I know the anger that comes when you just want to be allowed to do the things that you know you can do. In order to accomplish what he’s accomplished, you have to have not only a great deal of drive, you have to have an unshakable, freakish confidence. A lot of people will look at that and wonder what kind of hubris does it take to know what it is that you want at 21?
So I feel it would be irresponsible to say this is the story of a guy who betrayed his friends. I think Eduardo had a real failure of imagination, and I’ve been in those situations before. I’ve had companies where the partners were all in it for the right reasons at the beginning. And then four or five years down the line, when it’s a commercial endeavor that’s throwing off a lot of cash, you go, “I think you need to go in this direction.” And other people say, “Everything’s good just the way it is, let’s just keep it here.” You reach a point when you say, “We’re working at cross-purposes, we’re no longer aligned, you need to go do your thing and I need to go do my thing.”
And I’ve been in situations where people say, “Look, it’s best for everyone if this person is marginalized.” Those things happen. So I have an enormous amount of empathy for everyone involved. I didn’t want the Winklevosses to be the “Haves” who were surly and stupid. Cameron really has a strong sense of what it means to be a Harvardian. He’s not joking. He was raised right.
The idea of being gentlemen is very meaningful to them.
Yeah! When we were shooting the phone call [to Cameron Winklevoss’s father] I told him I wanted him to say, at the end of the call, “I love you, Dad.” It’s not in the script but that’s the kind of kid this guy is. It should be surprising that this six-foot-five, 220-pound kid says that. And I don’t know the Winklevi, but they’d somehow gotten a hold of the script because it was on the fucking Internet …
You don’t sound like you’re much more of a fan of the Internet than Aaron Sorkin is.
I just resent the whole … I hate the idea of pre-auditioning clay pigeons for people. I really resent the idea of people reading screenplays that have yet to be produced. In any case, the Winklevosses got to us and said, “You know, that’s not my dad’s name.” Aaron had changed the name originally. That was the one note we got. Little things like that were important to me. We were just trying to make the world as realistic as we could. There were times Aaron Sorkin and I would turn to each other and say, “What are we doing here?” And I said, “It’s the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies.” Sean Parker is half of Jedediah Leland, and Eduardo is the other half, the hurt half. It’s not, “If I hadn’t been so rich I might have been a truly great man.” But: “If I’d known then what I know now, three years later … ”
Related: Inventing Facebook [NYM]