Gone Girl is a good sized hit, garnering lots of talk about possible end of the year awards, particularly for the actors, and will likely wind up as director David Fincher’s biggest box office hit to date. Not bad for a guy who helmed influential movies and cultural touchstones like Seven and Fight Club. An uncompromising craftsman, Fincher, more than most filmmakers it seems, has a has a trail of burned, broken projects behind him that never got off the ground. He could have directed Star Wars: Episode VII, a Steve Jobs biopic, and even Chicago, among countless others. One of his most recent failures-to-launch, is a big-budget remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Disney, and now we know why that one was a nonstarter.
Fincher is notoriously uncompromising, which means that he has a concrete vision that he is fully dedicated to. That also means that he, often, butts heads with people like studio executives, who don’t always see eye to eye with the director. For instance, he famously went to war with Sony over casting Rooney Mara in his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation. That’s a big reason why he’s stepped away, or been thrown off, so many potential films, and that appears to be the case with 20,000 Leagues, again.
In an interview with Little White Lies, he says, “You get over $200 million — all motion picture companies have corporate culture and corporate anxieties. Once we got past the list of people we could cast as the different characters in the film, once we got past one or two names which made them very comfortable, making a movie at that price, it became this bizarre endeavour to find which three names you could rub together to make platinum.”
Casting was, again, an issue that came up between Fincher and Disney. Though he is known to be meticulous and exacting, sometimes demanding 60 or more takes of a particular shot, actors, at least some, seem to enjoy working with him—the Gone Girl cast raved about the shoot during the New York Film Festival, where that movie premiered. Fincher continues:
I wanted Aronnax to be French, God forbid! It got to be a little too confusing to me. I had this argument with a studio executive one time where he said to me, ‘why is it that the actors always side with you and we’re paying them?’ And I said, ‘I think it’s because at some level, they know that my only real allegiance is to the movie.’ And because that’s very clear and it never wavers, they may not agree with the image of the movie I have in my head, but they know that’s what I’m after. They’ve seen me for 100 days take the long way around. I think that when you’re trying to put together a handful of people to deliver all those facets of humanity and who work well together, it has to be in service of the narrative and not in service of the balance sheet. It became very hard to appease the anxieties of Disney’s corporate culture with the list of names that allowed everyone to sleep at night. I just wanted to make sure I had the skill-sets I could turn the movie over to. Not worrying about whether they’re big in Japan.
While Fincher and Disney may seem like odd bedfellows, and the fact that he bailed on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea doesn’t surprise many of us—the $200 million dollar project has been troubled from the start, and you don’t that kind of budget and a hands-off studio—it could have been something incredible. Fincher had a very different take on the story, edgy and boundary pushing. He says:
Dude, it was fucking cool. It was smart and crazy entertaining, with the Nautilus crew fighting every kind of gigantic Ray Harryhausen thing. But it also had this riptide to it. We were doing Osama bin Nemo, a Middle Eastern prince from a wealthy family who has decided that white imperialism is evil and should be resisted. The notion was to put kids in a place where they’d say, ‘I agree with everything he espouses. I take issue with his means—or his ends.’ I really wanted to do it, but in the end I didn’t have the stomach lining for it.
That sounds like it would have been totally badass, but also not exactly what Disney really wants out of an expensive, tentpole movie like this.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is likely going to be in limbo for a while as Disney attempts to regroup and move forward. For his part, Fincher is going to take a detour onto the small screen, where there’s a ton of great work being done, and filmmakers like himself, Steven Soderbergh, and Jane Campion, among many others, are finding creative freedom they’re not always getting in the movie theaters. Fincher has produced shows like House of Cards, and helmed sporadic episodes, and others, but he’ll direct every episode of the first season of HBO’s upcoming Utopia, an adaptation of a British show about a group of comic book fans who prevent large-scale disasters.