‘House of Cards’ director David Fincher on making 13 hours for Netflix

David Fincher“s directing career was built on works that aired on television – just not the series kind. He made his bones as a director of commercials and music videos, before graduating to movies in the early ’90s.
Now 20 years later (and after a few near-misses) Fincher is finally working on his first scripted television series, the political drama “House of Cards,” adapted from the acclaimed early ’90s UK miniseries.Only it”s not technically a television series, but rather an original series produced for Netflix”s streaming video service, which will debut all 13 episodes of the first season (a second is already in the works) on February 1. It”s the approach Netflix used for a previous original series, “Lilyhammer,” and the way that Fincher has himself consumed the few TV shows he watches. But as an expensive production with big stars – Kevin Spacey plays the ruthless congressman at the show”s center, and Robin Wright his calculating wife – it”s something of a canary in the coal mine for this approach.
Earlier this month, another reporter and I sat down with Fincher to discuss the project”s origins, what he learned about telling a 13-hour story as opposed to a 2-hour film, and more.
HitFix: Were you looking to do a series? How did you wind up doing this?
David Fincher: If you’re working in the movie business, you”re thinking in terms of you have this two-hour form that requires a kind of ballistic narrative that doesn”t always allow for characterizations to be that complex, or that deep, or that layered, or that you can reveal slowly and be as faceted. And I felt for the past ten years that the best writing that was happening for actors was happening in television. And so I had been looking to do something that was longer form. I never said I was going to hold my breath until somebody offers me 26 hours. And when they did it was sort of shocking when you try to kind of wrap your mind around the number of different storylines that it”s going to take to fill 26 hours. It can be a particularly daunting experience. But I had liked the idea of doing something either on premium cable that could be challenging to an audience of adults in terms of its drama and subject matter. 
And MRC purchased the remake rights to this very famous British show that – I’d heard about it for years and I”d never seen it. My parents had told me about it; that they loved it. And Josh Donen, who”s my partner, and Eric Roth, my other partner, saw the show, sat me down, said, “You have to watch this; you have to see because somebody’s got to make this and it might as well be us.” And I watched it and I watch Ian Richardson and thought, “Wow, that’s pretty great.” And the question was how do we transplant it to Washington? And Beau Willimon came in; we”d read (his play) “Farragut North.” Everybody certainly thought he was an agile thinker and a wonderful dramatist and he came in and spun this: “This is what I would do. This is how I would do it.” And we all said “Knock me over with a feather and throw a sheet over me, and this guy sounds like he”s got a take on it.”
And he went away for four or six months and came back with a pilot script that we were able to go out, give to Kevin Spacey and it was a good thing that he responded because we didn”t have anybody else on the list. It’s like if Kevin says no, what do we do? Well, we tell MRC, “Go with God, best of luck to you.” It was a very short list. He said yes. He said, “I have to be honest with you. I can’t do this for a year. I have to go play Richard III.” And I was like, “By all means go. Perfect. You know, it’ll be great training.” And I went to Stockholm to make a movie there (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and gave the script to Robin Wright. And Robin responded to it.
So we had our first two choices. And that continued. One of the responsibilities I put on the cast when we had our first read through is I said, “I want everybody here to know that you represent our first choice – each actor here represents our first choice for these characters. So do not fuck this up.”
And so we were in the enviable position of having a script that people wanted to make. And then it was just a question of, whether it was a pilot and then ten episodes or a pilot and nine episodes, and we were looking for 13 episodes. And Netflix came in and said, “We would love to do this. We think there”s something for our subscribers in this. We love the idea of it being something that people can get day and date.” We didn’t go in knowing it was going to be February 1. We didn”t know it was going to be 13 hours February 1, but we knew that was a possibility. It was one of the things that they discussed, and although we were terrified of the idea of we have to actually finish everything for this one date. Because 13 hours is a lot of moviemaking. But that”s how I caught up on “Breaking Bad.” I missed the first two seasons. And it was only when I could TiVo an entire season that I started catching up to what everyone was talking about. So it didn’t scare me. It just felt daunting, the idea of 13 hours to all be ready on a (specific date). And so we did it.
Question: And you directed the first two episodes?
David Fincher: Just the first two.
Question: How did you have to adapt your style of filmmaking?
David Fincher: I didn”t really.  I find myself more and more fascinated with what people say in contrast with what they do. And I felt like I didn”t need to get particularly intricate or elaborate in terms of the staging. It”s very rudimentary, very kind of primitive; it”s simple. I wanted it to just be, here”s a guy. He”s presenting his case. Here”s a girl. She”s presenting her case. You know, I love the moves on the chessboard. I love the pauses as they wait for the other person to either fall for what it is that they”re saying or to offer them another idea. So I didn”t really change much. 
Question: But it was faster?
David Fincher: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I shot a lot of takes. I shot two cameras, which is what I normally do. I didn”t really change much. I really didn”t. I”ve worked with the same crew for 20 years or something like that, so it was a whole new group of people. And I do think there were a lot of people kind of smiling a little bit going, “You know, if you think you”re shooting 15 takes of this you”re never going to (do it).” But we did. We averaged 35 setups a day and 14, 15 takes a setup.(*) So I didn”t really change anything.
(*) Later, I asked a veteran TV director who’s worked extensively in both broadcast TV and pay cable what he thought of those numbers. He said that the number of setups per day was about right, but the number of takes per setup was significantly higher than anything he’d done, or knew of. “If he’s squeezing that many takes into a regular schedule,” the director said of Fincher, “then he’s my hero.”
HitFix: But I”m curious. You hadn”t done TV, Beau hadn”t done TV, Kevin last did TV regularly 25 years ago on a few episodes of “Wiseguy,” in terms of the top three people. Were there things that over the course of making the show you discovered, “Well, okay, this is different than movies. We have to do this a little bit differently,” or were you immune to that?
David Fincher: Not immune. I think there are definite conventions of how you lay out the story threads. You know, you”re going to cut away from your A storyline to your B storyline. And that”s going to inherently make it feel more like television than the degree to which you rigorously follow one point of view (in a film). That”s a different thing when you have an ensemble that of characters who are all interrelated and interwoven but they”re going through different things at the same time. And different things at different times that you need to weave into the tapestry of it. As far as the actual making of it, you have a readthrough every 20 days and notes are given. And there’s no navel gazing. You get the script and you show up and if there are problems, you”ve got to work it out that morning right then. But other than that, it was storytelling. It was acting and storytelling, and photographing it. We didn”t crash any planes. And we didn”t do the kind of stuff that people expect from $200 million movies. But other than that it was what I”d always done.
Question: How much would you say this is the beginning of a new trend or medium? It”s not exactly TV, because you have the whole season, the first day to see on streaming
David Fincher: Well, they did “Lilyhammer” (that way). And that”s been my experience of a number of different shows including “The Sopranos.” I didn”t get on the bandwagon of “The Sopranos” until season 3. And I saw it off TiVo in very much the same way that Netflix is talking about making this available. I don”t see it as being a guinea pig. The interesting thing will be that there hasn”t – by the time you get to season 3 of “Breaking Bad” and it”s available to you on Netflix, it”s percolated. And people have (talked about it), and there”s a context for understanding that you”re gifted with it before you press play.
That”s going to be a slightly different than here. But other than that, this is how a lot of people are comfortable and in some cases preferred consuming this kind of story. I can only tell you from my experience because for the first time, two weeks ago, Beau and Josh Donen and Eric Roth and I sat down and we watched 13 hours from beginning to end. And it”s crazy. It”s like a book. It”s like you reading a chapter, set it down. Go get some Thai food, come back, fire it up again. It works in a different way. The pace of consumption in some way informs a kind of relationship that you have with the characters, which is very different from destination television. Or you know the (“I Love Lucy” rerun) at 7:30 at Tuesday nights. Those days are gone; that”s done. So is this a valid way to consume? Yeah, absolutely, and it has been for years now. We”re not doing anything new in that respect. The only thing that”s new is no one”s ever seen this before this moment. It”s not downstream of previous understanding. This is its initial understanding.
HitFix: You mentioned “Breaking Bad” before, and Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston will both openly talk about how it took many episodes to really find the character, find the performance, find the tone of the show. With television, there”s a learning curve with any show, in a way that I imagine there isn”t in a film. I”m assuming over two hours (of a film), the performance is the performance, as opposed to over 13. Kevin told me he felt like he understood Francis much better by end of these 13 than he did at the beginning. Sort of how was that for you?
David Fincher: It”s fun. It”s exciting. You know, we came into this with ten scripts written. By the time I left Baltimore and James Foley was shooting episodes three and four, Beau had fairly well cannibalized the next six. And was moving them around willy-nilly. Because he was responding to (the actors). We had actors that we cast on the basis of a videotape audition for three lines. And Beau would say, “I think there”s something to this girl and I want to bring her back in this other way.” And you kind of go, “My God, we don”t know whether she can do that? We”ve never – we haven”t asked this of her.” And then we would give her these pages. We”d go, “Wow, she”s great.” And there were appendages that we thought or veins that we thought we would mine that we ended up dropping.
It does reveal itself to you, just as the movie does. I mean, a movie does in a slightly different way because you have six months, seven months of thinking about it. It”s two hours. That”s all you have to really worry about. Thirteen hours is a lot. Anybody who says “I have the two-hour movie in my mind” is a liar. The notion that you could keep 13 hours in your head and know where you are in that is nuts. Actors who play a role that captures the imagination of many people, they have a hard time sort of getting out of that because it”s your compass. It”s your barometer that guides you through because you don”t know (what”s coming next). There are things that happen in the scripts for episode six that Kevin had never been privy to. When Beau finally showed up with the script it was like, “Wow, this is an interesting new idea. Where are we, where does this go?” And then there were ideas in episode nine that came out of this complete fork in the road that had happened.
So the company of actors who make themselves available for this kind of storytelling are both willing participants and victims of a process that reveals itself to you over time. And the interesting thing for me (watching all the episodes) two weeks ago was you would look at things that we were trying to weave into the through line, and you think about the pace the scripts came in – you get two a month. So you”re getting it more in a network kind of pace. And then you make them. I had seen all the episodes.  And I”d color corrected all the episodes. And I”d done visual effects. And I”d made notes on the editing. So I”d see them and I”d seen them in different chronologies. And I”d seen them as this sequence was available. And that sequence that this one was being mixed. (But) I”d never watched them in the way that they were intended to go, one right after the other. It’s a very different experience of something that you”ve spent a year of your life on when you sit down and it takes two days. It’s like it”s Wagnerian.
Question You we’re saying you were looking for a long format of storytelling for a while. So I was wondering what kind of TV shows made you think so? 
David Fincher: I don”t watch a lot of TV. I get recommendations from people, and sometimes you see stuff when you”re casting things, and people send you edits of different actors. And you go, “Oh, that”s an interesting, that looks like an interesting show,” so I”ll try  it. But I”m so not up to speed. And I feel like such a retard because there”s so many times when we”d be with Beau and and I would say, “What about this?” and he would say, “We can”t do that because they did that on ‘West Wing.”” It”s like, okay.  I didn”t know that. So I am a neophyte. I like “Breaking Bad.” I”ve watched that a lot. And I liked “Deadwood.” I at one point was going to do the pilot to “Deadwood.” And I had a couple of shows that almost got made at other cable subscription content providers. But I had never had to go nose to the grindstone and crank out 13 hours.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com