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A Curious Case of Tricks Brings Success to Button

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button leads the Oscar sweepstakes this year with 13 Academy Award nominations, including nods for best picture and for David Fincher in the best director category. Eight of the nominations are for the craft contributions, covering nearly all of the production keys who worked on the ambitiously scaled but ultimately intimate film.

The two-hour, 45-minute feature stars Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button. It spans nearly nine decades in the life of the title character who is born in New Orleans in 1918 at the end of World War I, looking like a very old man. As he adventures through life and travels the world, he ages in reverse, appearing ever younger while those around him grow older and head to death’s door. Most poignant is his wistful relationship with Daisy, the love of his life, played by Cate Blanchett. Their ages cross at a single point in their lives and then again diverge.

To visualize the unusual plot, based loosely on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, Fincher assembled an all-star team of collaborators including director of photography Claudio Miranda, production designer Donald Graham Burt, film editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, costume designer Jacqueline West, composer Alexandre Desplat and makeup artist Greg Cannom.

Fincher, who recently returned from Europe where Benjamin Button is about to open, talked with Below the Line about what it took to get the film made.


Below the Line: How did you approach such a big project? What was your battle plan?

David Fincher: It’s like eating a whale, you have to do it one bite at the time. I had to decide what we were going to spend on—what we were going to show, and what we weren’t going to show. I always start by setting up blinders, here’s what the movie is about and here’s what the movie isn’t about. It’s important to choose the road you choose not to go down.

We knew we wanted to do a period film, but we also knew we didn’t want it to be all about doilies and hair styles and the set dressing. We wanted to leave enough room in the frame for the personal story to not get overwhelmed by a lot of period details. Oddly enough it’s an intimate film—it is first and foremost a love story. So while you’re building a 95-foot tugboat on a blue stage you want to keep in mind that it’s about the two faces in the foreground.

BTL: How extensive was the prep?

Fincher: It ended up being a lot more extensive because we kept getting the movie shut down. It was too rich for everybody’s blood. We worked on it some, and then returned to it. We’d start and stop. This sounds good, this sounds good, but uh oh, Baltimore [the original location] isn’t going to work. That’s too expensive so we’re not going to do that. We ended up doing it in New Orleans.

BTL: When you assemble your crew, who do you start with?

Fincher: I start with the production designer, and then there’s the photography. For the most part it’s people I’ve worked with forever so it wasn’t a big deal to decide who was going to do what. I knew whom to call.

BTL: You had worked a long time with Claudio Miranda. But he’d never taken on such an immense project as a director of photography. What gave you the confidence to go with him?

Fincher: I worked with Claudio for 20 some years, we shot many commercials. He’s very comfortable with shooting digitally and knows our workflow system and how we wanted to proceed, so it made sense.

BTL: What was the look you were going for with Claudio? It’s a period film, but it covers a long historical span. Did you try to integrate it?

Fincher: We didn’t begin by describing a look; a lot was based on the locations. We realized we weren’t going to have a lot of say because we were moving the production to New Orleans. We went at it asking what the location was going to give us. There were some amazing locations in New Orleans. The location photos themselves were beautiful, that’s what we wanted.

BTL: I understand that the characteristics of paintings by Andrew Wyeth, who just recently passed away, were at one point looked to as an influence.

Fincher: Yes, Wyeth’s Shaker, minimalist, lonely look. But once you’re in the filigree of New Orleans with all its moss, tree trunks and tree roots in the street, the reality set in that the place was much denser visually. So we kind of gave up on that. It ends up being more colorful than we were originally going for.

BTL: You like to shoot digitally and you mentioned that Claudio is used to shooting digitally. You again used Thomson’s Grass Valley Viper FilmStream camera which you’ve employed in the past.

Fincher: We used the Viper and also the Sony F23 HD camera. There was also some film used.

BTL: What’s behind your preference for shooting digitally—is it aesthetic? Practical?

Fincher: I mainly like the workflow. I like the time that it saves. I like being able to shoot wide open. I like being able to retouch stuff daily. You can look at something and say that’s not going to work, we’re going to have to fix that. The whole process is more immediate. Once you’re done with a shot and see it on a 23-inch monitor, you don’t have to go to dailies and find that something is scratched or out of focus. You know what you’re dealing with. That’s what I really like.

And for the first time in the history of cinema, the boom operator, the key grip, the focus puller, the makeup artist—everyone’s looking at the same image. There’s no confusion. It’s not like it requires an interpretation, like a little tiny on-board video tap on the Panaflex to communicate with different departments. You’re looking at what’s ostensibly the answer print. If you love the way it looks there you’ll love what you get in the DI [digital intermediate] suite.

BTL: Also with digital shooting you don’t have to constantly reload.

Fincher: That’s a definite plus. Some actors would like some time off between takes. But I like that there are no slates and that the reload time is extremely minimal.

BTL: Is there also an aesthetic from digital that you like?

Fincher: I don’t think it necessarily has its own aesthetic yet. I don’t know if it’s been tested enough. I like what I get out of it. There are things I like about the look. It depends on what you do with it, what kind of sauce you ladle on it.

BTL: You have two editors on the film, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. Both of them also worked with you on Zodiac. You’re known for shooting a lot. What impact does that have on the editors?

Fincher: We shoot a lot of takes, but we don’t shoot a lot of coverage. So there’s the equivalent of 1 million feet of film. But it’s really how much you print. I delete a lot as I ago.

BTL: So how does the process work with your two editors? Is an assembly being made while you’re shooting?

Fincher: On this movie, Kirk was there every day while we were assembling. And then Angus came in after we had an assembly. Angus would have at it, taking what I and Kirk had put together and shore it up. He’d be the set of eyes that didn’t know what the rules were or what the sacred cows were. There’s always somebody out of the room. Either the two of them are working together, or I’ll go off with one and talk about this or that. And then from that we gauge where we think the thing is going. So you always have someone who has a fresh outlook on it.

BTL: Do you have a rough assembly when the shooting ends?

Fincher: Yes.

BTL: What happens next? Was it a long edit on Benjamin Button?

Fincher: Yes, because there were so many visual effects, which took many months, so it was a long edit. Basically I prefer having more time than less time during the editing stage. I think you’re going to make better decisions when you’ve exhausted all the possibilities.

BTL: Do you get very involved in the editing process?

Fincher: I’m one of three people who is very involved in the editing process. I’m one of the three opinions. But we’re very much a team.

BTL: Your production designer, Don Burt, had also worked with you before on Zodiac.

Fincher: We shot Benjamin Button, then in the middle we did Zodiac, and came back to Benjamin Button.

BTL: Given the historical span of almost 90 years that the film covers, was that a challenge in terms of production design? What kinds of things did you want Burt to emphasize?

Fincher: It was mostly a question of talking with him about what the scenes were going to be about, and then figuring out what we could do for budget. It seems ludicrous to say, but anytime you’re spending this kind of money it all has to be on the screen. While it seems like a lot, it could easily be a lot more if you’re not careful. In terms of what we were asking of the art department and the location scouts, we wanted to avoid having people doubling up and doing work that would never be seen.

I start with Don by explaining what I think the story is, and where I think the scenes are, and where it’s best to spend our assets. He comes up with very visual concepts in his drawings. And then we begin to describe where we were going to cut back and what were going to be the big showcase pieces that we had to have. We knew we didn’t want to do a big set of the hotel in Murmansk, but there were a lot of rooms in the place that were needed. There was a lot of discussion. What I like about Don is he’s very thoughtful. The worst thing is when you spend all this money on something and you end up using only three shots that wind up in the movie.

BTL: You had one major location setting, the house in New Orleans that you found, which served as the nursing home where much of the action took place, especially in the first part of the film. At the same time much was shot on sets, like the sequence where the big clock starts running backwards toward the start of the film. It seems to be taking place in a huge Grand Central-style railroad station, but digital enhancements and extensions were used extensively to create the details of the setting.

Fincher: We looked at a couple of big buildings in downtown New Orleans that could have worked for the clock scene. But in the end it was better and faster and cheaper to go to a recreation center and build that set. We also thought of shooting at the courthouse. But the day we got there I realized that we had enough with some exterior shots and the digital matte paintings to make it work, and it turned out fine.
For the clock itself, we had the option of spending $100,000 to build a prop clock. Instead we spent a lot less than that, and used CGI to make it work backwards. That was a well-research risk which worked out.

BTL: The biggest and longest set piece was when Benjamin goes to work on the tugboat that gets storm tossed and caught up in a battle, among other adventures. Did you do that on a sound stage too?

Fincher: A great deal of money was spent on that. But enough of the crew had worked on real water to be able to say we would be doing ourselves a great disservice if we had an actor made up for four or five hours, and then found we couldn’t make the day, because of the condition of the river or the sun. Instead we built a 95-foot boat on a set that was placed on gimbles to give it motion but was shot against green screen for the sky and water. The conditions were easier to control.

BTL: The costumes also needed to cover many decades. Were there some basic premises you and your costume designer Jacqueline West applied?

Fincher: Just that we didn’t want it to be a cavalcade of wardrobe changes. Benjamin Button is not a clothes horse. I adore Jackie and the process of working with her because it’s so thrilling. The actors love it and there’s so much inventive detail in what she comes up with. She can solve so many problems by the clarity of her invention. On a movie this size you’re looking for such people. She’s also an amazing self-starter. When she comes to you with a solution you know it’s after she has done days or weeks of thinking about it. She’s not winging it.

BTL: The makeup is such a central element in the movie. It’s so effective displaying Benjamin’s reverse aging, and viewers also marvel at just how well it’s been pulled off. You worked with Greg Cannom, who is a real master with prosthetics. There must have been a lot of time taken to get the actors ready. Daisy, when she’s very old in the hospital and recollects Benjamin, the makeup was so well done you were able to do many long very tight close-ups.

Fincher: That was what it’s all about. The hardest thing was to spend the money so you could have a good six weeks that we could play with what the makeup should look like, how it should move when applied, and then getting the actors used to having their faces kind of shellacked and then playing through a mask. Everyone thought we were crazy spending so much preparation time, but it ended up being very helpful. At the start, we wouldn’t even put on prosthetic pieces that had been sculpted for Brad or Cate. Greg would pick up pieces that were just lying around, to see to how much they inhibited the actors. We would be able to tell Greg to be especially careful and aware of these considerations—pieces applied couldn’t be too thick here or there. That prep process proved invaluable.

BTL: Making Pitt as Benjamin grow younger than the real Brad Pitt must have been tricky.

Fincher: Yes, the “youthanizing,” as we called it. That was very tricky and we didn’t know how it was going to work. We went to a company in Santa Monica, Lola Visual Effects, which does makeup digitally, using computers. We didn’t realize how great they were going to be and how much we were going to lean on them. We were pleased by the level of digital artistry and detail they provided. That allowed us to get very close to actors’ faces with the camera and still have it look convincing.

BTL: Pitt’s head got superimposed on different bodies as he reverse ages?

Fincher: It was more than superimposition. There was a whole CG head-replacement process involved.

BTL: Did you use a number of companies for your digital effects?

Fincher: Eric Barba was my digital effects supervisor, and Digital Domain was the lead house. But we also used Asylum, which did all the tugboat scenes. Matte World Digital did most of the CG environments—the train station but also the Murmansk scenes. We also used Hydraulx—they did the crinkled and old newborn baby face. And I’ve already mentioned Lola.

BTL: We’re in a new digital era that’s only about a decade old. Do you find the use of digital effects an enabler for your imagination as well as a practical tool?

Fincher: It’s an enabler. I don’t use it as a way to spend more money. I use it to save money. Instead of sending a whole crew to Russia, we end up going to Montreal using digital effects to make it all work.

BTL: Your composer Alexandre Desplat’s musical score is wonderful in and of itself, but it’s also a glue that holds the movie together. He’s done so many great film scores in recent years. After you hired him, did you let him just do his own thing?

Fincher: We talked a lot initially. But he was chosen because he was the right person for the gig. He had the luxury of using a big orchestra, but the score mostly sounded very intimate, which was appropriate.

BTL: Now that you have finished Benjamin Button and it’s in theaters, what reflections do you have about making such an ambitious movie?

Fincher: I didn’t feel the scale of Benjamin Button so much. The day you have a lot of extras, you think it’s going to be a big test, but it tends to go off like clockwork. And I know how to stage something like the tugboat battle sequence. The smaller more subtle moments were harder to figure out. For example, take the love scene between Daisy and Benjamin when he returns as a youthful 25-year-old and she has turned 60. Those are oftentimes the most difficult to work through. It’s in such scenes where you don’t know whether the audience is really going to be with the characters emotionally, or whether they’re going to say, we get it, we get it, he’s gotten younger and she’s gotten older. Pulling those scenes off with conviction is what I’m most proud of.

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