“The first thing out of everybody’s mouth was, ‘How do you make a guy who’s that tall and he’s four years old and he looks 85?’” remembers David Fincher.
“And then, ‘How do you make him six months old but on his last breath?’ I’ve learnt in that situation you always lie. You always say, ‘We’ll figure that out…’”
Just like Se7en (two discs), Fight Club (two discs), Panic Room (three discs) and Zodiac (three discs), Fincher’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is a case study in his unique brand of meticulous movie magic.
More than three hours of extras spill from this wrinkle-free package, following the film’s own incredible life cycle from conception to release and everything in between.
What slams home from the start is just how personal this is for Fincher. He talks at length about his father’s own death, Errol Morris-style, straight to camera: “It’s not a love story, it’s a death story. It’s love measured against this graph paper of this thing we try so desperately to ignore.”
Even while wrestling with the disaster that was Alien3 back in the early ’90s, Fincher kept one eye on the Benjamin Button property as it passed from Frank Oz (who couldn’t figure it out) to Steven Spielberg (who did read-throughs with Tom Cruise before leaving to direct Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park) to Ron Howard (who departed after draft seven of the script) to Spike Jonze (who exited when screenwriter Eric Roth was hired).
“It was more money than they were willing to spend on the movie – by $75m,” says Fincher in one of the myriad featurettes. “So Brad went
off to do nine other movies. And I went off to do Zodiac.”
Happily, tax breaks in New Orleans melted the budget to finally give Button the greenlight. But less happily, Hurricane Katrina turned their locations into a haunting mausoleum.
As ever, Fincher on-set is a thrill to watch. We see him directing a wrinkled mechanical baby and stand-in Benjamins wearing blue hoods. He puts Pitt on a giant mechanical ship that lurches around in front of a blue screen.
He instructs Queenie (Taraji Henson) to go “eight tenths of a per cent slower” on her next take. Surprisingly, we learn that the 145-day shoot was longer than Zodiac but shorter than Panic Room.
Half the extras are devoted to the incredible post-production wizardry, as Fincher and Brad Pitt go all over again to tirelessly motion capture the
actor’s facial performance as the rough-cut plays on monitors.
It’s full of surprises and the wonder of modern moviemaking – not least the fact that Cate Blanchett voices her character even when she’s six years old. How many Hollywood helmers could learn a lesson from Fincher’s mastery of special effects? The best tricks are still the ones
you don’t notice.