The Malleable World of David Fincher’s Panic Room
I’ve written before on Panic Room and its influence on modern thrillers. The movie has also become something of a running joke on my Twitter account. The fact is, I adore this movie. It may not be David Fincher’s best work (see Zodiac, Se7en, or The Social Network for that) but it stands as a testament to Fincher’s sensibilities, both in his style and work ethic.
You’d think Fincher would’ve moved far away from studio filmmaking after the failure of his feature film debut, Alien 3. The film’s studio, 20th Century Fox, wanted less nihilism in their mega blockbuster franchise sequel and the cut-to-shreds final product wooed few. It wasn’t until the Fincher-unapproved "Assembly Cut" was released on home video that film managed to find some redemption. The creative team behind the initial Alien Anthology DVD set combed through Fincher’s original production notes in order to compile a version of Alien 3 that closely resembled the director’s vision. Fincher was offered a chance to cut the film himself, but he refused. It’s no surprise he’s distanced himself from the project after all these years. After Alien 3 he famously told Sight & Sound, “I thought I'd rather die of colon cancer than do another movie.”
It’s that ever-continuing battle between director and studio that stimulates Fincher’s career. The power of control seeps into everything from Se7en to Gone Girl. In a mad dash to gather evidence and catch a killer, the hapless Detective Mills is always one step behind, and ultimately broken by, an almost omnipresent force. In Gone Girl, it’s married couple Nick and Amy Dunne who are at odds with each other, first with the narrative of their failed relationship and then later on with Amy’s own presumed murder investigation. On screen and off, it’s about control with Fincher. He’s taken his name off of projects if he isn’t given free reign—one recent example had him turning down Steve Jobs because the studio wouldn’t let him personally oversee its promotional campaign.
That obsession with control leads into 2002’s Panic Room. After tackling larger films with a multitude of locations, Fincher wanted to direct something smaller, preferably set in one place. And along came David Koepp's script—a thriller about a divorcee and her daughter who hide in their new townhome’s panic room when three thieves break in and they soon discover the thieves want what’s in that room. Simple enough, yes. Fincher had a plan from the get-go; film all of the interior shots on a soundstage. This would provide Fincher with a playground to move the camera with the steely precision he’s always sought. He made pre-viz videos of nearly shot so when they started rolling they would know what wall to move and precisely where to place each actor. But, of course, as you see in each of Fincher's films, in real life it never goes exactly as planned.
Nicole Kidman was originally cast in the lead role, but had to drop out due to an injury she suffered on the set of Moulin Rouge!; Jodie Foster was a last minute replacement. The sets and the pre-viz was built around Kidman, so when the considerably shorter Foster took her role, the camera placements were a few inches off, so much so that the crew had a special apple box Foster could stand on in many scenes. Along with the onset annoyances—like Foster being blinded by the panic room’s door’s lasers each time she walked past them—the character of Meg Altman had to be rewritten to be more in line with Foster’s personality. Meg’s daughter Sarah was to be played by Hayden Panettiere, but she dropped out and was replaced by Kristen Stewart. The casting mix-up, worked to the movie’s favor, as Foster and Stewart turned out to have a natural mother-daughter chemistry. But, the behind-the-scenes problems wouldn’t let up. Foster turned out to be pregnant during filming, while Stewart, still a teenager at the time, grew three inches.
For a production so small, Fincher still faced production woes like you’d see in larger budget productions. Se7en’s cinematographer, Darius Khondji, worked on Panic Room for weeks before quitting, citing creative differences. Later, Fincher admitted he was to blame for Khondji leaving the production, saying they butted heads over the look of the movie. Conrad W. Hall took over for Khondji and we can only assume he took Fincher’s notes better.
During the 120-day shoot, amongst the factors he couldn’t control, Fincher was still able to deliver the movie he wanted to make. Famous for the Kubrickian obsession with numbers of takes per shot, Fincher, for a five second shot of Foster dropping a medical kit, filmed her repeating the action over a hundred times. Another shot has a gun sliding towards the camera, which displeased Fincher so much that he replaced the real-life gun with a CG one in post-production; ever the perfectionist, Fincher knows what tools to use to warp the environment to suit his needs.
In the ultimate director vs. studio power move, after the studio test screened the movie, they wanted Fincher to reshoot the ending. Fincher resisted and said, since the sets at that point were destroyed, that it would cost $3 million to accommodate the studio’s notes. Some changes were made in editing, which had Forest Whitaker’s robber character captured by police. Test audiences wanted a tad more catharsis from Foster’s character’s final showdown with the demented Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). In terms of control, one thing Fincher understands is what’s good for the audience. He admits himself on the movie’s commentary track that it’s not a “clean” ending, which is why he thinks it works.
The movie itself has Foster and Stewart’s coming up against the three thieves, the balance of control ever shifting. Who knows what and when—the essentials of thriller are on display, with the panic room itself providing the device that both protects and menaces. Simplicity is the key to Panic Room’s success. The thieves want wants in the panic room, the two parties are intent on not letting the have the upper hand. Hitchcock himself would relish in a plot so simple that puts in peril a leading lady, and has the violence and sufficient body count to boot.
Fincher would be the first person to tell you Panic Room is nothing more than a B-movie thriller. He breaks down the distinction between his “movies” and “films” in an interview for The Guardian from 2002.
"A movie is made for an audience and a film is made for both the audience and the film-makers. I think that The Game is a movie and I think Fight Club's a film. I think that Fight Club is more than the sum of its parts, whereas Panic Room is the sum of its parts. I didn't look at Panic Room and think: Wow, this is gonna set the world on fire. These are footnote movies, guilty pleasure movies. Thrillers. Woman-trapped-in-a-house movies. They're not particularly important."
From pre-production, filming, release, and, finally, to how the audience will/should accept his movies/films, Fincher continuingly seeks utmost control. He admits Panic Room is a “footnote movie” but it’s a crucial part of Fincher’s filmography. After Panic Room, we’d have to wait five years for his next movie—err, film, Zodiac, which further proved he’s a director capable of bending the cinematic world to his will. Looking back, we should appreciate “lesser” works from filmmakers, like Fincher, that express their true intent—Panic Room showcases just how in control Fincher is.