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In a recent interview with The New York Times David Fincher spoke about the apparent friction between himself and Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of the 2007 thriller Zodiac

“Jake was in the unenviable position of being very young and having a lot of people vie for his attention, while working for someone who does not allow you to take a day off,” the Fight Club director said. “I think Jake’s philosophy was informed by—look, he’d made a bunch of movies, even as a child, but I don’t think he’d ever been asked to concentrate on minutiae, and I think he was very distracted. When he’d show up for work, he was very scattered. His managers and his silly agents who were all coming to his trailer at lunch to talk to him about the cover of GQ and this and that. He was being nibbled to death by ducks, and not particularly smart ducks. They got in his vision, and it was hard for him to hit the fastball.”

David Fincher is known to be a very painstakingly precise director. The level of detail required in his movies is legendary, and the work speaks for itself. The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Netflix’s Mindhunter all bear the mark of a fastidious professional obsessed with excellence. And the considerable performance by Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, the squeaky clean cartoonist-turned-amateur detective obsessed with the Zodiac killer, is indeed a masterful turn of raw dramatics.

For his part, Jake apparently apologized to David for the on-set rancor, but no apologies were necessary. Fincher understood it was all in service of the work.

Nonetheless, David Fincher is not the first director to want things to run his or her way or the highway. In 1958, director Henry Hathaway was directing From Hell to Texas with a young method actor named Dennis Hopper. Hathaway insisted Dennis do the scene as written, but the young upstart had other ideas. 

“It was ten in the morning when we started,” Dennis said. “Ten that night we were up to the 85th take for the same scene. On the 86th I broke down and cried. On the 87th I did it his way. Then I walked out of the studio, and I was banned in Hollywood.”

It took Hopper years to ingratiate himself back into the Hollywood establishment, and he seemed smarter and even wiser for having gone through such a harrowing contretemps. 

And it is the stuff of Hollywood legend (as well as anguish) that Stanley Kubrick all but terrorized his leading lady Shelley Duvall on the set of the 1980 horror classic The Shining. Purportedly, Stanley harassed, badgered, ignored, and bullied the doe-eyed actress throughout the shoot—so much so that the poor girl’s hair started to fall out. In fact, the infamous baseball bat scene took 127 takes to get the desired result. That scene went down in the Guiness Book of Records for most takes in a scene with spoken dialogue.  

“From May until October I was really in and out of ill health because the stress of the role was so great,” Shelley said. “Stanley pushed me and prodded me further than I’ve ever been pushed before. It’s the most difficult role I’ve ever had to play.”

So, what is to be done when you find yourself on set with an exacting skipper demanding a seemingly unachievable level of acumen and a dream of unattainable proficiency?

First, it’s important to understand the director has a job to do. The weight of the project is squarely on that person’s shoulders, and he or she will take the blame if the movie tanks—or heaven forbid, gets a Golden Raspberry nomination. A smidge of empathy might go a long way if you’re feeling put upon by a Captain Ahab type.

Secondly, remember this person has a vision for the film that you may or may not hold. Admittedly, it can be a particular kind of stress if you don’t believe in the direction of the project at hand. However, it is widely agreed that the director is the author of the film, and ultimately, the boss gets to call the shots. So if you foresee this is likely to be an issue, consider having a frank talk with the director from the get go; clarify what level of creative input you’ll be given, and figure out if you’re truly up for the task.

And lastly, be open to the idea that whatever you’re going through might eventually make you a better actor and a more seasoned professional. 

Rumor has it that on the set of his new film Mank, which examines the making of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, David Fincher had Amanda Seyfried shoot a certain scene 200 times. It makes one curious to see Amanda’s performance in the historical epic. 

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