One of the big talking points around The Social Network has been how director David Fincher had Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara do 99 takes of the opening six-minute scene over the course of two days. Which isn't new for Fincher -- doing an inordinate number of takes is how he rolls. And in the case of The Social Network, with a script as wordy and deliberate as Sorkin's tend to be, I can hardly imagine the kind of experience this must have been for the actors. It begs the question: Would you do 99 takes for David Fincher?
In a recent actor's round table organized by The Hollywood Reporter, Jesse Eisenberg got into discussing the process and Mark Ruffalo, also in attendance, offered his two cents as well, having worked with Fincher himself on Zodiac. Ruffalo posits that Fincher sees the whole, and the actors are only a bit of that whole, while Robert Duvall scoffs at the idea of 50+ takes so much that he wonders if there was a subconscious reason he turned down a role in Seven. What compels one actor to jump at the chance to do 99 takes and turns others off so much that they'd be thrilled to miss an opportunity to work with such a director?
I have a B.A. in Drama from NYU Tisch and almost always hated the rehearsal process of theater out of fear of finding a moment and then never being able to retrieve it again, but was of course grateful for the process in the end. But theater is QUITE different from film. In theater, you have months of prep. You rehearse to find your blocking, to find your moments and hopefully keep them, to see if your analysis works, to get your actions or any potential externals you have to live with for the duration of the show in your body. But with film, you do bits at a time and the technical aspects often take priority over the acting -- most directors expect you to come ready to film. And because it's so up close, because it's just one tiny part of the whole, spontaneity is key in capturing honesty. Clint Eastwood is one of those directors who thinks the best takes happen right away, when the actor is most spontaneous, most in the moment, most unaware of what is to come. He casts actors he knows he can trust, who will come ready to go, and makes sure his actors know they can trust him, that they are in a safe environment, that they can feel free to do whatever they want. He is known for most often using the first take that was shot. My favorite personal experiences on sets have been when we got the scene in one to three takes, so on paper, working with Eastwood sounds like a dream.
And the idea of doing a six-minute scene 99 times in a row makes my head want to explode.
But here's the thing. I tend to not like Eastwood movies. Fincher movies, I LOVE. I love every movie he has ever made, that I've seen (Sorry, Panic Room and Alien 3, one day I'll meet you). It might be annoying for the actors, but his methods yield genius results. Also, with that number of takes, I feel like it could almost give more of a chance to just mess around and do takes for yourself. Natalie Portman has praised Darren Aronosfky for always letting her have a take "for herself." There is something about doing that many takes that could end up being a similar kind of freeing. Especially if you know that's the way the director works. If your director does two or three takes normally, then needs to do 20 on you because you are missing all your moments or flubbing your lines, that's a bad sign. But if you know your director will be doing 40 to 99 takes, there isn't really much you can do to change that, so you might as well go all out. And it shows.
Recently, Vulture printed an in-depth interview with Fincher, in which I was thrilled to find he touches on exactly that notion:
"I'm not, like, trying to psychologically remake people, but look, it's an incredibly neurotic thing to want to do with one's life. It's incredibly hard to stand in front of a camera and be the focus of that attention and not be self-conscious. It makes you self-conscious, and to get beyond that self-consciousness, I absolutely want people to have their idea of what the scene is about, to have an idea of what their moment is. And then I want to take them through that process to a point where they've literally forgotten their own names. I want to take them past the point where they go, "But I had it all worked out." If it's still there but you're doing it a little bit later or doing it a little bit flustered. You know, it's an interesting thing: It happens very rarely, but invariably, when an actor's in the middle of a take and they go, "Uh, hang on a sec, sorry, my fault, can we start again?" always it's the best take. Always the best take before they cry uncle, before they go, "Wait a minute, I've lost my train of thought." And I can show them on the monitor: "Look at you here, that is you at your most present, when you're falling-down ill, like Dudley Moore in Arthur, ass-over-teakettle trying to remember where you were in the thing, that's when you are stunning and real and amazing." Little things happen. There's this moment at the beginning of the movie where Rooney [Mara, who plays Zuckerberg's girlfriend] interrupts him and says "Mark!" And Jesse did this thing where he leaned forward in a very prodding way and said "Erica!" Oddly condescending. She gets really pissed off -- and he'd never done it before. It was kind of great. I went up to him and he said, "Do you want me to do it again?" And I said, "No, but I bet you it's going in the movie." That's the kind of stuff you want to find."
Adding to the freedom? In the opening scene of The Social Network, Fincher put a camera on Mara *and* a camera on Eisenberg so they could nail the rhythms and overlaps of Sorkin's language. Thus, everything those actors did was captured. No moment lost. He also instructed the extras to speak at full volume to create a sense of realism for the actors. They weren't on a silent set, feeling the pressure, feeling the focus all directed on them. They were in it.
Another director notorious for doing numerous takes was Stanley Kubrick. People often view his methods as perhaps less kind or more crazy than Fincher's, Duvall going so far as to call him the "actor's enemy" in the aforementioned actor's round table, but according to some, Kubrick was going after a similar result:
"He believed that what it does to you, as an actor, was that you would lose control of your sense of self, of the part of you that was internally watching your own performance. Eventually, he felt, you would stop censoring yourself."
So it seems as though directors like Fincher and Kubrick are in fact going after the exact same thing directors like Eastwood desire: spontaneity, honesty, living in the moment.
You can't half-ass 99 takes. You need to know your lines, you need to have energy, you need to have worked on your voice and speech skills so you don't lose your voice or trip over your words. You need your body to be warm and open so you don't slip up, so you don't get tired. It's scary. And truly something only the most dedicated actors can pull off. Which is why, Justin Timberlake, I just got a whole lot more impressed with you.
But you know what? 99 takes? That's a challenge I'd be willing to take. Yes, I hate doing more than three takes of anything, but for the chance to work with David Fincher, I'd do just about anything. Well. That's overstating it a bit. But you know what I mean. Can you imagine waking up every morning knowing you are going to go work with incredibly talented people who, rather than worrying about time or perfection, are most concerned with letting you be open and free? Screw an actor's nightmare, this just turned into an actor's dream, you guys. Sign me up.
For more on the behind-the-scenes process, check out the behind-the-scenes doc How Did They Ever Make a Movie About Facebook, included on The Social Network Blu-ray.