The precision design of David Fincher’s hit-man feature mirrors its subject, writes Adrian Pennington
James Bond by way of B&Q is how director David Fincher conceived of The Killer, his feature adaptation of an acclaimed French graphic novel.
The character played by Michael Fassbender doesn’t have cars or gadgets provided by a state-of-the-art organisation. Instead, he shops on Amazon and in convenience stores, dresses like a tourist and creates his own low-fi means of trapping and eliminating people.
“The Killer is a spider sitting in a web,” said cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt ASC.
While the source material by Alexis Nolent and artist Luc Jacamon is quite expansive in terms of story and politics the screenplay by Fincher and long-standing collaborator Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) strips things back to become a more straightforward story of retribution.
When Nolent wrote the comic, one of his influences was Le Samourai, the 1967 picture directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and written by Melville and Georges Pellegrin. It starred Alain Delon as an ice-cold Parisian assassin.
Fincher also admired Melville’s movie and sent Messerschmidt a copy as a reference point.
“I’d seen it, but in film school,” the DOP said. “I watched it again and immediately understood what he was going for: that kind of patience, the idea of staying in purgatory while you’re doing the job. If you’re going to be good at anything, in the 10,000 hours thing [the notion, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’, that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class at something], 9,000 of it may just be waiting.”
Messerschmidt was the gaffer on Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014), before taking the role of cinematographer for the majority of FBI killer interview series Mindhunter (2017). He won his Academy Award for the black and white work on Mank (2020) and is now in high demand (he followed The Killer by shooting Ferrari with Michael Mann, and the pilot of the crime TV series Sinking Spring with Ridley Scott).
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“When I sat down and talked to David he explained it’s not really about nihilism, it’s about precision and someone reconciling themselves with what they’re doing for a living,” he said.
“It is not your classic plot-driven drama. It’s much more existential and philosophical than it appears. And also about the monotony of procedure.”
The rules of the production aren’t codified as much as discussed and felt. “My experience with David is generally the creative decision-making is almost entirely instinctual,” said Messerschmidt. “The way he keeps things interesting, for himself and the rest of us, is pushing us to do something different. Not to do the pedestrian method, not cover things in the traditional way – not just in technique, but also stylistically and creatively. He encourages everyone to take chances.”
Behind the Scenes: The Killer - Location shoots
There were three main legs to the production: France, the Dominican Republic and America. With pandemic restrictions still in force in the summer of 2021, the team effectively prepped the movie from Europe, scouting in Paris and then flying from there to the DR and New Orleans (which also doubled for Florida), before traveling to Chicago and St. Charles, Illinois (which doubled for upstate New York).
The film opens in an empty office space overlooking a Parisian square, opposite a plush apartment where the first target is anticipated. The interior of the under-construction WeWork space, where Fassbender waits for his prey, was built on stage in New Orleans, as was the inside of the plush Parisian apartment opposite, where his target appears. They chose New Orleans, partly because of French filming restrictions hinted at by Fincher in the film’s production notes.
“The French government wants to know where you’re going with that sniper rifle with a foot-long silencer on it,” he said. “Even if it’s a fake one.”
“We shot exteriors and then built the interiors of the apartment he was firing into,” explained production designer Donald Burt (Oscar winner for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Mank). “They were comped into existing buildings in the style of mid-19th century Parisian architecture. We took those buildings and built our own version, to have the control we needed.”
Behind the Scenes: The Killer - Location shooting in 8K
Since shooting The Social Network (2010) on the Red One, Fincher has only used cameras manufactured by Red Digital Cine. With each film – or TV series – he has used a different model. For The Killer, Fincher and Messerschmidt opted for the V-Raptor, which meant they could record footage in 8K resolution, with the amount of detail captured allowing for maximum flexibility for any adjustments required to colour or framing.
They shot in the widescreen anamorphic aspect ratio, 2.39:1 (having shot both Mank and Mindhunter in 2.2:1). “I felt strongly we should change it up, especially as we’re going to all these different locations,” said Messerschmidt.
With rifles and cars and over-the-shoulder shots, or seeing someone in the foreground putting a rifle together and seeing the window across the street, the scenes continually offered up more width than height.
Each country had a slightly different look. Paris for instance is lit with a steel blue sodium vapor said Messerschmidt. “And out of that came this concept of the whole movie having a dual colour, split tone of oranges and blues, or oranges and teals.”
To make the DR feel hot and humid he used a filter to help the highlights bloom. Traditionally, this might have been achieved by using a glass filter on the camera, but the filmmakers were wary of this slowing them down. So Messerschmidt investigated other options, finding a software plug-in that could be applied in post to mimic the effects of certain diffusion filters.
They also considered using handheld cameras, something which Fincher has generally avoided in his films. After tests exploring the idea of shooting handheld and then stabilising the footage in post, Fincher opted against it.
“We had lots of discussions about that at the beginning,” said Messerschmidt. “Then David came back and said, ‘Maybe I’m thinking about this the wrong way, what if we do it stable?’ So, instead, we reversed the process: shooting everything stable and then adding movement in postproduction, to reflect either the chaos of a scene or the state of the killer’s mind.
“The basic rule was when The Killer is in a state of confidence, the camera is fluid,” he adds. “And when he’s frazzled, like at the beginning when he’s thrown into this maelstrom of confusion, the camera breaks away. We were playing with when to apply that.”
A fight scene between The Killer and a character called The Brute (Sala Baker) in the confines of The Brute’s house required collaboration between Messerschmidt, Burt and stunt coordinator Dave Macomber.
“We had to think about how to explain the space, while simultaneously shooting a fight scene,” said Messerschmidt. “The sequence is hard, the camera is moving all over the place, the actors are moving all over the place, and it’s fast. So we have to think about how we’re going to stage it for the light.”
This meant discussions with the art department about finding sources, from lights fitted under the kitchen cabinets, to establishing streetlights outside. “We decided we wanted hard, artificial street light through the windows,” said Messerschmidt, which meant erecting lights on the exterior location to match that. “In terms of the scope of the movie, a tremendous amount of energy went into just figuring out that fight.”
Behind the Scenes: The Killer - Big Mouth Strikes Again
The conventional use of soundtrack in a film is to segue way the audience smoothly from scene to scene. You aren’t meant to notice the join – but this is exactly what Fincher wanted.
His instruction to nine time Oscar-nominated sound designer Ren Klyce, was to make it “very antisocial.” This meant experimenting with ‘vertical’ sound cuts so that in a transition from a shot that has been very quiet you cut to a street scene with, for example, a loud police siren, the audio is actually amped up.
“Initially it was very hard for me to get on board with that because my instinct is to smooth everything,” said Klyce. “David wanted it to feel like there was a microphone attached to the camera and every time we’re in a new angle, that mic is picking up the sound from that perspective.”
The film’s opening provides a good example of this. “When we’re with The Killer, and he’s looking through the sniper’s scope, that has a sound. And Paris has a sound. When we are in the park, and the little boy is barely watched by his mum at the fountain, every time we cut the picture the sound of that fountain is moving in perspective to where the kid is and where The Killer is.”
Voiceover is a crucial element in putting the audience in the perspective of The Killer. This was rewritten significantly after shooting informed by what Fassbender brought to the character, and simple practical realities.
What the character chooses to listen to – whether through the earbuds of his MP3 player, or in his hired vehicles – also provides an opportunity to give the audience a sense of who he is.
“We went through a whole process of vetting The Killer’s taste,” said Klyce. “Because we know so little about him – he barely speaks, aside from the voiceover.”
Various options were considered – from Bach to Dusty Springfield – but eventually the idea solidified around having all the songs from The Smiths.
The director said The Smiths had “the requisite mix of sardonic, harmonic and nihilist” adding, “What songwriters have as much fun with sinister concepts as Johnny Marr and Morrissey? We just kept coming back to The Smiths.”