The release last week of the trailer for David Fincher’s new film The Killer, starring Michael Fassbender as an implacable and highly organised assassin who goes rogue, caused much excitement over social media ahead of its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. But there was also palpable relief that the picture actually exists.
It was first announced that Fincher would be adapting a French graphic novel by Alexis ‘Matz’ Nolent in 2007, with his regular collaborator Brad Pitt tipped to star. As the years went by, many assumed that, like many other projects that the brilliant but mercurial director has been associated with, it would simply end up abandoned.
It is, of course, par for the course in Hollywood that many films are announced and then never get made. There is not a director working today who has not spent time and effort on developing a picture only for it to fall apart. Yet the exacting Fincher, who is notorious for a Kubrickian level of on-set control – including endless takes – has been involved with numerous projects that have come tantalisingly close to completion, but then dissipated.
Some would undoubtedly have been masterpieces, others were probably better off abandoned, and one was halfway through filming when the plug was pulled. Here are 10 unrealised David Fincher films and television series that can all be filed into the “what if” category, as we eagerly await the bullet-like arrival of The Killer.
Sam Raimi’s excellent first two Spider-Man pictures were an interesting indication of what would happen if the web-weaving wonder was placed in the hands of an auteur director. But Fincher was also approached by Sony before the first film was made, and asked what his take on the material would be. The filmmaker was uninterested in comic-book and superhero pictures (“I loved that stuff as an 8-year-old but I was pretty much over it by the time I was 11,” he commented dismissively), but he had an innovative concept that involved dealing with the Spider-Man origin story in a one-shot, ten minute long title sequence, and started with Peter Parker fully aware of his powers.
As Fincher put it, “it was a very different thing, it wasn’t the teenager story. It was much more of the guy who’s settled into being a freak.” It would have been a fascinating idea, but Sony wanted something more conventional and so Raimi did a fine job, until the dismal third in the series.
Still, one concept of his eventually came to fruition. Fincher suggested that he would have made Gwen Stacy the female lead and then killed her off; this eventually came to pass when Emma Stone’s Gwen meets her end in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
2. Rendezvous with Rama
Of all Fincher’s unmade films, perhaps the most discussed – and certainly the most regretted – is his would-be epochal Arthur C Clarke adaptation Rendezvous with Rama, which would have been an epic sci-fi drama on the scale of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and just as cerebral and demanding. A passion project of Fincher’s Se7en star Morgan Freeman, the director was attached to the picture as early as 2001, and suggested in a 2008 interview that it was a challenging and daunting endeavour, saying: “There was so much of it that was taken for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Aliens… so many movies owe their plotting and stuff to that story, so we have to be careful about what’s the part that we’re going to use, because there’s a lot [of] literary conceits in there that maybe aren’t ultimately the most cinematic.”
Yet later that year, he pronounced the project finished, as “there’s no script…we’ve been trying to do it but it’s probably not going to happen.” In 2019, he ascribed its failure to be made in its being “a gigantic, expensive movie that didn’t have any toys…there were no amusement-park rides that could be gleaned from it”. Dune director Denis Villeneuve has now expressed interest in directing it, meaning that the project may yet come to light in some form, after all.
After Fincher collaborated harmoniously with the author Gillian Flynn on their adaptation of her novel Gone Girl, the two were keen to pursue another project and so they alighted on a US-set version of the 2013 Channel 4 sci-fi series Utopia, which was set to star Rooney Mara, the lead in Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It might have seemed an obvious project, especially as the director said: “I like the characters – I love [screenwriter Dennis Kelly]’s honesty and affinity for the nerds” – but it fell apart over arguments with HBO over its budget.
Fincher later commented that “we had really, really good scripts and a great cast and we were getting ready to do that and you know it came down to $9 million…in the end, when you actually kind of lay it all out, $9 million in the scheme of things doesn’t sound like a huge discrepancy between what we wanted to do and what they wanted to pay for.” The series was later resurrected by Amazon Prime, without Fincher but with Flynn still in place, but was unpopular with both critics and audiences and was eventually cancelled after one season.
4. Mission: Impossible III
JJ Abrams’s instalment in the Tom Cruise franchise remains its lowest-grossing worldwide, and it’s not hard to see why; Philip Seymour Hoffman’s charismatically creepy villain aside, it’s a strangely low-stakes picture that feels at times like a very expensive TV pilot. This might have its origins in a tortuous development process that saw a range of actors (including Kenneth Branagh and Scarlett Johansson) join and then leave the project, and a revolving door of directors who included Narc filmmaker Joe Carnahan and Fincher.
The latter’s vision for the picture revolved around what he called “a cool idea, really violent” – rumoured to centre on organ trafficking in Africa – but Fincher’s grittiness and darkness were a poor fit for the fundamentally unchallenging series, and so he left. Cruise briefly discussed his departure on the Light the Fuse podcast last year, and commented: “You know, he’s so talented, and it would’ve just been very different… I don’t know what it would’ve been, it wasn’t kind of embracing what Mission is.” A Fincher Mission: Impossible picture may have been fascinating, but we shall never see it.
5. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
The recent news that a big-budget prequel to Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Nautilus, has been cancelled by Disney + – despite having already been made – suggests that the material might be cursed. Fincher spent a considerable time developing the project in the early 2010s, and suggested that it would be a big-budgeted summer blockbuster, shot in then-fashionable 3D, and starring Brad Pitt in the central role of the dashing harpooner Ned Land; it would also have reunited him with his Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker. Yet Fincher fell foul of timing issues, as Disney, who had been badly burnt by the failure of The Lone Ranger and John Carter, were no longer willing to invest in original projects that would not necessarily connect with a mass audience and Fincher, for all his critical acclaim, was hardly a mainstream commercial filmmaker.
After a final disagreement over who would play the lead after Pitt departed – Fincher favoured Channing Tatum, the studio wanted Chris Hemsworth – the project collapsed. The director later commented of the “f***ing cool” project that “I really wanted to do it, but in the end I didn’t have the stomach lining for it. A lot of people flourish at Hollywood studios because they’re fear-based. I have a hard time relating to that, because I feel our biggest responsibility is to give the audience something they haven’t seen.”
6. The Girl Who Played with Fire
In retrospect, the (Fincher-led) decision for the marketing of 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to promote it as “the feel-bad movie of Christmas” may have led to its commercial disappointment. Despite the novel that it was being based on being a global bestseller, and with the picture featuring a star-making turn from Rooney Mara as its protagonist Lisbeth Skalander, it was a moderate success, but not a breakout one.
Therefore, although it was initially expected that Fincher would film the sequels to the novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, back to back, this did not happen, despite the director saying, of the first sequel, “I think because [Sony] already has spent millions of dollars on the rights and the script so it will result in something…The script that we now have [has] a huge potential, I can reveal as much as it is extremely different from the book.” In the end, neither of the novels by the series’ creator Stieg Larsson were made as English-language pictures, and a 2018 film based on a subsequent book, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, was a box-office flop, suggesting that audiences had long since tired of Lisbeth.
7. Steve Jobs
I picked Danny Boyle’s excellent Steve Jobs as one of my underrated films for this paper’s recent feature, but it could have been extremely different. After Fincher and Aaron Sorkin had a successful collaboration on The Social Network (for which Sorkin won an Oscar and Fincher, inexplicably, didn’t) the pair were expected to reunite for the screenwriter’s biopic of Apple co-founder Jobs, with Christian Bale as Fincher’s first choice to play the brilliant but megalomaniac genius.
However, the project fell apart over Fincher’s demands for a $10 million fee up-front, as well – as usual – as input into marketing; with memories of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s underperformance still fresh, a Sony source openly criticised Fincher, saying: “You’re not doing Transformers here. You’re not doing Captain America. This is quality – it’s not screaming commerciality. He should be rewarded in success but not up front.” In the end, Universal took the project on and it worked out extremely well, but it remains a tantalising ‘what might have been’ in Fincher’s career.
8. World War Z sequel
After Fincher’s first film, Alien 3, ended up being a horrendous experience for the director – who has subsequently disowned the picture – he might have been forgiven for never again wanting to take on a sequel to a film that he didn’t make himself. And, given the notorious production difficulties that the Brad Pitt zombie thriller World War Z underwent, including the entire last third of the film having to be reshot, it seemed surprising that, for a considerable time, Fincher was attached to direct its follow-up, reuniting with Pitt on what was intended to be a $200 million blockbuster.
However, the project initially went into severe delays because of the director’s involvement with the first series of Mindhunter on Netflix, and then was eventually cancelled altogether, to the apparent irritation of both Pitt and Fincher, who have yet to reunite since 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
One reason suggested for Paramount having cold feet was that the-then all important Chinese market was opposed to anything involving ghosts or the undead, meaning that it would have struggled to recoup its budget on release. Pitt expressed regret at the film not happening in 2019, saying “We had a really good story, which he shepherded, a really strong story. The things [Fincher] had planned for it just hadn’t been seen yet. I’m sure he’ll get it out on something else.”
9. Star Wars sequel
Fincher began his career as an assistant cameraman and matte producer at Industrial Light and Magic, and one of the first films he worked on was Return of the Jedi. It would have been an appropriate homecoming, then, if he had directed one of the relaunched Star Wars films, for which he was approached in both 2014 and 2017 on the films that would become, respectively, The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker. But he turned Lucasfilm present Kathleen Kennedy down on both occasions, firstly saying that “My favourite is The Empire Strikes Back. If I said, ‘I want to do something more like that,’ then I’m sure the people paying for it would be like, ‘No! You can’t do that! We want it like the other one with all the creatures!’”
Although he was gracious enough to describe directing one of the films as “a plum assignment”, Fincher suggested “You’d have to really be sure this is what you wanted to do…because either way it’s two years of your life, 14 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s no getting around it”, and said, of Abrams’s decision to return to the franchise after Rian Johnson’s divisive The Last Jedi, “I can’t imagine the kind of intestinal fortitude one would have to have following up the success of these last. That’s a whole other level.”
This series differs from the other projects discussed here because it was filmed, at least partially. Fincher was hired to develop and partly direct a ten-episode series for HBO revolving around the misadventures of an ambitious young man who was attempting to make a name for himself in the early Eighties’ music video industry (he directed the promo for Vogue, and several other Madonna songs). Given that Fincher began his own career in a similar way, this might have been his most autobiographical work to date.
However, roughly halfway through production, HBO, apparently dissatisfied by the disparity between the Entourage-esque half-hour comedy that they believed they had commissioned and the darker and stranger show that Fincher was producing, pulled the plug on it.
Although initially it was billed as a pause, rather than an explicit cancellation, it never resumed filming, and the unfinished episodes have never resurfaced anywhere else. After his frustrating experiences working with HBO on both this and Utopia, it was unsurprising that Fincher headed to Netflix and House of Cards instead, and thence to Mank, Manhunter and, now, The Killer.