David Fincher, ‘Utopia’ and The Challenges of The ‘True Detective’ Model

By  · Published on September 30th, 2014

David Fincher likes his TV. First came his executive producer stint on House of Cards, then that film noir series he’s been bandying about with James Ellroy. And here comes another- Fincher’s just announced that he’ll be doing the director’s version of a TV bingewatch through the entirety of 2015- directing every episode of his planned remake of the BBC conspiracy thriller, Utopia.

Please, for yours and everyone else’s sakes, do not confuse the Fincher-approved Utopia (coming to HBO) with the Fox reality series that puts the immense responsibility of building a perfect society in the hands of a group that contains a raw vegan chef, a tantric sex enthusiast and the “Hillbilly MacGuyver” (good luck with that).

This is an entirely different piece of television that happens to bear the same name. Instead, it’s about five members of an online comic book forum that procure a rough copy of the sequel to “The Utopia Manuscripts,” an underground comic book that may or may not have predicted all the major disasters of the 20th century. But before any of them can warn of earthquakes or bomb threats (or go Biff Tannen on everyone’s asses and get mega-rich), a shadowy web of evildoers known only as “The Network” targets the five, with the intent of killing, blackmailing, and generally evildoing their way into getting that damn comic.

Fincher tends to take projects with a heavy conspiracy/mystery bent (Benjamin Button being the grampa-baby exception that proves the rule), so Utopia is right smack in the center of his wheelhouse. Especially considering he’s nabbed Gillian Flynn, writer of Gone Girl in both its novel and screenplay forms, to pen the series. Utopia, then, seems fairly risk-free- an adaptation of a critically-praised series in a genre Fincher loves, with a screenwriter proven to work wonders alongside him (see: Gone Girl).

The one wrinkle is that whole “I’m directing every episode and no one else” thing. In some circles- sitcom circles, mostly- this is a pretty regular occurrence. Barring one or two episodes per season, How I Met Your Mother was directed by Pamela Fryman, and only Pamela Fryman (her total episode count? A whopping 196). Starting in 2009, Two and a Half Men did the same- James Widdoes was just one of many in a stable of regular T&aHM helmers until he was vaulted into a supreme leadership role.

But sitcoms, with their half-hour run times and their three-camera set ups that limit the fanciful cinematography (this explains why Two and a Half Men has so few extended tracking shots), can fit snugly under the regime of a single person. Hour-long dramas just don’t; if a single-director sitcom is a hurried but entirely possible half-hour per week, doing a full series is completing an eight, ten, or twelve-hour movie in the span of a single year.

According to Cary Fukunaga, taking on the entirety of True Detective meant cramming pre-production into the actual production phase (“this twelve-hour day of shooting is over? Let’s go scout locations, as I have evolved beyond the need for sleep”). And post-production can only begin once every episode’s been shot. Steven Soderbergh was able to do the same on The Knick. In both cases, the results are exemplary television, but biting off that much production is something only the surest-footed filmmakers should attempt.

Like David Fincher. There’s no doubt in my mind that Fincher can handle the horrifying rigors of shooting that much film in the span of a single project (True Detective was eight episodes and The Knick was ten, so he’ll need to up his game to at least twelve to avoid ridicule). And HBO’s allowing him to take basically all of next year to knock out Utopia, so his schedule is as open as it needs to be. Fincher took on House of Cards and brought a slew of previously high-and-mighty film directors to the small screen (say, Soderbergh or J.J. Abrams). Maybe he’ll set just as monumental a trend with this sole director bit. One day we may have names Darren Aronofsky and Wes Anderson battling it out to direct a full-series reboot of Utopia. And not the Fincher one. I don’t know about you, but I think Kevin Spacey would make a knockout Hillbilly MacGuyver.

Related Topics: