Academy Award Wins: Best Editing, Best Music (Original Score), Best Adapted Screenplay
Notable Festivals: New York
Facebook is easily the biggest, most transformative development of the early twenty-first century. It completely revolutionized how we communicate with each other, how we keep in touch with old friends and family, and even how we use the Internet on a fundamental level. It single-handedly ushered in the era of “Web 2.0” that experts spent most of the 90’s predicting and theorizing about. The fact that Facebook was born in the dorm room of some Harvard kid meant we had entered a brave, new digital age. We were now in a world that benefitted the young and the savvy, the likes of who didn’t wait to “pay their dues” or obtain a blessing from the old guard before going about casually changing the world.
At the end of the day, however, Facebook is a tool. A product. A collection of ones and zeroes organized just so and projected onto our monitors. So, when it was announced that THE WEST WING creator Aaron Sorkin had written a screenplay based off “The Accidental Billionaires”, Ben Mezrich’s book on Facebook’s turbulent founding, the question on everyone’s minds (as well as the film’s own marketing materials) was: “how could they ever make a movie out of Facebook?”. As Mezrich’s book revealed (and Sorkin’s screenplay built upon), the inside story of Facebook’s genesis was fraught with a level of drama, intrigue, and betrayal normally reserved for Shakespeare.
Sorkin’s script, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, was a high-profile project from day one. It attracted the efforts of top producers like Scott Rudin, in addition to well-known personalities like Kevin Spacey, who signed on to executive produce the film. Directing duties were eventually handed to David Fincher—- the right decision, given that literally nobody else could’ve made this film as masterfully as he has done here. When THE SOCIAL NETWORK debuted in October of 2010, it enjoyed very healthy box office receipts, mostly due to the name recognition of Facebook as well as a collective curiosity about its eccentric founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Others—like me—simply came to worship at the altar of Fincher, subject matter be damned.
Because life is unfair, THE SOCIAL NETWORK came close to Oscar glory but was ultimately robbed by some movie about a cussing monarch or whatever that nobody will remember in ten years. There’s a strong case to be made that THE SOCIAL NETWORK is the best film in Fincher’s entire body of work, but that’s a hard case to argue considering the strength of the rest of his filmography. One thing is for certain: we hadn’t even completed the first year of the Teens before Fincher had given us a strong contender for the best film of the new decade.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK uses Zuckerberg’s deposition hearings as framing devices, allowing for the bulk to story to occur as flashback while the “present-day” sequences orient us in time and space and help keep us on the same page as the characters. We see Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) under fire from two fronts—Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) are suing him because they believe Facebook was an original idea of theirs that Zuckerberg stole, while Zuckerberg’s former best friend and Facebook CFO is suing him because he cheated him out of millions of dollars that were rightfully his. Fincher then transports us to Cambridge, Massachusetts during the mid-2000’s where Zuckerberg was an undergrad at Harvard. When his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) dumps him for being a cold, cynical little twerp, Zuckerberg goes home and creates Facemash—a website that compares randomly-generated portraits of female students. The ensuing traffic crashes Harvard’s computer network and gains him a large degree of notoriety among the student body as well as disciplinary action from Harvard’s board.
Word of his antics reach the Winklevoss twins (henceforth known as the Winklevii), who hire him to realize their idea of a Harvard-exclusive social networking site called Harvard Connect while dangling the vague possibility of an invitation to their prestigious Final Club in front of him like a carrot. But in bouncing their idea off of his friend Saverin, Zuckerberg realizes he has a much better one, disregarding his commission to build Facebook with Saverin instead. The popularity of Facebook explodes around the campus, turning Zuckerberg and Saverin into local celebrities. It’s not long until the site expands its user base to other Ivy League schools as well as Stanford, located right in the heart of Silicon Valley. Understandably, the Winklevii finds themselves humiliated and infuriated by Zuckerberg’s deceit, and so begin building a nasty lawsuit against him.
Having left Boston for the warmer climes of Palo Alto for the summer, Zuckerberg and Saverin hustle to find more capital for their successful little business, eventually starting a partnership with Napster founder Sean Parker, who helps set them up with meetings with big-time investors as well as some primo office space. As Facebook is launched into the stratosphere, Zuckerberg finds himself accumulating enemies faster than friends. Much is made in the film about the inherent irony of the creator behind the world’s most successful social networking endeavor losing all of his friends in the process. This idea is most potent in the major conflict between Zuckerberg and a scorned, exiled Saverin who rages back with venomous litigation after he’s deceived out of hundreds of millions of dollars in potential earnings.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK would live or die on the strengths of its performances, a notion that the technically-minded Fincher recognized and applied to his strategy by putting an unusual amount of focus (for him) on the performances. Beginning with a generous three weeks of rehearsal time prior to the shoot, and following through with consistently demanding obscene numbers of takes (the opening scene had 99 takes alone), Fincher led his cast into delivering searing, career-best performances. The lion’s share of the attention and the film’s only acting nomination at the Oscars went to Jesse Eisenberg’s pitch-perfect performance as Mark Zuckerberg, or rather, the fictional version of the real-life Facebook founder that Sorkin had created. Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as a cold genius with sarcastic, antisocial tendencies. He is regularly absent from the present—his mind is elsewhere, preoccupied by his duties back at the office. At the same time, he can be calculating and ruthless when he needs to be. As Eduardo Saverin—the initial investor and embattled ex-CFO of Facebook—Andrew Garfield delivers a breakout performance. Decent, passionate, and perhaps a little squirrely, Saverin is Zuckerberg’s closest friend and confidant; a brother. But their relationship is a Cain and Abel story, and because of his blind trust that Zuckerberg will do the right thing and look out for him, he inevitably assumes the Abel position. Pop icon Justin Timberlake— in a performance that legitimized his status as a capable actor— plays Sean Parker, the creator of Napster and Silicon Valley’s de facto “bad boy”. Timberlake easily channels a flashy, cocky, and flamboyant physicality that’s at once both undeniably attractive to Zuckerberg and duplicitously sleazy to Saverin. Fincher’s casting of Timberlake is quite playful, and he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pointing out the irony of a pop star playing a man who single-handedly transformed (some might say ruined) his industry.
Fincher’s eclectic supporting players serve as rock-solid satellites that orbit around the film’s three titanic leads. Fincher’s series of collaborations with the Mara clan begins here with the casting of Rooney Mara as Erica Albright, Zuckerberg’s ex girlfriend. She’s patient and honest, but in a no-bullshit kind of way that’s not afraid to tell people off and put them in their place. Mara’s character is presented as a major driving force behind Zuckerberg’s actions, with their breakup becoming the inciting event that drives him to create Facemash in the first place. Mara turns in a spectacular low-profile performance that would lead to high-profile roles in other films, not the least of which was as the lead in Fincher’s next project, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011).
Rashida Jones, better known for her work on PARKS & REC, plays the admittedly thankless role of Marilyn Delpy, an insightful young lawyer in Zuckerberg’s deposition. Her knack for comedy is well documented in her larger body of work, but in THE SOCIAL NETWORK she shows off a fantastic serious side that is consistently realistic. Armie Hammer’s dual performance as the Winklevoss twins was yet another of the film’s many breakouts. Hammer’s portrayal of the film’s primary set of antagonists required the dashing young actor to not only change his physicality between Tyler and Cameron by mere degrees, but also to undergo the arduous process of motion-capturing his face for its later digital compositing onto the body of actor Josh Pence. Pence, it should be noted, is the great hero of the piece, as he valiantly forfeited his own performance in service to Fincher’s vision. And last but not least, Joseph Mazzello turns up in his highest-profile role since 1993’s JURASSIC PARK as the anxious, nerdy Dustin Moskovitz— Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard and one of Facebook’s founding fathers.
As I’ve grown older and more entrenched in Los Angeles’ film community, I’ve found that my connections to major studio films have become increasingly personal, and my degrees of separation from the prominent directors and actors I admire decreasing exponentially. THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a personal flashpoint then, in that a lot of my friends and acquaintances are a part of the film. I suppose this is due to the story’s dependence on talent in their early twenties, as well as just being associated with the larger Los Angeles film community at the right time. For instance, my co-producer on my 2012 feature HERE BUILD YOUR HOMES, Josh Woolf, worked on the film as a production assistant and was there during the filming of the aerial title shot with Zuckerberg running across Harvard Square (a shot we’ll address in detail later). Additionally, an actor friend of mine who I shot a short film with in January 2014, Toby Meuli, plays one of the more-prominent Harvard students during the Facemash sequence. A member of my group of friends from University of Oregon makes a brief appearance during a Final Club party sequence in which he chugs from a bottle of liquor and hands it off to Andew Garfield standing behind him. I even went to a party in Los Feliz in 2010 that was thrown by the young woman with a pixie cut who was featured prominently during the opening frat party sequence. And finally, Mike Bash—a very close friend of mine—was cast in a great scene that followed the Bill Gates seminar. He was originally the guy who didn’t know that it was actually Bill Gates who was speaking. The scene was initially shot in Boston, but his role was cut when Fincher eventually decided that he didn’t like how he directed the scene. Rather than live with what he had, Fincher reshot the scene in LA with new actors. Naturally, Bash was pretty despondent over his exclusion from the finished product, despite my assurances that he achieved a dream that eludes the grand majority of aspiring (and successful) actors: receiving direction from David Fucking Fincher.
Fincher’s foray into digital filmmaking soldiers on in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but this time he swaps out the Viper Filmstream camera with its maximum resolution of 1080 pixels for the glorious 4k visuals of the Red One camera. HisFIGHT CLUB cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, returns to shoot THE SOCIAL NETWORK in Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 aspect ratio, ultimately bagging a Cinematography Oscar nomination for his trouble. Fincher and Cronenweth convey an overall cold tone without relying on the obvious blue side of the color spectrum. Warmer shots are dialed in to a yellow hue, with a prominent green cast coating several shots. Fincher’s visual signature is immediately apparent, once again utilizing high contrast lighting and practical lamps that make for dark, cavernous interiors. In shooting the film, Fincher and Cronenweth pursued a simple, unadorned look. Combined with the digital format’s increased sensitivity to light, most lighting setups were reportedly completed in twenty minutes or less. The camerawork is sedate and observational, containing none of the flashiness of its kindred tonal spirit, FIGHT CLUB. When the camera does move, the name of the game is precision—meaning calculated dolly moves or the motion-controlled perfection of the Technocrane. There’s only one handheld shot in the entire film, when Timberlake’s Parker drunkenly approaches a bedroom door at a house party to find police on the other side.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK marks production designer Donald Graham Burt’s third consecutive collaboration with Fincher—and third consecutive period piece. Thankfully, reconstructing the mid-2000’s isn’t as arduous a process as recreating the 70’s or large swaths of the twentieth century. The major challenge on Burt’s part was replicating a well-known campus like Harvard in an authentic manner when the school refused to let the production film on their grounds. Shots filmed at Johns Hopkins University, as well as various locations in Los Angeles are unified in time and space by Fincher’s editing team of Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter. The director’s adoption of digital techniques extends well into the post-production realm, with any promise of the technology’s ability to make editing easier going right out the window because of Fincher’s preferred shooting style. Fincher had routinely used two cameras for each setup, effectively doubling his coverage, in addition to regularly demanding dozens upon dozens of takes until he was satisfied. At the end of it all, Wall and Baxter were left with over 268 hours of raw digital footage to sift through—a momentous task made all the more complicated by Fincher’s tendency to mix and match elements from various takes right down to individual syllables of audio to achieve the cadence of performance he desired. The new tools that digital filmmaking affords have certainly unleashed Fincher’s control-freak tendencies, but when that same obsession results in his strongest work to date and Oscar wins for his editing team, it can hardly be called a bad thing.
One of the most immediate and striking aspects of THE SOCIAL NETWORK is its unconventional musical score, written by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor in his first scoring job after a series of casual collaborations with Fincher (SE7EN’s opening credits and the music video for Reznor’s “ONLY”). Partnering with Atticus Ross, Reznor has managed to create an entirely electronic sound that not only evokes his own artistic aesthetic, but also complements the film’s tone perfectly. Reznor’s Oscar-winning suite of cues is quite spooky, incorporating a haunting droning sound that unifies all the disparate elements. It almost sounds like someone dancing upon a razor’s edge. The now-iconic main theme uses melancholy piano plunks that recall nostalgia and childhood, slowly getting softer and lost to audio buzz and droning as Zuckerberg strays from innocence. Another standout is a rearrangement of the Edvard Grieg’s classical masterpiece “In The Hall Of The Mountain King” that appears during the Henley Regatta rowing sequence, which sounds as through it were filtered through the manic, electric prism of Wendy Carlos (Stanley Kubrick’s composer for THE SHINING (1980)).
Fincher’s go-to sound guy Ren Klyce layers everything into a coherent audio mix that would net him his own Oscar nomination. Klyce and Fincher’s approach to the sonic palette of THE SOCIAL NETWORK is quite interesting, in that they don’t shy away from mixing in loud music and ambience during crowded scenes like the opening tavern sequence or the midpoint nightclub sequence. The dialogue is almost lost amongst the loud din of activity, becoming a counterintuitive strategy to invest the audience and signal to them that they’ll really have to listen over the next two hours. Despite being a primarily talky film, the experience of watching THE SOCIAL NETWORK is anything but passive.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK takes all of Fincher’s core thematic fascinations and bottles them up into a singular experience. The director’s opening credits are always inspired, and THE SOCIAL NETWORK is no different (despite being relatively low-key). Echoing Zuckerberg the character’s composed, plodding nature, Fincher shows us Eisenberg running robotically through the Harvard campus late at night, which not only establishes the setting well, but also introduces us to the lead character’s relentless forward focus. Treating the text to disappear like it might on a computer screen and laying Reznor’s haunting theme over the whole thing are additional little touches that complete the package. The title shot in this sequence, where we see Zuckerbeg run through Harvard Square from an overhead, aerial vantage point, also shows off Fincher’s inspired use of digital technology in subtle ways. The shot was achieved by placing three Red One cameras next to each other on top of a building and looking down at the action below. This setup later allowed Fincher to stitch all three shots into one super-wide panorama of the scene that he could then pan through virtually in order to follow Zuckerberg. It’s insane. It’s genius.
Mankind’s relationship to technology has always been a major staple of Fincher’s films, a thematic fascination influenced by his forebear Stanley Kubrick. In THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Fincher’s career-exploration of this theme comes to a head as the story’s main engine. The saga of Mark Zuckerberg is inherently about computers, the Internet, our complicated interactions with it, and its effect on our physical-world relationships. Whereas Kubrick painted technology as dehumanizing and something to be feared, Fincher sees it as something to embrace—- something that distinctly enhances humanity and differentiates one person from the other. In Fincher’s work, the human element tends to coalesce around the nihilistic punk subculture. Our protagonist is inherently nihilistic and narcissistic, willing to burn whatever bridge he needs to advance his own personal cause, despite his actions not being fueled by money or power. The story hits on Fincher’s punk fascinations with Zuckerberg’s rebelliousness and devil-may-care attitude, in addition to the overt imagery of antisocial computer hackers and the inclusion of The Ramones’ “California Uber Alles”. Finally, Fincher’s emphasis on architecture helps to evoke a sense of time and place, mixing in the old-world Harvard brownstones with the sleek modernism of the Facebook offices and deposition rooms that echoes the film’s subtext of the old guard stubbornly giving way to a new order.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK is easily Fincher’s best-received film. When it was released, it scored high marks both in performance and critical reviews, going on to earn several Oscar nominations and even taking home gold statues for some of the big categories like Editing (Wall & Baxter) and Adapted Screenplay (Sorkin). Ultimately, Fincher himself lost out on its deserved Best Director and Best Picture awards to THE KING’S SPEECH, but anybody could tell you which of the two films will be remembered in the decades to come. THE SOCIAL NETWORK again finds Fincher operating at the top of his game —a position he’s held since SE7EN even though he only broke through into true prestige with 2007’s ZODIAC. It may not be an entirely accurate reflection of its true-life subject, but THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a pitch-perfect reflection of what Zuckerberg left in his wake: a society that would never be the same, fundamentally changed by a radical new prism of communication.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony.
Produced by: Dana Brunetti, Cean Chaffin, Michael De Luca, Scott Rudin
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Director of Photography: Jeff Cronenweth
Production Designer: Donald Graham Burt
Edited by: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
Music by: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Sound Design by: Ren Klyce