It seems unfair that David Fincher’s 1997 directorial outing “The Game” is often in the back of cinephile’s minds when they think of the director’s magnificent oeuvre. It is understandable in some ways, seeming as it’s sandwiched between two monumental directorial efforts into the pantheon of cult movies with Fincher’s own “Se7en” coming in 1995 and “Fight Club” hitting in 1999, but many fans of the notoriously finicky filmmakers would probably rank it close to or at the very top of their lists of the director’s best work. While it certainly isn’t as abrasive a film as “Se7en” or “Fight Club,” it’s just as memorable for showcasing the benefits of David Fincher’s acute attention to detail that would greatly benefit the many twists and turns of the film’s script.
A tantalizing and wholly manipulative little thriller, “The Game” was released on September 12, 1997, and follows a wealthy financier named Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) who receives a seemingly absurd birthday present from his erratic and wayward brother Conrad (Sean Penn) -- which is a live-action game that consumes his life. It’s been 15 years now since the film first hit theaters, and perhaps to vindicate Fincher fanatics who balk at the idea that the only film from the director under the beloved Criterion Collection banner is the far inferior “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Criterion is releasing the film on a special edition DVD/Blu-ray next week on September 24th. We've gathered up five things you might not know about Fincher's classic thriller. Check them out below.
As is the case with most great films, it’s always a treat to learn that another familiar face was cast in a key role somewhere along the path of production. In this particular instance, actress Jodie Foster was originally set to play the role of Michael Douglas’ sibling Conrad (we’re guessing the name was different), who sets him up with a voucher for a "game" offered by a company by the name of Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Now there’s several accounts of this tale, but the version found in author James Swallow’s “Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher” seems to be the most thorough and well-researched, and so it goes that once the film’s producer, PolyGram Pictures, had both Douglas and Foster signed on for roles, they announced at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival that both actors would be making the film with David Fincher attached, only nobody could really predict what a problem this would cause. As with most things Fincher touches, several rewrites (some completed uncredited by “Se7en” screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker) and story revisions were made to John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris’ script before the film could head into production. This included Fincher feeling that a star of Foster’s stature would feel out of place in a supporting role (she was still pretty hot off of respected hits like “Silence of the Lambs,” “Little Man Tate,” and even “Maverick”). Foster’s role was then rewritten as Douglas’ daughter, but ongoing changes to the film began to cause scheduling conflicts with director Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact,” which barred Foster from continuing on the project and she subsequently dropped out. Quite soon after she departed the project, Jeff Bridges was approached for the role of Conrad, but after he declined they ultimately ended up going with Sean Penn. Foster would go onto sue PolyGram to the tune of $54.5 million – even with her very own Egg Pictures serving as one of the film’s production companies. Thankfully, the matter was settled out of court and there wasn’t too much of a fuss, which probably ensured things weren’t that awkward between Fincher and Foster on the set of “Panic Room” years later. Also, it should be said the Penn does more than his fair share of scene stealing throughout, so we would certainly suggest that things ended up falling in the hands of the right actor.
While this may seem slight to some, we’d argue that Michael Douglas’ performance as the vapid, icy, Nicholas Van Orton is by far one of his best performances on film. While Douglas usually seems like a genuinely jovial and all-around good sport, it’s a wonder he always plays such diluted and tortured characters. Perhaps shedding a little insight onto this particular performance, Douglas comes off a uncharacteristically candid on the commentary track for the Criterion release (which is cribbed from the 1997 laser disc edition the company put out), explaining that he in fact was going through a pretty mess divorce at the time the film was being made. This plays a key role into Van Orton’s personality, as we continue to see throughout the film that he’s estranged from both his ex-wife and brother, and his cynical, withdrawn nature helps easily secure his position as the best rendition of Ebenezer Scrooge outside of “A Christmas Carol” adaptation. It’s a quintessential example of art imitating life, with Douglas explaining he felt as if this really helped him play Van Orton in a sense that the man’s work had overtaken any social connection he had outside of it. Perhaps he’s suggesting that his own furious work pace overtook his social life or perhaps now we’re drawing too many parallels. It’s just nice to see the guy can find an artistic outlet to take his frustrations out, just so the rest of us can enjoy this performance.