It should have been good news. March 2001. David Fincher was five weeks into filming Panic Room, the director’s follow-up to his controversial 1999 pitch-black comedy Fight Club, when his star Jodie Foster asked to speak privately with him and producer Cean Chaffin about an urgent matter. Fincher immediately began to worry. On paper, the new thriller, which pits a newly divorced woman and her 11-year-old daughter (Kristen Stewart) against three brutal burglars (Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker, and Dwight Yoakam) in the middle of the night might not have seemed so tough to make. But this is David Fincher, a filmmaker for whom the phrase ”Let’s do this the easy way” doesn’t exist. And the creative course he had charted — to shoot in the near-dark, with swooping camera movements and intricately designed action sequences — left very little room for error. As Foster now puts it: ”When you make decisions like that, which are so ambitious, you have to live with all the consequences and ramifications.” Already, Panic Room had suffered one significant setback (the loss of its first leading lady); the last thing he wanted to hear was that he was about to have another.
”Jodie walks up,” recalls Fincher, ”and says, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news.’ And before she says anything more, Cean goes, ‘You’re pregnant! That’s so great!’ And I’m like — ” Actually, Fincher’s reaction was a blood-drained face of shell-shocked disbelief, which the director replicates almost a year later in a hotel suite in Beverly Hills on a January morning. Curled on the couch near him is Foster, wearing a smirk of bemusement and embarrassment. Fincher continues: ”Great? What do you mean ‘Great?’ I think Cean had skipped over issues like scheduling, because as we walked away, she went, ‘Oh, no.’ And I went, ‘Oh, yes.”’ Fincher sighs. ”Nothing went like it was supposed to on this movie. Literally. Everything f — -ed up.”
When Fincher’s agent first told him about Panic Room, he didn’t think the 39-year-old filmmaker would be interested. Not that the project wasn’t a hot property; the screenplay by David Koepp (Spider-Man, Jurassic Park) — inspired by reports of real ”panic rooms,” secret compartments where residents can hide during home invasions — had been purchased by Columbia Pictures for a reported $4 million. No, the agent just assumed Fincher would find it small. Turns out that’s exactly what Fincher wanted after Fight Club, with its 284 scenes and dozens of different locations. Upon reading the script, Fincher found himself thinking of another single-set suspense flick. ”Rear Window is one of my favorite cinematic experiences, because of the rigors of limitation,” says Fincher. ”I thought something like that would be kind of cool to do.”
Initially, Fincher’s idea of cool was to shoot the film in complete darkness. ”You know,” he chuckles, ”eyes floating in the shadows.” Alas, tests proved this approach unfeasible. Fincher then considered filming inside an existing townhouse, but he quickly realized he would need to build a four-story brownstone set to accommodate his technical requirements. One sequence follows the burglars’ break-in with a single sustained shot (augmented with computer animation) that glides down stairwells, in and out of keyholes, and through coffee-pot handles. ”David Fincher is insane,” laughs Leto, who also appeared in Fight Club. ”He has a crew that’s expected to do truly great things.” Adds Foster: ”Making a movie with David is like getting through World War II. It’s not necessarily fun, but there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment when it’s over.”