Fincher was born on August 28, 1962 in Denver, Colorado, the son of Claire Mae (née Boettcher), a mental health nurse from South Dakota who worked in drug addiction programs, and Howard Kelly "Jack" Fincher, an author from Oklahoma who worked as a reporter and bureau chief for Life. Howard died of cancer in April 2003. Fincher knew from a young age he wanted to go into filmmaking. When Fincher was two years old, the family moved to San Anselmo, California, where filmmaker George Lucas was one of his neighbors. Fincher moved to Ashland, Oregon in his teens, where he graduated from Ashland High School. During high school, he directed plays and designed sets and lighting after school, and was a non-union projectionist at a second-run movie theater, production assistant at the local television news station KOBI in Medford, Oregon, and took on other odd jobs such as fry cook, busboy, and dishwasher. Inspired by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Fincher began making movies at age eight with an 8mm camera.
Fincher was employed at Korty Films as a production head. He moved up the ranks and became a visual effects producer, working on the animated Twice Upon a Time (1983). He was hired by Industrial Light & Magic in 1983 as an assistant cameraman and matte photographer, and worked on Return of the Jedi (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). In 1984, he left ILM to direct a commercial for the American Cancer Society that depicted a fetus smoking a cigarette. This quickly brought Fincher to the attention of producers in Los Angeles, and he was given the chance to direct the 1985 Rick Springfield documentary The Beat of the Live Drum. Though he would continue to direct spots for Levi's, Converse, Nike, Pepsi, Revlon, Sony, Coca-Cola, Chanel, and other companies, Fincher began to focus on music videos. He directed the video for 1986's "We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off", which was the biggest commercial success for pop/R&B singer Jermaine Stewart, and worked extensively with Madonna, directing videos for "Express Yourself", "Oh Father", "Vogue" and "Bad Girl".
Set on a directing career, Fincher co-founded video-production company Propaganda Films and started off directing music videos and commercials. Like Fincher, directors such as Michael Bay, Antoine Fuqua, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Alex Proyas, Paul Rachman, Mark Romanek, Zack Snyder, Gore Verbinski and others honed their talents at Propaganda Films before moving on to feature films.
After directing several music videos, Fincher's feature debut was Alien 3 (1992). While it received an Oscar nomination for visual effects, the film was not well received by critics or moviegoers. Fincher became involved with several disputes with 20th Century Fox over script and budget issues. In Director's Cut: Picturing Hollywood in the 21st Century, he blames the producers for not putting the necessary trust in him. He stated in an interview with The Guardian in 2009: "No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me." After this, he retreated back into the world of commercial and music video directing, including the video for the Grammy Award-winning track "Love Is Strong" (1994) by The Rolling Stones.
In 1995, Fincher directed Seven. The film, based on a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, told the story of two detectives (played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) tracking down a serial killer who bases his killings on the seven deadly sins. The film grossed more than $100 million domestically (over $300 million internationally).
After the success of Seven, Fincher went on to film The Game (1997). The story focused on a closed-off San Francisco businessman (played by Michael Douglas) who receives an unusual gift from his younger brother (Sean Penn), in which he becomes the main player of a role-playing game that takes over his life. The film had middling box-office returns despite being well received by critics.
Fight Club (1999) is a screen adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel about an insomniac office worker who opens up a club devoted exclusively to bare knuckle fighting for men. Featuring Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, and Seven collaborator Brad Pitt, the film was an early disappointment at the box-office and initially received mixed reviews. In the years following its release, Fight Club received a reassessment from many critics and is now considered one of the best films of the 1990s, let alone Fincher's career. Entertainment Weekly, which had originally given the film a D-, later ranked the DVD #1 on its list of 50 Essential DVDs.
In 2006, the British magazine Total Film voted Fight Club number four in the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, beaten only by Jaws, Vertigo and Goodfellas at 3, 2 and 1 respectively.
In 2002, Fincher followed up with the thriller Panic Room. The film earned over $92 million at the U.S. box office. The story follows a single mother (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (Kristen Stewart) as they hide in a safe room of their new house, away from criminals (Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, and Fight Club collaborator Jared Leto) bent on finding a missing fortune. Fincher acknowledged Panic Room as a more mainstream thriller, describing the film, on the DVD's audio commentary, as "[basically] a date movie" and a "really good B movie" about "two people trapped in a closet".
Five years after Panic Room, Fincher returned on March 2, 2007 with Zodiac, an adaptation of Robert Graysmith's books about the hunt for the Zodiac Killer that starred Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards, and Brian Cox. The first of Fincher's films to be shot digitally, the majority of the film was recorded on a Thomson Viper FilmStream HD digital movie camera . However, high-speed film cameras were used for the Blue Rock Springs and Presidio Heights murder scenes for the slow-motion shots. It was originally to be released in the fall of 2006 but was pushed back after Fincher refused to cut 20 minutes off the film.
Zodiac was one of the best-reviewed films of that year, with only two other 2007 films appearing on more top-10 lists (No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood). However, the film struggled at the box office in the U.S., earning only $33 million, but did well overseas with a foreign gross of $51.7 million. Worldwide, Zodiac was a decent success. Despite an aggressive campaign by the studio, expectations surrounding Robert Downey, Jr.'s supporting performance, Fincher's direction and Vanderbilt's adapted script, the film did not earn a single Academy Award nomination.
A story about life and death, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story of the same name. The film was Fincher's third with Brad Pitt. The film started shooting in November 2006 in New Orleans, before moving on to the Virgin Islands, Montreal, and L.A. Both Zodiac and this film are co-productions of Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. The budget for the film was estimated at $150 million, partly due to the CGI effects used to reverse the aging in Pitt's character. It received 13 nominations at the 81st Academy Awards, including Fincher's first nomination for Best Director. It won three Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Visual Effects.
Fincher directed the 2010 film The Social Network, about the legal battles of Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook. The film features an Oscar-winning screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, adapted from the book The Accidental Billionaires. Filming started in October 2009 and was released a year later, to critical acclaim. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross created the Oscar-winning soundtrack for the film. The film went on to win many awards, including three Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Film Editing.
In 2011, Fincher directed the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on the book by Stieg Larsson, with a script written by Steven Zaillian. The film was shot in Sweden, with Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander and Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the soundtrack for the film, collaborating with Fincher a second time. The film received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress for Mara, and won the award for Best Film Editing.
Fincher is an executive producer of the Netflix television series House of Cards, of which he also directed the first two episodes. The series has received critical acclaim, earning nine Primetime Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series and winning Fincher the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for the first episode.
In 2014, Fincher directed the adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl, which starred Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. The film earned Pike an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Fincher also received his third Golden Globe nomination.
Fincher signed a three-series deal with HBO for Utopia, Shakedown, and Videosyncrazy. Utopia was set to be an adaptation of the British series of the same name. Shakedown, a noir-ish crime drama, was about the tabloid world and the underbelly of Los Angeles in the 1950s and centered on a real-life private detective. Videosyncrazy, a comedy set in the 1980s, would follow Robby, a college drop out, pursuing his dream as a music video and film director in Hollywood. In August 2015, budget disputes between Fincher and the network halted production of Utopia, and consequently all three projects were dropped altogether.
Fincher is directing another Netflix TV series, Mindhunter, starring Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff. The series is based on the book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. Paramount Studios chief Jim Gianopulos said in June 2017 that a sequel to World War Z was "in advanced development" with director Fincher and star Brad Pitt.
Fincher likes to map out camera movements with computer-generated imagery, commission intricate sets, get heavily involved in post-production, and re-shoot footage after the principal photography has wrapped. He does not normally use hand-held cameras when he shoots a film, preferring cameras on a tripod. His most frequent use of a hand-held camera was for Seven, in which five scenes were shot that way. Fincher likes to confuse audiences with his camerawork. Sometimes, it is difficult to determine whether a shot is human-controlled, motion-controlled or computer-generated imagery. Close-ups are uncommon in Fincher's films, and he tries to move his cameras as little as possible. The interior of a refrigerator can be seen in a number of Fincher's films.
Fincher married model–photographer Donya Fiorentino (born 1967) in 1990 and divorced in 1995. They have a daughter, Phelix Imogen Fincher (born 1994). Fincher is currently married to producer Ceán Chaffin.
As a music video director, Fincher has won two Grammy Awards for Best Music Video, for his work in "Love Is Strong" by The Rolling Stones (1995) and "Suit & Tie" by Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z (2013), and three MTV Video Music Awards for Best Direction, being one of the most awarded directors in the category, alongside Spike Jonze. He also earned back-to-back MTV Video Music Awards for Best Direction in 1989 for "Express Yourself" and in 1990 for "Vogue". In 1990, he earned three of the four available nominations in the Best Direction category.
His films Zodiac and The Social Network are ranked in the BBC's 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century list.