Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The: Making of Fincher’s Epic

David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” adapted from the 1922 story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who is born in his eighties and ages backwards, is one of the best pictures of the year. From New Orleans at the end of WWI in 1918, into the 21st century, on a journey as unusual as any man’s life can be, the film tells the grand tale of a not so ordinary man and the people and places he discovers along the way, the loves he finds and loses, the joys of life and the sadness of death, and what lasts beyond time.


Shooting in New Orleans


“Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was shot in a variety of locations, including Montreal and the Caribbean, and the character’s home city of New Orleans, which was recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina when production set down.  We had committed to film in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina and, of course, there was a period of uncertainty about whether we would be able to shoot there following the disaster,” recalls Kennedy.  “However, the city called us just two days after the hurricane, eagerly encouraging us to continue with our plans.”


Working in an area that was just coming out from under devastating emotional and physical damage presented some logistical challenges for the filmmakers.  “With the overwhelming support of the city and the incredible talent of our cast and crew, these proved to be minor complications,” says Frank Marshall.  “Each day was carefully planned and rehearsed, and David’s leadership in all areas allowed everyone to have a clear idea of what was expected, so, overall, the shoot went very smoothly.”


The filmmakers quickly found that hardship had not dimmed the spirit of the people of the city.  “I think David Fincher and I were very fortunate that we got to work with people who were there because they wanted to be,” says Chaffin.  “On this film, we had an extraordinary amount of ‘Yes, we would love to have you,’ particularly from Louisiana.  Each person who read the script was touched by some part of it–and it was different from person to person.  I think it reminded them of something in their own life and they had to be a part of this film.” 


Tapestry of Eras


The timelessness of the city dovetailed with the tapestry of eras in Fincher’s film. “It was important to clearly delineate each era in the film without overtly announcing the passing of time,” says production designer Donald Graham Burt. “It was more important to create a sense of a natural progression of time within sets. [Set decorator] Victor J. Zolfo and I would discuss what elements on the sets we felt should change and which should be suspended in time.  It was important for any elements to be purposeful and have reason, and not just be placed to fill a void or altered just for the sake of change.”


Fincher worked with the production design team to infuse the sets with a feeling like paging through a photo album from somebody’s attic, filled with portraits of simple folks living ordinary lives. “We created our own ‘life’ stories for each of these sets, in particular Nolan House and the Winter Palace Hotel in Murmansk [where Benjamin meets Elizabeth] – places where major events in Benjamin’s life occur,” says Zolfo. 


Essential Truth of the Story


The mandate at every level of the production was to create a believable realism that would nurture the essential truths at the heart of the story. “As much as there are a lot of fable conceits in this story, I wanted to err on the side of it being as realistic as possible,” Fincher explains.  “I didn’t want it to feel like ‘Once upon a time.’  I didn’t want to let the actors off the hook.  I didn’t want to let the audience off the hook.  I didn’t want to let the production designer off the hook.  Everything had to be up to period – what places would look like, what people would wear, what kind of glasses or hearing aids they’d have.”


Stylized Costumes of the Moment


The costumes were of the moment, but stylized. Costume designer Jacqueline West met with Burt and Zolfo early on to ensure the symmetry of their work.  “David composes like a painter,” says West.  “When I walked onto the railroad set, it looked like a Caillebotte painting.  So, I went to Caillebotte and the other early Impressionists for my inspiration – Edouard Manet, Toulouse Lautrec, Courbet.  I just knew that once I figured out Don Burt’s beautiful sensibility, whatever I put in there within my color palette, which was pretty dark and muddy, would work.”


Depression Era Photographs


West turned to the Depression-era WPA and FSA photographers, especially to gain inspiration for Queenie’s wardrobe during Benjamin Button’s early life.  “Queenie is a poor woman who has a lot of character, so I wanted her wardrobe to reflect her personality,” she says.  “I also figured that most of her clothes would be hand-me-downs from the old women who had lived in Nolan House and died there.  These women had probably stopped shopping maybe 20 years earlier.  So, I took her back in time a bit.”


By contrast, Daisy would always be dressed in the upcoming fashions and form-fitting ballerina clothes of the era.  For Daisy, West referenced pioneering dance choreographer George Balanchine and his wife and muse, Tanaquil LeClercq – an inspiration Blanchett herself had explored. “I looked at dance movements that were influential in Daisy’s youth,” Blanchett explains.  “George Balanchine and Tanaquil LeClercq were of particular interest to me.”


Blanchett, says West, “became a ballerina in the fittings.  She reminded me so much of pictures I’d seen of LeClercq – the body language, the mannerisms and the internal conflict.” 


LeClercq favored the designs of Claire McCardell, one of America’s top designers in the 1940s and 1950s, who is credited as the originator of “The American Look.” West turned to McCardell for one of Daisy’s most memorable costumes – the flowing red dress she wears on her date with Benjamin.  “Jackie was definitely my partner in crime,” says Blanchett.  “I adored every stitch, every button. She introduced me to Claire McCardell and the costume fittings were a revelation.  How blessed was I.”


Fashion from Cinema Icons


To dress Benjamin Button throughout his life, West referenced cinema icons of the 20th century.  “I used Gary Cooper in the 1940s; Brando in the 1950s; and Steve McQueen in the 1960s. They were great inspirations and Brad has that same kind of charisma, so I knew he could pull those looks off,” she says.


One other physical element for Brad Pitt was the digital techniques that would facilitate his performance of Benjamin from youth to old age.  Visual effects supervisor Eric Barba, a longtime Fincher collaborator, notes, “David told me from the beginning, ‘Brad has to drive the performance from beginning to end.’  Benjamin is the emotional core of the movie, and is clearly present, even when it seems impossible.  That was our challenge with the effects.”


Aging and De-Aging


Barba worked in tandem with Oscar-winning special make-up designer Greg Cannom, who created prosthetics to enhance the aging and de-aging throughout the film. 


Understated but meticulous attention to detail on a broad canvas extended to digital cinematography in the film.  “David’s shooting style for the film takes on a sense of what David Lean exemplified with sweeping epic shots that capture a sense of place and time,” says Marshall.  “The emotional poignancy of the film achieves its power through David’s use of the camera as the observer.  He wants you involved in the character study, so the camerawork becomes more studied and calm.  It’s not a film that requires quick cuts and visceral frenetic camera moves.”  


“We wanted to keep it as naturalistic as possible,” says director of photography Claudio Miranda.  “We tried to know where the source was going to be coming from, and then tried to bend it or play it.  We did some shots where we just put light bulbs in the frame and let them light the scene.  You normally cheat sources by putting in a light bulb, dimming it down so it’s not too much, then creating another light source just out of frame.  I thought it was cool that we just let it be.” 




The light sources change as the eras overlap and give way to one another.  “There’s progression in the technology, going from candles to gas lamps and clear bulb incandescent to fluorescent,” Fincher explains.  “There are some movie lights, but not a lot.  For the most part, it was shot digitally to be able to utilize these kinds of light sources, and also to be able to move quickly.”


Occasionally, shots organically presented themselves, as in the spare, elegant shot of Blanchett dancing in the gazebo during her date with Benjamin in New York.  “That shot on the gazebo was so simple.  We saw that and said, ‘We gotta shoot here,’” recalls Fincher.  “There was some question about what the background would be and I said, ‘Well, it’s a swamp out there, let’s get some steam or smoke and light up those trees and keep her in silhouette.’  We were trying for an old, classic Hollywood style, super simple.  It looked like a music box.” 


Fincher’s exacting sensibility and attention to such details provided the ideal compliment to his deep understanding of the truths at the heart of Benjamin’s tale.  “Considering the epic scope of the story and deep emotional arcs, every choice he made was perfect and so rewarding for us to be a part of,” Kathleen Kennedy concludes.