Gone Girl: Visual Style–Noir Americana

The physical world of Gone Girl mirrors the internal states of its characters – or perhaps vice versa – with its portrait of a recession-era America full of comforting facades that, upon closer inspection, are fraying at the seams.

The result is a kind of noir Americana, a darkly hypnotic angle on displaced American dreams. Fincher crafted this world of both strangeness and intimacy with a team he has relied on repeatedly including cinematographer Jeff Cronenworth, production designer Donald Graham Burt, costume designer Trish Summerville and editor Kirk Baxter.

Cronenworth has certainly gone down dark roads before with Fincher. Through a series of films including Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the pair have forged a distinctive visual style that conjures potent atmospheres out of restraint. Driven by subtleties and details, their work on Gone Girl takes their aesthetic for the first time into the suburban Midwest. This film’s regionalism echoes the work of influential American street photographer Joel Sternfeld — who found both human beauty and ironic humor in modern, manmade landscapes.

The material itself helped to focus the approach. “Once I read Gillian’s script and started getting into David’s head and started to live vicariously through these characters and the mental chess games they play with each other and the emotional roller coaster they are on, the question became how can the visuals support this deep, dark journey?” explains Cronenworth. “We felt an obligation to visually immerse the audience in the fullest possible way into Gillian’s world.”

As for how camera and lighting become complicit in creating doubt and suspicion in a film where faux facades proliferate, Cronenworth says: “You look for ways to take a traditional, mundane small town and a couple’s impersonal home and subtly transform them into something mysterious.”

Filming took place in Cape Girardeau, a quaint Missouri River town a little over 100 miles outside St. Louis, which stands in for Nick’s downturned hometown of Carthage. Donald Burt notes that the location offered a lot of advantages. “Everything about Cape Girardeau was right – from its mix of different levels of economics and period architectures from the 60s, 70s and 80s to its sprawling malls to having the river right there as an anchor,” says the designer. “The people there were also so kind and so helpful. It shone a light on their remarkable generosity.”

Cronenworth was equally intrigued by the contours of Cape Girardeau in creating Carthage. “Carthage is much like many one-time prosperous towns across America where a highway came in and a few big box stores went up and suddenly the economic opportunities have moved down the road,” he describes. “I saw Carthage as a kind of a dusty old wedding gown that’s been kept in the closet. It still has a natural beauty and allure to it – but it hasn’t really been taken out and used for years.”

Practical locations were commandeered to hone in on this portrait. Burt explains, “With David it’s always about restraint but also finding things that are just a little bit off center. The idea is both ‘let’s keep it simple’ and yet ‘let’s keep it complex.’ We also make a concerted effort to constantly question ourselves; David often asks ‘do you think the characters would be in this place?’   And we explore things in that way, always through the characters.”

Adds Cronenworth: “I think David and Don and I all feel that the less we make obvious fingerprints, the more people are immersed in the atmosphere.”

Perhaps the most essential location was the Dunnes’ home, a rented McMansion in an affluent subdivision. Though shiny and new, shadows prevail within. “The Dunne’s house was all about taking a normal, ordinary domestic situation and turning it into an isolated fortress with the blinds drawn down,” Cronenworth explains. “From small details comes that sense of disenchantment.”

Burt and his team took a lot of care finding just the right house. “The house wasn’t too grand, yet it was large enough that two people could feel there was both closeness and at the same time a kind of separateness — the unspoken ‘don’t enter my space, I won’t enter yours.’ We wanted it to feel vacuous yet have layers,” the designer says. “It evoked the feeling of a McMansion without being disturbingly vulgar. We liked that it had classical elements, so that some of the wood in the Carthage house echoes their more historical townhome in New York but in a skewed way. It’s as if the house yearns to be traditional… but the hardware and the light fixtures and the vinyl windows give it away.”

The production lucked out in finding Desi’s lavish lakehouse nearby. “We found this spectacular home by a Frank Lloyd Wright student and it was just perfect. It felt remote but it spoke to money and yet it had a certain kind of prison quality,” Burt says.

One of the film’s literally darkest scenes takes place in an abandoned Missouri mall that has become a kind of mecca of the disenfranchised. Those sequences were shot in Los Angeles, using an abandoned Montgomery Ward store for the exteriors and the vast Hawthorne Mall for the interiors. “We dressed it with all this broken drywall and old dilapidated planters that you find in malls. We actually did a lot research on abandoned malls, because there are a lot across America,” says Burt. “There’s an apocalyptic feel – like there’s another, darker world underneath what you see in Carthage.”

For Cronenworth, it was a favorite location because of its challenges. “The scale was daunting in that you can see down 3 floors and 300 feet in each direction – and we wanted it all lit mostly with flashlights and bonfires,” he says. “It was one of the film’s most interesting photographic challenges. We wanted the scene to embrace that kind of catacombs feeling.”

Both men have found their work with Fincher deepening. Says Cronenworth: “I would say the main thing that has changed over the years is our ability to sleep a little more comfortably at night. We’re more decisive and efficient, which makes things just a little easier. But one thing that has stayed the same is that I go away every day on his films feeling like I’ve learned something.”

Burt has a similar take on their long-lived collaboration. “I’d like to think there’s a shorthand when you work with somebody enough – but I truly try to approach each project as a completely fresh experience, and this one was,” he says. “What strikes me most about David’s films is that there are so many elements that only hit you peripherally on first viewing, then later really sink in. It’s so often not the element that’s right in front of your face that is key and that is his unique artistry.”