Fincher and Tim Miller talk about their decade-long journey to making the new Netflix animation anthology “Death, Love and Robots.”
The concept of an anthology animated short series, made by different artists from around the world, was a near-impossible pitch for executive producers David Fincher and Tim Miller to sell. Following the SXSW premiere of six of their 18 shorts — which will air on Netflix under the “Love, Death and Robots” banner — the duo revealed they had received countless rejections (though one unnamed studio said yes, before, as Miller described it, “they chickened out”) until the show eventually landed at Netflix.
“It was a very difficult thing to pitch a movie studio because it’s not often we’ll see it with all the credits in the middle,” said Fincher, referring to the fact that the 90-minute program the SXSW audience had just watched included end credits following each of the six shorts. “You want to move on to the next. For a streaming service it’s perfect.”
The idea that the shorts could be different lengths and have no narrative connective tissue was perfect for the on-demand nature of a subscription streaming service. According to Fincher, dating back to “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter,” his conversations with Netflix, including Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, have been centered around the need to break free of the half-hour and hour-long format.
“We have to get rid of the 22-minute [length of a half-hour show with commercials] and 48-minute [length of an hour-long show with commercials] because there’s this Pavlovian response to this segmentation that to me seems anathema to storytelling,” said Fincher. “You want the story to be as long as it needs to be to be at maximum impact or entertainment value proposition.”
Fincher said the reason “House of Cards” called each episode a “chapter” was because he loved the concept of setting the remote down on the bedside table being the same as setting a book down. He also loved the fact that the first season of his series “Mindhunter” contained a 34-minute chapter, which was significantly shorter than the others.
“[That 34-minute chapter] tells a story and no one complained,” said Fincher. “I don’t think the value proposition should be, ‘Are you going to distract me for 22 minutes, because if not I’m going to go to network TV.’ It should be, ‘How long do you need?’ And if you need three minutes, great.”
Miller, the director of “Deadpool” and founder of the animation/visual-effects company Blur, said the idea behind “Love, Death and Robots” was hatched 10 years ago, when he first met Fincher.
“David said I’ll help you with something if you want to do it,” said Miller. “And I laid out a bunch of projects, one of them was an animated anthology and he said, ‘That’s the one you should do, because we can try shit, we can get crazy, we can get a lot of other directors in the mix, and do some really wild visual stuff.’ He was drawn to it immediately.”
Added Fincher, “I try to get involved with things I want to see. I try to get involved with things that may or may not actually exist, or that we may not know that there is an audience for this yet.”
Fincher and Miller, who joked that they often have very different taste in stories and even genres, drew from a wide variety of short stories. After acquiring the story rights, Miller would do a first pass on the script adaptations just to get an understanding of the scope and scale of each short. They would then approach their favorite small animation companies from around the globe.
“There are a lot of artists working at small companies that can’t do feature length [films],” said Miller. “That’s a huge weight to carry around, but they do short work of very high quality and so we knew these people, many of them were [Blur’s] competitors and they’re just filled with people that don’t want to do talking-animal films. We knew who they were, we knew that they did great work.”
The animation companies and artists that really took to a particular story, and came back with storyboards and concept designs, were often given the the freedom to run with a project. Fincher and Miller fully expected the stories to change and for the artists to make each their own.
“We treat people the way we want to be treated,” said Fincher. “Which is tell us how it’s going to work and tell us why you made these decisions, and then you let people do what they do.”
The SXSW Film Festival takes place March 8–17. “Love, Death and Robots” airs on Netflix March 15.