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Fincher does Harvard at Hopkins and may be the smartest man on campus

David Fincher has made the kind of growth leaps from "The Panic Room" to "Zodiac" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" that Curtis Hanson made from "The River Wild" to "L.A. Confidential" and "Wonder Boys." When directors come of age, they don't just take on genres or literary adaptations: they explode or transform them. "Zodiac" was one of the most original and upsetting of real-life crime films, and "Button" was a one-of-a-kind masterpiece: a lyrical comedy- drama about aging and death that had more life than in it than any other movie last year.

Fincher has been in Baltimore Monday and Tuesday at work on his latest directorial surprise. He's filming "The Social Network," an Aaron ("West Wing") Sorkin screenplay about the Harvard boy-men who founded Facebook, scheduled for a 2010 release. Sorkin has reportedly loaded the script with his trademark repartee. And Fincher doesn't just want to win the crowds that turned out for another tale of Boston college boys striking it rich, the MIT-gambling movie, "21." (Just as "21" is based on Ben Mezrich's "Bringing Down the House," "The Social Network" takes off from Mezrich's "The Accidental Billionaire.") He hopes other audiences might want to see a smart, funny film engage in such contemporary issues as the rise of the amateur tycoon and the pressure meteoric success puts on gifted yet unformed individuals.

At the center of "The Social Network" are socially clueless computer wizard Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg of "Adventureland" and "Zombieland," and his more affable original partner, Eduardo Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield of "Boy A" and the forthcoming "Never Let Me Go" (from Kazuo Ishiguro's acclaimed novel.) They're neither Butch and Sundance nor Leopold and Loeb, but they prove to be volatile companions. A movie filled with racing dialogue is only superficially a startling choice for Fincher -- the verbal mantras of Fincher's "Fight Club" helped defined that movie.

As he filmed at Johns Hopkins, Fincher seemed supremely confident, and, without pushing it, quite a funny fellow himself. We chatted outside Shaffer Hall, which was masquerading as the Harvard building where Zuckerberg faced a disciplinary board for inadvertently crashing the school's computers with a geek-sexist "hot or not" Web site called Facemash.

Although Fincher picked Hopkins to double for Harvard because of its similar Georgian-style brick and marble, the particular portico for that building had a geometric, Teutonic look to it that tickled him. Fincher wanted to make sure his ace cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, worked that into the picture. The director quipped, "It's got a little Leni Riefenstahl to it, doesn't it?" And then caroming easily from Hitler's filmmaker to Hitler's architect, he said, "It's a bit like 'Albert Speer does colonial' -- not a bad look to have when you're filming a guy coming out of a meeting with people who have put him on probation."

Zuckerberg was a controversial figure even before Mezrich's book came out, accused of hogging credit for Facebook and manipulating other people's ideas. At least partly because he never told Mezrich his side of the story, in the book he comes off as at worst a heartless user, at best a ruthless genius so divorced from normal human discourse he doesn't even know he's ruthless. Fincher laughs quietly when asked if Zuckerberg will seem more sympathetic in the movie. "I'm not the one to talk about the need for 'likable' or 'sympathetic' characters," said Fincher, whose roster includes "Seven."

You could sense a bit of "Benjamin Button" behind Fincher's statement that "how you judge a man can change; as you view him over the course of a whole life, you look at him differently." Indeed, Sorkin's script for "The Social Network" cuts back and forth between the events leading up to Facebook and legal depositions taken four years later.

Fincher sees one conflict in the movie between the fame and/or wealth generated in months by someone like Zuckerberg with the oldest Old School traditions of Harvard's social life and business culture, resting on fortunes made over decades of invention, innovation or investment (and then handed down to future generations). "What did it feel like for someone like him to be 17 to 21 and have all these venture capitalists tapping him on the shoulder and saying, 'Come over here'?" he asks. "If success accelerates the process of you becoming who you really are, how does that work when success happens so rapidly?" More important, says Fincher, "How we feel about Zuckerberg is not how I see the story." With his arm reaching out to embrace his mock Harvard, he says, "The way I see drama, the context is the story."

Fincher never went to college himself. He always knew he wanted to be a filmmaker. He grew up in Northern California, in Marin County; George Lucas was his neighbor. Movies like " The Godfather," "American Graffiti," and Phil Kaufman's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" were always being shot or finished nearby. Part of what made "Zodiac" so haunting was that it has the impact of a memory play of the Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s. Those who know the area can smell the eucalyptus just watching that film. "It did bring back memories," says Fincher, "and not all bad ones. People come together against a threat like the Zodiac Killer." His first job was assisting Marin County filmmaker John Korty (best known today for "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman").

Fincher's take on campus life should be fascinating. In "Zodiac," the story of a couple of San Francisco Chronicle staffers trying to crack the case of the Zodiac Killer, Fincher showed a refreshing alertness to newsroom dynamics. His father had worked as a science writer and bureau chief for Life magazine. Fincher says he used his familiarity with characters like the Smartest or the Funniest Men in the Room, anxious to push their stories or their bylines into the paper, to fuel Downey's performance as a star reporter without hemming his performance in. Doubtless he'll do the same with the old and new archetypes of Harvard's Big Men on Campus and actors like Eisenberg and Garfield.

"The Social Network," in any event, will be the rare big-studio movie that aims to draw a large audience without sacrificing ambition or nuance. In that way, Fincher is a glorious throwback to the directors who created Hollywood. He says he learned a crucial lesson from his father, who told him: "Learn the craft. It will never get in the way of your art."

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