Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s first produced screenplay was Se7en, which became director David Fincher‘s breakout film. Since then Walker has worked with Fincher a number of times, pitching in on The Game and “polishing the edges” of Jim Uhls’ original script for Fight Club. But not everything they’ve collaborated on more recently has made it to the big screen. Walker did a rewrite on the unmade sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and one on a Fincher version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that Walker says could have been “mind-blowing.”
After these and other false starts, a new Fincher/Walker project has finally come to fruition: The Killer, out in theaters this weekend and on Netflix next week. “There’s no way to express proper gratitude to this gentleman David Fincher, and the effect he’s had on my life,” Walker says. “But it is fun to now be able to go, ‘Hey, David and I have been trying to get to this for a long time. Thank you. Go see this, because this one isn’t the only one we’ve been spending years trying to write.'”
The movie, based on the French comics series, stars Michael Fassbender as a meticulous assassin whose routine is disturbed when he accidentally kills the wrong person. It feels like retro Fincher—the Fincher of The Game. The engine of the movie is Fassbender’s unnamed character’s voiceover, a litany of occupational mantras that the Killer’s actions sometimes contradict.
Walker remembers Fincher first contacting him about the project in 2008, and during our Zoom interview he pulls out notes from that meeting, in which the filmmaker walked him through the beats he wanted to hit on screen. Now, 15 years later, he discusses how they finally brought this nasty little gem of a movie to life.
GQ: Se7en was a script that you wrote and then he came on to, and then you’ve done rewrites on other Fincher projects. Do you feel like you know what he’s going to like and can write to that?
Andrew Kevin Walker: I feel an unusual amount of kismet, if that’s the word. I do remember times when I was working on rewriting The Game, it really was like you would say something and he would finish the sentence or vice versa. I don’t know why, and I don’t want to think about it too much, because it is kind of an inexorably wonderful thing.
When he came onto Se7en, I had vastly rewritten it for [director] Jeremiah Chechick who was attached before David. The story that’s out there is a true story—that they came to David with Se7en and they accidentally gave him the first draft. When he was talking to them later down the line, he said, “blah, blah, blah, head in the box.” And they said, “Oh, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait—we sent you the wrong one.” He insisted on going back to the first draft.
When I sat down with him and met him, I kind of dutifully got out—it’s weird, but I do write in John Temple composition books—and I got my little composition book out. And I was kind of licking my pencil and getting ready and he was just like, No, no—go ahead and close the notebook, and let’s just talk about the script from the very beginning.
I keep waiting for the moment where I write a script and he just reads it and he goes, “Oh my God, this is so disappointing. I hate it.”
After he gave you the beats of The Killer, did you go back to the original material at all?
I did revisit the comics. The biggest thing for me in adapting the literal kind of voice that’s in the comics is: I was concerned about not making the Killer seem like he was doing this morally reprehensible stuff, but at the same time in his mind feeling morally superior. I read The Stranger, the Camus book. A lot of Nietzsche. There’s an alien kind of quality, in my opinion, to the Killer, where he’s almost kind of in a spaceship hovering low. A nicely edited, stripped-down-by-Fincher version of that exists early on, when he’s saying, “It’s not that I feel superior, I just feel apart.” The [character description] in the script was kind of, “If you’re really paying attention, you’ll see that he never blinks, but who would pay attention to that?” And I just love that they, and especially Fassbender, ran with that.
What was your process in writing the voiceover monologue that opens the film?
Hopefully the first act, or the first 20 or so minutes, is going to do something that I really like to try to do, which is subvert the audience’s expectations. The process was to rigorously show process. At a certain point, Steven Soderbergh weighed in on one of the cuts, while Fincher was processing and reorganizing some things. And one of the results of him weighing in on it was [Fincher] moving the line “If you can’t stand boredom, then this isn’t the work for you.” It was a nice way to kind of warn the audience like, This ain’t going to start at a breakneck pace. I love making the audience experience the same kind of tedium and meticulousness that this person doing this job would need to have acquired.
The other line that I remember, hopefully, being kind of artfully placed to let the audience subtly know what’s going on, was in Se7en when Morgan [Freeman]’s character says, “This isn’t going to have a happy ending.” The audience may or may not believe it when they’re watching it the first time, but then they may remember and go, “Oh yeah, he did say…”
From the very beginning, Fincher said, “There’s this voiceover mantra.” And after a while, he’s saying, No regrets or remorse, but he clearly feels a certain remorse over one person, or he’s clearly doing this all for emotional reasons when it comes to his girlfriend. But Fincher, also from the very beginning, said, “This will be a movie where the guy literally says maybe 10 lines of spoken dialogue.” Anything else would be voiceover. And I really took that to heart, and I did get it down to literally 13, like a baker’s dozen in the first draft of spoken lines.
But then Fincher had him occasionally say, “Put the room service cart over here” or saying thank you to someone. And I was just like, “Stop doing that. You’re adding more lines.” Those mumbled lines here and there, I guess don’t count, but that was an important part of the process.
I was wondering where all the little quirks of the character came in, like the fact that he really only consumes protein, throwing away the buns on a McMuffin and swallowing hard-boiled eggs from a package. Or that his pseudonyms are all classic TV characters, like Felix Unger from The Odd Couple and Archie Bunker from All in the Family.
I mean, the ID stuff—when we worked on Fight Club together, we knew that there had to be name tags and kind of signup sheets for Edward [Norton]’s character, the Narrator. We started using names from Planet of the Apes. This time around as I was writing, I just realized, “Oh God, we’re never going to know his name, right? [He’s just] The Killer—but he’s going to have to be giving his information to a lot of people, especially when he’s flying.” I had to make a decision: Do I have to make up a different name every single time?
I decided upon this use of names that—for people of a certain age down—will mean nothing. For people of a certain age up, it’s almost kind of like a little Easter-egg hunt. Collect them all. And I do love that some 56 year old guy is sitting there chuckling beside some youngster who’s just like, “What the fuck is this guy laughing about every 10 minutes?”
Well, I’m not a 56-year-old guy, but I was laughing.
Good. Thank you. And then you kind of have to go through on the second, hopefully and third or whatever viewing, and you go, oh, wait, I missed that one—Reuben Kincaid. But I mean, again, that was part of the passing back and forth. It used to be just spoken names, and Fincher really zeroed in on making sure every one of the names was shown, so that it registered a little more.
His way of consuming food in an efficient way as part of the process was part of me envisioning him as kind of an alien amongst us. It’s amazing to me that you can buy hard-boiled eggs wrapped in plastic and just cut out the middleman. But the way it was in one of the original drafts, at a certain point he had a really hot Starbucks coffee and he was sitting, like waiting or driving. I had him a crack a raw egg into the coffee, so the coffee would kind of cook the egg, and then he just drank the whole thing. If anything, I wish there was a little more of him eating.
There were a lot of hit man movies at the fall festivals this year, The Killer and Richard Linklater’s Hit Man among them. Do you wrestle with the iconography of the genre when you are writing it or do you try to put that aside?
I think about it only in that it is a familiar genre and it’s been done really well. I think that it’s [about] bending of problems into solutions. When you try and ground an unreal thing in reality, that’s when the problems bend into solutions. It becomes interesting when an international professional assassin picks the seat in coach that’s as deep in the plane as possible, because he needs to disappear into the woodwork. When he doesn’t dine now on pheasant under glass and drink the finest champagne or insist that his cocktails are shaken, not stirred, and he’s eating hard-boiled eggs and he’s just being efficient, that’s when you’ve bent the expectation as well into hopefully an area of interesting storytelling that takes tropes, and hopefully, I say again, hopefully plays with them enough to keep it interesting. But yeah, I was aware of that kind of stuff. I just knew that we weren’t going to be doing certain things that we had seen before.