‘The Killer’ Writer Andrew Kevin Walker on Fincher, That Tilda Scene and Minimizing Dialogue

The “Seven” screenwriter also details the process of getting Michael Fassbender’s character down to 13 lines

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Netflix

Andrew Kevin Walker and David Fincher have one of the most creatively fulfilling relationships in Hollywood, and their latest collaboration “The Killer” is certainly one of their best.

Walker burst onto the scene as the screenwriter behind 1995’s twisted serial killer thriller “Seven,” whose shocking ending immediately caught the eye of Fincher and became the director’s second feature film. Walker would go on to perform uncredited work on scripts for “The Game” and “Fight Club” and wrote a few other Fincher projects that never came to pass (including a “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” reboot for Disney), and recently co-wrote and produced the 2022 thriller “Windfall” for Netflix and filmmaker Charlie McDowell. But “The Killer” brings Walker and Fincher back into familiar territory with a fresh twist.

When Fincher first pitched “The Killer” – which follows an assassin (played by Michael Fassbender) following a botched hit – to Walker back in 2008, they talked about minimizing the character’s dialogue. When the project gained new life at Netflix a decade later, Walker was tasked with a very specific job: try and write the film with only 10 lines of dialogue for Fassbender’s character.

Walker nearly succeeded, getting the total number of lines down to 13, but after the first assembly cut of the film was put together, Fincher and Walker agreed the film needed more voiceover. Much more.

Walker unpacked this process and his relationship with Fincher in an interview with TheWrap, also touching on how he went about crafting the Tilda Swinton scene in the film and the somewhat ambiguous ending. Read our full conversation below.

When did your journey on “The Killer” begin?
Fincher talked to me around 2008, and he laid out like a five-chapter story with very specific elements, and I kind of scribbled it all down in a notebook. He told me the story and he said it’ll look like the most amazing, high-end perfume commercial and I was immediately on board. Then 10 years went by and nothing really happened. So 10 years later, he tells me the same story off the top of his head and then I go dig in my papers and I’m like oh snap it’s exactly the same as what he said in 2008. So I started writing in 2018 and then I finished it before the lockdown. I do remember they were shooting “Mank” right before the lockdown, and I knew “Mank” was going to happen before “The Killer.” “Mank” happened. COVID happened. “The Killer” got its slot, and like I say I couldn’t be more honored to be involved in this. Getting a movie made is one thing. That’s like winning the lottery. But getting a movie made that you are really proud of and love is like winning the lottery twice in one day. I mean, it’s insanely rare. So I’m just luxuriating in the fact that I’m a part of this project.

How does the final version compare to that structure that Fincher first laid out?
The structure that he first kind of spat out changed a tiny bit, but only at what point he went to which character. I always like to point out that the mantra was there from the beginning. It was Fincher’s idea that he would have this mantra that he would begin to contradict and begin to kind of betray all of his own supposedly rock-solid beliefs that aren’t so solid after all. But the first draft is really, really close to what I wrote, except there was a lot less voiceover. He said, “Try and have like 10 lines of dialogue spoken by him, all the rest will be voiceover.” And I did get it down to 13. I did 12 then I had to add one during a little bit of polishing for Fincher. It was down to 13 and I was very proud, and then while they shot I wasn’t there because of COVID — there’s no reason to have another person who might bring COVID to the set — and every time . they added a little mumbling line or “thank you” to someone who opened the door, I said, “Don’t add more lines!” I took it really seriously to try and literally have it be 10. Like the Tilda scene he has literally two lines of dialogue from him. It was a lot of fun to try and strike a balance of how little he can speak and how artfully he chooses to break his silence and yet let it all seem hopefully kind of natural in certain scenes, or a heightened reality.

When they put together the rough assembly of what they shot, they were following what was kind of prescribed in the script which was very heavy voiceover in the first act, which contained the mantra, and then from there on out, it was all mantra. There was no other voiceover, really. So there’s very little speaking, and it’s almost like a silent movie. The mantra was the only piece of voiceover that traveled past page 27 or whatever. I didn’t think the silence would be as kind of deafening as it was, but it clearly was and Fincher said early on after the first assembly, with the voiceover laid in that Michael had done which was amazing, “We’re gonna need more voiceover to build in.” For a half second, I was hesitant number one because I’m lazy and number two because it’s another way for me to f–k this up and write something bad. But three, I was concerned like, “OK, well how are we defining that voiceover throughout?” and what’s the right balance where you won’t feel, in scenes where there’s not voiceover over every moment, why isn’t there a voiceover here? I think Fincher struck an amazing balance.

I started to think of a lot of the voiceover as his kind of random musings in a way. We were never really trying to have it be a guy whose voiceover is addressing the audience directly. Yeah, it feels to me like a lot of times, he’s addressing himself, even if he doesn’t realize it. But that was the big change from the first draft to the final, final draft/finished project. There were plenty of times where I was just going, “Oh, man, I think it’s perfect. Now, just leave it,” and he was like, no, no, what about trying this here? Or that there? The discussion kept going, and I’m glad it did because some very, very necessary stuff came late in the game for not only where it was placed, but some brand new kind of fresh things came from the discussion into the voiceover. Because of Fincher insisting on refining and refining, we put in some of my favorite lines, not only just in the movie, but some of the favorite things I’ve ever written. Some of them, I think, are the ones that are both the kind of darkest, but also kind of the funniest.

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Michael Fassbender in “The Killer” (Netflix)

Where’d the Popeye line come from because that killed me?
Most people’s favorite line is usually something David came up with, but Popeye was just me working on the first scene and thinking he would say, “Look, I just am what I am,” and I’m like, “Well, I know where I’ve heard that before.” It was him defining himself and it didn’t need to be as pretentious as it sounds. I was really trying to guard against him sounding like he felt he was morally superior to people that he’s kind of studying, like an alien kind of looking down upon us. He’s, at the same time, completely morally repugnant and bankrupt. There’s a line that remains, which is, “I don’t feel superior, I just feel apart. Separate, in a way.” I am what I am was a way for him to say I’m nothing special. And there was no way to say, “I am what I am” without mentioning Popeye.

Was that humor always part of it? I think David is an underrated comedy director — all of his films have a really sharp sense of humor in them.
It comes naturally from working with David and it definitely got heightened and brought to the fore as we refined the voiceover and as I kept discussing things with David and trying to kind of make him laugh during the process, and see if we could get some of those things in. But yeah, David’s the reason that all of the aliases are names that you’ve heard before. David really set aside a period of time towards the last days of shooting to do every one of those inserts, where he was making sure that the joke of it really landed for people of a certain age. The beauty is that for some people, those names will be meaningless, they will never have heard of them. Or they may have vaguely heard a couple of them. And I love that someone might go Googling and discover this whole other area of interest themselves. So much of it comes from just David’s sense of humor and batting jokes or laughs back and forth.

The Tilda sequence is one of my favorite in the film, and she’s so good in that scene. How did you go about writing that confrontation?
When I wrote it, I knew at the very least we were trying to get Tilda so it makes it easier on one hand but also makes it terrifying on the other because you’re writing something in the hopes of having Tilda Swinton say yes to it and that’s daunting, because she’s just so incredible and so talented. I broke down the Tilda sequence the same way I would break down an entire script. But instead of using three by five cards, I used smaller Post-It notes. I knew the thoughts I wanted her to express, and then I had to find their relation to each other, and rather than just keep churning it on a computer screen, I really moved them around spatially on one page of paper with a couple dozen Post-It notes, and each note had these tiny scribblings —Fincher loves to laugh at my tiny John Doe scribblings. They’re everywhere when I’m writing, they’re everywhere when I’m not writing, but because I do a lot of stuff longhand still, I just broke that scene down structurally in the way that I would break an entire script down, or the way that you would break down an action scene, except it was thoughts that you were trying to move from one to the other, and that you were moving around in relation to each other.

We always referred to this character as the Ghost of Christmas Future, and Fincher always talked about two samurai meeting on a road, and kind of an inevitable old guard kind of meeting the somewhat younger up-and-comer. The other thing that I realized during it was Tilda’s character had to live up to what her reputation was. I knew I couldn’t have her go down without some sort of fight, and yet it didn’t make sense for it to happen until you see it happen. And it does seem like she got really close to almost being successful. But The Killer, luckily, is on the same wavelength enough that he knows what’s coming.

That scene was so much about the fact that if you work in this business, and you always had, no matter how much you have your guard always up, there’s always going to be some fraction of a second when it’s down. And even if it’s always up, there’s always someone who can get past it. So no matter how much she told herself it’s just a matter of time, she still couldn’t convince herself that that was true. That’s kind of the crux of it. And for him, I think he really couldn’t resist sitting down across from the only person he could have this experiential conversation with. Like she says, I think he wanted to be kind of reassured by it, and think that he wouldn’t get into the position she’s in when he’s sitting across from her, but she’s basically saying, it’s gonna happen to you.

The way Tilda plays it when he sits down, she goes through like six emotions in five seconds.
I don’t know if I laid them out — I probably did very early in the process — I didn’t want to follow it strictly, but it’s kind of like the five stages of grief. So it’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I wanted to start with that as what was happening to her, which was she was going through all the stages of being doomed and figuring there’s no way out. So there had to be point where there was acceptance, there had to be a certain point when there was anger, there was a certain point where we rebelled against the situation.

The ending of the film is wonderfully satisfying and surprising. Tell me about the confrontation with The Client. Was there ever an iteration where it would’ve gone another way?
I don’t want anything that was supposedly my intention to get in the way of anyone else’s interpretation. There are context clues contained in some of the voiceover certainly about how much more difficult it is to kill someone extremely wealthy, because they’re extremely wealthy and it’s on the front page of the newspaper. But also I think there’s something contained in the way that Fincher described the last moments of the scene with The Client, which was that Fincher said he leaves a man who looks like he’s never gonna sleep again the rest of his life.

I don’t think there was ever an intention for it to go any other way, but it is one of the things that people most ask about. But I think that’s a good thing. Just like with very subtle things in the very, very ending, the very last scene, that I hope people catch, if not the first time, then the second time. Like how much or little that is actually a “happy ending.”

But with The Client, you get a real sense of what that guy is through his t-shirt and vanity plates and there was always meant to be a little humor in that situation. His bargaining is a little different from the others. Hopefully each person who’s faced with The Killer, their bargaining is a little different from all the others. In comparison, his is different from everyone’s in that he’s used to high-stakes negotiations and this is the highest stakes negotiation he’s ever been involved in, and in a way, he tries to use humor to defuse the situation, which I also find interesting.

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David Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker at the Academy Museum screening of “The Killer” (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix)

You and David Fincher have been working together for a long time now, and worked together on a few projects that never happened. Are you working together on something else?
Fincher and I have talked about a lot of stuff over the years. I’ve been blessed to work on “Seven” and “The Game” and the polish that I did on “Fight Club.” I was lucky enough to do this rewrite of “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” which would have been amazing, but I don’t see that ever coming to pass because of various reasons.

I would have loved to have seen that.

I can promise you would have loved it. It would have definitely been something a bit more than people would have expected. And “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” I did a rewrite on for Disney. It would be amazing if that somehow would come to fruition. But who knows. And then “Reincarnation of Peter Proud,” but again, a lot of this stuff is just complicated. There was an Evil Knievel project I did a write on for Universal years ago that I would have loved for Fincher to come into the process as it kind of went down the line, and different people stepped in and out of it. But no, there’s not something that we have finished or that we’ve talked about that we’re that’s on the verge of doing. But obviously, anytime David comes to me with anything, he has my strict attention. I also have to convince myself to do it, so that I won’t not only disappoint him professionally, but disappoint him on it. I don’t want to disappoint a friend. I never take jobs just for the job’s sake.

The other thing I always say about Fincher is that he gives you what I like to call a road map to success. He’s very collaborative. He’s very specific. He tells you what he wants with real clarity and he’s participatory in a very forward-thinking way.

Do you know what you’re working on next?

There is something I wrote for a wonderful director before the writer’s strike. I can’t be the one who announces it, but fingers crossed. I do have a spec idea I want to write, I just have to get writing it. And there’s a book I’ve been trying to get the rights to, and like I say, if Fincher comes to me tomorrow and wants to talk about something or if I have an idea that I think is appropriate for him, I’ll go to him. And I’m really, really happy with “The Killer.” It’s attributed to Fincher and Ren Klyce’s insane sound design and Kirk’s incredible editing and the insanely beautiful photography of Erik Messerschmidt. It’s such a f—king blessing to work with so many people who care so dearly about moviemaking. I don’t know how I got onto their coattails but I’m not letting go. I’m super excited that people are seeing it and talking about it. I’m just trying to slow it down now and enjoy the moment.

“The Killer” is now streaming on Netflix.

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