It should have been good news. March 2001. David Fincher was five weeks into filming ”Panic Room,” the director’s follow-up to his controversial 1999 pitch-black comedy ”Fight Club,” when his star Jodie Foster asked to speak privately with him and producer Cean Chaffin about an urgent matter. Fincher immediately began to worry. On paper, the new thriller, which pits a newly divorced woman and her 11-year-old daughter (Kristen Stewart) against three brutal burglars (Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker, and Dwight Yoakam) in the middle of the night might not have seemed so tough to make.
But this is David Fincher, a filmmaker for whom the phrase ”Let’s do this the easy way” doesn’t exist. And the creative course he had charted — to shoot in the near-dark, with swooping camera movements and intricately designed action sequences — left very little room for error. As Foster now puts it: ”When you make decisions like that, which are so ambitious, you have to live with all the consequences and ramifications.” Already, ”Panic Room” had suffered one significant setback (the loss of its first leading lady); the last thing he wanted to hear was that he was about to have another.
”Jodie walks up,” recalls Fincher, ”and says, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news.’ And before she says anything more, Cean goes, ‘You’re pregnant! That’s so great!’ And I’m like–” Actually, Fincher’s reaction was a blood-drained face of shell-shocked disbelief, which the director replicates almost a year later in a hotel suite in Beverly Hills on a January morning. Curled on the couch near him is Foster, wearing a smirk of bemusement and embarrassment. Fincher continues: ”Great? What do you mean ‘Great?’ I think Cean had skipped over issues like scheduling, because as we walked away, she went, ‘Oh, no.’ And I went, ‘Oh, yes.”’ Fincher sighs. ”Nothing went like it was supposed to on this movie. Literally. Everything f—ed up.”
”Panic Room”’s streak of bad luck began 20 days into production when it became apparent that Nicole Kidman, who had originally signed to star in the film, had not fully recovered from a knee injury sustained while filming ”Moulin Rouge” months earlier. In late January 2001, it was announced that Kidman couldn’t continue. With the threat of a possible actors’ strike looming, a replacement was needed ASAP.
When ”Panic Room” came calling, Foster, 39, had only one conflict. A week earlier, she had agreed to head the jury at the 2001 Cannes film festival. But Foster had few qualms about skipping Cannes for Fincher, a director she’d wanted to work with since his 1995 breakthrough, ”Seven.” In fact, Foster was once set to star in Fincher’s 1997 film ”The Game.” How Sean Penn came to replace her is a matter she can’t legally discuss; in 1996, the actress filed a reported $14.5 million suit against PolyGram Filmed Entertainment and Propaganda Films over the flap, which was settled out of court. ”David and I remained friends, and there were no hard feelings,” says Foster. ”Actually, we’re in perfect agreement on the whole thing.”