Behind the Lens: Eric Roth on Life as a Top Screenwriter

Working With Everyone From Scorsese To Spielberg To Fincher, And How He Became A Producer On ‘Mank’

Pete Hammond
April 16, 2021
Deadline

If you are in the mood for a master class in what it takes to be a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, look no further than this week’s episode of my Deadline video series Behind the Lens, where I go deep into the making of Mank with one of its producers, Eric Roth. This happens to be Roth’s first feature film producing credit, and he still laughs at the thought of it because in his heart he isn’t really a member of that tribe. The man is a writer through and through; while Mank has brought him his sixth Oscar nomination, it’s his first in the Best Picture category.

Roth is one of the most prolific writers in movies, having previously been Oscar nominated for scripts on Munich, The Insider, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, A Star Is Born and Forrest Gump, for which he actually won the Academy Award. He talks about all of them, what it takes to make a successful movie, the many directors he has worked with, as well as actors, and so much more. Scorsese, Spielberg, Fincher, Mann, Zemeckis — the list is just so very long.

We actually start our interview talking about one big name he worked with that made him very proud, and that was Akira Kurosawa. Not bad. He also has high praise for his Mank director David Fincher, and tells how the director brought him into the project as a producer, but to also carefully parse the screenplay without rewriting it. In other words, he and Fincher went over it line by line and Roth was probably the best kind of sounding board you could ever hope for. Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher died in 2003 but gets sole credit. In that regard we also talk about how a film about a film about a screenwriter could gather a leading 10 nominations yet not get one for its writing (!) It baffles him, but that is what happened. Mank details the creation of the certified 1941 classic Citizen Kane as well as how writer Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles managed to jointly create an all-timer, sharing the film’s only Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Roth’s other credits include scripts for The Good Shepherd, Ali, The Postman, The Horse Whisperer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon for Martin Scorsese, whom he praises mightily, and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, among others. When I produce a preview card for one of his earliest credits, The Nickel Ride, which I saw at a sneak in 1974, he went right down memory lane and tells the story of his first job on a big film, rewriting The Drowning Pool for Paul Newman who greeted him on the set by saying, “Here comes our savior.” Indeed.

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DGA Awards: Meet the Nominees for Theatrical Feature Film

Jeremy Kagan
April 10, 2021
Directors Guild of America (DGA)

73rd Annual DGA Awards

On April 10, the DGA celebrated the craft of directing during the 30th Annual Meet the Nominees: Theatrical Feature Film symposium. In a historic virtual event that was viewed by DGA members worldwide, the 2020 Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Theatrical Feature Film Award nominees — Lee Isaac Chung (Minari), Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), David Fincher (Mank), Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7) and Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) — joined Special Projects Committee Chair Jeremy Kagan online for an in-depth discussion about their work.

“In this unimaginable year, which has truly been like no other, it’s an extraordinary pleasure and honor to be joined, even if it’s just virtually, by all five of the outstanding nominees,” said DGA President Thomas Schlamme in his welcome to the online audience. “Each of these fine directors join an illustrious line of filmmakers throughout Guild history who have represented the best in directorial achievements. I personally want to congratulate each and every one of you.”

Following a viewing of clips from each of the nominated features, Kagan prompted the nominees to share stories of their individual journeys that brought their powerful films to life.

“For me, it’s always about what do we think we’re doing as much as what we are doing,” said Fennell when asked her methodology for directing actors. “If we think we’re a hero and that goes against what’s happening in the script, play the hero. And it’s giving permission as well for the actor.”

Sorkin revealed his secrets behind the art of directing crosstalk. “Make sure that they put the burden on the other actor. Make them stop you from talking. Don’t stop because of the script told you to stop. And similarly, the actor who is doing the interrupting interrupt them as soon as you hear the word that’s making you say ‘no!’ or whatever is making you argue.”

Chung shared his process when it comes to rehearsals. “I try to make sure I talk throughout it; I don’t let them fully get into the scenes so that part of it they are still working it out mentally. I don’t get quiet and let them do it. …so I can try to preserve when the cameras are rolling that first time.”

“My personal taste is that I want to see what the audience is seeing,” said Fincher about his work preferences. “I work through the camera. I walk-through a number of rehearsals without having monitors up, but from the time we set a master or alternate master, the rest of the day is working through the camera because that’s the only thing that matters.”

“It’s always what’s on the camera,” agreed Zhao. “That’s it. That’s the difference between film and theater. People think because I work with a lot of nonprofessional actors, I’m usually like right there with them. But I love it very much…. because a lot of the time we have the sun right there and we can only do one take.”

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Chloé Zhao wins DGA Award for Theatrical Feature Film

Directors Guild of America (YouTube)
April 15, 2021

Chloé Zhao wins the DGA Theatrical Feature Film Award for Nomadland. Zhao shares gratitude for the recognition and spotlights her fellow nominees for their films.

In conversation with Donald Graham Burt, Erik Messerschmidt and Ren Klyce

John Horn
April 13, 2021
Netflix Awards FYC

A conversation with Production Designer Donald Graham Burt, Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and Sound Designer Ren Klyce on behalf of Mank. Moderated by John Horn.

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The Backdrop with Donald Graham Burt

April 9, 2021
Netflix Film Club (YouTube)

Oscar®-winning Mank production designer Donald Graham Burt breaks down a few key sets from the film, including the ranch house where Herman Mankiewicz sets up shop in order to grind through the first draft of Citizen Kane, and the immaculate recreation of William Randolph Hearst‘s San Simeon castle.

Producer Eric Roth on ‘Mank’, David Fincher, and the Relationship Between Writers and Directors

The Oscar-winning screenwriter discusses his work on David Fincher’s Netflix movie and shares some candid thoughts about a writer’s role in the craft of filmmaking.

Adam Chitwood
April 15, 2021
Collider

Eric Roth knows a thing or two about screenwriters. And more specifically, the relationship between a screenwriter and a director. He’s been a working writer in Hollywood for decades, and has collaborated with directors as varied and accomplished as Steven SpielbergRobert ZemeckisMichael MannMartin Scorsese, and Bradley Cooper. He’s been nominated for six Oscars, and has won once (for Forrest Gump). He’s had massive hits and disappointing bombs. Plenty of ups and downs. And at 76 years of age, you can hear in his voice that he still has the enthusiasm and love for the craft of moviemaking of an up-and-coming screenwriter bowled over by the magic of Hollywood.

Which is why, when David Fincher got the chance to make the film Mank at Netflix, one of his first calls was to Roth, with whom he had worked on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and House of Cards. The story of Mank traverses well-worn territory – it chronicles the writing of the original screenplay for Citizen Kane by alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played wonderfully by Gary Oldman). The film doesn’t delve into the credits debate that ensued after Mank finished the screenplay, but instead it’s a story about a talented writer who’s been slumming it in Hollywood as a script doctor and finally decides he’s going to shoot his shot with a controversial, thinly veiled story inspired by his real-life acquaintance William Randolph Hearst (played in the film by Charles Dance).

What made Mank extra tricky to pull off was the fact that the script was written by Fincher’s father Jack Fincher, who died in 2003. David and Jack had worked together to develop the screenplay throughout the 90s, but failed to find a studio willing to finance the film – at least the way Fincher wanted to make it (in black-and-white with a 1930s Old Hollywood feel). When Roth got the call from Fincher, he was asked not to rewrite the screenplay as is normally his task, but to instead come onboard the film as a producer and work with Fincher to make surgical changes here and there to get the script in tip-top shape as they headed into production.

It’s a somewhat extraordinary situation, as Roth was tasked with honoring what Jack Fincher had put together while also making small alterations here and there. And, of course, consulting with David to bring his decades of experience as a working screenwriter to the table, which would then inform what the movie has to say about Hollywood and the writer-director relationship.

So I jumped at the chance to speak with Roth about his involvement in Mank recently for an exclusive interview. While the discussion was pegged to Mank, it really went many different places as Roth elegantly and intelligently dove into the complicated relationship between a writer and a director, and why he believes a script can only take you so far and it’s up to the director to decide the direction it will take as it becomes a film. He talked about his relationship with Fincher, his specific role in bringing Mank to the screen, and why he feels it’s a true work of art.

We also talked about the craft of screenwriting in general and why Roth doesn’t feel like it’s an artform in and of itself, and he spoke enthusiastically about collaborating with Scorsese on Killers of the Flower Moon and Denis Villeneuve on Dune. It’s a wide-ranging conversation with a true Hollywood legend, and you’ll very quickly see that his passion for movies and moviemaking is infectious.

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‘Mank’ writer-producer Eric Roth on working with Fincher, ’Dune’, Scorsese’s next project

Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth served twin roles on Mank — punching up Jack Fincher’s screenplay and as producer. Mark Salisbury talks to him about his 50-year career, including upcoming films for Denis Villeneuve and Martin Scorsese

Mark Salisbury (Twitter)
April 14, 2021
Screen Daily

Back in the early 1990s, when David Fincher was still best known for his Madonna videos and had yet to direct a feature, he challenged his father Jack, who had recently retired as a Life magazine journalist, to write a screenplay. He even suggested a subject matter: Herman J Mankiewicz, who penned Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, but whose authorship had been controversially overlooked, not least by Welles, until an extended essay in 1971 by the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael reclaimed it.

Fincher tried in vain to set Mank up for the best part of a decade, but his desire to shoot in black and white proved a sticking point with financiers. Until, that was, Netflix, for whom Fincher had produced House Of Cards and Mindhunters, asked what he wanted to do next. Did he, they wondered, have a passion project he had always wanted to direct? Fincher took down his father’s script from the shelf, and Netflix agreed.

Jack died in 2003 so Fincher called on Eric Roth, with whom he had collaborated on The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and House Of Cards, to help him finesse the script. “David and I are very close,” says Roth, “and I’ve lent my eye, a point of view, on a few of his other movies. He has a group of us, including Bob Towne, Steven Soderbergh and Spike Jonze, that looks at all of his movies at some point in a cut and you’re allowed to tell him whatever you feel about it. So I’ve been involved in a number of those. He came to me a couple of years ago and asked if I would like to get involved with this.”

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Starring as a Starlet, Amanda Seyfried Shines as Marion Davies in ‘Mank’

Mandalit Del Barco
April 13, 2021
All Things Considered (npr)

Citizen Kane is often regarded as the greatest film ever made. The fictionalized story of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst didn’t win a Best Picture Oscar in 1942, but it did win a Best Original Screenplay award. Hollywood still loves a story about itself, and this year, Mank, a film about Citizen Kane‘s screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, earned 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It also received a nomination for Amanda Seyfried for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Marion Davies.

In real life, as in Mank, Davies was a starlet who lived a life of luxury with Hearst. She was born in Brooklyn and went from the Ziegfeld Follies to Hollywood. She became a siren of the silent movies in the 1920s, and ironed out her accent as she moved into talking pictures.

“Marion was a really talented actor, she had incredible range, she was really funny, and she was able to lighten any scene that she was in,” says Seyfried. “She was very unfiltered like I am, and she was very allergic to being dishonest, which I am absolutely. You know, the Brooklynese was kind of, just, at the end of the day, when she took her shoes off and she grabbed her bottle of gin. She was exactly who she was and you know, she had no shame from where she came from.”

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The “Fine Line Between Romance and Reality” in Creating the World of ‘Mank’

Having collaborated with David Fincher — and each other — on previous projects such as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, costume designer Trish Summerville and production designer Donald Graham Burt were both aware of the director’s long-gestating project Mank before it ever got the greenlight.

Nikki Baughan
April 12, 2021
Screen Daily

Fincher had wanted to make this 1930s Los Angeles-set period piece about screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz and his troubled writing of Citizen Kane for director Orson Welles ever since his journalist father Jack penned a screenplay in the late 1990s; Fincher Sr died in 2003 with the script still in a drawer. When Net­flix approached Fincher about making a film following their collaboration on crime series Mindhunter, the director immediately suggested Mank and brought Summerville and Burt onboard.

“It was a project that I really wanted to be a part of,” says Summerville. “Being black and white, being a period setting, being with David, it’s the kind of film that’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.” Burt, too, felt an instant connection. “It’s a period Los Angeles film-industry movie, and I immediately fell in love with it.”

Fincher’s film was to be an authentic emulation of a 1930s movie, featuring real-life locations and characters including Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), Welles (Tom Burke), media titan William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), MGM boss Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and Hearst’s girlfriend, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). That meant research — and lots of it.

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Erik Messerschmidt ASC / Mank : Masterclass in Monochrome

Black-and-white biopic Mank sees another successful collaboration between cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt ASC and director David Fincher as they craft an authentic portrayal of Hollywood’s golden age and explore the turbulent development of the script for Citizen Kane.

Zoe Mutter
April 12, 2021
British Cinematographer

“This was not an offer I had to consider; the answer was an immediate yes,” says cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt ASC when thinking back to the moment he was asked to film director David Fincher’s Mank which depicts the life of screenwriter Herman J. ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he develops the script for director Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane.

“I was thrilled when David called me,” he says. “I was nervous too of course as I felt a tremendous responsibility to be considerate and respectful to the film, but it’s a cinematographer’s dream to get the opportunity to make a movie like this.”

As Citizen Kane is widely regarded as one of cinema’s masterpieces, the pressure was on to capture the essence of Gregg Toland ASC’s cinematography and to faithfully encapsulate the distinctive mood, lighting and composition reminiscent of a golden era of filmmaking.

Mank, which received a limited theatrical release before streaming on Netflix, is based on a script written by Fincher’s late father, the journalist and writer, Howard “Jack” Fincher which focuses on the controversy surrounding who had creative ownership of Citizen Kane – Welles or Mankiewicz.

The film uses flashback sequences to explore the prolific talent of Mank as well as his alcoholism and tumultuous relationships with Hollywood executives such as film producer and MGM Studios co-founder Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving G. Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), who is widely claimed to be the inspiration for Citizen Kane’s protagonist.

Fincher was clear from the beginning that the film would be shot in black-and-white. “We never even considered what the movie would look like in colour,” says Messerchmidt. “Part of David’s intent was to transport the audience back to the classic ‘30s and ‘40s Hollywood era. Black-and-white was an excellent way to do that.”

Ensuring black-and-white was used as a homage or a pastiche rather than a parody was a priority. “When they approach black-and-white, cinematographers can tend to reach for noir as they are excited by its gestured, stylised lighting which you don’t get to use very often when shooting in colour,” adds Messerschmidt.

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‘Mank’ Cinematographer: ‘My Memories of Making the Film Are All in Black and White’

Erik Messerschmidt, Oscar nominated for his debut feature film as a cinematographer, talks to TheWrap about working with David Fincher on the 1940s-era period piece

Joe McGovern
April 13, 2021
The Wrap

Though he’s been active in the industry for nearly two decades, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt made his feature film debut last year with David Fincher’s silvery period drama “Mank.” Messerschmidt’s credits include television work in projects as diverse as “Everybody Hates Chris,” Ridley Scott’s “Raised by Wolves,” and Fincher’s “Mindhunter.” Fincher, in fact, had hired Messerschmidt three years ago to lens his sequel to “World War Z,” but after that project was cancelled in early 2019, the director called the cinematographer with a different proposal.

“David said, ‘I’ve got this black and white movie I’m thinking about. Do you want to do it?” Messerschmidt recalled to TheWrap. “He’s kind of coy like that. So I didn’t really know anything about what the film was. But I said, ‘Sure.’”

The film, of course, was Fincher’s biopic of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman), and “Mank,” which is available for streaming on Netflix, led the pack in terms of total Oscar nominations with 10, including Best Picture, Best Director, and one for the 40-year-old Messerschmidt.

The cinematography category is a fresh crowd this year. Messerschmidt, Dariusz Wolski (“News of the World”), Joshua James Richards (“Nomadland”) and Sean Bobbitt (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) are all first-time nominees. Only Phedon Papamichael (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) has ever been nominated before. For context, at the previous Oscars, two nominees (Robert Richardson and eventual winner Roger Deakins) had a tally of 25 career nominations between them.

Messerschmidt is currently working in Georgia on the upcoming Korean War drama “Devotion.” We caught up with him to talk about his work on “Mank” after a long week of night shoots. “If my answers are incoherent,” he said with a laugh, “just ask me to clarify.”

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