An hour or so into the 1999 premiere of Fight Club, David Fincher slipped outside for some air. The director hadn’t known exactly what to expect when his brutally violent black comedy was selected for the Venice Film Festival, but whatever the dream scenario had been, this wasn’t it. The walkouts had started early, and become a steady stream. The only audience members laughing were his leading men, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton – though in fairness, the two had shared a joint beforehand. The first review off the presses had described Fincher’s film as “an inadmissible assault on personal decency” with a fascist bent, and the festival crowd weren’t noticeably any more enthused.
“The resounding thuds every scene landed with just became too much,” Fincher, now 58, tells me from home via Zoom. He recalls sitting on the steps outside and watching half a dozen disgusted older women file past: “all wearing at least one item of leopard print, like six Anne Bancrofts in The Graduate.” One evidently recognised the American enfant terrible and hissed something to her companions, who looked across and shook their heads in sync. “It was then I knew that what we’d done was wrong,” he says, beaming with pride.
Fincher’s tremendous latest film – his first since Gone Girl in 2014 – is unlikely to cause many viewers to storm home, not least because they’ll already be there when they watch it. Mank is a Netflix production, filmed just before the pandemic struck, but edited, polished and due to be released under lockdown conditions. Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood and shot in silvery monochrome, it follows the political chicanery and personal vendettas that led to the writing of Citizen Kane: a film released in 1941, and still widely considered the greatest ever made. Mank’s hero isn’t Orson Welles, Kane’s startlingly young director and star (he was 25 when it was released), but Gary Oldman’s Herman J Mankiewicz – a wildly talented screenwriter and incorrigible gambler and drunk, whom Welles enlisted to ghostwrite the script.