Mank: A Writer in Exile

Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC and director David Fincher discuss their creative collaboration.

Stephen Pizzello
February 4, 2021
American Cinematographer

Mank frames the origin story of Citizen Kane from the perspective of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he’s hit a low point in life. Alcoholic, world-weary and hobbled by a broken leg sustained in a car crash, Mankiewicz is trundled off to a dusty desert cottage in Victorville, Calif., accompanied by a nurse and a typist tasked with keeping their cantankerous patient off the bottle so he can complete a screenplay for Orson Welles — a script that will serve as the foundation of Kane.  

Pressed by Welles to finish the project, the bedridden “Mank” (as he’s known to his friends and colleagues) struggles to find creative inspiration, eventually drawing upon his memories of businessman, newspaper tycoon and politician William Randolph Hearst. Flashbacks transport us back to Mank’s headier days as a handsomely paid Hollywood scripter. After amusing Hearst with his barbed wit on a movie location, Mankiewicz is invited to mingle with members of the mogul’s inner circle and renews a friendship with Hearst’s mistress, actress and comedian Marion Davies. Mank’s Hollywood career is thriving, and his social standing is on the rise, but his proximity to power allows him to observe its corrosive influence firsthand — souring his worldview, but ultimately informing the plot of Citizen Kane and the sardonically unflattering portrait of its Hearst-like protagonist, Charles Foster Kane.

The script for Mank was initially fashioned by director David Fincher’s father, Jack, a journalist and screenwriter, who empathized with Mankiewicz’s plight and leaned into the controversial assertions of film critic Pauline Kael, whose 1971 essay in The New Yorker, “Raising Kane,” maintained that Mankiewicz was almost entirely responsible for the Citizen Kane screenplay, with little input from Welles. (That thesis has since been partially debunked by Welles supporters, including director and former film critic Peter Bogdanovich.)

Following his father’s death in 2003, Fincher retooled the Mank script with the help of screenwriter Eric Roth, making it less antagonistic toward Welles. “I never felt that the film should be a posthumous arbitration — that’s never been of interest to me,” Fincher told AC during a 90-minute Zoom interview that included Mank cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC. “What was interesting to me was that it’s [essentially] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — here’s a guy in the wings, and it’s his experience of this situation. What I found fascinating about Mankiewicz was [that] 30 percent of his output as a professional screenwriter in Hollywood was uncredited. And for one brief, shining moment — on a movie he did when he was old enough to sign a contract and understand the terms expressly — he said, ‘No, no, no — I don’t want this one to get away.’”

The following Q&A is excerpted from the magazine’s conversation with Fincher and Messerschmidt about the Netflix project.

Erik Messerschmidt, ASC (foreground) on the set with (background, from left) boom operator Michael Primmer, B-dolly grip Mike Mull and A-camera 2nd assistant Gary Bevans. (Photo by key makeup artist Gigi Williams, courtesy of Netflix.)

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