Eric Roth with co-producer Douglas Urbanski and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on the set of Mank (Gisele Schmidt-Oldman / Netflix)
Producer and Black List founder Franklin Leonard asks Eric Roth about his career as a celebrated screenwriter and his experience producing David Fincher’s Mank.
March 26, 2021
Gary Larson has a Far Side cartoon that will stick with me for the rest of my days. In the single panel, aptly captioned “God at His computer,” a white-maned Creator sits at his desktop. On the screen, we see a piano hanging above a dopey-looking man. God’s right index finger hovers over a key labeled “SMITE,” and we can all assume what happens from there.
That cartoon dropped into my psyche at roughly the same moment I internalized the notion that every movie I’d ever seen was — first — the product of a writer doing much the same thing. I regard writers like gods. That’s part of the reason why I founded the Black List and started our annual survey of the best unproduced screenplays. Writers sit, often alone, and will entire worlds into existence.
What a joy, then, to take a virtual seat on Mount Olympus with Eric Roth, one of the greatest screenwriters of our time, to discuss his role as a producer on Mank. Directed by David Fincher and written by Fincher’s late father, Jack, Mank tells the story of how Herman Mankiewicz came to write the first draft of what would evolve into Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. It was many years before Fincher found the opportunity to make the film, but when the moment came, he turned to his trusted collaborator Roth to produce.
“David said to me, ‘I’m not asking you to rewrite anything. Let’s leave it as it is for Jack, and let’s make the best of it,’” Roth recalls. “He said, ‘I want you for two reasons: You know what it feels like to be a screenwriter, and you know the inside-Hollywood thing.’”It’s an astute assessment, if highly abridged. Having won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Forrest Gump in 1995, Roth became the go-to writer for A-list directors like Robert Redford, Michael Mann, and Steven Spielberg, and he authored scripts including The Horse Whisperer, The Insider, Ali, Munich, and 2018’s A Star Is Born.
He first partnered with Fincher as the screenwriter on 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which they both earned Academy Award nominations. That project also marked the start of a lasting friendship that is evident in their latest collaboration. With Mank, the pair worked together to deliver the soul of Jack Fincher’s script to the screen.
I spoke with Eric Roth about that experience and the craft we both revere.