Mank costume designer Trish Summerville walks you through her efforts on the period piece, from working with color and texture for black and white photography to preparing a vast ensemble for the “circus party” scene at Hearst Castle.
Mank director David Fincher, actors Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, the cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, production designer Donald Graham Burt and sound designer Red Kyle walk you through a boisterous San Simeon house party sequence and the recreation of William Randolph Hearst’s famed zoo.
On Mank, VFX supervisor Wei Zheng paired state-of-the-art technology with old-school filmmaking techniques, to help David Fincher craft a singular portrait of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Marking Zheng’s sixth collaboration with the director, the Netflix drama follows alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), as he finishes the script for Citizen Kane.
By implementing matte painting and rear projection, along with other tools and tricks, Fincher and his team minimized the budget necessary to assemble an authentic period piece, manipulating L.A. exteriors when necessary, or avoiding them altogether. Ultimately, what these tools offered Fincher was complete control of every image, and interestingly, the director himself served as the film’s overall VFX supervisor, though he chose to go uncredited.
At the same time, it took a village to bring his vision to life. Supporting him in his ambitions, alongside Zheng (Artemple Hollywood), were VFX supervisors Simon Carr (Territory Studio), James Pastorius (Savage VFX), and Pablo Helman (ILM). His fourth key collaborator in this arena was Peter Mavromates, who served as co-producer, post-production supervisor and VFX producer.
In conversation with Deadline, Zheng breaks down the shorthand he’s developed with Fincher over the years, and the approach he took to getting “David’s imagination” on each of his longtime passion project’s frames.
Erik Messerschmidt calls David Fincher’s process “precise.” And it is the greatest compliment. That precision is what Fincher is renowned for, his detail. He prefers the wider shots as he relays his character’s environments, but it’s what’s within the frame; that detail that gets the greatest performances out of actors, and gives audiences a full understanding of what is happening.
“Mank,” a love letter to Hollywood’s golden age, is no different. Messerschmidt has collaborated with Fincher before on “Mindhunter,” and is no stranger to the Fincher process, but this was their first feature together.
Messerschmidt reflects on how Fincher works and how they collaborated on the black-and -white drama.
A disillusioned screenwriter in old Hollywood gets a shot at redemption in Director David Fincher’s biographical comedy-drama, Mank.
Fincher’s film takes place as film 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles hires scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz to write the screenplay for his masterpiece, Citizen Kane.
On February 6, Fincher discussed the making of Mank in a DGA Virtual Q&A moderated by Director Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7).
During their conversation, Fincher spoke about his love for “the altar of cinema,” the communal aspect that can come through film. “For me, what I love about cinema is going into a big dark room with 700 people and through their laughter and through their surprise and through their shock and through their reactions you realize, I’m not alone. I’m the same. I’m wired into this group in the same way just organically and I’m picking up on all these other cues. That is what makes the cinema, or a great grand theater, an almost cathedral-like experience.”
Fincher’s other directorial credits include the feature films Se7en, The Game, Panic Room, Zodiac, Gone Girl; episodes of the television series House of Cards and Mindhunter; and countless commercials and music videos. He has been nominated for the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Theatrical Feature Film for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In 2013, he was nominated for the DGA Award for Dramatic Series for House of Cards, “Chapter 1” and has twice been nominated for the DGA Award for his Commercial work with Anonymous Content in 2003 and 2008, winning the Award in 2003 for Beauty for Sale (Xelibri Phones), Gamebreakers (Nikegridiron.Com) and Speed Chain (Nike).
Costume designer Trish Summerville, who has previously worked with David Fincher on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl,” says she was very excited when she learned the director wanted to do a full project in black-and-white. The only time she had ever tackled crafting costumes was in flashback sequences, not a full-length feature. And who better to do it with than Fincher?
In “Mank,” Fincher takes audiences back to the golden age of Hollywood as screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) sets out to write “Citizen Kane.”
Summerville says her approach was “learning what his [Fincher’s] perception of black-and-white was. We had information to move forward with, but it was really him zoning in on exactly what that was going to look like and exactly how he was going to light it.”
The cast and crew of Mank, including costume designer Trish Summerville and actors Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Pelphrey and Charles Dance, speak to the focus and concentration that a David Fincher set demands. The acclaimed filmmaker himself, meanwhile, takes you through the process of crafting his examination of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
One of the major craft achievements of “Mank” was how David Fincher’s visual effects team meticulously recreated ’30s-era LA in black-and-white. (They used the matte paintings of Artemple, Territory’s LED screens, and Savage’s sky replacement with Unreal’s game engine.) The work has been shortlisted for the VFX Oscar and garnered a VES nomination for supporting visual effects.
“Most of the effects were what we call our ‘body and fender’ work, where [David] shot something and it’s not quite right and it needed to be replaced,” said visual effects producer Peter Mavromates. “For example, during the Louis B. Mayer birthday party at San Simeon, he didn’t want to deal with real fire in the fireplace, so those are all added [in CG] afterwards. He’s all about efficiency on set.”
Also added were the cloudy skies during the shooting of an elaborate home movie with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) tied to a stake. “Sky replacement of shots were for consistency using the Unreal game engine with 3D model placement,” Mavromates added.
You don’t win two Academy Awards without being pretty great at your job. So, it’s not a stretch to call Kirk Baxter an ace editor. His work, not just alongside Angus Wall, but with director David Fincher, has produced some impeccably edited films. The Social Network, along with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, won Baxter and Wall Oscars, while they also received a nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Throw in Gone Girl, as well as now Mank (which is a solo editing job, without Wall), and you have someone who is truly at the top of their craft. So, getting the chance to pick Baxter’s brain was a chance I had no intention of passing up.
Below, you can hear my conversation with Baxter. Mank is at the center of our chat, but I was just fascinated by editing in general and wanted to hear as much as I could from him. So, we move in a few different directions, thought the Fincher flick is never far from our minds. Baxter is well on his way to another citation from the Academy, so it’s a perfect time to revisit the film over on Netflix. As I wrote in my review (found here), the tech work in the movie, including Baxter’s, is beyond reproach.
Shot in black and white and often in deep focus, David Fincher’s Mank evokes 1930s classic cinema with rigorous attention to digital detail. Made for Netflix, this biographical drama stars Gary Oldman as Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the Kane screenplay for Orson Welles.
Famously, Fincher was among the first A-list directors to embrace digital filmmaking. Since the groundbreaking production The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), he hasn’t deviated from using RED cameras and Mank was no exception. Fincher had always envisioned the screenwriter’s story being told in black and white.
“It would be a crime not to make this movie in black and white,” says Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, who recently earned an Emmy® nomination for shooting Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter. “Digital was just right for this project for all manner of reasons.”