In Place

Queue gets behind the scenes with a look at Mank’s defining locations.

March 9, 2021
Netflix Queue

Shot in black and white, David Fincher’s Mank transports audiences through the sights and scenery of Golden Age Hollywood and 1930s and 40s California. With the help of soundstages, matte paintings, and a lot of research, the team behind Mank’s locations communicates the glamour and history of an epic era of moviemaking. 

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How David Prior’s ‘The Empty Man’ Survived the Perfect Hollywood Storm

We talk to the filmmaker about the unfortunate fate of his ambitious horror fIlm.

Matthew Monagle
March 2, 2021
Film School Rejects

Last October, a horror movie came and went. It wasn’t the first time a Hollywood studio dumped a horror movie in the middle of Halloween; given the ongoing pandemic, few films with a theatrical release could have moved the needle in 2020. But in the case of David Prior’s The Empty Man, this release was just the tip of the iceberg, the near-final act in a first-time filmmaker’s multi-year struggle to bring his vision to the screen.

In this conversation, Prior explains how he went from being David Fincher’s protégé to the director of 2020’s most ambitious — and most abandoned — horror film. We also explore how a perfect storm of production problems and studio politics nearly killed the film, and how a passionate audience has already started to turn The Empty Man into a future cult classic.

From DVDs to David Fincher

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. If The Empty Man survives its troubled production and halfhearted theatrical release to become a household name for genre fans, then perhaps this story will serve as a fitting beginning to Prior’s career as a feature filmmaker. For years, Prior worked as a production documentarian for filmmakers such as David Fincher and Peter Weir, but one of his big breaks came with Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, itself a studio disaster that took years to find a passionate audience.

In the years before Ravenous’s theatrical release, Prior had built relationships in 20th Century Fox’s home video department thanks to his contributions to the isolated score track on the Alien DVD release. So when Prior stumbled across Ravenous in theaters — despite a trailer that he describes as a “piss-poor representation of the movie” — he saw an opportunity to build on those connections and bring some much-deserved love to Bird’s film.

His gamble worked. According to Prior, the special-edition release of Ravenous sold three times its initial projections, forcing 20th Century Fox to rush extra copies of the film into production. With his credentials established, Prior was given his pick of future home video releases, and his decision resulted in one of the most influential relationships of Prior’s professional career. “I said, ‘I don’t know what Fight Club is, but I really want to meet David Fincher, so I’ll do that one. And that led to a relationship with Fincher that goes on to this day.”

Over the next decade, Prior became a powerhouse in behind-the-scenes documentaries, shooting features for such films as Master and Commander, Zodiac, and The Social Network. It proved to be a successful and stable career, just not the one that Prior had in mind when he went to Hollywood. “I remember at the time thinking, ‘This is gonna be something where if I’m not careful, ten, fifteen years of my life is going to go by doing this instead of what I’d rather be doing,’” the director says. So Prior took another gamble, this time using some of his own money to produce the short film that would eventually land him his role with The Empty Man.

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“The Empty Man” Clip

Watch The Empty Man

Watch AM1200 (2008)

David Fincher:

“In 40 short minutes, David Prior shows why he is one of the most promising directors I’ve ever seen. People always ask me what to do for a ‘calling card’ in Hollywood. Well do something like this, and try to do it half as well.”

Cinematographer Interview: Shooting Darkness for “The Empty Man”

PremiumBeat chats with director of photography Anastas Michos about shooting with the RED Monstro 8K on his latest feature. Dive in.

Jourdan Aldredge
November 13, 2020
The Beat (PremiumBeat by shutterstock)

Director David Fincher discusses Mank with Aaron Sorkin

A DGA Virtual Q&A

February 6, 2021
The Director’s Cut. A DGA (Directors Guild of America) Podcast

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 Se7enThe GamePanic RoomZodiacGone 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 ButtonThe 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).

Fincher has been a DGA member since 1991.

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Family Story

Director David Fincher looks back on how Mank made it to the screen.

Nev Pierce
February 19, 2021
Netflix Queue

Portraits by Michael Avedon

When Jack Fincher became a parent, he shared his lifelong love of cinema, and his regard for screenwriters in particular, with his son, David. “Jack felt this was a really difficult kind of writing, and something he had great respect for,” David Fincher says, looking back. “He also believed that the beleaguered writer was not a cliché due to personality type, but because they often had to bite their tongues as they watched idiots take their ideas and mangle them.” (On that point, the Oscar-nominated director begs to differ.)

Eventually, David encouraged Jack — who was by that time retired from his journalism career — to try his own hand at screenwriting. Those efforts have now solidified into one of David Fincher’s most acclaimed films to date, a project that also serves as an homage to his father, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2003.

Mank chronicles how screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz came to pen the first draft of what would one day be Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Like so many films, Mank was years in the making, and it long loomed in David’s consciousness. Father and son initially discussed the idea in the 1990s, when David was graduating from music-video director to rising-star filmmaker. As Jack completed various revisions, they had many fruitful clashes over the direction of the screenplay.

Over the years, it became clear that the project was unlikely to see the light of day. It fell by the wayside and Jack fell ill. “He ended up having chemo to worry about, and not so much the rewrites,” David recalls. “We would talk about it from time to time. I would take him to his chemo — he was in therapy a little bit in the last couple of months of his life — and we would talk about it in the car, shoot the shit. But it was understood that this would not be something that would ever get made. And that was O.K.”

David Fincher moved forward, building an acclaimed body of work that includes Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. Ultimately he arrived at a place where he could turn his focus to that elusive project from his past. Suddenly, Mank was something that could get made, and made the way he wanted: in dazzling black and white, with a superior cast carrying it forward.

Nev Pierce spoke to David Fincher in this edited excerpt from the book Mank, The Unmaking

Read Mank, The Unmaking

American Cancer Society’s “Smoking Fetus”

Directed by David Fincher and shot by Michael Owens, this PSA gained national attention due to its striking images and potent warning.

Bruce Mink
August 1985
American Cinematographer

Tony McVey sets up his sculpture in front of the motion-control camera.

The sound of a heartbeat is heard. A human fetus fades up on the television screen in close-up and a voiceover begins: “Would you give a cigarette to your unborn child?” The camera pans and dollies back to reveal an entire fetus existing serenely in the womb of its mother. “You do every time you smoke when you’re pregnant.” At this point, the fetus slowly brings a lit cigarette to its lips and takes a puff, exhaling the smoke into the glowing placenta it lives in. And the voiceover finishes: “Pregnant mothers, please don’t smoke.”

The 30-second spot was produced for the American Cancer Society by a talented and relatively untapped group of San Francisco Bay area filmmakers, modelmakers, and computer specialists brought together by producer Joseph Vogt (Rick Springfield’s “Bop ’Till You Drop”). With a film and conceptual design education behind him, Vogt organized the majority of his film crew from the ranks of Industrial Light and Magic. It was with the abundant talents of these production people — director David FincherMidland Productions, and Monaco Labs — that Vogt brought life to a most creative and technically challenging public service announcement.

Director of photography Michael Owens at the Mitchell GC ready to shoot the prepped sculpture.

Jerry Angert, director of broadcasting with the American Cancer Society, described the ad as “one of the most powerful we have done… We considered the fact that it would be controversial and the networks might not show it, but counted on the local stations to take it.” And that’s exactly what transpired. NBC and CBS chose not to air the graphic spot while CNN (Turner Broadcasting), ABC and its affiliates and affiliates of NBC and CBS elected to show it.

CBS and NBC claim the spot is too graphic. An NBC spokeswoman cited “general taste considerations” as a deterrent to airing the spot. “It was the sight of the fetus that was especially shocking and we felt it was potentially offensive to our viewers,” she was quoted as saying. A CBS spokesman said the network agreed with the “importance of the intent of the message,” but said that the spot was “far too graphic for broadcast on CBS.” An ABC spokesman, however, said the message put forth by the spot was “important for pregnant mothers to understand.” The network felt that. while it was “different visually” from the usual fare viewed on TV, it contained no material that warranted its ban from the airwaves.

Read the full article

American Cinematographer, August 1985 cover

Watch the commercial and read The Fincher Analyst dossier:

1985. American Cancer Society – Smoking Fetus (PSA)

Director Aaron Sorkin discusses The Trial of the Chicago 7 with David Fincher

A DGA Virtual Q&A

January 23, 2021
The Director’s Cut. A DGA (Directors Guild of America) Podcast

The counterculture movement of the 1960s clashes with the hostile Nixon administration in Director Aaron Sorkin’s historical drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Set in the aftermath of what happened after a peaceful protest turned into a violent encounter with the police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Sorkin’s film recounts the infamous 1969 trial of seven political activists – that included moderate Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden, militant Yippies led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers – who were all charged with conspiracy in an unfair trial that transfixed the nation and sparked a conversation about mayhem intended to undermine the U.S. government.

On January 23, Sorkin discussed the making of The Trial of the Chicago 7 in a DGA Virtual Q&A session moderated by Director David Fincher (Mank).

During the conversation, Sorkin spoke about how he came up with a plan to shoot the riot scenes despite his budgetary limitations.

“I find a constraint like that forces you to get creative,” said Sorkin. “It forces you to have an idea. So we came up with this plan, we were going to get a few wide shots and we were going to take advantage of the tear gas. We got smoke everywhere. I discovered what happens when you shoot light through smoke so I wanted smoke in every scene. I could not get enough smoke. It didn’t matter where we were.”

In addition to his directing work on The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin was nominated for the 2017 DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in First-Time Feature for his debut film, Molly’s Game. He was also part of the producing team (which includes DGA President Thomas Schlamme) that won multiple Emmy awards for “Outstanding Drama Series” for their work on the series The West Wing. Sorkin also took home an Academy Award for “Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay” for David Fincher’s feature The Social Network.

Sorkin has been a DGA member since 2016.

Listen to the podcast:

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Making Mank

Director David Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shoot a black-and-white masterpiece for the 21st century.

February 12, 2021
Netflix Queue

It’s a milestone for any up-and-coming cinematographer, landing that first feature film assignment. For Erik Messerschmidt, that all-important project turned out to be Mank, David Fincher’s ambitious chronicle of Herman Mankiewicz and how the irascible screenwriter came to pen the first draft of what became Orson Welles’s cinematic landmark Citizen Kane.

On paper, Mank could not have been more daunting. Messerschmidt would be working side by side with a famously exacting filmmaker, on a high-profile drama starring Oscar winner Gary Oldman in the title role. He’d also be shooting entirely in black and white.

“I was like, Oh cool, I get to do black and white,” Messerschmidt recalls. “Then I realized how naïve that was, and it freaked me out. It really freaked me out.”

Fortunately, Messerschmidt had some history with Fincher. He had worked as a gaffer on the director’s 2014 thriller Gone Girl, and deeply appreciated his direct communication style and the specificity of his vision. Impressed by Messerschmidt’s pragmatism and work ethic, Fincher subsequently hired him for the F.B.I.-profiling drama Mindhunter, and the professional relationship deepened from there.

When Fincher turned his sights to Mank, he knew whom to call. “I’m a big believer in multidisciplinary thinking,” he explains. “Erik was obviously somebody who knew how to run his manpower, but he could also speak to his crew in myriad ways that imparted slightly different nuances. He can split hairs in terms of foot-candles or T-stops or F-stops but also have a conversation about Carol Reed or how Marlon Brando never hit his mark.”

Together, Fincher and Messerschmidt plotted how best to shoot the character-driven period drama, which was written by the director’s late father, Jack Fincher. One of the most challenging sequences was a nighttime stroll taken by Mank (Oldman) and the screen siren Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) through the palatial grounds of Hearst Castle. Onscreen, the friends are bathed in moonlight, yet those scenes were actually shot during the day using a classic Hollywood camera technique known as day for night. (The sequence was filmed largely on location at Pasadena’s Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens; the menagerie of animals in the background was added in digitally during post-production.)

The scope of the production might have proved overwhelming were it not for the rapport between director and cinematographer. “All we do all day is ask questions of the people that we’re working with. I was completely thrilled to be working for someone who had answers to those questions and who was genuinely interested in and curious about what it was that we were doing,” Messerschmidt says. “Being in a situation where you can have a really productive conversation with the director, that is so rare and so important.”

The duo spoke to Queue about what makes their partnership work.

Read the full interview

Settling the Score

Director David Fincher talks the music of Mank with composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Jon Burlingame
February 12, 2021
Netflix Queue

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have written a dozen film and television scores together. Not just partners in Nine Inch Nails, they have won multiple awards for music in visual media: an Oscar and a Golden Globe for The Social Network, a Grammy for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, an Emmy for Watchmen. But they had never tackled a project quite like Mank.

Director David Fincher, whose films The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl Reznor and Ross also scored, came to the duo with a period piece set between 1930 and 1940 and shot in black and white, the story of Hollywood screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman).

Reznor and Ross’s previous scores had been created with synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers in their Los Angeles studios, where they recorded all of the music themselves. Mank required something different: a more traditionally orchestral score, with swing-jazz and dance-band elements appropriate to the era. It was an arena in which neither Reznor nor Ross had any prior experience.

So they listened to the popular music of the 30s and 40s and, intriguingly, the early film scores of Bernard Herrmann, the longtime Orson Welles collaborator. His music for Citizen Kane proved inspirational in terms of the style of orchestral writing that frames Mank.

Ultimately, they created more than 90 minutes of original music, played by the equivalent of a 70-piece orchestra and big band. Because of the pandemic raging through the summer and fall of 2020, all of the musicians performed individually in their home studios and were mixed together into a seamless whole.

“It was an incredibly intoxicating, inspiring environment,” Reznor says of working with Fincher. “We felt like artists, not artisans, being challenged to try to make something awesome.”

We talked to the musicians and the director about creating the music for Mank.

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Ben Affleck Reunites With ‘Gone Girl’ Director David Fincher, Accuses Him of Making a Movie With Heart

Meredith Woerner
February 11, 2021
Variety

For once, Ben Affleck gets to ask the questions.

That’s how the actor-director framed his duty of leading a conversation with longtime friend and “Gone Girl” boss David Fincher, the esteemed director whose Netflix film “Mank” has emerged as a top awards contender for 2021.

“This is a real role reversal from having to just be Fincher bitch, having to go over and over again,” Affleck teased the director, alluding to Fincher’s notorious preference for many consecutive takes of the same scene.

Appearing in Variety‘s “Directors on Directors” conversation series, the pair recently held a virtual reunion where Affleck dug into the decades-long process of bringing the story of famed screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz to screen.

In perhaps the broadest conversation Fincher has had about the film’s themes, Affleck gets to the heart of the original script from the director’s father, the value of creative credit at the dawn of Hollywood’s golden age, and the rare glimmer of heart and hope in a David Fincher film.

Read the conversation and watch the interview

‘Gone Girl’ Duo David Fincher & Ben Affleck Reunite to Dissect ‘Mank’ | Directors on Directors

Variety (YouTube)

American Cinematographer Clubhouse Conversations: Mank

Caleb Deschanel, ASC
February 10, 2021
American Cinematographer

In this 85-minute episode, interviewer Caleb Deschanel, ASC talks to cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC and director David Fincher about their stylish black-and-white period drama.

Written by Fincher’s father, Jack, Mank depicts the turbulent life and career of self-destructive Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) — focusing on his writing of the script for the iconic 1941 drama Citizen Kane. He and director Orson Welles shared an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. 

While the filmmakers sought a period look and feel contemporary to their story — in part inspired by Gregg Toland, ASC’s Oscar-nominated camerawork in Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath — they embraced every modern tool to accomplish their creative goal, shooting with Red Ranger monochrome Helium cameras and Leitz Summilux-C lenses while employing virtual production techniques to facilitate recreating a vintage Los Angeles and other locations.

Read the full article and watch the conversation