David Prior got his break directing DVD special features for such David Fincher films as “Zodiac” and “The Social Network.” He obviously drew on that work experience in writing and directing his debut horror feature film, “The Empty Man.”
“Any time you spent hanging around the set with David Fincher or Peter Weir or any number of the other people that I’ve been able to hang around the set with, it’s always going to be valuable,” Prior said.
“The Empty Man” focuses on an ex-detective named James Lasombra. James is grieving the deaths of his wife and son. He helps his friend Nora whose daughter has gone missing.
James’s investigation leads him to a sinister organization called The Pontifex Institute, which turns out to be a cult. The film stars James Badge Dale, and chameleon-like actor Stephen Root who delivers a great performance as the cult’s leader.
The movie also became embroiled in a mega media merger that delayed and botched its release. “The Empty Man” features an impending sense of dread and doom and themes of guilt, grief, the meaning of existence and mind control. Prior explains to WPR‘s “BETA” why he wanted to include such big ideas in his film.
When the twist-filled cosmic horror mind-bender The Empty Manwas unceremoniously dumped in theaters last October, its writer and director David Prior wasn’t even sent a link to the final version of the film by the studio. More than four years before, he’d pitched the movie to 20th Century Fox, a perhaps unconventional home for such a strange project, and, after the company was acquired by Disney in 2019, Prior’s debut feature slipped through the corporate cracks. In the middle of a global pandemic, The Empty Man was released with one misleading trailer, which marketed the two-hour-plus saga as another urban legend-inspired teen thriller, and minimal promotional fanfare. Unsurprisingly, it bombed, grossing just over $4 million worldwide. Prior transmitted and almost no one received.
Adapted from a Boom! Studios comic by the writer Cullen Bunn and artist Vanesa R. Del Rey, The Empty Man was initially sold to Fox in 2016 as a stylish horror mystery infused with thematic ambiguity, existential dread, and a dash of Lovecraftian terror. James Badge Dale plays ex-detective James Lasombra, a grief-stricken widower whose friend Nora (Marin Ireland) enlists him to help find her daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) after she disappears. Amanda and her teenage friends may or may not have summoned the Empty Man, a mystical entity with an odd connection to a cult-like organization called the Pontifex Institute, led by a charismatic leader played by Stephen Root of Office Space and Barry. (I’ve been describing it to friends as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets The Ring.) In his early conversations with executives, Prior compared it to Mulholland Drive rather than something in The Conjuring universe or the Blumhouse arsenal. In the writing stage, executives even encouraged him to expand the film’s lengthy opening, a snowbound tale of hikers in Bhutan’s Ura Valley who stumble upon a sinister cave.
The Empty Man‘s journey to the big screen quickly unraveled. In some ways, the story has all the hallmarks of classic Hollywood fiasco: a shoot plagued by bad weather, disastrous test screenings, fights over runtime, studio meddling, a breakdown in communication, and an ambitious first-time director threading potentially alienating material into familiar genre fare. (Not many horror movies have a prominent shot of a high school named after a famous French philosopher.) In other ways, it’s a uniquely modern tale of mounting corporate neglect, expiring tax rebates, confusing IP mismanagement, and slow-building social media advocacy.
Are audiences hungry for movies like The Empty Man? The movie’s box office performance would suggest a definitive no, but, since becoming available as a digital rental in 2021, the film has taken on a second life online, where podcast hosts and viewers on platforms like Twitter and Letterboxd have sung its praises, turning it into the rare 21st century studio project that earns the over-used descriptor of “cult movie.”
Prior, who began his career working on a DVD of the 1999 horror movie Ravenous and later directed special features for David Fincher films like Zodiac and The Social Network, has a keen awareness of how his movie plays into certain narratives. Over a Google Hangout, he spoke with the combination of weary cynicism and wounded pride that often accompanies someone who has been through an ordeal. “It’s amazing how trenchant Barton Fink is about the way the Hollywood system really works,” he noted early in the conversation.
As the Coen Brothers screenwriter protagonist knows, the “life of the mind” can be painful. While unpacking the jargon-heavy mythology of his debut and the turmoil-packed narrative of its production, Prior repeatedly emphasized how grateful he was that the movie has found an audience and often laughed at the absurdity of its fate. Who can be blamed for what happened to The Empty Man? As one of the movie’s grizzled detectives remarks in the film, “We can’t indict the cosmos.”
Welcome to the Rock ‘n Roll Ghost Podcast. On this episode, the Ghost speaks with musician and composer Jason Hill about his career dating back to his days in the bands Convoy, Louis XIV and Vicki Cryer. As well as his work with The Killers and producing/touring with the New York Dolls and the recent passing of Sylvain Sylvain. Hill also talks about his late career turn towards film and TV composing. He has worked closely with director David Fincher on projects such as Fincher’s Gone Girl and the Netflix series Mindhunter. It’s a pretty wide ranging, fun interview with someone I go back nearly twenty years with.
Also, starting April 1st, Hill will be hosting Film Composing and Music production masterclasses. Check out the Department of Recording and Power‘s website for more information.
Tim discusses his beginnings in animation, his journey to directing his first live action movie at 50 and why he’s glad that for all the challenges that came along the way. If that wasn’t enough, he shares thoughts on why his Netflix collaboration with David Fincher works, why film studios will be ‘fossils’ if they don’t keep up with the streamers, and what to expect from Love, Death & Robots Series 2!
Red Carpet Rookies guests are recorded over Zoom. All efforts are made to get the best quality possible but we are victim to the connection!
Six years ago, after I contacted David Fincher and told him I wanted to write an article about how he makes movies, he invited me to his office to present my case in person and, while I was there, watch him get some work done. On an April afternoon, I arrived at the Hollywood Art Deco building that has long served as Fincher’s base of operations, where he was about to look at footage from his 10th feature film, “Gone Girl,” then in postproduction. We headed upstairs and found the editor Kirk Baxter assembling a scene. Fincher watched it once through, then asked Baxter to replay a five-second stretch. It was a seemingly simple tracking shot, the camera traveling alongside Ben Affleck as he entered a living room in violent disarray: overturned ottoman, shattered glass. The camera moved at the same speed as Affleck, gliding with unvarying smoothness, which is exactly how Fincher likes his shots to behave. Except that three seconds in, something was off. “There’s a bump,” he said.
Jack Fincher photographed by David Fincher in 1976, when he was 14. “That’s why it’s out of focus”.
No living director surpasses Fincher’s reputation for exactitude. Any account of his methods invariably mentions how many takes he likes to shoot, which can annoy him, not because this is inaccurate but because it abets a vision of him as a dictatorially fussy artiste. Fincher, who is 58, argues that this caricature misses the point: If you want to build worlds as engrossing as those he seeks to construct, then you need actors to push their performances into zones of fecund uncertainty, to shed all traces of what he calls “presentation.” And then you need them to give you options, all while hitting the exact same marks (which goes for the camera operators too) to ensure there will be no continuity errors when you cut the scene together. Getting all these stars to align before, say, Take No. 9 is possible but unlikely. “I get, He’s a perfectionist,” Fincher volunteered. “No. There’s just a difference between mediocre and acceptable.”
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.
El primer y único guion que escribió su padre. Un proyecto con el que ha soñado más de 30 años. La leyenda detrás de la, quizás, película más mítica de la historia. Todo eso y mucho más es ‘Mank’, una mirada –en glorioso blanco y negro–a la figura de Herman J. Mankiewicz –un glorioso Gary Oldman–, y el film más personal de David Fincher. FOTOGRAMAS tuvo la suerte de compartir con él una extensa, divertida y exclusiva charla.
David Fincher (Denver, Colorado, 1962) tiene fama de perfeccionista y de no andarse con rodeos. Mejor: de tener una atención al detalle rozando la obsesión que es directamente proporcional a su nula capacidad de tolerar a todo aquel que: a) le impida materializar su punto de vista creativo; b) ose hacerle perder el tiempo, ya sea un mandamás en traje o la estrella de turno con la que comparta rodaje. Pero si alguien puede permitirse esa imagen es él. Fincher es autor –un término que, veremos, no comparte–de un cúmulo de obras que han marcado el pulso y también el camino del reciente cine contemporáneo. Así, cuando, una tarde de otoño, FOTOGRAMAS descolgó el teléfono para entrevistarlo, esperábamos encontrar a ese Fincher cuyos sets, según Robert Downey Jr., son como gulags. El director de las 100 tomas de media. El de los rifirrafes con los estudios. Y no, no fue así. ¿Hola? Soy David. Es alucinante.He conseguido conectar sin equivocarme, le escuchamos decir. ¿Es realmente David Fincher? ¿Dónde está el acostumbrado filtro del equipo de publicistas y relaciones públicas? Soy yo de verdad. No tengo agentes de prensa nirelaciones públicas porque todo el mundo sabe que no merelaciono en público, dice entre risas. Esa fue la primera carcajada. Toda una sorpresa. Y vendrían más.
La sombra de una duda
Desaparecido de la gran pantalla desde esa pérfida vuelta de tuerca al thriller y la comedia romántica que es Perdida (2014), Fincher firma con Mank su film más clásico, y también el más personal: un retrato íntimo de Herman J. Mankiewicz, experiodista, alcohólico vocacional, novelista frustrado y toda una personalidad entre los bastidores de la Edad de Oro de Hollywood que firmó, junto a Orson Welles, el guion de Ciudadano Kane (1941). Esa colaboración y un acercamiento sobre el proceso creativo y sus fuentes son el corazón de una trama que bebe de una de las polémicas más publicitadas sobre la autoría artística. En los 70, Pauline Kael, la referente de la crítica estadounidense, publicó en The New Yorker una serie de artículos –editados después en el ensayo Raising Kane (publicado en España por Cult Books como El libro de Ciudadano Kane)– en los que se aseguraba que Welles no participó en absoluto en la escritura del film. El mérito era solo de Mankiewicz, decía. Poco después, Peter Bogdanovich, íntimo amigo de Welles, respondería con otro texto en el que desmentía, con testimonios y las anotaciones del propio cineasta, la versión de Kael. La duda, sin embargo, quedó. Pero ni esa disputa ni tampoco su resolución, como si de un serial killer a cazar se tratara, están en el origen del proyecto. Lo que convierte este film en algo personal para Fincher es que se trata del único guion de Jack, su padre. Y el Rosebud de Mank, evidentemente, tenemos que buscarlo en su infancia.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.
The acclaimed director has an unimpeachable body of work, but why isn’t it more extensive? The answer lies in the long list of movies and TV shows that he hasn’t made.
For a longtime screenwriter, the email seemed too good to be true. “How would you like to work on this TV show,” Rich Wilkes recalls it saying, “and have no one tell you what you have to do?”
The note was from David Fincher.
The two had almost collaborated in the early 2000s, when Wilkes wrote the adaptation of the Mötley Crüe biography The Dirt. Fincher planned to direct the debaucherous movie. But it didn’t happen. “It got blown apart somehow,” Wilkes says. “Which was really frustrating.”
A decade later, Wilkes was surprised to hear from Fincher. “I don’t know if you know who this is, I’m the guy who wrote The Dirt. I think maybe you contacted the wrong person,” Wilkes remembers responding. “And he said, ‘No, no, I know who you are. Do you want to work on this show?’”
The series was a half-hour HBO comedy set in the world of ’80s music videos, where Fincher’s career had taken off after he directed clips like Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up.” Videosyncrasy centered on a new-to-showbiz production assistant and told the story of the rise of a wildly popular new medium. The first season began with the making of Berlin’s “The Metro” and was set to culminate with the filming of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Initially referred to by its two working titles, Living on Video and Video Synchronicity, the show had a cast that included Charlie Rowe, Sam Page, Kerry Condon, Corbin Bernsen, and Paz Vega.
For the man behind Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac, the tone and format of the series was a departure. But the subject matter was not. “The beauty of working on that with him was, one, he had the inside knowledge of how things worked,” Wilkes says. “But he [also] had the relationships to be able to call up David Geffen and say, ‘Hey, can we use this song?’ Once you get one person to say yes, the next people are like, ‘OK. I’d like to be involved with that too.’”
In early 2015, Fincher and his crew shot a handful of episodes of Videosyncrasy. That June, however, HBO stopped production on the series.
There is a short list of films I consider to be perfect; that is, I’ve watched them over and over again and they not only work every single time, but they have no weak spots and just get better and better with each viewing. Casablanca is one of those. Psycho is one of those. Jaws is one of those. Fargo is one of those. Taxi Driver is one of those. The Social Network is one of those and, of course, Citizen Kane is one of those. You can’t imagine anything making the film better, and if you removed one tiny piece of it you would ruin the whole thing. From the writing to the directing to the acting to the producing, everything just works. Even time can’t break them down. You probably have your own ideas about which movies you consider perfect, but for me it’s a short list as even most of my favorite films of all time I would not call perfect. And indeed, perfection is never a goal any artist should seek to attain – it’s just that every so often a film arrives there.
The myth about Citizen Kane is legendary – the young Orson Welles with his Mercury Theater players, a keen eye, and a whole lot of ambition made what is not-arguably the greatest film ever made. Welles has always been credited with the whole thing because in America we are beholden to the hero’s journey. That he pulled off such a brilliant hat trick at 24 is part of the myth. When you have a more honest conversation about Citizen Kane, you start talking about Gregg Toland and you eventually get to (because you must) Herman Mankiewicz.
Variety reports that David Fincher will team up with Gary Oldman for Mank, a biopic about the Oscar winning co-screenwriter on Kane for Netflix. The script was written by Fincher’s late father and will be filmed in black and white!
Although no plot details have been released about Mank, one can only assume it will have something to do with Mank’s writing of Citizen Kane, or co-writing with Orson Welles. Mank had famously spent time at William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon with Hearst’s wife, Marion Davies, which gave him such close and personal access that, it is rumored, Mank knew that Hearst had a pet name for Davies’ golden clam, Rosebud, and trolled Hearst by putting it in Kane.
What is great about the story of Kane is what it says about William Randolph Hearst directly and indirectly and what a fit Hearst had about it. He thwarted the film’s release, hurting its box office significantly. He somehow turned the film industry against Orson Welles, who was booed at the Oscars, and easily handed the Best Picture/Best Director win over to John Ford and How Green Was my Valley.
David Fincher has reportedly signed on to direct his first feature film since Gone Girl in 2014, a biopic about the contentious development of the script for Citizen Kane, one of Fincher’s favorite films, by the brilliant and prolific but troubled screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewiczand legendary director Orson Welles. They both shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Master Actor Gary Oldman will play the titular role, Mankiewicz, or “Mank“, as he was nicknamed.
The film project inception dates back to 1993 and is based on a script by Fincher’s late father, Howard “Jack” Fincher. Jack Fincher was a journalist, writer and essayist specialized in science, a former San Francisco bureau chief for LIFE magazine, and a devoted cinephile. In 1997, he was commissioned to draft a screenplay for a Howard Hughes biopic, with Kevin Spacey attached to direct. But this project was later absorbed by The Aviator project scripted by John Logan, which ended up being directed by Martin Scorsese.
Mank will be shot in black and white, as Fincher always intended. This caused the project to stall in the past, but Alfonso Cuarón’s recent success with Roma, also for Netflix, has reinforced the limited commercial appeal of this aesthetic option.
The film will be produced by the traditional power couple David Fincher & producer Ceán Chaffin, this time alongside Oldman’s business partner and producer Douglas Urbanski. Urbanski is an occasional actor who played President of Harvard University Lawrence Summers in The Social Network.
Production is scheduled to begin in November in Los Angeles.
As far back as 1997, this biographical story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the writer of Orson Welles‘ epic motion picture Citizen Kane, was rumored as a pet project for David Fincher. From a script written by his father, Howard Fincher, the director’s black and white biopic targeted Seven star Kevin Spacey as the lead, with Panic Room‘s Jodie Foster in a co-starring role as movie actress Marion Davies. In production at the same time was HBO‘s telemovie RKO 281, which also covered the backstory of Citizen Kane (casting John Malkovich in the Mankiewicz role and Melanie Griffith as Davies). Still, the true story behind the creation of this mould-shattering movie and the writer behind it has enough scope for the production of a further feature by Fincher and his father.
Mankiewicz was a cynical but extremely talented scriptwriter, a former theatre critic for the New Yorker and the New York Times who left his job for the glitter of early Hollywood. Dropping out of the elite circle of New York’s high society, specifically the so-called “Algonquin Round Table“, Mankiewicz began with scripts for silent films, starting with The Road to Mandalay in 1926, working on more than 70 features during his lifetime. He once famously described Hollywood to a fellow writer in NYC by saying: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around”. As film technology evolved in the late twenties, Mankiewicz changed gears and moved seamlessly into talkies, continuing to write stories or dialogue for films like Man of the World (1942), The Lost Squadron (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933) and It’s a Wonderful World (1939), as well as an uncredited rewrite on The Wizard of Oz; he also worked with the Marx Brothers as an executive producer on movies like Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).
With his career flagging as the thirties ended and with his comedic hits behind him, Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning success with Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1942 gave him a brief respite. However, his alcoholism and large gambling debts eventually got the better of him and he died, penniless, of uremic poisoning in 1953. Remembered for Welles’ powerfully directed feature about a ruthless newspaper mogul, Mankiewicz no doubt drew on his personal experiences as a former associate of real-life magnate William Randolph Hearst and as a partygoer at Hearst’s huge Hollywood mansion. Although Mankiewicz was forced to share Citizen Kane‘s Academy Award for Best Writing with Welles, the great majority of the script was the writer’s own work, and it was not only a source of friction between the two men but of debate among film critics to this day.
Last mooted as a Propaganda Films movie, Howard and David Fincher’s Mank may yet be produced as a project at Indelible Pictures. Fincher has previously spoken of his intent to use a special film stock to shoot Mank, a black and white negative type no longer used in the contemporary industry that would have to be recreated from the original “recipe”. For the director, this feature represents an opportunity to produce a fundamentally different film from his earlier works in a genre he has yet to explore; at the same time, the life of Herman J Mankiewicz retains the streak of darkness that has always appealed to Fincher’s sensibilities. “Mank is a script that I’ve been working to get exactly right for ten years”, said Fincher, “and I hope, some day, to make it as one of the definitive ‘writer in Hollywood’ stories”.
Pierce: Your dad was a journalist and a writer. He wrote a script called Mank, about the Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Did you consider making that?
Fincher: We tried. It was too expensive. Because if you’re going to make a Hollywood insider movie—it’s nothing to do with Hollywood really, it’s Hollywood in the late thirties, early forties—you’ve got to make it really cheaply. We had a chance to make the movie for, like, $13 million, back in 1998 and, um, [guiltily] I wanted to make it in black and white. [Laughs] And that fucked up all those home video and video sellthrough and cable deals. I haven’t read it in a while. I probably should.
Pierce: Did your dad write a few screenplays?
Fincher: Yeah, he wrote a couple. That was the best of them, I think. He wrote a screenplay once about a divorce case. It was kind of based on the Keanes. Remember in the sixties, the guy who painted those pictures of the children with the giant eyes? They were in this bitter divorce. It was a very, very sardonic screenplay about two parents trying to prove what bad parents they are, so the other will get stuck with the kids! It was pretty funny! [Laughs] But it had an awful sentiment! But it was funny. It was a good script.
Pierce: There’s an element of your work—in Se7en, The Game, Zodiac— that is about professionalism and obsession. Is that something you think you got from your dad?
Fincher: My dad wasn’t very obsessive. Slightly compulsive, but not obsessive. You know, my dad did used to say, “Learn your craft; it will never stop you from being a genius.” It’s like, “Do the hard work, figure out how it works…” My dad worked a lot, but he paced himself. He paced himself a lot more than I think I probably do. […] My dad… he was an intellect and sort of a Monday-morning quarterback.