‘Mank’ producer Eric Roth on his 1st time as a Best Picture nominee and his BIG upcoming 2021 films

Eric Roth with co-producer Douglas Urbanski and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on the set of Mank (Gisele Schmidt-Oldman / Netflix)

Riley Chow
April 6, 2021
Gold Derby

“It’s going to be a short entrance and probably exit, not that I didn’t enjoy it,” laughs Eric Roth in his exclusive interview with Gold Derby about his foray into film producing with “Mank” for Netflix. Roth is such an industry veteran that he won the Writers Guild of America’s lifetime achievement award back in 2012. With screenplay credits going back five decades, including his Oscar-winning screenplay for 1994’s “Forrest Gump” and 2018’s “A Star is Born” earning him his fifth Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, “Mank” represents 76-year-old Roth’s debut as a film producer. He now has his first Oscar in the Best Picture category for his first time in contention.

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Interview on Mount Olympus

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.

Franklin Leonard
March 26, 2021
Netflix Queue

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.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Producers Roundtable

Tatiana Siegel
January 22, 2021
The Hollywood Reporter

Andy Samberg, Dede Gardner, Charles D. King, Ashley Levinson, Marc Platt and Eric Roth on the Streaming Rise Amid COVID and Their Awards Contenders. They also discuss adapting to a year of seismic changes in the film industry: “We started rethinking everything.”

Shepherding a film from a nebulous idea to a locked print is fraught with interruptions and surprises. As such, no profession in Hollywood requires greater dexterity than that of a producer. And unlike any other time in cinematic history, 2020 was a year of overnight transformation amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, leaving producers with no choice but to adapt fast.

Two producers from this year’s roundtable — Judas and the Black Messiah‘s Charles D. King and The Trial of the Chicago 7‘s Marc Platt — saw their theater-bound films take a detour to a streaming platform (HBO Max and Netflix, respectively). Although Eric Roth, who produced David Fincher‘s Mank, was always poised for a streamer release via Netflix for that film, he also experienced the great sweep to HBO Max with the upcoming tentpole Dune, which he wrote. Ashley Levinson, whose Pieces of a Woman and Malcolm & Marie are both in the awards season conversation, oversaw the writing and production of the latter during the COVID-19 lockdown. Minari‘s Dede Gardner, the only female producer with two best picture Oscar wins (for 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight), and Palm SpringsAndy Samberg were the lone two of the group lucky enough to see their films premiere in a packed, mask-less theater (both films made their debuts at Sundance in January 2020).

On Jan. 8, at The Hollywood Reporter‘s invitation, Gardner, King, Levinson, Platt, Roth and Samberg converged via Zoom to discuss the great cinematic reset, this year’s awards season controversies and what they’d fix about Hollywood.

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Making of ‘Mank’: How David Fincher Pulled Off a Modern Movie Invoking Old Hollywood

The director had to employ digital advances to achieve a vintage aesthetic in telling the tale of ‘Citizen Kane’ screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz: “If we had done it 30  years ago, it might’ve been truly a bloodletting.”

Rebecca Keegan
January 11, 2021
The Hollywood Reporter

Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz never sought credit for conceiving one of the all-time great ideas in the history of cinema — the notion that the Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz should be shot in black and white and the Oz scenes in color. In fact, for much of his career in Hollywood from the late 1920s to the early ’50s, Mankiewicz seemed to view his scripts with about as much a sense of ownership as a good zinger he had landed at a cocktail party.

But what fascinated David Fincher was that when it came time to assign credit on the screenplay for Citizen Kane, which Mankiewicz wrote with Orson Welles in 1940 (or without, depending on your perspective), the journeyman screenwriter suddenly and inexplicably began to care. Precisely why that happened is the subject of Fincher’s 11th feature film, Mank.

“I wasn’t interested in a posthumous guild arbitration,” Fincher says of Mank, which takes up the Citizen Kane authorship question reinvigorated by a 1971 Pauline Kael essay in The New Yorker. “What was of interest to me was, here’s a guy who had seemingly nothing but contempt for what he did for a living. And, on almost his way out the door, having burned most of the bridges that he could … something changed.”

Shot in black and white and in the style of a 1930s movie, Mank toggles between Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) writing the first draft of Citizen Kane from a remote house in the desert and flashback sequences of his life in Hollywood in the ’30s, including his friendship with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), who inspired Citizen Kane, and Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

A filmmaker known for his compulsive attention to detail, Fincher had even more reason than usual to treat every decision with care on Mank, as he was working from a screenplay written by his father, journalist Jack Fincher, who died in 2003. Jack had taken up the subject in retirement in 1990, just as David was on the eve of directing his first feature, Alien 3, and the two would try throughout the 1990s to get the film made, with potential financiers put off by their insistence on shooting in black and white.

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David Fincher’s Impossible Eye

David Fincher by Jack Davison

With ‘Mank,’ America’s most famously exacting director tackles the movie he’s been waiting his entire career to make.

Jonah Weiner
November 19, 2020
The New York Times

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.”

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