Mank star Amanda Seyfried sits down with costume designer Trish Summerville, makeup department head Gigi Williams and assistant head hair stylist Colleen LaBaff for a deep-dive discussion of their efforts in bringing Marion Davies to life on the screen for David Fincher‘s black-and-white ode to Hollywood’s Golden Age.
When makeup and hair designers Gigi Williams and Kimberly Spiteri were approached for Mank, they jumped at the chance to craft looks for an Old Hollywood drama, set in an era they both loved.
“Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s was something that we’ll never get to see again. That whole studio system, it’ll never be like that again,” Spiteri says. “So it’s a chance to get a glimpse at what it was like, which I find fascinating.”
Directed by David Fincher, the drama is both a love letter to, and a critique of, Hollywood’s Golden Age, following alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), as he finishes the script for Citizen Kane.
It’s on projects like this, Spiteri says, that “what the hair and makeup department does as a craft matters. Whether you’re trying to emulate a character or just get the period right, you may not notice if it’s right. But you’re going to notice if it’s wrong.”
Certainly, in the case of Mank, every effort was made to make sure that the work was right, though period accuracy was not the only concern. Because the film would be shot in black and white, both Williams and Spiteri had to engage in a lengthy series of camera tests, to make sure that their designs would translate properly, and that Fincher would be satisfied with the looks conceived for every actor.
In years past, Williams had collaborated with Fincher on the 2014 film Gone Girl, as well as the Netflix series Mindhunter, climbing the rungs between those two projects from assistant makeup department head, to the head of her department. Spiteri, though, had never before worked with the revered auteur, so it would take some time to come to grips with his famously particular working style.
Below, the designers reflect on the joys and challenges of tapping into a “magical period in filmdom” for Mank. Additionally, they touch on the idiosyncrasies of Fincher’s “vernacular” as a filmmaker, with regard to makeup and hair, and the way in which Williams guided Spiteri through her first encounter with the filmmaker.
A conversation with Costume Designer Trish Summerville, Makeup Department Head Gigi Williams, Assistant Makeup Department Head Michelle Audrina Kim, Hair Stylist Department Head Kimberley Spiteri, and Assistant Head Hair Stylist Colleen LaBaff. Moderated by Jessica Radloff.
Earning your stripes as a cinematographer can be hard enough. But the prospect of shooting your first movie with a Golden Globe, Primetime Emmy and BAFTA Award-winning director, about one of the greatest films of all time, starring some of the best actors working today, and capturing it all in HDR B&W, would seem perfectly daunting.
“Yes, it was quite intimidating, but it was also unbelievably exciting,” admits DP Erik Messerschmidt ASC, as he recalls the invitation from David Fincher to capture the filmmaker’s next movie – the biographical drama Mank.
Mank takes place in Hollywood during the 1930s and early 1940s. It follows screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, and the process he undertook for Orson Welles to develop the screenplay for what would become Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles, DP Gregg Toland ASC). Nominated in nine categories at the 1942 Academy Awards, Citizen Kane won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, shared by Welles and Mankiewicz.
The film, based on a screenplay by the director’s late father Jack Fincher, alternates between time periods, echoing the non-linear narrative of Citizen Kane, and revealing the trials and tribulations in Hollywood that inspired some of the characters and situations seen in the movie. These include Mankiewicz’s friendship with starlet Marion Davies, played by Amanda Seyfried, his association with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, played by Charles Dance, and his turbulent professional relationship with Welles, played by Tom Burke.
Shot entirely at 8K in High Dynamic Range monochrome, Mank also features allusions to Toland’s innovative cinematography, as well as classic day-for-night production techniques, and tips its hat to classic moments in the original film.
Mank had a limited theatrical release in November 2020, before streaming on Netflix in December. It received overwhelmingly positive reviews, with particular praise given to the direction, cinematography, production design, soundtrack and the performances, and is expected to feature strongly during the 2021 award season.
Fincher’s directorial credits include Se7en (1995, DP Dariusz Khondji AFC ASC), Fight Club (1999, DP Jeff Cronenweth ASC), Zodiac (2007,DP Harris Savides ASC) and The Social Network (2010, DP Jeff Cronenweth ASC). Messerschmidt,who came into cinematography from being agaffer, had previously lit Gone Girl (2014, DP JeffCronenweth) for Fincher, after which he immediatelymade the leap into cinematography as the leadDP on the first two season of Netflix’s Mindhunter,directed mainly by Fincher.
“I first met David on Gone Girl and got along great with him during the shoot,” says Messerschmidt. “I ended up lighting some promotional stills for that film which David shot himself. It was our first opportunity to work together creatively one-on-one. It went really well, and we stayed in touch. Both he and Cean Chaffin, his producer, knew that I had ambitions to become a DP. So, when Mindhunter came along, they offered me the opportunity to shoot it. We have been working together ever since, and I was thrilled to be asked to shoot Mank.”
“He just doesn’t like red,” reveals “Mank” makeup department head Gigi Williams about her director David Fincher. It is a curious sticking point for a black-and-white film and Williams admits in her exclusive interview with Gold Derby that she is unsure of the origins. She continues, “It’s like a bull with red, so even on this, I had to find reds that weren’t going to be too distracting for him while we’re on the set, even though he’s watching most of it through a monitor, which is black and white.” Williams notes that purple-leaning reds are especially egregious, whereas “he can handle” orange-leaning varieties. She laughs, “He just hates red. I mean, you go on the set and you go, ‘Oh, there’s a red thermos over there on the set. He’s not going to like that’ and you have to move it.”
By now, the crafts behind Mank are approaching legendary status. Each department needed to retrain their eye, rethink their typical approaches, to create the gorgeous designs for David Fincher’s black and white period film. Makeup department head Gigi Williams was certainly no exception.
Williams, who last worked with Fincher on Gone Girl, calls herself a subtle makeup artist. Her designs typically eschew loud, broad strokes in favor of a more subtle approach.
But a subtle approach would not work with the film’s black and white palate.
“For me, I had a lot of dark gel in men’s eyebrows. I used black mascara on every single man, and I piled it on because that’s how they looked in their photographs for the period. Even though they weren’t wearing mascara, but was the only way I could recreate that look,” Williams shared. “I found myself really having to push myself to a place that I wasn’t comfortable with which was a lot of makeup, oddly enough.”
There was never any doubt that David Fincher’s brilliant Mank would be shot in black & white. The film follows a Hollywood screenwriter, Herman J Mankiewicz aka Mank (played by Gary Oldman), as he wrestles with the screenplay for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. It’s a sumptuous ode to the Golden Age of cinema – one that transports audiences to a place where they can understand and appreciate the homage – and yet, it is littered with modern filmmaking techniques that aren’t fooling anyone about its release date.
Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt agreed that they didn’t want to be confined to shooting on film or within the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 that would have been accurate for the period – not with Fincher’s digital prowess and proclivity for a widescreen format. And, just in case there was any confusion about the technological resourcefulness of this film, Messerschmidt is even credited as being responsible for ‘Photography in Hi-Dynamic Range’ in the title sequence.
“Filmmaking has always been a medium where we selectively employ the techniques that are available on the day,” says Messerschmidt. Nonetheless, shooting in black & white demands huge amounts of creative courage and the cinematographer was conscious about being too seduced by the opportunity.
He explains: “Before I had even read the script, I sent Fincher some images referencing the film noir genre of that era. I soon realised that, thematically, Mank is not a noir film. There are certainly elements that call for hard lighting effects, such as the flashback sequences in the writers’ room or with Shelly Metcalf [a fictional test shot director friend of Herman’s] moments before his suicide, but I tried to ground much of it in realism. I didn’t want to draw audiences away from the storyline by being too dramatic, so I chose to light through windows and illuminate interiors with practicals.”
In the annals of Hollywood, Herman Mankiewicz will forever be remembered as the screenwriter of Orson Welles’s towering classic Citizen Kane, but his impact on the history of cinema doesn’t stop there. Mankiewicz also served as an early, uncredited writer on The Wizard of Oz. His contribution? Suggesting that once Dorothy Gale travels over the rainbow, the film transitions from black and white to glorious Technicolor. “He walked away from that [project] saying, ‘This is all I can come up with,’” laughs director David Fincher. “It might be the greatest special effect in the history of the movies.”
For Mank, Fincher’s backstage drama about the screenwriter’s life and his work on Kane, the director and his creative team journeyed from a world of color to one rendered entirely in black and white, shooting eye-catching sets and costumes with the RED 8K Helium Monochrome camera. That created an interesting artistic puzzle for Fincher and his collaborators to solve. From cinematography and production design to costumes and hair and makeup, each department needed to determine the best way to manipulate color to achieve the proper register of lights and darks onscreen.
“We had to train our senses to see through a lens of black and white,” explains Oscar-winning production designer Donald Graham Burt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). “It mandated a palette based on tone and contrast.”
Fortunately, they proved more than up to the challenge.