There are a lot of reasons to like “Mank.” 1. It’s great filmmaking. 2. It has an irresistible backstory: David Fincher wanted to pay tribute to his late father, Jack, by directing his screenplay; 3. It tackles a well-known topic (Hollywood in the 1930s-‘40s) from an unusual angle. 4. It’s not what people expected, always a good thing in a film.
It’s not about the making of the 1941 classic. “I hope this movie exists as more than just an addendum or footnote to ‘Citizen Kane,’ ” Fincher tells Variety. “I hope there is enough human behavior and an interesting enough look at humanity that it doesn’t require a master’s degree in film theory.”
Among other things, it is a character study of Herman J. Mankiewicz, including his risky decision to write “Citizen Kane.” It’s also about the times he lived in, and how events fed into his creativity.
Fincher says Gary Oldman doesn’t look like Mankiewicz, but has the writer’s disarming charm. “I needed an actor’s actor, to play someone who walks into a room and everyone would say ‘That’s the guy.’
Herman Mankiewicz—a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter writing the first draft of Orson Welles’s 1941 biopic about William Randolph Hearst—may seem an unlikely hero for a 2020 biopic. He is rarely remembered today outside of cinephile circles, but in telling his story, David Fincher’s Mank delivers a loving tribute to Golden Age Hollywood films, a clear-eyed dissection of a company town, an unexpectedly timely depiction of 1930s fake-news shenanigans, and an unabashed homage to Citizen Kane, all wrapped up in a snappy, stylishly retro package.
Welles is rightly revered as the twenty-five-year-old wunderkind behind Citizen Kane, but when Herman Mankiewicz went to Hollywood in 1926, he, too, was a promising young man. At twenty-eight, he was not only the New York Times’ assistant theater editor under George S. Kaufman and the New Yorker’s first theater critic, he was an aspiring playwright collaborating with both Kaufman and Marc Connelly. Unfortunately, Herman was also an alcoholic with a gambling problem and a penchant for getting himself fired. So, despite despising the movie business, his periodic attempts to escape back to his native New York and his friends in the Algonquin Round Table writers’ group failed, and he remained in Hollywood for the rest of his life.
At first he was successful. As head of Paramount’s writing department, he recruited journalist friends who created the wisecracking, irreverent sensibility of many 1930s movies. He produced the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, David O. Selznick had Herman write an all-star adaptation of George Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s hit play Dinner at Eight. As the first writer assigned to The Wizard of Oz, he objected to adapting the book, then said that if the studio insisted, they should film Oz in color and shoot the Kansas sequences in black and white, a suggestion that led to the movie’s iconic use of sepia.
Mank begins soon after that, with Herman on his way east to take one more stab at rekindling his newspaper career when fate intervenes in the form of Orson Welles. Citizen Kane revitalized Herman’s career in the 1940s, but he spiraled down again, dying in 1953 at the age of fifty-five.
After that, he was largely forgotten until February 1971, when the New Yorker published a two-part, 50,000-word piece by Pauline Kael, in which she wrested away screenplay credit from Orson Welles and handed it almost entirely to Herman. Kael’s inaccurate and unfair account was actually an attempt to rebut auteur theory critics by arguing that Citizen Kane was not the product of one man’s singular genius and vision, but rather an example of the studio system at its best. Kael’s claims on Herman’s behalf were so hyperbolic and her dismissal of Welles so outrageous that although her arguments were effectively debunked at the time, Welles’s defenders have been attacking Herman ever since.
In October 2019, I published a biography of Herman and his younger, more successful brother, writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Cleopatra), and after living with Herman in my head for a decade or so, I had mixed feelings about the prospect of a David Fincher biopic. Like most biographers, I had become proprietary about my subjects, and though I imagined a movie would raise Herman’s profile, film is such a powerful medium that I knew no matter how inaccurate it might be, Fincher’s concept and Gary Oldman’s portrayal would become the prevailing version of Herman for the foreseeable future. To my immense relief, they cared very much about accuracy. So much so, in fact, that the first time I saw Herman, Joe, and Herman’s wife, Sara, up on the screen and heard them saying many of the same things they say in my book was an incredibly moving experience. They were the Herman, Joe, and Sara I had imagined. It was surreal in a good way.
David Fincher has actually been thinking about Herman decades longer than I have. He acquired his love of movies from his late father, journalist Jack Fincher, and because the two revered Citizen Kane above all, David was interested enough to seek out Kael’s piece while he was still in junior high school. The notion that Herman’s Marx Brothers sensibility and newspaper background fed into Citizen Kane intrigued him, so when Jack retired around 1991 and wanted to write a screenplay, David suggested he consider Herman as a subject. Jack liked the idea, and over the years, he wrote draft after draft while David tried to get it made. It took almost three decades to find a producer, mostly because of David’s insistence that he shoot in black and white. By the time Netflix assented, Jack, who died in 2003, did not live to see the final result. David dedicated Mank to his father.
When director David Fincher called to tell costume designer Trish Summerville that his long talked-about film “Mank” — starring Gary Oldman as “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz — had gotten the green light, she knew it was destined to be “smart, funny, poignant, beautiful; it would tick all the boxes!”
“I definitely jumped at the chance,” says Summerville, who worked with Fincher on numerous other projects, though never before on a black and white feature film. “Besides a great story, with David I knew it was going to be incredible. I love working with him, and aside from this, he’s one of my favorite humans.”
David Fincher and Ren Klyce came of age during a seminal time for Hollywood: when the pair were just kids, a group of ’70s filmmakers was reshaping what it meant to make movies, right from the pair’s native Bay Area. In a biographical detail almost too perfect to be true, George Lucas rented a house in Marin County to edit his “THX 1138,” that just so happened to be located right next door to the Klyce family’s home. A single suburban lawn is all that separated a then-9-year-old Ren from the great Walter Murch, just as he was starting to change modern movie sound forever, work he’d continue throughout the decade with another NorCal auteur, Francis Ford Coppola. And it would be on a Lucas-produced animated feature, “Twice Upon a Time,” that future sound designer Klyce would meet his Coppola, a then-19-year-old Fincher.
Over the last 25 years, as Hollywood has utilized the multi-channel surround technology pioneered by Murch to create bombastic soundtracks that all too often mask a lack of craft, Klyce has helped Fincher explore the subconscious underbelly of his own films, constantly refining how sound can be used to shape a viewer’s emotional response.
“To me, sound design is not about 96 channels all at 11, and two side cars giving you this sound pressure-gasm; to me, it’s very much about the detail and the nuance and maybe things that you wouldn’t even be aware that you heard until the second or third time you saw it,” said Fincher in an interview about his collaboration with Klyce. “I can’t talk more enthusiastically about someone [Klyce] I feel has very subtly pushed what sound designers do.”
With his transfixing digital black-and-white cinematography, DP Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, breathes gorgeous life into the world of 1930s Hollywood in Mank, David Fincher’s vivid retelling of the genesis of Citizen Kane and the tumultuous partnership between screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and director-star Orson Welles.
Messerschmidt joined us for an extended conversation to discuss the craft behind Mank, the legacy of Citizen Kane, and the work of visualizing Hollywood’s ideas of itself. The discussion will be moderated by J.D. Connor, Associate Professor of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.
Film at Lincoln Center Talks are presented by HBO.
When it comes to the postproduction process on movies during a pandemic, much of the work doesn’t have to change dramatically. Film editors, after all, are used to sitting in dark rooms, often by themselves; sound editors and visual-effects artists can also do their work in front of computer screens and share it with co-workers without needing to be in the same room.
But recording a movie’s musical score is different. Unless a composer both writes and performs everything him or herself, a film score involves getting people together to play music — in the case of orchestral scores, getting lots of people together to play music.
Trent Reznor, composer of the score to David Fincher’s “Mank” with Atticus Ross, had a succinct and evocative phrase for working on the music to that film in the early days of the pandemic. “It wasn’t impossible, but it felt like trying to be intimate in hazmat suits,” he said.
TheWrap magazine: The Nine Inch Nails composers were hired to write the score but ended up also creating music to play over radios in David Fincher’s film, “(If Only You Could) Save Me,” a big-band ballad with a sultry vocal by Adryon de León.
A version of this story about “Mank” appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
“Fincher-vision” is the term that costume designer Trish Summerville uses while discussing her experience working with director David Fincher. “His mind is so clear about what he wants, but there’s still room for spontaneity,” she said. “That’s why there’s so much happiness in the craft departments on his films. And so much repeat business.” Production designer Donald Graham Burt echoed her sentiment. “When David starts telling me about a new film, he visually sees the whole thing in his head,” he said. “But there’s room for expansion creatively.”
Those qualities were essential to “Mank,” Summerville’s third project with the director and Burt’s sixth. (Burt won an Oscar for 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Summerville’s other credits include “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Red Sparrow.”) Fincher’s look at the screenwriter of “Citizen Kane” is a rich evocation of 1930s Hollywood that’s grounded in the reality of its time and place, though the film was shot in silvery black-and-white.
The two department heads talked often, ironically, about color. “There are some colors that don’t translate well,” Summerville said. “Salmon and chartreuse and acid greens are jarring in black-and-white. So Don and I talked a lot about our color palettes.” Summerville also reminded Fincher, making his first black-and-white feature, not to place too much trust in his eyes and instead view everything through the camera monitor.
When David Fincher sat down with Netflix executives in the spring of 2019, he did not expect to be handed the equivalent of a blank check. Sure, the 58-year-old filmmaker — a former music-video wunderkind best known for pushing the envelope with baroque serial-killer thrillers (Seven), toxic-masculinity satires (Fight Club) and social-media origin stories (The Social Network) — was a name-brand director, and had helped kick off the golden age of streaming with the outlet’s first original series, House of Cards. But Fincher was used to resistance. You can’t have this budget. You can’t tell that story. What do you mean, you’re doing a TV show, for a mail-order DVD company, and all the episodes come out at once?!
So when Fincher was told by his patrons at the company that they were interested in helping him make anything he wanted, he thought of a long-dormant labor of love: a script his late father, Jack Fincher, had written about the making of Citizen Kane. Not the tale of the brilliant director, producer, star and co-writer who, at a precociously young age, took Hollywood by storm with his rise-and-fall drama. This was the story of the alcoholic screenwriter who was hired to pen the script, originally titled American, and then inserted a personal grudge against the powers that be into the greatest movie of all time.
Fincher wanted to shoot it in black-and-white. He wanted to use a lot of old-fashioned stylistic nods to Hollywood movies of the ‘40s, as if the film had just been discovered in a vault after 80 years of gathering dust. Also it would involve an obscure chapter in California’s political history concerning Upton Sinclair’s 1934 run for governor and a disinformation campaign allegedly masterminded by studio execs. It was a shot in the dark. By his own admission, Fincher couldn’t believe it when Netflix said yes.
To see Mank, Fincher’s throwback ode to the Golden Age of Tinseltown USA, however, is to know why they did. Chronicling how the broken-down writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) helped permanently change film as an art form, his movie is an audacious, complicated, stylistically daring and thoroughly entertaining yarn — the kind of retro nod to a bygone era that makes you feel like you’ve injected a day’s worth of TCM programming into your veins. But it’s also a challenging drama about complicity, the price of speaking truth to power and the manipulation of modern media, which couldn’t make the film feel more urgent.
Over a two separate two-hour conversations from his home in Los Angeles, Fincher discussed bringing this tribute to his father (who died in 2003) to the screen, his reputation as a taskmaster on set, why he’s sorry Fight Club pissed off a fellow filmmaker, and more.
Written by Fincher’s late father, Jack, the drama follows brilliant, alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), as he pens the script for Citizen Kane.
Shooting digitally, in native black and white, Messerschmidt would place viewers inside Mankiewicz’s era by playing with the vocabulary of films from the ’30s and ’40s. At the same time, he would look to pay homage with his choices to Gregg Toland, the pioneering DP behind Kane, who popularized deep focus photography. “I think it was more [loose] inspiration, and we certainly weren’t recreating anything from Citizen Kane directly,” Messerschmidt notes. “When I was feeling insecure about the choices I was making, I’d be like, ‘Okay, what would Gregg Toland have done?’ But we were certainly making our own movie.”
After collaborating with the younger Fincher on his serial killer drama, Mindhunter, Messerschmidt was well prepared to take on the demands of this passion project, which he’d been looking to bring to the screen since the beginning of his career. “You know, David is interested in the pursuit of excellence,” he says, “so we are endeavoring for that on every take.”
At the same time, the project was intimidating, on a certain level—the challenge being to bring period style to Mank, without ever taking it over the top. Below, the DP breaks down his approach to shooting the Oscar contender, which marks his first narrative feature, along with the many highlights of his experience on set.