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 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.
Jack Fincher retired from journalism right around the time his son, David, was moving from directing music videos for the likes of Madonna and George Michael to making his first feature film, “Alien 3.” Jack, a lifelong movie fan, told David he’d like to try writing a screenplay. David encouraged him to delve into the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the co-writer (or, perhaps, sole writer) of Orson Welles’ 1941 landmark “Citizen Kane.” Jack wrote eight drafts of the screenplay, homing in on the journey of the self-sabotaging Mankiewicz as he stops betraying his talents and paints his one masterpiece (relatively) late in life.
Father and son could never quite crack the script, and Jack died in 2003 of pancreatic cancer. Those eight drafts of “Mank” sat on a shelf in David’s office for years until Netflix executives Ted Sarandos and Cindy Holland asked Fincher about his dream unmade project. That was two years ago, and “Mank” has consumed most of Fincher’s waking hours since.
The black-and-white movie, starring Gary Oldman in the title role, premiered in a handful of theaters last month and arrives on Netflix today. It figures to be a force in this year’s awards season, such as it is. It’s certainly the warmest movie Fincher has made in a career founded on the notion that “people are perverts.”
Fincher called the other morning. He was disarmingly polite, by turns generous and evasive, and full of the sardonic humor that courses through his films. “I’m a little groggy,” he said, noting that he didn’t get much sleep the previous night, “but hopefully I know the answers to these questions.”
From the pen of Jack Fincher comes Mank, the story of how perma-soused Hollywood hack Herman J Mankiewicz happened to write one of the greatest screenplays of all time. Sadly, Jack didn’t live long enough to see the words he had written transformed into sound and light, but it’s something that his son David had wanted to realise for close to three decades.
It’s been six years since Fincher Jr’s last feature film, 2014’s Gone Girl, and in the interim we’ve had two series of Rolls Royce TV drama in the form of Mindhunter. For someone who has already made a tech bro riff on Citizen Kane (2010’s The Social Network), and a melancholic homage to his late father (2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Mank combines these two career poles, while also posing such existential hypotheticals as, what makes a man? And not only that, what makes a writer, and what makes a director?
LWLies: Let’s go on a quick flashback to the early days and the creation of this amazing script by your father, Jack. He was a journalist and author by trade. Did he pivot to screenwriting later in life?
Fincher: I think he wrote a screenplay that was optioned and Rock Hudson wanted to do it – this was in the late ’60s. That fizzled out. Then he wrote spec screenplays in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and then when he retired in the ’90s, he came to me and said, ‘I’m going to have all this time on my hands, what do you want to read a script about?’ I said I had always been interested in ‘Raising Kane’ which I was exposed to in middle school. I had read Pauline Kael’s essay on microfiche in the school library, and then I noticed a copy of it in my father’s library, and we talked about it. Then, 12 years later, I was about to go off to do Alien3, and he was retiring and wanted a new challenge.
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.”