David Fincher’s Mank follows Herman Mankiewicz during the time he was writing the classic film Citizen Kane. Mank, as he was known, wrote or co-wrote about 40 films, often uncredited, including the first draft of The Wizard of Oz. Together with Orson Welles, he won an Oscar for the screenplay of Citizen Kane, but it’s long been disputed whether or not he, rather than Welles, actually did the bulk of the work on the screenplay.
The script for Mank was penned decades ago by David Fincher’s father, Jack, and was brought to the screen thanks to Netflix this past year. Fincher deftly blends two parallel storylines: Mankiewicz’s writing of Kane during his convalescence from an accident and his earlier Hollywood experiences with the studios, as told through flashbacks.
Fincher and director of photography Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, (Mindhunter) used many techniques to pay homage to the look of Citizen Kane and other classic films of the era, including shooting in true black-and-white with Red Monstro 8K Monochrome cameras and Leica Summilux lenses. Fincher also tapped other frequent collaborators, including Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the score and Oscar-winning editor Kirk Baxter, ACE, who won for the Fincher film’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network.
I recently caught up with Baxter, who runs Exile Edit, to discuss Mank — starring Gary Oldman in the main role — the fourth film he’s edited for David Fincher.
The Art of the Cut podcast brings the fantastic conversations that Steve Hullfish has with world renowned editors into your car, living room, editing suite and beyond. In each episode, Steve talks with editors ranging from emerging stars to Oscar and Emmy winners. Hear from the top editors of today about their careers, editing workflows and about their work on some of the biggest films and TV shows of the year.
On this episode of the Art of the Cut Podcast, Steve talks with editor Ben Insler about his work on the new Netflix Film “Mank.” Ben has edited multiple series including the Netflix series “Mindhunter.” In this episode Steve dives deep into the work flows and technology used to cut this film including the challenges of finishing a film remotely due to COVID-19.
On a future episode, Steve will also be talking with editor Kirk Baxter about leading the “Mank” editing team. Make sure to keep a look out for that episode!
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Early in Netflix’s Mank, the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) ambles onto an outdoor movie set, where he bumps into an array of glamorous characters. In a scene full of repartee with real-life figures such as the actor Marion Davies, the film honcho Louis B. Mayer, and the mogul William Randolph Hearst, the visual details of the environment might seem unimportant. But to Mank’s director, David Fincher, they mattered. “The grass was not to David’s liking, and the sky was not to his liking, so all that’s been replaced,” Peter Mavromates, his co-producer, told me. When making a movie, Fincher literally controls heaven and earth.
That example sums up the capricious-sounding, godlike power of a director, especially in the age of digital filmmaking, which allows for total command of every frame. But as with all of his movies, Fincher’s vision for Mank was realized by a group of dedicated collaborators, most of whom have worked with the director for many years across projects. This film, which Fincher mulled for nearly three decades, is unlike anything he has made before. An unusual-looking-and-sounding film set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Mank reflects the aesthetic of the 1930s with its black-and-white cinematography; an echoey, old-fashioned sound mix; and a brassy, orchestral score. But Fincher also wanted it to be a distinctly modern film, which posed many unique and fascinating technical challenges to the creators charged with bringing his lofty ideas to life.
How will filmmaking adapt in the post-Covid era? A glimpse into the future is afforded by Mank, the forthcoming Netflix feature project directed by David Fincher and spearheaded by producer Ceán Chaffin. More than a love letter to a catalog title, Mank is a glimpse of the complex interplay of human creativity and the filmmaking process as practiced in Hollywood’s golden era.
Fincher is known for working in the vanguard of filmmaking technology. Examples include a very early digital intermediate on Panic Room – the first ever in a facility designed for the purpose – and Zodiac, one of the first major features to be shot almost entirely digitally. The remote collaboration envisioned by futurists at the dawn of the internet era was already common practice for his team long before the pandemic.
“Fortunately, we have not missed a beat,” says Chaffin. “We are working now exactly how we mostly could have been working the past ten years, which is working from home during post.”
But the virus and its requirement to remain physically apart may constitute a final push for the industry at large. All the attributes of true remote connectivity – reduced travel time and its attendant benefits in terms of stress, pollution and time savings, enhanced with rapid feedback, superior organization and a centralized database – will still be applicable when health concerns subside.
A canvas of the top pros on David Fincher’s team indicates that while the pandemic naturally raises stress levels, the need to work separately has been essentially a non-factor in terms of their ability to collaborate efficiently and keep the production on track.
Fincher came to the project with a mandate that the production work with the PIX production hub. Chaffin, who has made nine films with Fincher, says that the system is an essential tool for collaboration and input.
“This is how we have worked for a long time.” says Chaffin. “David feels the team is making the film with him, sharing in the problem-solving. Even when we were in the same building, David was often responding exclusively through PIX. His preferences and concerns are there for everyone to refer to. You don’t have to go find that one email, or remember a comment someone made on their way out the door.
Jennifer Chung, Assistant Editor Ben Insler, First Assistant Editor Peter Mavromates, Post Producer
In this panel, you’ll hear Team Fincher discuss their TV and feature film workflows and see how they used the new Productions feature in Premiere Pro along with After Effects in a completely remote scenario during the pandemic.
They’ll also discuss their career paths and give advice on how to succeed as a professional editor.
David Fincher pal Steven Soderbergh often consults on early cuts of his movies (including the friendly product placement of Soderbergh’s imported Singani 63 brandy in “Gone Girl”) — and “Mank” was no different. Turns out Soderbergh’s only complaint about the “Citizen Kane” biopic was the execution of the costume party set piece, where drunken screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) goes on a long tirade against Machiavellian publisher William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) in front of his Hollywood friends at San Simeon.
“Soderbergh came during an early assembly and he just didn’t get why Hearst was putting up with Mank’s shit,” said editor Kirk Baxter (two-time Oscar winner for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Social Network”). “And David and I talked about that. I very much make a movie with David, for David, and I’m not exposed to too many people during the process. But I found that the criticism helped. It didn’t provide the answer, it just provided the question.”
Le grand film de Fincher débarque sur Netflix le 4 décembre. L’occasion d’un entretien avec le cinéaste, mais aussi avec ses collaborateurs les plus proches. 16 pages spéciales.
Scénario pour une critique par Nicolas Tellop
Filmopathe entretien avec David Fincher – par Nev Pierce
Collaborer avec Fincher entretiens avec Erik Messerschmidt (chef opérateur) – Donald Graham Burt (chef décorateur) – Trish Summerville (costumière) – Kirk Baxter (monteur)
2. Revisiter Fincher
Plongée exceptionnelle dans l’oeuvre de l’un des plus grands cinéastes contemporains. Filmographie commentée, analyses… 50 pages à lire.
4 nuances de Fincher par Jean-Sébastien Massart et Fabrice Fuentes
David Fincher en 14 titres Propaganda Films (clips) – Alien 3 – Se7en – The Game – Fight Club – Panic Room + les plans de Panic Room – Zodiac – L’Étrange histoire de Benjamin Button – The Social Network – Millénium + la musique hantée de Millénium – Gone Girl – Mindhunter
Démoniaque – la perfection du crime par Nathan Reneaud Fantômes et paranoïa par Jérôme d’Estais Solitude & obsession – Fincher Dogma par Alexandre Jourdain Poétique du suicide par Aurélien Lemant Le système des objets – design finchérien par Dick Tomasovic
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.”
Netflix’s Mindhunter series is inspired by true events. Directed by David Fincher, the show focuses on FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench, who try to understand the psyches of notorious serial killers. Mindhunter’s first season debuted in 2017, and the second season returned in the summer of 2019.
Season 2 stars Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Joe Tuttle, Albert Jones, Stacey Roca, Michael Cerveris, Lauren Glazier and Sierra McClain. While Fincher was the series’ primary director, Andrew Dominik and Carl Franklin also directed episodes.
Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, had worked with Fincher in the past. He was a gaffer on the filmmaker’s Gone Girl, and was excited to receive a call, inviting him to come onboard to reshoot part of the pilot and second episode back in 2017. The show was already shooting with a Red camera for Season 1, and upgraded to the newer Hellium 8K sensor for Season 2.
Kirk Baxter of Santa Monica’s Exile also has a long-standing relationship with David Fincher. He’s cut The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The Social Network (2010) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) — all of which won the Oscar for Best Editing, a credit he shared with Angus Wall. He also cut 2014’s Gone Girl (2014), and is currently working on an upcoming Netflix feature with the director titled Mank.