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.
With films including Se7en, Zodiac and Fight Club, David Fincher has explored the darkest edges of humanity. Yet there’s more to his unique vision, writes Gregory Wakeman, as the director’s film Mank is released.
David Fincher fans have had plenty to celebrate over the past few months. September marked the 25th anniversary of Se7en, Fincher’s deeply disturbing psychological thriller that established the then 33-year-old as one of the most iconoclastic young directors in Hollywood. Then, just a couple of weeks later, The Social Network, Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s searing exploration of Mark Zuckerberg and the origins of Facebook, turned 10. Most exciting of all for Fincher aficionados, though, is the fact that, more than six years after the release of his last feature film Gone Girl, Mank will finally arrive on Netflix on 4 December.
Fincher has waited around 20 years to find the perfect home for the film, which was originally written by his father Jack in the late 1990s. But while most major Hollywood studios were put off by the idea of a black and white biopic of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, Netflix gave Fincher carte blanche to fulfil his vision.
The early reviews for Mank have been extremely positive, and Fincher has immediately become one of the main contenders for the best director Oscar. Covid-19’s disruption of the 2020 cinematic calendar means that Fincher’s competition isn’t quite as strong as it could have been. But it’s to the Academy Awards’ great shame that this titan of modern filmmaking has somehow only received best director nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network. Despite this oversight, Fincher’s place in the cinematic pantheon has long been secure. No other modern filmmaker has examined alienation, depression, obsession, and the dark side of intelligence like he has, while keeping a stylish, visceral, and, most importantly of all, entertaining approach.
Jesse C. Boyd has graced our screens playing roles such as Frank Janderman in David Fincher’s Mindhunter, the lead role of Jake in Day 5, a Queen’s Ranger in TURN and a wolf in The Walking Dead. We had an in-depth, and really fun conversation, about his childhood in rural North Carolina, his career and roles, upcoming projects, music, his love of hot sauce and lots more besides.
JCB: For Mindhunter I auditioned for it for, I think, a year – it was really long time. I remember I did my first tape when I was at a film festival in Idaho and, I think, while I was there I found out that I got Day 5. Then when I was filming Day 5 season 1 I got my second audition and they added another 8 pages to it. That was just ongoing and ongoing over time until, finally (and I think I was wondering whether it was actually happening) they were like, ‘They want you to come in to the office and do another read.’ I went in for another read. I think that Laray Mayfield (who does the casting) she actually does prefer self-tapes because she wants to weed through and see what she gets. They did just such an incredible job with that casting. When I saw it myself I just thought, ‘Wow! This is just so authentic and good!’ Laray is so talented too. Getting finally into the room you’re like, ‘Don’t screw this up!’
DB: When you were in the room was it just one or two run-throughs, or did she tweak how she wanted you to play it?
JCB: She did tweak. I know she did a version where she wanted it really fast. You’ve got to realise we’ve been doing these auditions over a year and the names are changing and the dialogue changes so you are consistently reframing what you’ve already learned. And then you’re finally going into the room and they’re like, ‘Can you do a fast version?’ (I think they want to see how [actors] can be on their feet, because of the way they filmed that show. When I ended up filming it they had so many different versions that we did of dialogue, I think they wanted to see whether you could handle these quick switches). There was one take that was super-fast and one that was more slowed down.
DB: How did you prep for that role? For who Frank Janderman actually is.
JCB: First of all I [had] spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh which was great (I did work and lots of things there), so that Pittsburghian accent was all around me. Then I just saw Frank as just like so many people that I feel that I already kind of know in life. This ‘nobody-fucking-asked-you’ kind of guy, but also he believes he’s a hotshot. He was accessible to me through so many other people I had met in my life that I know, that I think are really so much about the façade of not showing who they really, truly are – some of that, broken-downness in them.
DB: There’s a long interrogation scene and then a shorter one: how many takes did they do?
JCB: Oh my God! I wish I could tell you! Can I say a million takes? They did that big interrogation scene – we had three cameras running at all times – I think we filmed it for 12 hours the first day (it’s a 9-and-a-half page scene) three cameras, so you’re getting every angle on either side, and you’re doing it over, and over, and over, and over, and over… and just when you’re done, you’re doing it over, and over, and over again. Then I think the next day we went back and did another 6 hours. So it was a really long time of doing which is, I think, what makes it so great. First of all you’re breaking down a lot; you’re coming back; you’re refreshing with new things; you’re constantly finding new things to play with; and also you have so much coverage that when he [David Fincher] chooses what he’s going to put together he really has every colour of the box to paint his picture with.
I recently had the enormous pleasure of interviewing the actor Thomas Francis Murphy. Thomas has worked on movies and shows such as 12 Years a Slave, Free State of Jones, Mindhunter, The Walking Deadand American Horror Story. We talked about his unconventional path towards taking up acting in his mid 30s, Dayton, Ohio, his career, music and much more besides.
DB: Mindhunter, Detective McGraw, you were in the first episode which is the one that David Fincher actually directed. How did you get that role?
TFM: I taped for it when I was in Louisiana. Then I came out for the first full out LA premiere I had ever done, which was for the Free State of Jones, and then auditioned here for it, in person, with Laray Mayfield who was casting out here and from there I went to New York to audition with David [Fincher] and Julie Schubert– so there was quite a long audition process for that.
DB: What was your experience on-set of Mindhunter?
TFM: Well again, I didn’t know until we started shooting, that it was a re-shoot. They had shot that whole thing and then came back at the end of the season to re-shoot that [whole] section. The actors, by that time, had been acting together for a whole season so it was like coming into the lunch room mid-semester of the senior year.
DB: There are three big scenes: the one where Tench and Ford do that slightly disastrous presentation in front of everyone; then there’s another one in the diner where you are talking to them; and the final one where you show them the photographs. With that scene, where you are back at the station and are showing them the photos, when did you, and when did they, first see the photographs that you were using?
TFM: Then. I’m sure they saw them before, but I saw them then.
DB: So, they had already seen them because of the re-shoot, but that was the first time you had seen them, because they are pretty gruesome.
TFM: That is an interesting question. That’s really an interesting question, you know – because I had never really thought of it before, kind of shame on me, but that’s alright. Even if I had thought of it, just letting this thing come over me…
DB: Did you have to smoke on set?
TFM: Yes! And that was a bitch when it came to continuity. You do it and then the next take you get, ‘No, your hands were like this!’
DB: No one else has mentioned that and it’s really interesting because I had never thought of that.
TFM: If you are a smoker, right, you don’t do it… I mean that’s the whole point of it. If you’re a smoker it just let it flow through you and proceeds according to your internal state. So to come back on a scene and go, ‘No your hand was just like that!’ That’s what I’m hired to do. I’m not hired to think about it. I’m hired to smoke!
DB: But you wouldn’t have felt quite so ill as the ones who don’t normally smoke who said they would smoke some real cigarettes!
What was it like working with Holt and Jonathan?
TFM: Well I had a high regard for both of them, but you know David does a lot of takes, everybody knows that, right. So again, you’re the new kid, that scene in the diner… that was us meeting each other as actors. I got their attention (laughs) and then we did the scene. That’s how often actors meet each other, as actors, and then you know that you’re going to be able to do the scene.
DB: Was that the first scene then, the one in the diner?
TFM: No. The first stuff we shot was the meeting. We shot that particular thing in chronological order.
DB: So, what is David Fincher like working for when he’s directing?
TFM: Well he’s obviously a guy who knows what he wants. Clearly. So that’s always good! I guess the thing you know is that, if he didn’t get what he wanted, you’d still be shooting! (Both laugh) You take your gratification where you can. My comparison that I have in my mind is that now you’re working with an NBA coach, you were in college basketball, it just has that kind of feeling to it. I’d certainly seen his films and I had certainly paid attention.
Again, it’s another story about having lived through that time, having lived through a period of time where the political colouration of the country, the kind of cultural colouration of the country that went along with that storyline. When I went back and watched Mindhunter I was just completely amazed at how it caught the spirit of that particular, in small ways, period of time.
I had the pleasure – and a lot of fun – interviewing actor, Adam Zastrow, who recently excited us playing the role of Darrell Gene Devier on Netflix’s hit show Mindhunter. During our conversation we talked about Adam realising his dream of becoming an actor, the shows he was part of leading up to Mindhunter and what it means when David Fincher says, ‘Take 50!’
PC: Getting back to David Fincher. I was reading the other day someone saying the reason he shoots a scene 70 times is because he suffers from OCD but that isn’t the case at all is it. He wants to get the best possible scene, it’s not because he has perfectionist issues.
AZ: I hate when people use the word ‘perfectionist’ when they are talking about David and the amount of takes he does because I was told about that – I don’t want to say ‘warned’ but I was ‘told’. Before going out I was told be prepared for long days Fincher likes to do a lot of takes. After having done it – those 70 takes fly by, it does not feel like you are doing 70. Fincher himself addressed this in an interview – he really hit it right on the head – it’s not that he’s a perfectionist (that’s not the issue at all) it has more to do with your pre-production staff. The guys will build sets for months, the art guys, you have all these people spending the better portion of a year just to make sure a scene looks the way it’s supposed to or to just make sure the drinking fountain in the back works even if nobody is using it. All these people put all this time and effort into this production and how dare you rush through shooting! It’s almost like a slap in the face to all these people. It’s like, ‘Okay, you spent 6 months building this scene and we’re going to come in and just shoot three takes in 12 minutes, now we are going to walk away and ask you to tear the damn thing down.’ No. No. No. I think it’s as much trying to find the best performance as it is taking the time to finding the best performance. You owe it those people not to rush through anything. When I heard that I thought, ‘Oh my God! That makes so much sense.’
PC: It’s like when you spend hours making dinner and someone wolfs it down in like 5 minutes.
AZ: Yeah exactly, exactly. I 100 per cent agree that you find stuff on take 70 that you did not even think about. As someone who’s never experienced that kind of dedication to the shoot, you get to take twenty or thirty and you’re like, ‘Okay. I rehearsed this for months. We rehearsed this together for a week. We’ve gone through this thirty times, there’s nothing else for me here to find. I’ve giving you everything that there is.’ Also from take 30-45 they are all the same, they are kind of all blah, because at that point you’re either over-thinking or under-thinking your character and you really feel like there is nothing else to give. And then, right around that point, there’s a weird moment that happens where you just stop thinking about it at all: you’re no longer under- or over-thinking it, you are just doing it because you are just going through the motions. And you’re like, ‘Okay, let’s just do this because I have to,’ and then this beautiful, beautiful thing happens where, all of a sudden, as soon as you stop thinking about it, all of this shit comes out of you that you never even knew was there! I think that’s what he’s going for. He does it enough times to where you are so used to it that you are not thinking about it, and that’s where the best stuff comes from. If you film a scene where you come home from work, you throw your keys on the table, you take your jacket off and you put it on the hook, you take your shoes off and you walk into the kitchen and you do whatever it is you do. If you were to film that scene, every single one of those moves is going to seem so cold and so calculated because it’s written in the script and you know what you are supposed to do and it’s fine, and most of the audience are not going to notice how calculated it looks – but a good audience will – and that’s what separates great shows from okay shows, and amazing shows from really decent shows, amazing directors from half-decent ones – it’s that kind of thing that half won’t notice but the ones that do are going to call you out.
PC: That’s a great explanation actually.
AZ: It’s one thing to say you shoot a scene 70 times and it looks more ‘natural’ but what does that mean? That exactly what ‘natural’ means. You are putting your keys on the hook because you’ve done it a million times, it’s like getting all of your emotion to that point where you forgot that you did it, like when you leave the house and get half-way down the road and have to turn back because you don’t remember if you have locked the door. It’s that exact thing. Fincher wants your emotions and everything on camera to be stone natural – that you are not even 100 percent sure that you did it.
That’s what I think makes all of his stuff so, so good. I’ve heard so many people talk about the 70 takes thing and how it’s unnecessary, but after doing it I’m almost wishing everyone would do it: because everything looks so much better, and so natural and yeah, you might not see it, but those that do, it makes that difference.
Ted Sarandos (Netflix Chief Content Officer), David Fincher (Director/Executive Producer), Anna Torv, Jennifer Starzyk (Costume Designer), Steve Arnold (Production Designer), Erik Messerschmidt (Director of Photography), Cameron Britton, Laray Mayfield (Casting Director), Holt McCallany, Jonathan Groff. (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images)
David Fincher (Director & Executive Producer), Laray Mayfield (Casting Director), Jennifer Starzyk (Costume Designer), Erik Messerschmidt (Director of Photography), Steve Arnold (Production Designer), Cameron Britton, Anna Torv, Holt McCallany, Jonathan Groff.