David Fincher and David Prior’s anthology essay series “Voir” is only six episodes, but fully half of those came from Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou. Their skill with the form comes as no surprise to fans of their YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting,” which almost served as a proof of concept for a show like “Voir” — and that millions of people would be interested in videos exploring just how the grammar of filmmaking impacts its meaning. When done well, video essays combine the thrill of knowing a secret and the joy of learning more about a long-held passion. Zhou and Ramos spoke to IndieWire about how the process of creating that joyful learning shifted and expanded when working on “Voir.”
“YouTube was very constricting because of things like copyright and DMC,” Ramos said. “The license that Netflix and [David Fincher] gave us, it was very, ‘Oh, we can do anything and everything!’ And [that] was, I don’t want to say daunting, but —”
For nearly two decades, Hollywood had been trying to make a movie of Zodiac, and for nearly two decades, it had failed. In 2003, producer Brad Fischer, and screenwriter Jamie Vanderbilt attempted the undoable, and set their sights on the one filmmaker they felt unequalled for the helm: director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club). Fincher’s eye for detail, probing mind, and unrelenting quest for answers made him ideal. His personal connection to the case made him perfect.
Author Robert Graysmith, director David Fincher, producer Brad Fischer, and screenwriter James Vanderbilt: “The Untouchables”. Photo: Margot Graysmith
From Hollywood boardrooms to remote fog-shrouded crime scenes, they battle a huge script that refuses to be beaten, a case that refuses to be solved, and a running time and budget that threaten their film. Follow as they track down missing witnesses, gather the original investigators, visit the original crime scenes, discover boxes of Zodiac case files from an attic, unearth new clues, a videotape of the prime suspect’s police interrogation, and a surviving victim who doesn’t want to be found. To keep Fincher on board, and get their film greenlit, it will take cold leads, private eyes, new evidence, and most of all, perseverance.
About The Author
Robert Graysmith in 2012. Photo: Russell Yip / The Chronicle
Robert Graysmith (Facebook) is an author and illustrator. He was the political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle when the letters and cryptograms from the infamous Zodiac killer began arriving to the paper. He was present when they were opened in the morning editorial meetings, and has been investigating & writing ever since. He lives in San Francisco where he continues to write and illustrate. He is best known for his books “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked”.
“Zodiac in Costume at Lake Berryessa,” by former Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith. Surviving victim Bryan Hartnell personally described the costume in detail to Graysmith, after his, and Cecilia Shepherd’s, encounter with the Zodiac on Sept. 27, 1969. Photo: Robert Graysmith
Robert Graysmith, political cartoonist for The San Francisco Chronicle, in 1977. Photo: Gary Fong / The Chronicle
Robert Graysmith wrote the definitive Zodiac Killer book. He breaks decade-long silence to tell us about his upcoming projects
For a fairly famous guy, author Robert Graysmith doesn’t get out much. He hasn’t been heard from in public for about a decade, and he rarely leaves his San Francisco home.
The 78-year-old Graysmith has been crafting manuscripts at such an astonishing pace, printing them out as he goes along, that they now stand in a 5-foot-high stack that breaks down into what he says will be 34 books, ranging from children’s tales and historical explorations to true crime and fictional legends. Most just need a few final touches and editing, he said.
These days, Graysmith is working with a new publisher he knows well: his 50-year-old son, Aaron Smith.
The first in this voluminous new string landed on online sites like Amazon at the end of August, the 383-page “Shooting Zodiac,” which documents the planning that went into making the movie “Zodiac.”
“It’s much more fun working with Aaron on these things, because he can put them out quickly,” Graysmith said. “I figured out you’re going to wait about three years to get a book done, and then you hand them the book, and they’re going to spend a lot of time and then they won’t do anything for another year or so. With Aaron, we can get the book edited and out there in a few months.”
Graysmith’s son — who uses the last name his dad used before he merged Gray and Smith — said he wasn’t really surprised when he realized how many pages his dad had in the hopper.
“Writing is pretty much all he does,” Smith said by phone from his home in Southern California, “and the illustrations.”
Graysmith said he started working on his engagingly told “Shooting Zodiac” before the movie came out, as he was being bowled over by the dedication director David Fincher, producer Brad Fischer and screenwriter Jamie Vanderbilt put into the project. They combed over the same material Graysmith had in his books “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked” to rebuild and advance his narrative around the only suspect ever named by police, Arthur Leigh Allen of Vallejo.
Watching them work was “a marvelous adventure,” Graysmith said.
The new book is as much about greenlighting the movie and hiring actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, who played Graysmith, as it is about how the three filmmakers did their research. It’s also probably the last thing Graysmith will write about the Zodiac, he and his son said.
In Season 2 of Neflix’s “Love, Death & Robots,” the adult animated anthology from executive producers David Fincher and Tim Miller (“Deadpool”) continued its embrace of survival and immortality in strange dystopian environments. However, there were eight shorts instead of 18 and a greater emphasis on philosophizing, with some directors stepping out of their comfort zones.
Indeed, the sci-fi anthology, produced by Blur Studio for Netflix, so impressed the TV Academy that it was awarded four juried prizes on Wednesday: Robert Valley, production designer (“Ice”); Patricio Betteo, background artist (“Ice”); Dan Gill, stop-motion animator (“All Through the House”); and Laurent Nicholas, character designer (“Automated Customer Service”).
“We tried to elevate the stories further and to give deeper explorations of some of these adult themes,” said supervising director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (“The Darkest Minds” and the “Kung Fu Panda”sequels). “So it was very much like a curating process to go from finding these amazing stories and these amazing authors [including Harlan Ellison and J.G. Ballard] and then matchmaking really interesting and talented directors to let them do something [different].”
Mank, director David Fincher’s much anticipated take on the behind-the-scenes drama that shaped the making of Citizen Kane, was released last November after a journey to get it made that began almost two decades ago.
Is there any reason to believe that a story about the making of a movie about the making of a movie is any less intriguing than that of its fabled subject?
In terms of finding classic locations in Los Angeles that have survived the moving hands of time, Fincher couldn’t have found a better guy for the job than LM William “Bill” Doyle/LMGI. L.A. is a classic example of a city in a near-constant state of reinvention, but despite the years, some amazing original sites still remain, and Doyle knows most of them.
“I’ve always loved reading about how cities develop,” Doyle says. “Understanding a city… How it was developed or why it was founded, how it was built and when it expanded… Knowing how these things happened can help you make sense of any city anywhere in the world when you’re looking for something specific.”
Heading into Oscar weekend, Mank cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, a first-time nominee and ASC winner, is already deep into his next project. The Emerson College grad earned his chops as a best boy and gaffer before moving into cinematography full-time.
He spoke with No Film School via phone about working on one of this year’s biggest films.
It was the series Mindhunter where Messerschmidt teamed with director David Fincher, pushing the boundaries of digital workflows. With Mank, audiences are taken back in time to the 1930s as the story follows how Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) finishes the screenplay for Orson Welles in a gripping biographical drama.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth served twin roles on Mank — punching up Jack Fincher’s screenplay and as producer. Mark Salisbury talks to him about his 50-year career, including upcoming films for Denis Villeneuve and Martin Scorsese
Back in the early 1990s, when David Fincher was still best known for his Madonna videos and had yet to direct a feature, he challenged his father Jack, who had recently retired as a Life magazine journalist, to write a screenplay. He even suggested a subject matter: Herman J Mankiewicz, who penned Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, but whose authorship had been controversially overlooked, not least by Welles, until an extended essay in 1971 by the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael reclaimed it.
Fincher tried in vain to set Mank up for the best part of a decade, but his desire to shoot in black and white proved a sticking point with financiers. Until, that was, Netflix, for whom Fincher had produced House Of Cards and Mindhunters, asked what he wanted to do next. Did he, they wondered, have a passion project he had always wanted to direct? Fincher took down his father’s script from the shelf, and Netflix agreed.
Jack died in 2003 so Fincher called on Eric Roth, with whom he had collaborated on The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and House Of Cards, to help him finesse the script. “David and I are very close,” says Roth, “and I’ve lent my eye, a point of view, on a few of his other movies. He has a group of us, including Bob Towne, Steven Soderbergh and Spike Jonze, that looks at all of his movies at some point in a cut and you’re allowed to tell him whatever you feel about it. So I’ve been involved in a number of those. He came to me a couple of years ago and asked if I would like to get involved with this.”
Citizen Kane is often regarded as the greatest film ever made. The fictionalized story of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst didn’t win a Best Picture Oscar in 1942, but it did win a Best Original Screenplay award. Hollywood still loves a story about itself, and this year, Mank, a film about Citizen Kane‘s screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, earned 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It also received a nomination for Amanda Seyfried for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Marion Davies.
In real life, as in Mank, Davies was a starlet who lived a life of luxury with Hearst. She was born in Brooklyn and went from the Ziegfeld Follies to Hollywood. She became a siren of the silent movies in the 1920s, and ironed out her accent as she moved into talking pictures.
“Marion was a really talented actor, she had incredible range, she was really funny, and she was able to lighten any scene that she was in,” says Seyfried. “She was very unfiltered like I am, and she was very allergic to being dishonest, which I am absolutely. You know, the Brooklynese was kind of, just, at the end of the day, when she took her shoes off and she grabbed her bottle of gin. She was exactly who she was and you know, she had no shame from where she came from.”
Having collaborated with David Fincher — and each other — on previous projects such as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, costume designer Trish Summerville and production designer Donald Graham Burt were both aware of the director’s long-gestating project Mank before it ever got the greenlight.
Fincher had wanted to make this 1930s Los Angeles-set period piece about screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz and his troubled writing of Citizen Kane for director Orson Welles ever since his journalist father Jack penned a screenplay in the late 1990s; Fincher Sr died in 2003 with the script still in a drawer. When Netflix approached Fincher about making a film following their collaboration on crime series Mindhunter, the director immediately suggested Mank and brought Summerville and Burt onboard.
“It was a project that I really wanted to be a part of,” says Summerville. “Being black and white, being a period setting, being with David, it’s the kind of film that’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.” Burt, too, felt an instant connection. “It’s a period Los Angeles film-industry movie, and I immediately fell in love with it.”
Fincher’s film was to be an authentic emulation of a 1930s movie, featuring real-life locations and characters including Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), Welles (Tom Burke), media titan William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), MGM boss Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and Hearst’s girlfriend, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). That meant research — and lots of it.
Black-and-white biopic Mank sees another successful collaboration between cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt ASC and director David Fincher as they craft an authentic portrayal of Hollywood’s golden age and explore the turbulent development of the script for Citizen Kane.
“This was not an offer I had to consider; the answer was an immediate yes,” says cinematographer Erik MesserschmidtASC when thinking back to the moment he was asked to film director David Fincher’s Mank which depicts the life of screenwriter Herman J. ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he develops the script for director Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane.
“I was thrilled when David called me,” he says. “I was nervous too of course as I felt a tremendous responsibility to be considerate and respectful to the film, but it’s a cinematographer’s dream to get the opportunity to make a movie like this.”
As Citizen Kane is widely regarded as one of cinema’s masterpieces, the pressure was on to capture the essence of Gregg TolandASC’s cinematography and to faithfully encapsulate the distinctive mood, lighting and composition reminiscent of a golden era of filmmaking.
Mank, which received a limited theatrical release before streaming on Netflix, is based on a script written by Fincher’s late father, the journalist and writer, Howard “Jack” Fincher which focuses on the controversy surrounding who had creative ownership of Citizen Kane – Welles or Mankiewicz.
The film uses flashback sequences to explore the prolific talent of Mank as well as his alcoholism and tumultuous relationships with Hollywood executives such as film producer and MGM Studios co-founder Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving G. Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), who is widely claimed to be the inspiration for Citizen Kane’s protagonist.
Fincher was clear from the beginning that the film would be shot in black-and-white. “We never even considered what the movie would look like in colour,” says Messerchmidt. “Part of David’s intent was to transport the audience back to the classic ‘30s and ‘40s Hollywood era. Black-and-white was an excellent way to do that.”
Ensuring black-and-white was used as a homage or a pastiche rather than a parody was a priority. “When they approach black-and-white, cinematographers can tend to reach for noir as they are excited by its gestured, stylised lighting which you don’t get to use very often when shooting in colour,” adds Messerschmidt.
David Fincher’s “Mank” leads all Oscar craft nominations with six. And yet its greatest chance of a win rests with Don Burt’s meticulous production design of the iconic Hearst Castle and San Simeon compound. However, since he was working in black-and-white with set decorator Jan Pascale — his co-nominee — it was more advantageous to capture the spirit of William Randolph Hearst’s opulent retreat than trying to replicate it. For one thing, the colors would get lost, and, for another, they’d still be struggling to recreate all of the detail.
“Hearst Castle felt like something Hearst [Charles Dance] built as his Xanadu [from ‘Citizen Kane’], and now it’s maintained more like a theme park,” said Burt, who actually didn’t visit the landmark since they couldn’t shoot there. But he referenced plenty of images and studied its architecture and interior design along with the beautiful landscaping of San Simeon. “Hearst saw this as his own little castle in the world and his accumulation of art from Europe was representational of this extravagance and indulgence that he had.”