Why Recreating Hearst Castle Should Earn ‘Mank’ the Oscar for Production Design

Don Burt could win the Oscar for his recreation of the opulent Hearst settings for David Fincher’s monochromatic deconstruction of classic moviemaking.

Bill Desowitz
April 23, 2021
IndieWire

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.”

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Jan Pascale’s set decoration on ‘Mank’ captures ’30s Hollywood glamour

Joshua Axelrod
April 3, 2021
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jan Pascale seems to find her greatest success when working in black and white.

The Beechview native has been a set decorator for major Hollywood projects since the 1980s, but didn’t pick up her first Oscar nomination until 2005’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a black-and-white film directed by George Clooney. She wound up losing out to “Memoirs of a Geisha” at the 2006 Academy Awards.

Fifteen years later, she has another shot at Oscar glory later this month with her best production design nomination for “Mank,” David Fincher’s black-and-white Netflix drama chronicling Herman J. Mankiewicz’s efforts to write the screenplay for “Citizen Kane.”

“It’s really exciting and humbling,” Pascale told the Post-Gazette. “It’s unique that both of my nominations were for black-and-white films done completely differently.”

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Mank’s Monochrome Effects

Mike Seymour
March 14, 2021
fxguide

Mank is nominated for 10 Academy awards in this year’s 93rd Oscars in categories such as Best Picture, Lead Actor, and Best Director. It is also nominated for the VES award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature. The film follows screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s tumultuous development of Orson Welles’ iconic masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941).

There were several VFX supervisors nominated, Simon Carr (Territory Studio), Wei Zheng (Artemple), James Pastorius (Savage VFX), along with Peter Mavromates. In many respects, director David Fincher could have also been nominated for VFX. The director is himself an expert in visual effects and was a very active contributor to the film’s effect work. Peter Mavromates is a long-time collaborator with David Fincher and was officially the Co-producer, Post Supervisor and VFX Producer on the film. Additionally, Pablo Helman at ILM was key in creating the CG animals at the San Simeon zoo.

The film had its roots going back over 20 years. “We had a false start about 20 years ago, around 1999. The script had been written at that time but it never happened for a number of reasons,” Mavromates comments. “Probably a contributing factor was that it was black and white and if you weren’t Woody Allen in the 90s, you couldn’t shoot black and white. Even Mel Brooks had to change producers for Young Frankenstein because the studio wouldn’t let him shoot black and white and he had to find another studio.”

The movie finished filming about 2 weeks before the W.H.O. declared the COVID pandemic in Feb 2020. This meant nearly all the VFX was done using remote protocols at each of the VFX vendors.

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For ‘Mank,’ it wasn’t impossible to track down L.A.’s history. But it sure wasn’t easy

Gregory Ellwood
March 31, 2021
Los Angeles Times

When Donald Graham Burt first began working on David Fincher’s “Mank,” the filmmaker passed along some location photos from the late 1990s, when he had first tried to get the movie off the ground. Even for a film set at the peak of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the 1930s and 1940s, you might expect more of Los Angeles’ period architecture to have survived. Looking through the photos, Burt quickly realized that that wasn’t the case.

“So many places in L.A. have been razed that were [standing] even at the turn of the century. And I was seeing places like Perino’s [restaurant] and, of course, the Ambassador Hotel, but it seemed like all the Paul Williams architecture, for some reason, was being destroyed. And it was so interesting just to see the locales of Los Angeles from the late ’90s and realizing, ‘Oh, wow, we are removed from that. Aren’t we?’”

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including production design, “Mank” centers on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) during the period in 1940 he spent writing the screenplay for the cinematic classic “Citizen Kane.” It also flashes back to Mank’s life a decade prior, when he found himself in the social circle of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his very public mistress, screen star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

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Oscar-Nominated Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on “Mank”

Matt Hurwitz
March 31, 2021
The Credits (MPA)

Actors Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried go for their characters’ leisurely evening stroll outside San Marino’s Huntington Library, which is subbing in for William Randolph Hearst’s Hearst Castle at San Simeon.  The only thing is, it’s not night – and the actors are wearing custom-tinted contact lenses to help them avoid squinting, due to the additional bright lights director of photography Erik Messerschmidt has added to make his day-for-night photography appear correct in the final image.

Day-for-night is not the only classic technique the Oscar-nominated cinematographer utilized on David Fincher’s Oscar-nominated movie, Mank. The film, which tells the tale of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s path to writing the screenplay for 1941’s Citizen Kane, pays homage not only to Mank himself but to that film’s legendary cinematographer, Gregg Toland. And while the two made use of some of Toland’s techniques, they did so with great care.  “We refused to allow ourselves to think of Toland exclusively,” says Fincher. “We didn’t want to ape – we wanted to inhabit.”

He and Messerschmidt have worked together over two seasons of the director’s intriguing crime series, Mindhunterand Fincher had mentioned the film project, written by his father Jack Fincher, to his DP on occasion. The two were prepping another film, World War Z 2, but when the project came to halt, Messerschmidt went off to South Africa to shoot several episodes of HBO Max’s Raised by Wolves. While there, he says, “David e-mailed me and said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna do this movie, Mank, about Herman Mankiewicz. Would you like to do it?’” The answer, of course, was yes.

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Part I
Part II

The ‘Mank’ scene that best encapsulates its 10 Oscar nominations

Christopher Rosen
March 30, 2021
Gold Derby

No movie received more Oscar nominations in 2021 than David Fincher’s “Mank,” a Hollywood throwback about Herman Mankiewicz (Best Actor nominee Gary Oldman), Marion Davies (Best Supporting Actress nominee Amanda Seyfried), and the writing process behind Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” With 10 total nominations — including Best Picture, Best Director for Fincher, Best Actor for Oldman, Best Supporting Actress for Seyfried, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Hair & Makeup, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, and Best Score — the lavish black-and-white Netflix film is just the 96th feature in Academy Awards history to receive double-digit citations and the second-most lauded Fincher effort behind only “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

With a project comprised of so many academy-endorsed contributions, it might be difficult to imagine one single scene representing the sum of the whole. But nestled within the complex structure of Jack Fincher’s time-hopping screenplay is a sequence that combines all 10 of the “Mank” nominations and shows how each department and performance elevated the next: Mank and Marion’s stroll through San Simeon.

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Interview on Mount Olympus

Eric Roth with co-producer Douglas Urbanski and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on the set of Mank (Gisele Schmidt-Oldman / Netflix)

Producer and Black List founder Franklin Leonard asks Eric Roth about his career as a celebrated screenwriter and his experience producing David Fincher’s Mank.

Franklin Leonard
March 26, 2021
Netflix Queue

Gary Larson has a Far Side cartoon that will stick with me for the rest of my days. In the single panel, aptly captioned “God at His computer,” a white-maned Creator sits at his desktop. On the screen, we see a piano hanging above a dopey-looking man. God’s right index finger hovers over a key labeled “SMITE,” and we can all assume what happens from there.

That cartoon dropped into my psyche at roughly the same moment I internalized the notion that every movie I’d ever seen was — first — the product of a writer doing much the same thing. I regard writers like gods. That’s part of the reason why I founded the Black List and started our annual survey of the best unproduced screenplays. Writers sit, often alone, and will entire worlds into existence.

What a joy, then, to take a virtual seat on Mount Olympus with Eric Roth, one of the greatest screenwriters of our time, to discuss his role as a producer on Mank. Directed by David Fincher and written by Fincher’s late father, Jack, Mank tells the story of how Herman Mankiewicz came to write the first draft of what would evolve into Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. It was many years before Fincher found the opportunity to make the film, but when the moment came, he turned to his trusted collaborator Roth to produce.

“David said to me, ‘I’m not asking you to rewrite anything. Let’s leave it as it is for Jack, and let’s make the best of it,’” Roth recalls. “He said, ‘I want you for two reasons: You know what it feels like to be a screenwriter, and you know the inside-Hollywood thing.’”It’s an astute assessment, if highly abridged. Having won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Forrest Gump in 1995, Roth became the go-to writer for A-list directors like Robert Redford, Michael Mann, and Steven Spielberg, and he authored scripts including The Horse Whisperer, The Insider, Ali, Munich, and 2018’s A Star Is Born.

He first partnered with Fincher as the screenwriter on 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which they both earned Academy Award nominations. That project also marked the start of a lasting friendship that is evident in their latest collaboration. With Mank, the pair worked together to deliver the soul of Jack Fincher’s script to the screen.

I spoke with Eric Roth about that experience and the craft we both revere.

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Industry Insights: Erik Messerschmidt on recreating old Hollywood using modern cinematography in Netflix’s Mank

The director of photography behind Oscars frontrunner Mank discusses his background in stills, collaborating with David Fincher, and reimagining black-and-white cinema using contemporary technique

Flossie Skelton
March 25, 2021
1854

In 2020, Erik Messerschmidt made his feature film debut as director of photography (DOP) on David Fincher’s Mank. A love letter to Hollywood’s “Golden Age”, the sumptuous black-and-white film – which leads this year’s Oscars hype with 10 nominations – follows alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) through the 1930s and 40s as he races to finish the cinematic masterpiece that would eventually become Citizen Kane. But rather than simply emulating the iconic imagery pioneered by Gregg Toland – one of film’s most legendary cinematographers, in large part due to his work on Kane – Fincher and Messerschmidt set out to leave a masterfully modern mark on the story.

“I felt like it was quite possible – and I’ve seen it before, with black-and-white in particular – for the images to become almost a parody,” says Messerschmidt, speaking over the phone from LA. “And parody was the last thing we wanted.” The pair were wary of leaning into a cinematic style that would draw “too much” attention to the period, thereby detracting from the authenticity of the narrative; rather, they hoped to transport viewers to old Hollywood in a less contrived way.

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How the ‘Mank’ Production Designer Re-created Hearst Castle

David  Fincher couldn’t film at William Randolph Hearst’s extravagant location, so production designer Donald Graham Burt built a replica of the legendary San Simeon — with echoes of its portrayal in ‘Citizen Kane’ as Xanadu — on a Los Angeles soundstage.

Carolyn Giardina
March 25, 2021
The Hollywood Reporter

One of the biggest challenges Mank production designer Donald Graham Burt — recently nominated for an Oscar for his work — faced was that the production was not granted access to Hearst Castle on California’s Central Coast. But interiors and exteriors of William Randolph Hearst‘s extravagant estate were needed for key scenes in director David Fincher‘s biopic about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, during the period in which he wrote the screenplay for Orson Welles‘ 1941 classic, Citizen Kane.

So, with the real San Simeon off-limits, Burt went about designing elaborate sets at Los Angeles Center Studios for interiors like the castle’s dining room, where a messy confrontation occurs during a party. “There’s no way to replicate Hearst Castle, and we weren’t trying to,” says Burt, who has worked with Fincher since 2007’s Zodiac and won an Oscar for the director’s 2008 film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

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‘Mank’: Costuming Hollywood’s Golden Age in Strategic Black-and-White

Oscar-nominated costume designer Trish Summerville used an iPhone to help her put different puzzle pieces together.

Bill Desowitz
March 23, 2021
IndieWire

Like her fellow Oscar-nominated colleagues, costume designer Trish Summerville had the rare opportunity of working in black-and-white on David Fincher’s “Mank,” which meticulously recaptured the Golden Age of Hollywood in the ’30s. But their work was made easier by the monochromatic settings on their iPhones, allowing them to instantly translate the proper color tones. This way, the look of Summerville’s wardrobes would be in sync with the sets and decor. It was all part of strategic plan to create an authentic-looking monochromatic world.

“I had conversations with [production designer] Don Burt about what his color palettes would be so we wouldn’t have the rooms be so colorful,” Summerville said. “We wanted to have the tones blend. For us in costumes, it was more burgundies, purples, navies, blacks. And you could pump up from there to gowns with muted lilacs or dusty roses, which came in as nice light grays. We also had shell whites or cream whites and stayed away from deep black. It was also being mindful of prints and patterns that could be too bold or too busy. And how to use details that wouldn’t have too much contrast or disappear entirely. For instance, you couldn’t have navy buttons on a navy suit or it would look black.”

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