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 Netflixfilm 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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the biggest challenges Mankproduction 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.
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.”
David Fincher‘s Mank is the most Oscar-nominated film of the year, amassing ten, thanks to the beauty and brilliance of its black-and-white execution. One of those nominations belongs to makeup department head Gigi Williams, a veteran who picks her work based on her belief in the director. In Fincher, she was collaborating with one of the most precise filmmakers in the business, and in Mank, working off a script from his father Jack Fincher, Williams had caught the director on what was likely his most personal project to date.
“If your makeup is too loud, you take away from the performance and you don’t belong in this artist’s picture, because Mank is a piece of art that everyone has dabbled in,” Williams says. “Everyone has put their piece into it, and everyone flows together so that nobody stands out. My whole career, I don’t like makeup that’s too big, that makes a statement, if you see my makeup, I’ve failed. I want to see the actor, I want to see the essence of the actor. I love the process of acting. I’m there to facilitate that.”
Citizen Kane has long been regarded as a movie masterpiece for its cinematography, storytelling, and ahead-of-its-time visual effects. Who better to pay homage to the 1940’s film than director David Fincher, whose films are often lauded for these same characteristics? Fincher’s most recent project, the Netflix feature film Mank, brings to life a screenplay written by his late father, journalist Jack Fincher.
Netflix describes the film as “1930s Hollywood…reevaluated through the eyes of scathing wit and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish Citizen Kane.” This movie about a movie showcases the unique approach to storytelling and visual style that continues to make Fincher’s work stand out.
Helping Fincher to bring his signature style to life is a talented post-production team that includes post producer Peter Mavromates, editor Kirk Baxter, first assistant editor Ben Insler, assistant editor Jennifer Chung, and a number of additional assistant editors and VFX artists. Their collective credits include MINDHUNTER, Gone Girl, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, House of Cards, and other features.
As co-producer of Mank, Mavromates oversaw the timing, budget, schedule, and integration between the editorial, visual effects, and finishing departments. Insler was responsible for integrating the overall project workflows. Chung prepped dailies and supported the editorial team throughout the post-production process and liaised with the sound, color, and visual effects teams.
The team constantly looks to refine and improve their workflows. “I love the mechanics of post-production,” says Insler. “If there’s a way we can eliminate a bottleneck or figure out a more efficient way to do things, I’m all over it. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
Insler had that opportunity while working on Mank, which was edited using Productions in Adobe Premiere Pro. Already long-time users of Premiere Pro, Productions made it even easier for the editorial team to organize projects, collaborate, and scale, while solving issues such as avoiding duplicate clips and providing the ability to break large projects into smaller segments so that they open and save faster.
Erik Messerschmidt calls David Fincher’s process “precise.” And it is the greatest compliment. That precision is what Fincher is renowned for, his detail. He prefers the wider shots as he relays his character’s environments, but it’s what’s within the frame; that detail that gets the greatest performances out of actors, and gives audiences a full understanding of what is happening.
“Mank,” a love letter to Hollywood’s golden age, is no different. Messerschmidt has collaborated with Fincher before on “Mindhunter,” and is no stranger to the Fincher process, but this was their first feature together.
Messerschmidt reflects on how Fincher works and how they collaborated on the black-and -white drama.
One of the major craft achievements of “Mank” was how David Fincher’s visual effects team meticulously recreated ’30s-era LA in black-and-white. (They used the matte paintings of Artemple, Territory’s LED screens, and Savage’s sky replacement with Unreal’s game engine.) The work has been shortlisted for the VFX Oscar and garnered a VES nomination for supporting visual effects.
“Most of the effects were what we call our ‘body and fender’ work, where [David] shot something and it’s not quite right and it needed to be replaced,” said visual effects producer Peter Mavromates. “For example, during the Louis B. Mayer birthday party at San Simeon, he didn’t want to deal with real fire in the fireplace, so those are all added [in CG] afterwards. He’s all about efficiency on set.”
Also added were the cloudy skies during the shooting of an elaborate home movie with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) tied to a stake. “Sky replacement of shots were for consistency using the Unreal game engine with 3D model placement,” Mavromates added.
Shot in black and white and often in deep focus, David Fincher’s Mank evokes 1930s classic cinema with rigorous attention to digital detail. Made for Netflix, this biographical drama stars Gary Oldman as Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the Kane screenplay for Orson Welles.
Famously, Fincher was among the first A-list directors to embrace digital filmmaking. Since the groundbreaking production The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), he hasn’t deviated from using RED cameras and Mank was no exception. Fincher had always envisioned the screenwriter’s story being told in black and white.
“It would be a crime not to make this movie in black and white,” says Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, who recently earned an Emmy® nomination for shooting Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter. “Digital was just right for this project for all manner of reasons.”