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.
Mank director David Fincher, actors Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, the cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, production designer Donald Graham Burt and sound designer Red Kyle walk you through a boisterous San Simeon house party sequence and the recreation of William Randolph Hearst’s famed zoo.
A disillusioned screenwriter in old Hollywood gets a shot at redemption in Director David Fincher’s biographical comedy-drama, Mank.
Fincher’s film takes place as film 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles hires scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz to write the screenplay for his masterpiece, Citizen Kane.
On February 6, Fincher discussed the making of Mank in a DGA Virtual Q&A moderated by Director Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7).
During their conversation, Fincher spoke about his love for “the altar of cinema,” the communal aspect that can come through film. “For me, what I love about cinema is going into a big dark room with 700 people and through their laughter and through their surprise and through their shock and through their reactions you realize, I’m not alone. I’m the same. I’m wired into this group in the same way just organically and I’m picking up on all these other cues. That is what makes the cinema, or a great grand theater, an almost cathedral-like experience.”
Fincher’s other directorial credits include the feature films Se7en, The Game, Panic Room, Zodiac, Gone Girl; episodes of the television series House of Cards and Mindhunter; and countless commercials and music videos. He has been nominated for the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Theatrical Feature Film for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In 2013, he was nominated for the DGA Award for Dramatic Series for House of Cards, “Chapter 1” and has twice been nominated for the DGA Award for his Commercial work with Anonymous Content in 2003 and 2008, winning the Award in 2003 for Beauty for Sale (Xelibri Phones), Gamebreakers (Nikegridiron.Com) and Speed Chain (Nike).
David Fincher‘s longtime sound designer Ren Klyce discusses the soundscape of Mank, conceived as a companion piece of sorts to Citizen Kane (no pressure). What is it about a classic movie that makes it sound, well, classic? From filtering frequencies to adding elements like optical flutter and overlaid reverb, learn about the work that went into making the film sound as if it was booming from the screen of a grand movie palace.
Tony McVey sets up his sculpture in front of the motion-control camera.
The sound of a heartbeat is heard. A human fetus fades up on the television screen in close-up and a voiceover begins: “Would you give a cigarette to your unborn child?” The camera pans and dollies back to reveal an entire fetus existing serenely in the womb of its mother. “You do every time you smoke when you’re pregnant.” At this point, the fetus slowly brings a lit cigarette to its lips and takes a puff, exhaling the smoke into the glowing placenta it lives in. And the voiceover finishes: “Pregnant mothers, please don’t smoke.”
The 30-second spot was produced for the American Cancer Society by a talented and relatively untapped group of San Francisco Bay area filmmakers, modelmakers, and computer specialists brought together by producer Joseph Vogt (Rick Springfield’s “Bop ’Till You Drop”). With a film and conceptual design education behind him, Vogt organized the majority of his film crew from the ranks of Industrial Light and Magic. It was with the abundant talents of these production people — director David Fincher, Midland Productions, and Monaco Labs — that Vogt brought life to a most creative and technically challenging public service announcement.
Director of photography Michael Owens at the Mitchell GC ready to shoot the prepped sculpture.
Jerry Angert, director of broadcasting with the American Cancer Society, described the ad as “one of the most powerful we have done… We considered the fact that it would be controversial and the networks might not show it, but counted on the local stations to take it.” And that’s exactly what transpired. NBC and CBS chose not to air the graphic spot while CNN (Turner Broadcasting), ABC and its affiliates and affiliates of NBC and CBS elected to show it.
CBS and NBC claim the spot is too graphic. An NBC spokeswoman cited “general taste considerations” as a deterrent to airing the spot. “It was the sight of the fetus that was especially shocking and we felt it was potentially offensive to our viewers,” she was quoted as saying. A CBS spokesman said the network agreed with the “importance of the intent of the message,” but said that the spot was “far too graphic for broadcast on CBS.” An ABC spokesman, however, said the message put forth by the spot was “important for pregnant mothers to understand.” The network felt that. while it was “different visually” from the usual fare viewed on TV, it contained no material that warranted its ban from the airwaves.
The first time I saw David Fincher’s Mank, I was immediately transformed to my local old-school movie palace, The Rialto. I could imagine myself reclined in the plush red seats, surrounded by red curtains with gold fringe. I could smell the freshly popped corn. And I could hear the film booming in that classic movie palace sound, waves of 1930s-era monaural luxury wafting through a giant center speaker.
Given the current pandemic, that kind of escapism is pretty priceless. It’s exactly what sound designer Ren Klyce and director David Fincher wanted the user to feel while watching Mank.
“That was David’s wish — that you would feel that when watching the film, but our fear along with that wish was that somehow we wouldn’t be able to convey that response,” Klyce explained. “I’m so glad that you picked up on that.”
“Mank” has been a personal passion project for David Fincher for several decades now. His own father wrote the script, about the famously self-destructive writer of “Citizen Kane,” and Fincher was determined to make the film feel as authentic as possible. Almost like it was an undiscovered artifact from Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” insisting for years to film it in black & white, 1:33, and in mono. He once again joined forces with his longtime collaborator, sound designer Ren Klyce, to do exactly that. But building this time capsule turned out to be a surprisingly challenging process.
“It’s beyond production value. Sound is a portal into a stranger’s mind that is incredibly influential. And if we don’t avail ourselves of this access, um… then we’re stupid and we should die (laughs).” – David Fincher, director of “Mank”
Listen to the Sound + Image Lab: The Dolby Institute Podcast:
Director David Fincher tasked the sound crew with reviving the feel of the Golden Age of Hollywood in the track. They came up with a process of combining old and new technologies to create a “patina” for playback.
Ren Klyce, Sound Designer Drew Kunin, Production Sound Mixer Jeremy Molod, Supervising Sound Editor Nathan Nance, Re-Recording Mixer
On David Fincher’s Mank, sound designer Ren Klyce was tasked with crafting a monaural soundtrack, similar to those heard in films of the ’30s and ’40s, engaging in a laborious, experimental process, in order to round out the world of one of the year’s most distinctive films.
Scripted by Fincher’s late father Jack, the director’s longtime passion project follows Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman)—a washed up, alcoholic screenwriter from Hollywood’s Golden Age—as he endeavors to finish the screenplay for the iconic Citizen Kane.
The goal with Mank was to immerse viewers in its period world through the creation of visual and sonic ‘patinas,’ each working in concert with the other. While cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shot the black-and-white film digitally, at extremely high resolution—allowing Fincher to degrade the image in post—Klyce would tinker with sonic degradation, tapping into all of the characteristics that gave early 20th century soundtracks their unique feel.
One of Fincher’s closest collaborators—who has worked with him on 10 features and two television series since 1995—Klyce had experimented only briefly with mono sound in the past, on a handful of Fincher films. “But we never did it with the conviction of, ‘This is the purpose,’” the sound designer notes, “‘because we want it to feel like it was made using the technology of the time.’”
Below, the seven-time Oscar nominee recalls his earliest conversations with Fincher about Mank, and the multifaceted process of fashioning its vintage sonic palette.