EXCLUSIVE:David Fincher’sMank has been near the top of the heap this awards season, scoring the most nominations at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards and a place on the AFI Top 10 movies of 2020 for the take on the relationship of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles during the writing of the iconic Citizen Kane.
Those noms include posthumous recognition for the screenplay, written by Fincher’s father Jack, who died in 2003. It was David who encouraged his dad to explore the story between the two men, along with it the idea of taking responsibility for one’s ideas put into the world, and the reality-altering power that creates.
The counterculture movement of the 1960s clashes with the hostile Nixon administration in Director Aaron Sorkin’s historical drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Set in the aftermath of what happened after a peaceful protest turned into a violent encounter with the police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Sorkin’s film recounts the infamous 1969 trial of seven political activists – that included moderate Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden, militant Yippies led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers – who were all charged with conspiracy in an unfair trial that transfixed the nation and sparked a conversation about mayhem intended to undermine the U.S. government.
On January 23, Sorkin discussed the making of The Trial of the Chicago 7 in a DGA Virtual Q&A session moderated by Director David Fincher (Mank).
During the conversation, Sorkin spoke about how he came up with a plan to shoot the riot scenes despite his budgetary limitations.
“I find a constraint like that forces you to get creative,” said Sorkin. “It forces you to have an idea. So we came up with this plan, we were going to get a few wide shots and we were going to take advantage of the tear gas. We got smoke everywhere. I discovered what happens when you shoot light through smoke so I wanted smoke in every scene. I could not get enough smoke. It didn’t matter where we were.”
In addition to his directing work on The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin was nominated for the 2017 DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in First-Time Feature for his debut film, Molly’s Game. He was also part of the producing team (which includes DGA President Thomas Schlamme) that won multiple Emmy awards for “Outstanding Drama Series” for their work on the series The West Wing. Sorkin also took home an Academy Award for “Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay” for David Fincher’s feature The Social Network.
That’s how the actor-director framed his duty of leading a conversation with longtime friend and “Gone Girl” boss David Fincher, the esteemed director whose Netflix film “Mank” has emerged as a top awards contender for 2021.
“This is a real role reversal from having to just be Fincher bitch, having to go over and over again,” Affleck teased the director, alluding to Fincher’s notorious preference for many consecutive takes of the same scene.
Appearing in Variety‘s “Directors on Directors” conversation series, the pair recently held a virtual reunion where Affleck dug into the decades-long process of bringing the story of famed screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz to screen.
In perhaps the broadest conversation Fincher has had about the film’s themes, Affleck gets to the heart of the original script from the director’s father, the value of creative credit at the dawn of Hollywood’s golden age, and the rare glimmer of heart and hope in a David Fincher film.
In this 85-minute episode, interviewer Caleb Deschanel, ASC talks to cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC and director David Fincher about their stylish black-and-white period drama.
Written by Fincher’s father, Jack,Mankdepicts the turbulent life and career of self-destructive Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) — focusing on his writing of the script for the iconic 1941 drama Citizen Kane. He and director Orson Welles shared an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
While the filmmakers sought a period look and feel contemporary to their story — in part inspired by Gregg Toland, ASC’s Oscar-nominated camerawork in Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath — they embraced every modern tool to accomplish their creative goal, shooting with Red Ranger monochrome Helium cameras and Leitz Summilux-C lenses while employing virtual production techniques to facilitate recreating a vintage Los Angeles and other locations.
Herman Mankiewicz—a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter writing the first draft of Orson Welles’s 1941 biopic about William Randolph Hearst—may seem an unlikely hero for a 2020 biopic. He is rarely remembered today outside of cinephile circles, but in telling his story, David Fincher’s Mank delivers a loving tribute to Golden Age Hollywood films, a clear-eyed dissection of a company town, an unexpectedly timely depiction of 1930s fake-news shenanigans, and an unabashed homage to Citizen Kane, all wrapped up in a snappy, stylishly retro package.
Welles is rightly revered as the twenty-five-year-old wunderkind behind Citizen Kane, but when Herman Mankiewicz went to Hollywood in 1926, he, too, was a promising young man. At twenty-eight, he was not only the New York Times’ assistant theater editor under George S. Kaufman and the New Yorker’s first theater critic, he was an aspiring playwright collaborating with both Kaufman and Marc Connelly. Unfortunately, Herman was also an alcoholic with a gambling problem and a penchant for getting himself fired. So, despite despising the movie business, his periodic attempts to escape back to his native New York and his friends in the Algonquin Round Table writers’ group failed, and he remained in Hollywood for the rest of his life.
At first he was successful. As head of Paramount’s writing department, he recruited journalist friends who created the wisecracking, irreverent sensibility of many 1930s movies. He produced the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, David O. Selznick had Herman write an all-star adaptation of George Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s hit play Dinner at Eight. As the first writer assigned to The Wizard of Oz, he objected to adapting the book, then said that if the studio insisted, they should film Oz in color and shoot the Kansas sequences in black and white, a suggestion that led to the movie’s iconic use of sepia.
Mank begins soon after that, with Herman on his way east to take one more stab at rekindling his newspaper career when fate intervenes in the form of Orson Welles. Citizen Kane revitalized Herman’s career in the 1940s, but he spiraled down again, dying in 1953 at the age of fifty-five.
After that, he was largely forgotten until February 1971, when the New Yorker published a two-part, 50,000-word piece by Pauline Kael, in which she wrested away screenplay credit from Orson Welles and handed it almost entirely to Herman. Kael’s inaccurate and unfair account was actually an attempt to rebut auteur theory critics by arguing that Citizen Kane was not the product of one man’s singular genius and vision, but rather an example of the studio system at its best. Kael’s claims on Herman’s behalf were so hyperbolic and her dismissal of Welles so outrageous that although her arguments were effectively debunked at the time, Welles’s defenders have been attacking Herman ever since.
In October 2019, I published a biography of Herman and his younger, more successful brother, writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Cleopatra), and after living with Herman in my head for a decade or so, I had mixed feelings about the prospect of a David Fincher biopic. Like most biographers, I had become proprietary about my subjects, and though I imagined a movie would raise Herman’s profile, film is such a powerful medium that I knew no matter how inaccurate it might be, Fincher’s concept and Gary Oldman’s portrayal would become the prevailing version of Herman for the foreseeable future. To my immense relief, they cared very much about accuracy. So much so, in fact, that the first time I saw Herman, Joe, and Herman’s wife, Sara, up on the screen and heard them saying many of the same things they say in my book was an incredibly moving experience. They were the Herman, Joe, and Sara I had imagined. It was surreal in a good way.
David Fincher has actually been thinking about Herman decades longer than I have. He acquired his love of movies from his late father, journalist Jack Fincher, and because the two revered Citizen Kane above all, David was interested enough to seek out Kael’s piece while he was still in junior high school. The notion that Herman’s Marx Brothers sensibility and newspaper background fed into Citizen Kane intrigued him, so when Jack retired around 1991 and wanted to write a screenplay, David suggested he consider Herman as a subject. Jack liked the idea, and over the years, he wrote draft after draft while David tried to get it made. It took almost three decades to find a producer, mostly because of David’s insistence that he shoot in black and white. By the time Netflix assented, Jack, who died in 2003, did not live to see the final result. David dedicated Mank to his father.
When David Fincher sat down with Netflix executives in the spring of 2019, he did not expect to be handed the equivalent of a blank check. Sure, the 58-year-old filmmaker — a former music-video wunderkind best known for pushing the envelope with baroque serial-killer thrillers (Seven), toxic-masculinity satires (Fight Club) and social-media origin stories (The Social Network) — was a name-brand director, and had helped kick off the golden age of streaming with the outlet’s first original series, House of Cards. But Fincher was used to resistance. You can’t have this budget. You can’t tell that story. What do you mean, you’re doing a TV show, for a mail-order DVD company, and all the episodes come out at once?!
So when Fincher was told by his patrons at the company that they were interested in helping him make anything he wanted, he thought of a long-dormant labor of love: a script his late father, Jack Fincher, had written about the making of Citizen Kane. Not the tale of the brilliant director, producer, star and co-writer who, at a precociously young age, took Hollywood by storm with his rise-and-fall drama. This was the story of the alcoholic screenwriter who was hired to pen the script, originally titled American, and then inserted a personal grudge against the powers that be into the greatest movie of all time.
Fincher wanted to shoot it in black-and-white. He wanted to use a lot of old-fashioned stylistic nods to Hollywood movies of the ‘40s, as if the film had just been discovered in a vault after 80 years of gathering dust. Also it would involve an obscure chapter in California’s political history concerning Upton Sinclair’s 1934 run for governor and a disinformation campaign allegedly masterminded by studio execs. It was a shot in the dark. By his own admission, Fincher couldn’t believe it when Netflix said yes.
To see Mank, Fincher’s throwback ode to the Golden Age of Tinseltown USA, however, is to know why they did. Chronicling how the broken-down writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) helped permanently change film as an art form, his movie is an audacious, complicated, stylistically daring and thoroughly entertaining yarn — the kind of retro nod to a bygone era that makes you feel like you’ve injected a day’s worth of TCM programming into your veins. But it’s also a challenging drama about complicity, the price of speaking truth to power and the manipulation of modern media, which couldn’t make the film feel more urgent.
Over a two separate two-hour conversations from his home in Los Angeles, Fincher discussed bringing this tribute to his father (who died in 2003) to the screen, his reputation as a taskmaster on set, why he’s sorry Fight Club pissed off a fellow filmmaker, and more.
The director had to employ digital advances to achieve a vintage aesthetic in telling the tale of ‘Citizen Kane’ screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz: “If we had done it 30 years ago, it might’ve been truly a bloodletting.”
Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz never sought credit for conceiving one of the all-time great ideas in the history of cinema — the notion that the Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz should be shot in black and white and the Oz scenes in color. In fact, for much of his career in Hollywood from the late 1920s to the early ’50s, Mankiewicz seemed to view his scripts with about as much a sense of ownership as a good zinger he had landed at a cocktail party.
But what fascinated David Fincher was that when it came time to assign credit on the screenplay for Citizen Kane, which Mankiewicz wrote with Orson Welles in 1940 (or without, depending on your perspective), the journeyman screenwriter suddenly and inexplicably began to care. Precisely why that happened is the subject of Fincher’s 11th feature film, Mank.
“I wasn’t interested in a posthumous guild arbitration,” Fincher says of Mank, which takes up the Citizen Kane authorship question reinvigorated by a 1971 Pauline Kael essay in TheNew Yorker. “What was of interest to me was, here’s a guy who had seemingly nothing but contempt for what he did for a living. And, on almost his way out the door, having burned most of the bridges that he could … something changed.”
Shot in black and white and in the style of a 1930s movie, Mank toggles between Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) writing the first draft of Citizen Kane from a remote house in the desert and flashback sequences of his life in Hollywood in the ’30s, including his friendship with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), who inspired Citizen Kane, and Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
A filmmaker known for his compulsive attention to detail, Fincher had even more reason than usual to treat every decision with care on Mank, as he was working from a screenplay written by his father, journalist Jack Fincher, who died in 2003. Jack had taken up the subject in retirement in 1990, just as David was on the eve of directing his first feature, Alien 3, and the two would try throughout the 1990s to get the film made, with potential financiers put off by their insistence on shooting in black and white.
In this video essay we look at David Fincher‘s Mank, and explore how the director uses artifice to comment on old Hollywood, and Citizen Kane. The video also features other Fincher films such as The Social Network, Fight Club, Se7en and Zodiac.
Jack Fincher retired from journalism right around the time his son, David, was moving from directing music videos for the likes of Madonna and George Michael to making his first feature film, “Alien 3.” Jack, a lifelong movie fan, told David he’d like to try writing a screenplay. David encouraged him to delve into the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the co-writer (or, perhaps, sole writer) of Orson Welles’ 1941 landmark “Citizen Kane.” Jack wrote eight drafts of the screenplay, homing in on the journey of the self-sabotaging Mankiewicz as he stops betraying his talents and paints his one masterpiece (relatively) late in life.
Father and son could never quite crack the script, and Jack died in 2003 of pancreatic cancer. Those eight drafts of “Mank” sat on a shelf in David’s office for years until Netflix executives Ted Sarandos and Cindy Holland asked Fincher about his dream unmade project. That was two years ago, and “Mank” has consumed most of Fincher’s waking hours since.
The black-and-white movie, starring Gary Oldman in the title role, premiered in a handful of theaters last month and arrives on Netflix today. It figures to be a force in this year’s awards season, such as it is. It’s certainly the warmest movie Fincher has made in a career founded on the notion that “people are perverts.”
Fincher called the other morning. He was disarmingly polite, by turns generous and evasive, and full of the sardonic humor that courses through his films. “I’m a little groggy,” he said, noting that he didn’t get much sleep the previous night, “but hopefully I know the answers to these questions.”