A conversation with Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, Production Designer Donald Graham Burt, Set Decorator Jan Pascale, Costume Designer Trish Summerville, and Makeup Department Head Gigi Williams on behalf of Mank. Moderated by Wendy Mitchell.
April 3, 2021
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.”
Every detail matters.
It’s no surprise that David Fincher‘s Mank was nominated for Best Production Design at this year’s Oscars. Production designer Donald Graham Burt is a veteran Fincher collaborator, and he has a perfectionist streak equal to the director. Along with set decorator Jan Pascale, Burt tells us how he helped craft a period-specific look for the celebrated film.
From the daunting task of recreating Hearst Castle interiors to the iPhone filter they used to audition every possible prop, you’ll get a sense of designing the look of a film on this scale, as well as applicable tips to any production at any size.
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If you’re watching the film “Mank,” you may notice some familiar scenes. That’s because it was filmed in part at the Kemper Campbell Ranch in California’s high desert.
A production crew of 80 people arrived in Victorville in December 2019 with trucks containing vintage items, automobiles from the 1930s and more to take the historic property back to the 1940s.
“Mank,” which premiered on Netflix last December, is the story of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz‘s struggle to finish the screenplay for Orson Welles’ 1941 film “Citizen Kane.” He arrived at the property, then known as North Verde Ranch, in 1940 to finish the script.
Nominated for six Golden Globe awards, the film stars Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz, Amanda Seyfried as actress Marion Davies and Lily Collins as Mankiewicz’ secretary Rita Alexander. It was directed by David Fincher.
For production designer Don Burt and set decorator Jan Pascale, it was important to make the film feel as authentic as possible. After some research on the North Verde Ranch, Burt learned it was still mostly intact.
Netflix’s film starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, and Lily Collins has been nominated for a host of accolades, including a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture.
For those in the television and film industry with dreamy job titles like production designer or set decorator, the fun begins long before filming, deep in the throes of research. And that was especially the case for Netflix’s Mank, a period piece filmed in black and white in 2020.
“Any opportunity to work on a period film has everybody in our business, especially those in our department, salivating to hear that we get to go back in time, discovering how society functioned and the nuances of the period: the furnishings, the architecture, the lifestyles,” says Donald Burt, the film’s production designer. “It felt like we were living in the film, and that’s what it’s all about: presenting a story in a format that feels like it was actually made then.”
Burt spent much of his design preparation time at the Academy of Motion Pictures library, scouring through documents from filming methods to formal letters, sorting out old gambling debts between executives to decipher thought processes regarding films from nearly 100 years ago.
“This is not a documentary, so we needed to take some license, but I always say I put research and information into a blender and see what comes out to best help tell the story we are trying to tell,” says set decorator Jan Pascale. “It’s so exciting to not only do a black-and-white film but to dive into the history of Hollywood and L.A., learning how people communicated back then.”
Pascale recalls offering typewriters to the casting agents, and it proving a greater challenge than originally thought to find people to type efficiently on them. Though “QWERTY” was created long ago, managing a modern keyboard is much easier than the models of yesteryear. The same goes for making a movie in color.
February 10, 2021
More Like This (A Netflix Queue Podcast)
A podcast from Netflix Queue, the journal that celebrates the people, ideas, and process of creating great entertainment on Netflix and beyond. Host Krista Smith is joined by a different co-host each episode – Franklin Leonard, Tre’vell Anderson, and others – to give an insider’s peek into the creation of your favorite films, series and documentaries and the incredibly talented people who make them.
More Like This gets the Mank treatment! In this very special episode, Krista takes us behind the scenes of David Fincher’s Mank, sharing interviews with key members of the creative team. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross talk about the power of storytelling through music, how they pulled inspiration from composers of the past, and how pandemic restrictions forced them to record a 70-piece orchestra one instrument at a time; set decorator Jan Pascale demonstrates how the smallest details make the biggest impact; cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt details how he combined classic and modern techniques to transport a 21st century audience back in time; and editor Kirk Baxter explains why David Fincher once called him 50% blacksmith and 50% poet. Enjoy this deep dive into the process of making movie magic with film collaborators at the top of their game, and be sure to see their work in Mank, now streaming on Netflix.
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Excerpt with Erik Messerschmidt:
“Mank” set decorator Jan Pascale is no stranger to black-and-white films: She received an Oscar nomination for George Clooney‘s “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005). But those two monochrome films couldn’t be more different.
“When I first met with [‘Mank’ production designer Donald Graham Burt] about it, I said, ‘I’ve done black and white. I can do this.’ And Don said, ‘No, no, no, this is different.’ The way the images were captured was quite different,’” Pascale tells Gold Derby at our Meet the BTL Experts: Film Production Design panel. “On ‘Good Night, and Good Luck,’ we shot on film … and we had a really limited budget on that one — $7 million the whole movie — so I couldn’t paint anything or really paint anything, so everything was shot as is. But it sort of worked.”
“Mank,” however, was shot in black and white on a RED digital camera, completely changing the way images and details came off onscreen. But Pascale got some very modern assistance to help her do color-testing. “David [Fincher] and Don had done some testing with the camera that we were going to be using. And they discovered if we used our iPhones with the noir filter and photographed everything, that’s how it would appear in our movie,” she shares.
Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian
January 13, 2021
David Fincher’s Mank (2020) depicts 3 incredibly unique locations in California with a multitude of interior and exterior architectural spaces. The visual presentation of the film, combined with the Art Direction and Set Decoration, creates a masterful, multifaceted level of Production Design that is rarely seen in cinema. It is a film that warrants multiple viewings and its attention to architectural details should be commended.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, we spoke with Donald Graham Burt, who is the Production Designer for Mank.
DGB: First and foremost it was an opportunity to work on a project that was a period Los Angeles project – and even more specifically a period project about the film industry. To be able to delve into the history of the studios and the roots of the industry in its early years in Los Angeles – when portions of the city were still undeveloped – was an experience to cherish. David’s projects are always of high caliber and there is a professional level at which he works that is rewarding to be a contributor to.
Set Decorator & Production Design Talk. And lots of it.
From the inky shadows to red-hot festivals and everywhere in between, Set Decorator Andrew Baseman gives us an up-close-and-personal tour of Mindhunter Season 2 and Gotham, and sneak-peeks into upcoming projects In The Heights and Trial of The Chicago Seven.