Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth served twin roles on Mank — punching up Jack Fincher’s screenplay and as producer. Mark Salisbury talks to him about his 50-year career, including upcoming films for Denis Villeneuve and Martin Scorsese
Back in the early 1990s, when David Fincher was still best known for his Madonna videos and had yet to direct a feature, he challenged his father Jack, who had recently retired as a Life magazine journalist, to write a screenplay. He even suggested a subject matter: Herman J Mankiewicz, who penned Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, but whose authorship had been controversially overlooked, not least by Welles, until an extended essay in 1971 by the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael reclaimed it.
Fincher tried in vain to set Mank up for the best part of a decade, but his desire to shoot in black and white proved a sticking point with financiers. Until, that was, Netflix, for whom Fincher had produced House Of Cards and Mindhunters, asked what he wanted to do next. Did he, they wondered, have a passion project he had always wanted to direct? Fincher took down his father’s script from the shelf, and Netflix agreed.
Jack died in 2003 so Fincher called on Eric Roth, with whom he had collaborated on The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and House Of Cards, to help him finesse the script. “David and I are very close,” says Roth, “and I’ve lent my eye, a point of view, on a few of his other movies. He has a group of us, including Bob Towne, Steven Soderbergh and Spike Jonze, that looks at all of his movies at some point in a cut and you’re allowed to tell him whatever you feel about it. So I’ve been involved in a number of those. He came to me a couple of years ago and asked if I would like to get involved with this.”
For nearly three decades, David Fincher has been making gorgeous bummer movies that — in defiance of Hollywood’s first principle — insist that happy endings are a lie. Filled with virtuosic images of terrible deeds and violence, his movies entertain almost begrudgingly. Even when good somewhat triumphs, the victories come at a brutal cost. No one, Fincher warns, is going to save us. You will hurt and you will die, and sometimes your pretty wife’s severed head will end up in a box.
Long a specialized taste, Fincher in recent years started to feel like an endangered species: a commercial director who makes studio movies for adult audiences, in an industry in thrall to cartoons and comic books. His latest, “Mank,” a drama about the film industry, was made for Netflix, though. It’s an outlier in his filmography. Its violence is emotional and psychological, and there’s only one corpse, even if its self-destructive protagonist, Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), can look alarmingly cadaverous. Set in Hollywood’s golden age, it revisits his tenure in one of the most reliably bitter and underappreciated Hollywood tribes, a.k.a. screenwriters.
David Fincher pal Steven Soderbergh often consults on early cuts of his movies (including the friendly product placement of Soderbergh’s imported Singani 63 brandy in “Gone Girl”) — and “Mank” was no different. Turns out Soderbergh’s only complaint about the “Citizen Kane” biopic was the execution of the costume party set piece, where drunken screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) goes on a long tirade against Machiavellian publisher William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) in front of his Hollywood friends at San Simeon.
“Soderbergh came during an early assembly and he just didn’t get why Hearst was putting up with Mank’s shit,” said editor Kirk Baxter (two-time Oscar winner for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Social Network”). “And David and I talked about that. I very much make a movie with David, for David, and I’m not exposed to too many people during the process. But I found that the criticism helped. It didn’t provide the answer, it just provided the question.”
Six years ago, after I contacted David Fincher and told him I wanted to write an article about how he makes movies, he invited me to his office to present my case in person and, while I was there, watch him get some work done. On an April afternoon, I arrived at the Hollywood Art Deco building that has long served as Fincher’s base of operations, where he was about to look at footage from his 10th feature film, “Gone Girl,” then in postproduction. We headed upstairs and found the editor Kirk Baxter assembling a scene. Fincher watched it once through, then asked Baxter to replay a five-second stretch. It was a seemingly simple tracking shot, the camera traveling alongside Ben Affleck as he entered a living room in violent disarray: overturned ottoman, shattered glass. The camera moved at the same speed as Affleck, gliding with unvarying smoothness, which is exactly how Fincher likes his shots to behave. Except that three seconds in, something was off. “There’s a bump,” he said.
Jack Fincher photographed by David Fincher in 1976, when he was 14. “That’s why it’s out of focus”.
No living director surpasses Fincher’s reputation for exactitude. Any account of his methods invariably mentions how many takes he likes to shoot, which can annoy him, not because this is inaccurate but because it abets a vision of him as a dictatorially fussy artiste. Fincher, who is 58, argues that this caricature misses the point: If you want to build worlds as engrossing as those he seeks to construct, then you need actors to push their performances into zones of fecund uncertainty, to shed all traces of what he calls “presentation.” And then you need them to give you options, all while hitting the exact same marks (which goes for the camera operators too) to ensure there will be no continuity errors when you cut the scene together. Getting all these stars to align before, say, Take No. 9 is possible but unlikely. “I get, He’s a perfectionist,” Fincher volunteered. “No. There’s just a difference between mediocre and acceptable.”
With Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” executive producer David Fincher delivers a gripping crime series about the early days of FBI behavioral profiling in 1977 without any grisly murders. (Fincher directed the initial two episodes as well as the concluding two.) And for Oscar-winning editor Kirk Baxter (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Social Network”), this dialogue-heavy walk and talk between agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) was a gift.
“The skill that David has with blocking scenes is what’s most enjoyable,” Baxter said. “With 25 different angles of different set ups, it’s very dense and takes a lot of man-hours in perfecting, but a walk and talk with an A and B camera, all I have to do is pick the best take.”
Mindhunter is one of those binge-able shows that has people talking. I spent a few days last summer at the Fincher production facility in LA where the show is cut and met one of the show’s editors, Tyler Nelson. One of the other editors on the series is Oscar-winner, Kirk Baxter, ACE, whom I interviewed previously for his work on Gone Girl. Both Gone Girl and Mindhunter were edited in Premiere Pro. (I was not able to talk to the third editor on the series, Byron Smith, who also cut the Netflix series, Altered Carbon.)
Kirk’s filmography includes numerous collaborations with director David Fincher. He was the additional editor on Zodiac. He also edited Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. He won back to back Oscars for Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He also cut episodes of Fincher’s House of Cards.
Tyler Nelson recently cut the feature Rememory, and was the assistant editor on Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He was also an assistant editor on House of Cards and The Good Wife.
This installment of Art of the Cut is a little different. I spoke to Kirk and Tyler separately about specific episodes of Mindhunter. Kirk spoke only about his work on Episode 10, the season finale. Tyler talked about several episodes that he cut from earlier in the season, so we’ll start with Tyler’s interview and then move to Kirk’s.
The series is available on Netflix and it may be useful to check out Episode 2, 3 and 10 prior to the interview… or cue them up as you’re reading! The series has been renewed for season 2.
It’s been four years since Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking, slamming the door on his way out with an impassioned cri de coeur on the state of the industry at the San Francisco Film Festival. In the event, it turned out to be more of a working-vacation, what with his 2013 TV movie, Behind the Candelabra, and two seasons of The Knick released in the interim. Now he’s back on the big screen with Logan Lucky, one of his best films to date, bringing with it a new fight against the system with the film’s experimental distribution model. We sat down for a long chat with American cinema’s most restless workaholic, the original Sundance Kid.