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Making of ‘Mank’: How David Fincher Pulled Off a Modern Movie Invoking Old Hollywood

For David Fincher, pulling off 'Mank' and invoking old Hollywood took an awful lot of modern-day filmmaking. 

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.

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“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 The New 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.”

A San Marino mansion and The Huntington Gardens in Pasadena doubled as the grounds of Hearst’s palatial San Simeon estate.

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.

Tom Burke as Orson Welles.

In early 2019, when Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos asked Fincher, who had made the series House of Cards and Mindhunter for the streaming service, what he wanted to do next, the filmmaker pulled out his father’s script, less out of a sense of filial obligation, he says, than a desire to make a movie he had long assumed was hopeless. “Not to disabuse anyone of the heartwarming tale of the Fincher clan, but it was an opportunity to do something that I had always wanted to do and never thought the opportunity would arise,” Fincher says. “When it did, I thought, ‘Well, let’s exercise this.’ “

Fincher enlisted screenwriter Eric Roth, with whom he had produced House of Cards, to get his father’s script into shooting shape. “I found it daunting just trying to be respectful of [Jack Fincher’s] work,” says Roth, who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for Fincher’s A Curious Case of Benjamin Button, won one for his script for Forrest Gump and has a producing credit on Mank. “The script was solid. It needed maybe some more of an inside look into the Hollywood stuff. And since I’ve lived the life of the screenwriter, I know what some of that feels like.”

The riddle of why Herman Mankiewicz, who had been indifferent about credit most of his career, fought hard for screenplay recognition on 'Citizen Kane' is central to the plot of 'Mank.'

Fincher explained to his collaborators that on Mank, he wanted to make a film using many of the techniques of ’30s Hollywood, from rat-a-tat dialogue to day-for-night cinematography to mono sound design. “He said, ‘I want it to be a film where, if you were in the vault of a film archive and you saw Citizen Kane and then you looked next to it and there was Mank, you went, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize they made this one,’ ” says production designer Donald Graham Burt, who has worked with Fincher on five other films, beginning with 2007’s Zodiac, and who won an Oscar for his work on Benjamin Button.

Mank assumes its audience has some basic knowledge of film history, and the cast is peppered with classic Hollywood characters like Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms). In one Easter egg for classic film fans, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, Herman’s grandson, voices the announcer at the Academy Awards.

Production designer Donald Graham Burt says Fincher told him he wanted 'Mank' to look as if it could been filmed in the same era as 'Citizen Kane.'

After seeing how Mindhunter viewers googled to fill in the backstories of the characters in his true-crime series, Fincher felt confident that he could forgo lengthy exposition in Mank. “It’s fairly inside baseball,” he says. “The movie would have been two hours and 45 minutes if we had stopped to give a history lesson every six minutes, saying, ‘Ah, let me tell you about Louis B. Mayer.’ ” (The actual running time is 2:11).

The story also includes a timely subplot about Mankiewicz’s involvement in MGM’s creation of propagandist newsreels boosting 1934 California Republican gubernatorial candidate Frank Merriam by falsely denigrating his socialist challenger, Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye). When Jack Fincher first proposed the idea of including the era’s politics to his son in the early ’90s, it was about 25 years before the widespread use of the term “fake news,” but the subplot served a storytelling function in showing Mankiewicz that his words mattered in ways he hadn’t foreseen. “The idea of the fake newsreels sort of drive home how everything old is new again,” Fincher says.

Oldman, Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer and Tom Pelphrey as Joseph Mankiewicz. Fincher assumes that his audience has a working knowledge of Hollywood history — or can google it.

In casting Mankiewicz, Fincher says he wanted an actor who could inhabit the writer’s intelligence but also his drunkenness and sloth: “You start by saying, ‘Who should play him? Who has the most courage?’ And that’s how you end up with Gary Oldman.”

From all of his actors, Fincher wanted performances in the matter-of-fact style of the era, which predates expressive Method acting. “I said, ‘Look, this was pre feeling it,’ ” Fincher says. “It’s mostly about, did they say the words in the right order? Are the commas all in the right place? Did they knock over the furniture? OK, great. We’re moving on.”

For Seyfried, that meant adopting Davies’ subtle Brooklyn accent, latching onto an omnipresent gin bottle and redeeming the legacy of a woman whose image has been tarnished by the caricature of her as talentless gold-digging drunk Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. “She’s very self-aware and smart,” Seyfried says of Davies. “She knows what’s up, she doesn’t tolerate bullshit, and she could keep up with Herman. Susan Alexander was not talented. Marion Davies was very talented. I know they both liked jigsaw puzzles, but that’s really where the comparison stopped.”

Oldman with Amanda Seyfried, who plays actress Marion Davies. “She was self-aware and smart,” says Seyfried.

To create the look of Mank, director of photography Erik Messerschmidt, who had been Fincher’s gaffer on Gone Girl and DP on Mindhunter, pulled references from black-and-white films with exterior scenes like Night of the Hunter and The Grapes of Wrath. He deployed low camera angles of the type Welles made famous in Citizen Kane, albeit not as extreme. “We weren’t shooting people from the ankles — Welles was digging holes in the ground,” Messerschmidt says. “We tried to pay respect, but we’re making movies in our own modern language as well.”

Ironically, recent digital advances have made it easier to achieve the vintage aesthetic, Fincher says. “All the upgrades that we have made in harvesting and processing images made it so we could actually deliver on the deep focus and the black and white,” Fincher says. “If we had done it 30 years ago, it might’ve been truly a bloodletting.”

Fincher and his team restricted themselves to a few lens focal lengths, in deference to the limitations of the films of the era.

For appropriately vintage locations, Fincher and Burt selected a few L.A. destinations that are little changed from the ’30s, including the Glendale train station with its Spanish revival colonial frontage, the Biltmore Hotel ballroom and the art deco Bullock’s department store on Wilshire. Among the most important props to Fincher was the liquor box that supplies Mank while he’s toiling in a bungalow, which had to be big and substantial enough to supply a drunk but light enough that a character could fling it into a fireplace.

Burt and costume designer Trish Summerville tested colors and fabrics to see how they would work in black and white — but didn’t let the effect totally dictate the process, Burt says. “We found certain colors would photograph just beautifully in black and white,” Burt says. “But I really didn’t want to paint the sets to look like a fun house at a carnival. I didn’t want the actors to walk into a violet room and go, ‘Oh my gosh.’ ” Summerville also was working with Oldman’s commitment to playing Mankiewicz as boozy and bloated, making his suits a bit tight so the actor’s flesh would spill over his waistline.

David Fincher (left) says he cast Gary Oldman because he wanted an actor who could portray Herman Mankiewicz “warts and all.”

For the score, Fincher brought in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won an Oscar for their work on Fincher’s The Social Network and this year collaborated on Pixar’s Soul. Though they are frequent collaborators with Fincher, the composers best known as the songwriters for the industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails were perhaps not the most obvious choice for a film embedded in the era of swelling orchestral scores. “If he had said, ‘I want it to sound exactly like it was recorded at that time period,’ then I would say, ‘I don’t think we’re the right people,’ ” Reznor notes. “But when I said, ‘Are you going to film it in the ratio of that era? Are you going to shoot on film?’ ‘No, I’m not going to shoot on film.’ OK. So we’re implying, we’re not trying to make a forensic imitation.” To make sure they were on the right track, Reznor and Ross sent Fincher about 90 minutes of music. “Some big band hustle-bustle kind of music,” Reznor says. “Some of it was piano noodlings.” Fincher loved the noodlings. “We got the greatest text you can get,” Reznor says. “The all-caps ‘I WANT TO USE IT ALL. Sent from my iPad.’ “

Fincher finished shooting just before the pandemic, and post-production happened largely remotely. Having had nearly 30 years to ruminate on a movie before he made it could have been detrimental to an obsessive like Fincher, but the filmmaker says there were some upsides: “I don’t know if I would have had the confidence at age 30. My visual style was a little more aggressive. I probably would have wanted to keep it moving. But I’m OK. I like what I’ve gotten to.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.