“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.“
A few weeks back I wrote to you about Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941) and its importance. I also mentioned that I would recommend you watching it for it would be a good primer to David Fincher’s “Mank” (2020) – one of the best films of the year – of any year – and the director’s crowning achievement. Fincher has always been one of my favorite directors. I greatly admire his obsessive and richly detailed approach to filmmaking and his knack for making works of art that are both commercially viable and able to hit the zeitgeist. He never talks down to his audience – instead he appeals to your intellect while simultaneously taking you on a highly entertaining ride. I respect that in him. There’s also a characteristic sense of questioning and curiosity in his films – of an artist who’s restlessly expanding his vision and while doing so broadening the mind of the spectator as well as the scope of cinema at large.
I’m going to be honest – I needed to see “Mank” twice to fall under its spell. The first time I saw it I was in this analytical mode – deconstructing all the technical aspects of it like a kid with a Rubik’s cube. Last night, already having a good grasp of its structure and craftmanship, I sat down to revisit it, and I am absolutely in love. What at first came across as an intricate and somewhat distancing (I blame my tendency to intellectualize things) experience, on a second viewing became an overwhelming thing of beauty. There’s one sequence that is one of the most awe inducing moments – and has stunned me. Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz has come to a dinner at ‘La Cuesta Encantada’ – publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s legendary home in San Simeon – known to us plebeians as “Hearst Castle.” Marion Davies (actress and Hearst’s mistress) has stepped aside to the gardens for she’s upset about her behavior at the table and Mank has followed her to console her. It’s a meeting of two kindred spirits. Against a moonlit sky, the two of them take a stroll through the theme-park property – seeing the grounds and Hearst’s menagerie which we’ve heard of, has lived in our imagination and is part of American lore. There is a sight of monkeys, and soon after elephants playing in a pond – and then the silhouette of two giraffes. It all has the swooning feeling of us entering ‘Oz’ – of faraway movie magic. There’s a vast scope to what we see – and then there’s the emotion – and the weight of what is happening – that all this visual splendor we’re witnessing is illustrating the inner world of Mank – and his impatient search for self-respect and for validation. It is overwhelming. The power of Hollywood.
“The narrative is one big circle, like a cinnamon roll,” Mankiewicz says about the script he’s writing. “Not a straight line pointing to the nearest exit.” You can say the same thing about Fincher’s tale which was written by his late father, Jack Fincher. Mank has been hired by wunderkind Orson Welles to create the screenplay for his first Hollywood venture. RKO Pictures has given Welles free rein to do anything he wants. Having broken his leg in a car accident, Mank is taken to a ranch outside Victorville – to be away from distractions – with a private nurse and secretary at his disposal – and a case of whiskey — and given 60 days to come up with a draft.
While he writes we start getting flashbacks from Mank’s earlier life in Hollywood and his experiences with MGM studios head Louis B. Mayer and his encounters with Hearst. In those visits to the past we start to see an artist disillusioned with the system – and with its corruption. He’s not a saint – he drinks too much and has a tendency toward self-destruction. The last straw comes when he witnesses the idealistic rise of a California gubernatorial candidate, novelist Upton Sinclair – only to be crushed by the media (Hearst) and the studio (Mayer) with manipulated newsreels which distort the truth. Sound familiar?
Fincher conjures back the ‘30’s through sound, visuals and his love for the genre. Working with director of photography Erik Messerschmidt they pay tribute to the deep focus of Greg Toland (Kane’s cinematographer). The sound itself creates a patina reminiscent of old movies. There’s a very particular tone to how sound reverberates in this movie. And the production design takes us inside Hearst Castle. A climactic scene that takes place in its monumental dining hall is the stuff that dreams are made of. The superb score – which pays homage to Bernard Hermann – is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Last but not least, Gary Oldman gives us another towering performance – that equals his work as Churchill – but this time around he’s not wearing prosthetics. There’s a vulnerability to his Mank that is quite piercing. Amanda Seyfried is a revelation as Marion Davies.
Mank: “I Want Credit. It’s The Best Thing I’ve Ever Written.”
Available to stream on Netflix
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Jack Fincher
Starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey and Charles Dance
Bringing “Mank” to the Screen
“Mank” may be premiering in 2020, but the original idea for the biopic about infamous screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his work on “Citizen Kane” originated more than 30 years ago in the late 1980s. The script was first conceived by director David Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher. David Fincher worked on the script with his father off and on for years and planned to film in the 1990s, but production challenges delayed the movie’s premiere by decades…Filmed in black-and-white, the 131-minute movie is a love letter to 1940s Hollywood, with Fincher emulating old-school shooting techniques. Fincher’s insistence on shooting the movie in that style is one of the reasons the film was delayed. Following Fincher’s 1997 thriller “The Game,” Mank was set to be made by film studio Polygram, but a roadblock to black-and-white filming put a stop to production. Years later, Fincher got another crack at making the film while working for Netflix, who allowed him to realize his true vision without any notable intrusion. The finished product stars Oscar-winner Gary Oldman as troubled artist Mankiewicz, Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst, an inspirational figure for the protagonist of Citizen Kane, and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress. After years of story changes, lack of buy-in from Hollywood, and Fincher’s complex filming goals, Mank will now hit the big screen.
The script for Mank was written by Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher, who died in 2003 at age 72. David Fincher worked on the script with his father for years, annotating outlines and at one point having weekly phone conversations about how the plot should be laid out, according to a report from EW. The screenplay underwent several major changes, including shifting focus from Mank’s struggle to get credit for his work on “Citizen Kane” to his career and friendship with Hearst. In the 1990s, Polygram showed an interest in producing Mank, with Kevin Spacey as Mankiewicz and Jodie Foster considered to play Davies. Fincher’s insistence on shooting in black-and-white threw a wrench into the plan, however. As the director told Vulture, “There were a lot of people saying, ‘Yeah, except for the black-and-white part, and the part where it’s period, and the part where it’s mono, and the part that it’s about the guy who wrote ‘Citizen Kane,’ we love everything.” Fincher was facing frustration with Netflix series Mindhunter when a chance to produce Mank re-emerged. The process of making “Mank” also took some time. Although the film was made using digital cameras (which are more consistent and reliable), Fincher was a stickler for ensuring it replicated the sound and look of 1940s movies. According to Variety, post-production involved digitally scratching images to they looked as if they were shot on celluloid film. The sound design also includes signature crackles and pops. Now, in 2020, viewers can finally be transported back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. (screenrant.com)
Director of Photography Erik Messerschmidt on “Mank”
…cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mindhunter,” “Gone Girl”) described the production team’s obsessive pursuit of the lustrous black-and-white look and feel for the period project, which brought together the in-depth research of production designer Donald Burt and costume designer Trish Summerville. Getting pre-war Hollywood right while paying homage to one of cinema’s most iconic films, said Messerschmidt, was no easy task, even with the incredible range of digital camera technology now on offer. The original cinematographer for “Citizen Kane,” Gregg Toland, “is incredibly influential,” said Messerschmidt. “Obviously we looked at ‘Citizen Kane’ and looked at his work.” “Mank” pays homage to his signature techniques – “deep focus, relatively low camera angles, limited focal length,” said Messerschmidt. “We limited ourselves to just a few lenses.” At the same time, he said, the filming needed to serve the story rather than draw attention to itself. “We wanted people to get really sucked into the time period, to really feel like they were there and not get distracted too much by the photography but to feel like they were watching a movie of the period and help them connect to the story in that way.” Borrowing from Toland’s now famous shots, which reveal whole worlds in the background, was key. “‘Citizen Kane’ was shot at very deep F-stops for deep focus. We aimed to do the same for most of the film. I shot in anywhere between an 8 and an 11 the entire movie, for the most part.” But Welles’ classic aside, Messerschmidt added, “David and I felt black and white just looks better that way anyway. That’s referential of early black and white still photography – Ansel Adams…we wanted the film to have that feel for sure.” To achieve the look with modern cameras was not as simple as some might expect. “We did lots of testing,” he added, trying out lenses, color grading techniques and “figuring out what the right recipe was for that.” Messerschmidt ended up shooting on a Red 8K Helium monochrome sensor camera, which the company put together just for “Mank.” “We did test color cameras – we considered it as an option in the very beginning. We shot a series of tests. It took all of 30 seconds, I think, for us to decide, ‘No, we wanted to shoot black and white for black and white. It just looks so much better for us and what we were going for.” The range of looks in black and white film is more vast than many realize, Messerschmidt pointed out, noting that even film noir classics weren’t necessarily definitive.
One “Mank” scene in which the research paid off, he said, is set in a dramatically lit election night party. Working closely with Burt, Messerschmidt worked out how the scene would be constructed and lit, largely based on concept art Burt had put together. The scene, which follows conversations at several tables, needed to be illuminated largely with practicals, said the cinematographer, adding that a custom-built sign covered in light bulbs reading 1934 was a key source along with lamps on the tables. “I’m really pleased with the way that scene turned out and that we didn’t do a lot of off-camera lighting.” Messerschmidt added that a busy production schedule in Africa forced him to launch into “Mank” with less prep time than he would have liked, but he still managed to put together a look book for the team to go over that contained everything from fine art work to street photography – “just inspirational images – it wasn’t anything specific.” Fincher’s feedback on the looks was crucial. “He’s so reflexive when you ask him questions,” Messerschmidt said. “You get an immediate answer. Immediately he’s like ‘This works. I don’t want to do this.’ ” When he arrived in L.A., Messerschmidt’s first stop was Burt’s office to look over his plans for the sets. “A lot of the decisions cinematographers are confronted with are kind of practical considerations – what we have to accomplish, where physics limits us. Where we can put the camera, where we can put lighting equipment.” Already in synch and working on a unified vision, he said, “Mank” was off to the races. “We didn’t really storyboard much – but I think that’s because of the way we work and communicate. We’re not doing these elaborate action sequences. It’s for the most part pretty straightforward.” (variety.com)
Gary Oldman on “Mank” and Playing Herman J. Mankiewicz
“I’ve known David for over 20 years,” Oldman recalls. In fact, they first met when Fincher was directing his debut feature, ‘Alien 3,’ for a part Oldman would eventually decline. But it began a friendship that has endured to this day. And over the years, Oldman had made peace with the idea that the pair would probably never work together. “He might have cast me had something come up that he felt I was right for, and so I pretty much left it at that, but I thought, maybe, that Fincher would not be a box I would tick. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be.” When he finally did get an approach with Fincher’s name attached, through his longtime creative partner and manager Douglas Urbanski, Oldman says he couldn’t believe his luck. “And I’ve had more than my fair share of luck with roles,” he laughs. “When I say a role like this doesn’t come by very often, I have to think… Winston Churchill [in ‘Darkest Hour’] was pretty good. And George Smiley [in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’] wasn’t bad.” But what he found in the pages of Jack Fincher’s screenplay for Mank sparked an undeniable level of excitement in him. “A script this good, a terrific role, with a director you know is going to shoot it in glorious black-and-white and transport you to the ’40s. And a sort of honorarium to Hollywood, both in its glamor as well as its cynicism and ugliness… I mean, it’s David Fincher, we’re not just going to be waving the flag.” Oldman reveled in the idea of exploring these two conflicting images of the industry he operates within, albeit set 40 years before he would break through as an actor himself in films like Sid and Nancy. It captured everything he had witnessed on his own path. “I’ve met really wonderful, talented, creative people,” he says, “and I don’t think it’s blasphemy to say I’ve also met some very cynical and ugly people who work in the film industry. “Mank” is a film made by a practitioner who is experienced in all aspects of the business, but he still loves movies. He still loves cinema.” Oldman set about digging deeper into Herman Mankiewicz’s life and words, reading biographies and collecting the many documented examples of his wit. It’s in the film, a telegram he would send to writers to persuade them to move West: “Millions are to be grabbed out here, and your only competition is idiots.”
But there were many more bon mots Oldman delighted in and tried to persuade Fincher to include. “I managed it a little bit,” he chuckles. “But the thing David wanted to avoid was it becoming like his greatest hits. So, I’d underline them, and take them to David during rehearsal, and say, ‘Oh God, this is a killer line,’ and he’d go, ‘Yeah, no.’ But occasionally I’d get, ‘Oh, I like that one.’ I think I got at least two in.” In truth, though, what he found was that it was all there to begin with. “I was amazed at how Jack Fincher had captured the real spirit and essence of Mank, because what I was reading around the script matched very much. What you usually find with real characters is they’re a lot more fascinating than they are on the page, but Jack had done his homework, and I felt he really caught the character.” Finding the confidence to play Mankiewicz meant slotting into Fincher’s ideas about approach, which initially conflicted with Oldman’s own. It wasn’t so long ago that Oldman won his first Oscar, for transforming himself into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour after persuading make-up artist Kazu Hiro to return to moviemaking to provide the necessary prosthetics. This was Oldman’s path to building a character taken to its absolute zenith, disappearing into another man’s skin, almost literally. In “Sid and Nancy,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “True Romance,” “The Fifth Element,” “Harry Potter,” and countless other movies, the external appearance of his characters had been the Rosetta Stone he needed to play them. He hoped—perhaps assumed—he’d be able to follow the same process on “Mank.” “After all, I don’t look anything like Mankiewicz,” he says. “That didn’t matter to David. And I think it initially mattered to me.” Fincher told him, “I want you to be naked. I want you to be as naked as you’ve ever been. No veil between you and the audience.” “I’m thinking… what can I do?” Oldman recalls. “I’m playing a whiskey drinker; someone who’s very unhealthy. So, I said, ‘Can I go off and eat all the cannoli and do that?’ He said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And then I started to think about those actorly things I could do. ‘Could I shave or pluck my hairline?’ ‘No, I don’t want any of that.’” He describes his approach as “hiding” behind the roles he plays. “Of course, it’s still going to be me out there, but it plays to those insecurities even though I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I still think I’m going to be the one that gets to set and f—s it all up. That everyone else is going to be terrific and now I’ve arrived and it’s all going to start going downhill. I do like to hide. So, I resisted.” No, he corrects himself. “Not resisted, but I was anxious about it.” In the end, though, he was two days into playing the role when he approached Fincher again. “I said to him, ‘You know, you were right. I don’t need all that. I don’t need the putty nose and the wig and all of that.’ It was liberating.” (deadline.com)
David Fincher on Amanda Seyfried
In a phone interview, Fincher compared Seyfried to Cameron Diaz — a mainstream comedienne who was always capable of giving more, even if she was rarely asked for it. “We all knew that Amanda was luminescent, we all knew that she was effervescent, we all knew that she was funny,” he said. “We all knew that she understood how to parse or set up a joke, and we all knew that she could be moving. I think the thing that was ultimately surprising was the mercurial nature of how quickly she could scramble through those things, because it gives Marion this whole other dimension.” Fincher is famous for shooting dozens upon dozens of takes, a process that can frustrate movie stars who are used to nailing their lines and moving on. Seyfried found his method to be a dream. She wasn’t rushed, she wasn’t discounted. Finally, she had the space to see what she was made of. “It was my turn,” she said. “It was me.” (nytimes.com)
Amanda Seyfried on Playing Marion Davies
“Honestly, it is the hardest I’ve ever worked. But I am so thrilled with it. First of all, it came out of nowhere. Then I spoke with David Fincher … I had to download Zoom. Didn’t know what it was. And I spoke to him for like an hour and a half hour about it, the script. I was pretty sure I was going to do it, but I didn’t know, it was up to him. But I was just also like, how the fuck am I going to play Marion Davies? She had the accent. And how many takes? All of that stuff swarmed in. But I was also like, this is such a get – to work with Fincher he’s one of a kind. And I actually can’t believe we did it. And we finished on February 21st, right before the quarantine. I can’t believe it. And I was doing three movies back-to-back, so each blended into the next and my head wasn’t was on straight. I was flying to LA on weekends and doing rehearsals with David and Gary Arliss and all the cast. And then like going back in for my other movies, It was great.” (collider.com)
About Director David Fincher
Fincher was raised in San Anselmo, California, where he became interested in movies at a young age, in part because he was a neighbor of filmmaker George Lucas. Fincher was still a teenager when he became an assistant cameraman at Industrial Light & Magic, Lucas’s special-effects studio. In the mid-1980s Fincher began directing commercials, which quickly led to a successful career as a music video director. He made some of the most iconic music videos of the 1980s and ’90s—including those for Madonna’s “Express Yourself” (1989) and “Vogue” (1990), as well as Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” (1989)—which were noted for their pronounced cinematic qualities, such as elaborate sets and deft camerawork. In 1992 Fincher made his feature-film directorial debut with “Alien 3.”…his next movie was the thriller “Se7en” …The moody “Se7en” earned positive reviews and was a box-office success, establishing Fincher as an up-and-coming director in Hollywood circles. He then made “The Game” (1997), in which a financier (Michael Douglas) gets caught up in a dangerous game of cat and mouse after receiving a mysterious birthday present from his wayward brother (Sean Penn). A perfectionist behind the camera, Fincher became known for his proclivity to shoot a scene numerous times—sometimes more than 50 takes even for a relatively minor shot. His demanding nature resulted in films with great visual flair, including his 1999 work, “Fight Club” (starring Pitt and Edward Norton), which centres on a disaffected white-collar worker who establishes a series of underground fighting organizations…Fight Club became a cult sensation on home video, where it developed a devoted following.
Fincher then made “Panic Room” (2002), the tale of a mother (Jodie Foster) and daughter (Kristen Stewart) who fight off a harrowing home invasion. It was five years until Fincher’s next feature film, “Zodiac” (2007), which recounted the murders of the Zodiac killer and the ultimately futile attempt to capture him…Fincher continued to broaden his range, directing “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), an adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man (played by Pitt) who ages backward…the film earned Fincher his first Academy Award nomination for best director. He then helmed “The Social Network” (2010), a portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to power. The film was hailed by many critics as a 21st-century analogue to “Citizen Kane,” and Fincher won the best director Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award. Fincher returned to a focus on sordid crime with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011), a sleek adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s best-selling novel about the investigation of an unsolved murder. He then served as an executive producer of the political drama “House of Cards” (2013–18), an episodic series that was created for Netflix and distributed via the company’s online streaming-video service. Fincher also directed the program’s first two hour-long episodes and won an Emmy Award for his work on the opening episode. He then directed a big-screen adaptation of author Gillian Flynn’s best-selling thriller novel “Gone Girl” (2014), about the mysterious circumstances surrounding a woman’s disappearance. His next project was the Netflix series “Mindhunter” (2017– ), about the first criminal profilers at the FBI; Fincher directed several episodes of the show and served as executive producer. He then helmed “Mank” (2020), a biopic about Herman Mankiewicz and his struggles to write the screenplay for Orson Welles’s classic Citizen Kane. (britannica.com)