By Nev Pierce
By Nev Pierce
The following is an excerpt from the book “Mank, The Unmaking”
don’t know that I remember the beginning,” says David Fincher. You can’t blame him. Mank, the version you’ve watched, is the latest of many attempted countless iterations. It’s just the only one that escaped his head. Maybe it started when he read Pauline Kael’s New Yorker article, “Raising Kane” as a teenager. Or before that, when he’d ask about the best of everything, as defined by his dad, author and journalist Jack Fincher.
“His orientation was very much that the most important movies were always about journalists (or written by a journalist),” says David. “I inherited from him this notion that Citizen Kane was the greatest American film ever made.”
When David said he was going to watch it in film appreciation class, Jack was enthusiastic. “He was giddy—‘You’re in for a treat,” recalls David. “At the time, he thought the makeup was great and the performance was transformative. But the thing he kept coming back to was how cinematic it was. I think I knew at the time that it had been written by an ex-newspaperman, and was probably being graded on a curve.”
It was years later that Fincher—visiting his parents in Ashland, Oregon, on a break between shooting music videos with the likes of Sting and Steve Winwood—chanced upon his father’s copy of Kael’s article, and they chatted again about its contested claims over authorship and the idea that Herman Mankiewicz had a hand in many great movies, whether credited or not. Then, when Jack retired from journalism and decided he wanted to write a screenplay, David, who was soon to direct his first feature, Alien 3, suggested he look at the relationship between Mankiewicz and Orson Welles.
Mankiewicz was a man of snapshot brilliance. His contribution to The Wizard of Oz—to suggest shooting Kansas in black-and-white and Oz in color—might be, in David Fincher’s words, “the greatest special effect in cinema history.” But he has no credit on the final film. Mankiewicz would come in, solve a problem, go for a drink. How much he contributed to the Kane script was the subject of Jack’s initial drafts, but it didn’t compel his son. Eventually, though, Jack wondered: What if they linked Mankiewicz to this notion of fake news —the irony of a man, for whom talk is cheap, coming to realize the value, or cost, of his words?
“He got really excited by this idea, ‘What if I can fold these two things together?” says David.
Still, despite attempts throughout the 1990s, the production didn’t come together. David and Jack would occasionally discuss it, but it was more or less done.
“I would take him to his chemo and—he was in therapy a little bit in the last couple of months of his life—we would talk about it in the car, shoot the shit,” David recalls. “But it was understood that this would not be something that would ever get made. And that was okay.”
Jack Fincher died of pancreatic cancer in 2003. The script remained on a shelf - until David was asked what he wanted to make after the second season of Mindhunter. He called Eric Roth - whom he had collaborated with first on The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.
“I said, ‘Look, will you come produce this with me? I need somebody to talk this stuff through with.’” So Roth came aboard as a producer—alongside Ceán Chaffin and Douglas Urbanski—tasked specifically with helping Fincher deliver the shooting script.
“I don’t mind working hard, as long as he’ll work as hard as I will—and he’ll outwork me any day,” says Roth, who speaks fondly of the director - as do many of the crew and cast, despite their intense workload.
“I had a lot of trouble with the text on this,” says Arliss Howard, reflecting on playing Louis B Mayer. “At first, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m losing my mind. I’ve got early onset Alzheimer’s.’ I couldn’t figure out what it was.”
Eventually, he did. “A lot of it had to do with this alarming thing that I’d never accessed in myself before, which is wanting to please.”
Howard is not alone in that. Amanda Seyfried—perhaps the movie’s most astute piece of casting, as the underestimated movie star Marion Davies (William Randolph Hearst’s lover, played by Charles Dance) recalls wondering to herself, “Why do I want to please him so?”
Howard discussed it with Gary Oldman during shooting, and realized it was simple but new: He just really wanted Fincher to be happy—something which confused and concerned him,” says Howard. “‘Cause, I mean, I’m not an evil person, but I can give a shit whether directors are happy or not. That’s not my job.” Still, he did here. “It’s like we’re running behind this idea,” he says, “and he’s gathered all these extraordinary creative people around him.”
Fincher’s attitude to performance was the biggest surprise for Oldman, who plays Mankiewicz, when they started working together. The pair have been friends for years—family, really, is how the actor characterizes it—as two of his sons are half-brothers to Fincher’s daughter. “You know he’s a visualist,” says Oldman. “You know that he can conjure a world and give you atmosphere and give you a frame.” Combine that knowledge with the prospect of trying to make a film that would seem at home next to Citizen Kane, shot in black-and-white, and Oldman knew how “fabulous” it would look. “But I had not anticipated how specific he was with the beats and the text…There’s even more energy in that than the other.”
In filmmaking, not only are there an incredible amount of moving parts that make up the picture, but it’s a picture no one has ever seen. There’s a skill in presenting it to people before the fact, to ensure you’re imagining the same thing. When Fincher first mentioned the film to his regular collaborators sound designer Ren Klyce and production designer Don Burt, in separate chats, he discussed the idea of Mank being found on a shelf, next to Kane—a kind of forgotten artifact.
“I think you’re there because you have the same work ethic—and you’re really great at your job,” says Chaffin. “That’s the only two things that work around him, really.” He gives people opportunities based on who they are—and what he thinks they can do—as much as for what they’ve done. When he first met casting director Laray Mayfield, in the mid-’80s, she was working in craft services. He subsequently hired her as his assistant, and spotted her nose for casting when making music videos together. “Dave’s like, ‘Come on, I got your back, go try it.’”
Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor had worked with Fincher on music video “Only,” when the director suggested that Reznor and bandmate Atticus Ross should try their hand at scoring The Social Network. They won an Oscar for that and have since delivered a blend of Bernard Herrmann-esque orchestral score and big-band sounds for Mank—something nothing in their previous recordings would have suggested they might do.
Klyce worked with Fincher on his very first directorial outing, shooting a commercial for the American Cancer Society. Nearly 40 years later, they’re still collaborating on the sound of Mank. Fincher calls him the “the angel on the shoulder,” always pushing to make the sound as good as it can possibly be. (It proved complicated to return to the simplicity of the 1930s.)
Erik Messerschmidt, who was the gaffer on Gone Girl before Fincher brought him in to photograph each episode of Mindhunter after the pilot, has been echoing, although not precisely aping, the stylings of 1930s and 1940s pictures. They looked at Kane, obviously, and adopted Welles’s stage holdover of fading to black in-camera, rather than in post. They also looked at other pictures shot by Kane director of photography Gregg Toland—The Grapes of Wrath, The Long Voyage Home—and experimented with deep focus and Kane’s signature low, wide shot.
On costumes, Fincher turned to Trish Summerville, his “muse” on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was, at the time, by far her biggest production. For Mank, she had to create and curate a selection of costumes that would work within reality on-set, but also translate in black-and-white on-screen.
It’s conspicuous that as skilled as each head of department is, they seem focused on the story as a whole, rather than simply their own element within it. Summerville recalls the climactic Hearst dinner party wasn’t originally circus-themed, until her research indicated he’d held a couple of such seemingly ridiculous shindigs. And it was she who suggested Mayer dress as a lion tamer, which is both apt for his position as head of MGM and suitably absurd, putting him in jodhpurs and a pith helmet as his temper frays. This serves as a great example of what Mank is about in its story: the mystery and importance of collaboration.
To that end, Fincher wanted people who addressed their efforts to the moment, rather than floating off into the realm of theme or ideas. “I’ve always found that the people I respect the most that I’ve worked with in this weird business were people who invariably saw their jobs as solving a problem,” says the director. “When you talk about the look of a film, you can show reference ad nauseam, you can have access to all of your mood boards, and bullshit like that. But when it gets right down to it, and the sun is moving and the cast is there and they’re in makeup, and they’ve been getting wigs on since 5am, it’s a very pragmatic process. It is about solving the problems that are directly in front of you.”
Reznor talks of having seen Fincher in “battle mode—fiercely protective of the project and the people working on the project.” Meanwhile, editor Kirk Baxter is wary of appearing sycophantic, but says he sees something of the director in several of his leads, and with Mankiewicz—particularly in how he stands up for what he thinks is right, whatever the cost. “I find that particular quality that Mank has, Fincher does, too,” says Baxter. “He will set himself on fire for a principle.”
Fincher would probably brush off the comparison, or point back to his father. “My dad would definitely take posers to task for their assumptions or their sweeping pronouncements and broad brushstrokes. But he always showed compassion to people who weren’t as maybe intellectually or experientially as fortunate.” He highlights the scene of Mayer’s birthday party, which Marion leaves in shame after suggesting Hearst is picking the president’s cabinet. Mank follows to check she’s okay. “That’s a very Jack move.”
Mank was somebody who once claimed, “My half effort is worth everybody else’s full effort”—which is both an amusing quip and a sly self-exculpation for avoiding the writer’s nightmare of confronting the limit of your own talent. If he remained drunk and flippant, delivering zingers between bouts of poker in a studio writers’ room, he would never have to discover whether he could really deliver something he considered worthwhile.
Ferdinand Kingsley - who is quietly transformative as legendary MGM executive Irving Thalberg - has a useful summary of the film: “I think it’s an exploration of what pushes people to feel they have to tell their stories at all costs. And it costs him a lot.”
Howard looks at it in line with Fincher’s other works, and draws a comparison with Stanley Kubrick. Having worked with the late director on 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, Howard says there were thoughts that occurred during filming Mank that brought Kubrick to mind. Kubrick told him most war movies followed the template of Westerns, but he was interested in something different. “He said, ‘I’m just interested in the machines that human beings build to destroy themselves,’” recalls Howard, adding “I think David’s work is existing always very specifically in a straightforward narrative, but the metaphor is always hovering around how people fuck each other. And fuck themselves it seems to me.”
It’s a salient point that may suffer in its condensation. Still, although there’s plenty of destruction in Fincher’s films, it might be that he’s most interested, consistently, in the opposite: Creation. This features even in the most unlikely places, whether it’s in the ingenious invention of a lonely man craving attention (Seven), or a dangerous outsider exploiting the sins of humanity (The Social Network). All of this is by accident, even as it is by design. It’s by problem-solving, facing what’s in front of you and dealing with the moment. And Fincher isn’t interested in examining it. “You can’t talk to the dolly grip and opine, ‘Thematically, this camera move is too fast,’ you know? It doesn’t help out.”
One evening, after an afternoon of directing Tom Burke as Welles reacting to Mankiewicz’s draft of American (the title for the script that would become Citizen Kane)—we jump into Chaffin’s car and head for dinner. The radio plays the Kane Suite by Bernard Herrmann, which seems like an outrageous coincidence until you consider that this is, well, Hollywood. At the restaurant, Josh Donen, Fincher’s business partner, stops by the table to say hello. As the son of the late Stanley Donen, director of Singin’ In The Rain, Josh understands a tad about Hollywood lore and reality.
They chat a little, before food arrives and he departs and wine is poured and discussion turns to Kane, how it was the first film to really exploit cinema’s potential, how previously the camera had been “chained,” how films should ask questions more than provide answers, how Fincher hopes people will watch Mank and it won’t seem too “inside baseball,” how he wonders—and these aren’t the words, they’re the impression of the words—whether he’s making the right choices, honoring the intent, doing the writer justice.
“How stupid is this?” Fincher says, taking a drink. “I’m making a movie for the one person who won’t ever see it.”